lovelife, music, radar, screen

I Found It at the Movies – 10 Lost Cinemas of London


beautiful woman with long red hair
I’m the haunted man’s love interest 
    In Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Nostalgia, a haunted man – there isn’t any other kind in late Tarkovsky – dawdles too long at a dilapidated Italian health spa. It starts to rain – heavily, and even indoors. The building gets flooded out; and into this floating world flow what appear to be mementoes from the man’s past. The rain intensifies. It becomes biblical. A sandy track turns to a mud stream, upon which personal flotsam and wreckage cascade down the slope. ‘I’m drowning in my nostalgia’, sings David Sylvian, in his melancholy song inspired by the film.
 
photo of David Sylvian in suit in park with trees in the background
intelligent conifers

In Zona, his extended essay on Stalker – Tarkovsky’s most celebrated film – the critic Geoff Dyer explores the idea of everything you’ve lost in your lifetime returning to you as you prepare to die. Dyer predicts tragicomic deathbed scenes with people overwhelmed by mislaid umbrellas. He suggests a fixed limit of a beloved ten lost things resurfacing as we come to the ‘brink of the most profound and mysterious loss of all, that of your life.’

Some mornings, when I dress, I remember favourite clothes from years ago. Favourite jumperstrousers, or shoes that I no longer possess. I didn’t lose them, they just grew old and tired, and I had to let them go. I wish I hadn’t done this now. If the missing clothes were still in the wardrobe, I wouldn’t have to think about them. I could maybe even wear them occasionally.

Gaggia Coffee Machine Cleaning out the coffee percolator, I think back to the real deal expresso machine I owned in my 20s, that died a long time ago. It was a Gaggia with a pump and a spout to froth your milk. But it was also a statement of having travelled a bit, of being more cosmopolitan than a London which was still largely grey and provincial at that time.

There’s books and wallets you no longer possess. Ash trays and posters and rucksacks and coffee cups. And then it really starts to flow: old places you loved but haven’t returned to; buildings, meals, concerts, LPs you stupidly sold; exhibitions, cocktails, nights out, drugs. Be grateful we lose ourself in orgasm, or there’d be a hit list of those to remember. Then there’s lost friends; people who drifted away, or you drifted away from; and with their departure, the lost conversations you no longer have. 

A friend I haven’t seen in many years once criticised me for not succumbing to nostalgia. But I was twenty and felt no need for regretful backward glances. And then the years passed and nostalgia started to creep up inside. At first it was a loose and slightly poignant sensibility, and not really about my own past. As the character Emily says in Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow, ‘you will feel a deep longing for something you cannot quite remember.’ 
drawing of boy and girl standing high on scaffold with sunset behind them
World of Tomorrow
But over time the thoughts grew to be more specific and detailed: personal wreckage rolling down the hill like in Tarkovsky; or, actually in my case, bobbing upstream in my brain – out cycling, shaving, or, inevitably, during a late night ciggie on the balcony.
 
white trousers flying in field in the wind
one hundred years of flying trousers
I don’t much like or trust nostalgia – I don’t want my brain swimming in old trousers and record sleeves. There is, however, one river of reminiscence I find hard to resist. And that’s the many lost cinemas of London.
 

I have a list in my head – I know I’m not the only one. The list is long. I’m not going to run all the way through. But a few won’t hurt. South Kensington’s Paris Pullman, where I first saw Last Tango in Paris. The Scala, off Tottenham Court Road – À bout de souffle, Celine and Julie Go Boating. The Coronet – The Silence of the Lambs. The Academy – Pauline at the Beach.

Old Could Photo of Paris Pullman Cinema in London, Kensington
Paris Pullman cinema – before it was torn down

I miss these places and think back on them fondly. Gate Mayfair – King of Comedy; The Roxy – Freud: A Secret Passion; the Old Compton Street cinema – Bananas. Even the venerable London Pavilion – The Spy who Loved Me and Raging Bull… The list really does goes on, and on.

Colour Photo of Minema Cinema in London's Knightsbridge
The Minema – before it was turned into a car showroom

A favourite lost cinema was the Minema in Knightsbridge, where I saw the long version of Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse in May 1992. It was the day after Labour lost the election. I remember being so gloomy that even four hours of Emmanuelle Beart naked couldn’t lift my spirits.

naked Emmanuelle Beart being posed by painter
great, but what about the election?
We had pizza afterwards at the restaurant next door, and at a nearby table the book critic John Carey was eating with his family. I recognised him because he was on TV a lot at the time. I looked closely on and off for expressions of disappointment or contentment with the election result – but Carey was giving nothing away. 
 
