All too often, cinematic experiences are presented with complete focus on viewers interactions with and enjoyment specifically of film, while ignoring the key ingredient – the cinema. In contemporary discussion, film is often presented removed from the darkness of the physical cinema; images circulate in a range of industrial contexts, to be consumed and appreciated and a variety of ways (Birtwhistle, 2012, p. 108), but I want to bring the discussion back to the all important cinema. One cannot ignore the fact that as Netflix and home download options are taking over the movie industry, there has been a 14 per cent drop in the number of people visiting the cinema in Australia alone (Di Rosso, 2015). However, I would definitely assert that the physical cinema still has an integral role to play for society, in the formation of lasting media memories, and for the continuation of cinematic magic.
Cinema going, according to Allen (2011, p. 80) is undeniably a social experience, traditionally and still today. Thus the cinema inherently underpins the experience of film. It’s the place where young lovebirds can sneak a kiss in the cover of darkness, the place where cinematic stories of history unfold, and the place that enables cultural experiences to transcend situations, generations and locations – as uncovered through cinema stories as told by my family.
My Nan was devastatingly widowed by the love of her life, my maternal Granddad Ken, in 1976. Yet her memories of their many happy years together, now slightly foggy, are still cherished. Funnily enough, reminiscing about the past often finds its way to the UK cinemas of the 1950s and 1960s . During Valerie and Ken’s six years of courtship, and even after they were married, going to ‘the Pictures’ as it was then referred to, came second only to dancing. It was the inevitable first date venue and the rendezvous responsible for thousands of romance inspired stomach butterflies. The highlight for my Nana was often the walls chocolate ice cream, always gifted by Ken without fail, and the mint imperials she would supply in turn. It’s the small details that create the best memories.
In fact, the cinema was so popular in those days my Nana recalls at least 6 separate venues in Middlesborough alone. As Pettinger (2013) explains, cinemas in the UK were at their peak in the 1930s and 1940s; there was a slight decreased popularity in the 50s and 60s, however they still remained as one of the main forms of entertainment. For my Nan and Ken, their cinema of choice was usually the Palladium in Beechwood.
My Nana recalls vividly the times when she was living in Beechwood, and Ken would pick her up for a movie theatre date:
“Ken would walk to meet me, and it was a long walk because he lived in the city and I lived further out of town, and we’d go to the palladium. Then after he’d walk me home, he had to walk himself all the way back to his house. Sometimes it was freezing cold weather, and he would have to wear his long mac.”
My Nana’s recollections of events once inside the cinema are pointedly different to what you would expect form a modern day cinema. The movies were black and white, tickets ranged from 9 pence to one shilling depending on the position, and usherettes were the norm as they consistently brought cigarettes and snacks through the theatre. Perhaps the best feature, according to Nana, was the prized ‘love seats’ – two conjoining seats that had no arm rest in between. If you weren’t lucky enough to get those, you had to sit right at the back of the theatre where you could smooch unnoticed. On second thoughts, Nana concluded that “[Ken and I] didn’t see much of the movies, actually”… In order to score such smooches, the cinema was definitely an occasion to get dolled up for.
In fact, it was on one of these dates that Nana and Granddad saw ‘Gone with the Wind‘ – to this day, still my Nan’s favourite movie of all time. Nan also remembered that musicals were her favourite films to see at the cinema with Ken, specifically the King’s Rhapsody starring Errol Flynn, an ‘absolute heartthrob’ in the 1950s. Perhaps the Leonardo Di Caprio of my Nan’s hay day.
So for my Nan, the cinema represents a symbol of how her love for Ken blossomed and grew. Although she may not remember what she wore or the precise storyline of the movie, she will never forget exactly how she felt in Ken’s arms, stealing a peck in the love seat.
Now bring in family member number two, my Dad Russell. Although also growing up in the UK, slightly further North than my Nana, his cinema experiences are the polar opposite to tales of romance. My Dad’s earliest memory of the cinema was going to see the war movie ‘Battle of the Bulge‘ in 1965, with his Dad (my parental Granddad) Melvin. They saw the movie at the ‘Majestic’ theatre in Scunthorpe.