I once saw the Labour politician Michael Foot at the cinema. It was at the Curzon Renoir in Bloomsbury; and he was going to see the film The Ploughman’s Lunch with trade union leader Clive Jenkins.
The Renoir is my number one basement cinema in London. But it closed last summer for refurbishment. When a cinema shuts for a refresh, you worry if it might not make it back. But in this case, I needn’t have been concerned. The venue reopened recently and is now called Curzon Bloomsbury. It hasn’t just been refreshed, however, but utterly re-made and re-modelled into a boutique luxury space – with matching prices. 

There was a lot of talk about it on Twitter, and how great the new venue looked. I was keen to go see. I got the Thameslink to St Pancras on a sunny afternoon. On the way up, as my train came into Farringdon, a young boy ran towards and then past my carriage, with his eyes purposefully fixed on the side of the vehicle. The boy was about 11, or 12, and was clutching a ring binder notebook. He had his hair cut with a pudding bowl fringe and was wearing a dull anorak.

classic trainspotters in short trousers

Roland Barthes wrote about the reflexive ‘image-repertoire’ that we carry around in our heads – the instant summary of person-types we deploy in advance of thinking things through. A millisecond sideways glance at another, and we decide that this person is a professor, or businessman, or thug; vagrant, attractive woman, old man. This boy on the train platform shouted trainspotter.

I thought, wow, there is a next generation of trainspotter. I did not know that. I felt sorry for the boy for having picked such a humdrum and serially-mocked hobby.

And then I saw the dad, lurking in the shadows, partially obscured by a large vending machine. Dad also had on a dull anorak. But he wasn’t carrying a notebook, just a small video camera in his large hand. The son returned to his father’s side and showed him the book. The dad affectionately ruffled his son’s hair, and I felt nostalgia for J, who I’d said goodbye to just an hour ago as he departed for a friend’s house.

It was nice to see the boy with his father in the holiday. But I felt sorry for him spending his day writing train numbers in a notebook. And yet here am I, listing cinemas to my laptop. And here are the people who count their sneezes, drool over office stationary, or take pictures of cash registers. In season five of The Walking Dead, in the middle of the zombie apocalypse, one of the survivors occasionally breaks off from killing walkers to collect car registration plates.

 
We all have our boring things going on. But a father and son discussing train numbers felt off track. It reminded me of a hot summer’s day two years ago. We were all at home and the doorbell rang. There was a middle aged woman in Sunday best standing on the doorstep with a bible in her hand. She smiled and asked me if I knew God; and I shook my head and said no. I looked at her son standing at her side, partly in the shade of the box hedge. He was J’s age; and was dressed in a dark grey suit, white shirt, charcoal tie and shiny black shoes. On a hot Sunday afternoon, trudging house to house, doorstep prosletyising with his mum. I told Vela (Ex No2), and she said women like that should be reported to social services.

colour photo of Renoir cinema in London, circa 2000
back in the day

The first time I went to the Curzon Renoir/Bloomsbury, the cinema was called The Gate, and it was to see My Dinner with Andre. Some of the films I have seen there down the years (and, rather sadly, perhaps, I remember things like this) are Reds, The Mother and the Whore, A nos amours, The Quince Tree Sun, Made in Heaven, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Finally Sunday, Something Wild, Adaptation, Dear Diary, The Passenger, Your Mother Too, Detective, Dance with a Stranger, Desperately Seeking Susan, The Dark Knight Rises, Pulp Fiction, Kagemusha.

black and white photo of woman pointing a gun
Finally Sunday – a beautiful French dame with a shooter 

Places like the Curzon represent a core component of my urban ideal – cool cinemas with neon signs showing films you want to travel all the way across the city to see.* Even on a sunny day. Even by yourself on a sunny day. But better still with a friend, or a partner. 

a long film about painting fruit

I came here once with Vela. It was to see Potiche. I hadn’t been to the Renoir in a while; and never before with Vela. And here I was on a Saturday night, in the heart of the city, with my beautiful partner, looking forward to seeing a film at a favourite cinema, and then going to dinner. Could it be any better? As we went down the stairs towards the auditorium, I had this memory rush of all the years I’d been coming here, doing this – descending into ‘the kingdom of the shadows,’ as Andre Bazin described it, ‘where real life begins.’ All those films, all that anticipation. A surge of nostalgia rose up. I felt moved. There were almost tears, for god’s sake. But this was good emotion. Happy, grateful tears.**

I didn’t feel any of this the other day as I encountered the new Curzon. The past has been gutted. In its place is a opulent vault, with soft recessed lights, thick carpets, walls of smooth grey stone, and expensive coffee. There are now five screens with state-of-the-art sound and projectors. I was in the main auditorium, which had plush, sliding lover’s seats and floating tables for the expensive coffee.