My dad, only very young when Granddad took him to see the film, was so taken by what he saw that the details of the cinema have still not escaped him some four decades later. The projector, which could be faintly heard as it ticked behind the seats, the Kiora orange juice that the usherette offered, and the constant cloud of cigarette smoke that consumed the theatre, to name a few. The cigarettes were such a big hit, in fact, that arms rests on chairs were always full of ash. Dad was taken by the stories of history that unfolded before his eyes, and although not quite remembering all the specifics of the movie, can still recall the all important discussion of the Tiger tanks.
Arguably a bit young to see a pretty horrific war movie (five or six years old at the time), this is the first war movie my dad can remember seeing. The second movie my dad recalls seeing is Zeppelin, another war movie seen with his Dad, released some six years later. The reason these encounters are still remembered and cherished is because it was truly a treat – doing father/son activities was not the norm for my dad growing up, as my Granddad battled PTSD after fighting in the Korean war, working on the Steelworks for very long hours and endeavouring to support a family with three young children.
Such media experiences, for my dad, have a lasting impact on him. He has a great interest in all wars that the UK played a role in, and due to now watching endless war movies after his interests spiked at a tender age, has a great knowledge bank of wars throughout history, too. I’m not kidding when I say that for the past two decades, my dad has been gifted a new war movie for every birthday, Father’s Day and christmas. Thank you, past granddad, for covering my bases.
This really does showcase, though, the intricate ways in which media and cinema spaces interact to create lasting, vivid memories that morph into long term interests (Hansen 2011, p. 350). The simple act of my Granddad taking my Pa on an afternoon out inevitably lead to a life long passion.
Variety in cinema experiences do not stop here, though. My sister Sarah is a total media and culture fanatic, and has always been captivated by media phenomenons. It is not surprising, then, that her favourite memories of the cinema involved the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
This movie was first released in 1975, but through its continual celebration in cinema, Sarah was still enjoying the experience in 2005. She is without a doubt part of the micro-culture that has enabled Rocky Horror’s standing as a social phenomenon to remain; if anything, it’s become more mainstream in recent years (Latson, 2015). Rocky Horror, without audience participation is pretty dull – but with the correct audience, in the correct setting, armed knowledge of expected audience involvement – the mood transforms. According to Sarah, “Rocky Horror is the epitome of the interplays of media, audience and place – it’s a hybrid of a musical and a cinema piece, it is only good with copious audience engagement, and the atmosphere of Rocky Horror can only truly be lived at the cinema.”
The physical cinema really is the element that underpins the experience of this film. While my sister recalled watching it at home with her friends, printing out the audience cues and dressing up – her friends were not quite the enthusiastic crowd that a cinema could draw. Sarah’s favourite Rocky Horror memory is somewhat bittersweet; taking place at the George street cinema on the last screening of Rocky Horror. She was only 19, and dressed as Magenta she made her way to the final midnight screening. “Everyone who had ever gone and wanted to go went and it was packed – everyone was dressed up, everyone was dancing – that’s what it should be like, it was really cool. The Time Warp was absolute chaos. Sheer brilliance.”
These three stories are so different, yet they key ingredient of cinema binds them all together. Whether the cinema experience occurs in the 1950s, 1960s, or recently, there is overwhelming potential for long lasting impressions and impacts to be made. It is the cinema as a constant symbol of meeting and celebration, that allows love, passion and culture to flourish in ways that are not possible through other media.
Thank you to my family members who allowed me to tell their stories, and for loving and supporting my every endeavour. A special thank you thank my Nana Val for being the strongest, most loving and generous person on this earth.
Allen, R. C. 2011, ‘Reimagining the History of the Experience of Cinema in a Post-movie-Going Age’, Media International Australia, Incorporating Culture & Policy, vol. 6, no. 139, pp. 80-87
Birtwistle, A 2012, ‘Douglas Gordon and Cinematic Audiovisuality in the Age of Television: Experiencing the Experience of Cinema’, Visual Culture in Britain, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 1o1-113
Di Rosso, J 2015, A new golden age: how cinemas are surviving in the age of Netflix, ABC, viewed September 2 2015, <http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/finalcut/are-cinemas-dying/6377650>
Hansen, M. B. 2011, Weimar and Now : German Cultural Criticism : Cinema and Experience : Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno, University of California Press, California
Latson, J 2015, ‘How Rocky Horror Became a Cinematic Institution’, Time, 14 August 2015, p. 1
Pettinger, T 2013, Cinema Attendance in UK, Economics Help, viewed 28 October 2015, <http://www.economicshelp.org/blog/6693/business/cinema-attendance-in-uk/>