The cinema’s website suggests the redesign was inspired in part by the films of Tarkovsky – hopefully not the raining indoors part of his films – but I couldn’t perceive a connection. The five screens are named after historic London venues, including the Lumiere, where I saw Paris, Texas and Le Samourai; and the Phoenix cinema, Dead Ringers. It’s a neat touch naming the screens in this way, but it doesn’t bring the history back. If anything, it actually underlines all that has passed away.

Dead Ringers

Maybe that’s just me being super-sensitive about my life story. When places freighted with personal meaning change, as they will, you can feel excluded – and then you get over it. And then again, perhaps there’s something else going on here; something to do with cultural access and the hidden cost of luxury.

Last year, the same cinema chain opened a new venue in Victoria. I rushed along to check it out. I took J to see A Million Ways to Die in the West. That’s how keen I was to see the new venue. It was a weekday afternoon. The screen was empty. I asked for two tickets and the woman muttered £26, and I thought that’s a bit steep for daytime. And then I checked the till and realised she actually said £36. My jaw dropped. I glanced at J, who was doing one of his wide-eyed looks of absolute, total, utter shock. I wanted to ask if they were performing the film live, as this was almost the price of a theatre ticket. Thirty six pounds to watch Seth MacFarlane make fart jokes.

The cinema J and his friends go to costs six pounds a ticket. It’s films for normal people. I wonder about the Bloomsbury cinema’s clientele – hedge fund managers, Russian oligarchs? I’m not sure I fit the profile. I don’t want a trip to the cinema to feel like checking into a Philipe Starck hotel. I like a nice comfy seat as much as the next cinephile. I’m no fleapit slummer – I have no yearning for rats around my ankles, or the 30 years of popcorn grease on my busted seat. But when you price a ticket so high you risk changing the cinema from being a place of dreams, ideas and provocation, into something merely costly and culturally inert – like a Louis Vuitton bag. Luxury in and of itself isn’t adequate reward. The luxury should be going to see a film.

Having said that, my lover’s seat was very comfortable – if lonely.

 
When I was J’s age, a trip to the cinema was purely a fun time out. (It is the same for J. But one day this will change.) I grew up on Bond movies, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Jaws. Cinema was straight up entertainment. And then one afternoon I bunked school and went to the pictures by myself and something happened.

Black and White Still of Ryan O'Neal sat in a stationary car looking out the window
I drive – it’s what I do

I didn’t have a film in mind, just whatever was on. I chose Walter Hill’s The Driver. I think it is probably a pretty good film, but I didn’t like it at the time – I found it loud and alienating. I realise now that the alienation was the lead’s existential angst leaking off the screen. This alienation, and the way it was styled, had significance – a dropdown to hidden depths. I sat there in the Ilford ABC and realised that there was more going on than I was able to grasp or understand. For the first time I sensed that films had layers. Beneath the clangy surface of this genre tale of cops and robbers, other stuff was happening, arty and clever stuff emanating from a subterranean realm of complex meanings. 

 
I never read books when I was a child. Neither of my parents went to university. I grew up in a left wing, religious household in east London with a limited supply of culture. My dad liked James Last and Pete Seeger. For some reason. Dad had a poncho – which occasionally he insisted on wearing down our local high street.

I didn’t have the internet or arty, bookish friends. I had to find my own way with culture and grew to realise that TV could be a useful portal, especially when the BBC ran a retrospective of the new American cinema of the early 1970s. I tuned in every Sunday night throughout the series, after my parents had gone to bed. The first film was Badlands; the second was The Last American Picture Show; then it was The Conversation. Later on came Five Easy Pieces, Night Moves, Shampoo, The Parallax View, Nashville, Carrie, Chinatown, The King of Marvin Gardens, Winter Kills, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. This was a very different kind of cinema to the one I’d been raised on. I think it changed my life.

And soon I wanted more. Next came Truffaut, Godard, Cassavetes, Chabrol, Fassbinder, Wenders, Francesco Rosi. In time, I was schlepping to art house cinemas like the Gate to watch The 400 Hundred Blows, Taxi Driver, The Mattei Affair, Vivre sa Vie, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Effi Briest, Violette Noziere. 
Drawing of a young man and woman and details of film Badlands
London’s Academy Cinema’s celebrated bespoke film posters 
Colour Film Poster with picture of James Dean in red jacket for A Rebel Without a Cause
I got the bullets!

At the original Scala cinema, off Tottenham Court Road, they programmed all-night screenings of James Dean and Marlon Brando films. One time, four or five blokes came dressed as Brando in The Wild One, and started a fight with a couple of guys dressed as James Dean from Rebel Without a Cause. 

By this stage I had transformed into a devout Montgomery Clift fan; what felt at the time like a sub cultural tribe of just one – me. Clift was a major teen obsession for a year and a half. There were three Clift biographies in print at this time, and I read all of them. I went to see his films in rep whenever I could. Misfits and From Here to Eternity were easily caught up with – The Search and Raintree County less so. 

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in original colour poster for A Place in the SunAs the obsession extended in time, I started to shadow Clift’s intellectual life, I read the stuff that he read, or tracked down the plays the plays he acted in on Broadway. I got into Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Chekhov, Kafka, Sartre and Mailer. I read Theodore Dreiser, because A Place in the Sun was based on his novel An American Tragedy.

I was in a virtuous circle of cultural accumulation. I started listening to The Clash, because Joe Strummer wrote The Right Profile – a song about Clift. I read Dostoyevsky, because Clift read Dostoyevsky. And then I started listening to the band Magazine, because Howard Devoto wrote A Song From Under the Floorboards – based on Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground.***

The Right Profile

In my first term at university, some late nights by myself in my off-campus bedroom, I smoked weed listening to the first New Order LP and reading Crime and Punishment – and it felt woozy and intense. I recommended the novel to a future girlfriend and she liked it so much she went to bed with me. 

 
The summer before college I worked in a department store selling suitcases saving up to go to New York. I went for a month, from mid August to mid September, and stayed with an American family who resided in a New Jersey suburb twenty minutes from Manhattan. Every morning, I took the bus into the city and would get off at the Port Authority terminal and walk along 42nd Street, and barely even notice all the porn and sex screaming for my attention. I had places to be. I had my Patricia Bosworth biography of Clift in hand, off to look at the buildings the actor once lived in on the Upper East and West Side.

Of course, Clift was long dead, and the buildings hardly exuded an immanence of Cliftness. So, I don’t really know what I was doing, or thinking, or hoping for. 


My host family kindly drove me to the Quaker cemetery in Prospect Park in Brooklyn to see Clift’s grave. And then a few days later they saw me off at Kennedy airport on my way back to London. I imagine a collective head scratching from the mum and dad at their young guest’s curious obsession. As I write this, part of me wants to reach back in time and tap the callow me on the shoulder and say, hey, stop a second, look at the porn, it won’t bite. Have a beer. But also I’m rather fond of the young nut in a hot, humid New York, buying his first Camus novel in a Greenwich Village bookstore.

 

I bought it for the flight home. It was called The Stranger. Our plane was held up on the tarmac for ages and by the time we finally took off, I’d finished Camus’ novel.

When I returned to London, I started listening to The Cure, because Robert Smith wrote a song called Stranger Killing an Arab. And so the curious route through culture continued. I wanted to read more Camus. I went to my local bookshop and found another one of his books. It was called The Outsider. I read the blurb on the back cover and scratched my head. It sounded just like The Stranger. The very same story, just with a different title. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, what the heck, the guy’s a one-trick pony!


What a dope. I didn’t understand that translators don’t always agree. I was young, skinny and clueless. I had so much to learn…

Montgomery Clift, in black and white, wearing a suit and holding his raincoat in a bundle
that’s Montgomery Clift, honey – photo by Stanley Kubrick

* I once wrote a novel (unpublished, alas) where a character who is being blackmailed is instructed to leave a peculiar ransom in a cubicle of the men’s toilet at the Renoir. The third cubicle on the right. 

** Potiche was disappointing – not like Ozon’s 5×2 or Swimming Pool.

*** I once stood next to Howard Devoto at a basement club off Baker Street. I was too awestruck to tell him what I thought about his music. So, I asked if he had a light.

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