Disappointing... yet brilliant

Random and not-so-random thoughts about movies

Watching reasonably disturbing movies in the South London suburbs

 1. Early in the year, I wrote about seeing Shame in an ordinary suburban cinema. It turned out to be a much stranger, more interesting experience than if we had watched the same film in central London, in a room full of people who knew exactly what they were getting and had already discounted some of the shock in their mind.

It might seem kind of unusual catching a film that is yes, critically acclaimed but potentially upsetting in both its subject matter and its approach, out in a chain cinema in a dozy, distant South London suburb that clings stubbornly to the belief it is in Kent, despite being administratively swallowed up by the capital almost half a century ago (and in practical terms long before than). It’s a correspondingly odd place, equal parts tea-in-a-china cup gentility and ‘are you looking at my pint?’ hostility. Going to the cinema in Beckenham requires a degree of tolerance for chat during the film, both between people in the cinema and on their phones, extravagant food munching, hair-pulling, the occasional scuffle – not to mention being impervious to extreme heat and cold, an unfortunate by-product of the building’s Grade II listing. Yet for all that, it’s a cinema where I’ve enjoyed seeing films from The Incredibles to Mean Girl to The Aviator.

And watching Shame in Beckenham had me flashing back to 25 years earlier, when – even younger than the kids so disturbed by that film – I saw Blue Velvet several miles to the south-west, in Purley. Purley is arguably a suburb squared, being a satellite of legendary 1960s town-planning catastrophe Croydon, which – depending on how you see it – is either part of the endless London sprawl or a thrusting neighbouring metropolis in its own right, Jersey City to London’s NYC*. Purley was then and is now a place of well-tended lawns and garages housing sizeable motors. Its main claim to fame in those days was that it was the home of the key members of Status Quo. Anyway, it was in Purley that I first watched David Lynch’s head-screwing masterpiece with its severed ears, queasy voyeurism, ghostly Roy Orbison songs and all the rest of it lurking just beyond the white picket fence. I wanted very much to believe in those days that similarly noirish possibilities lurked in Purley, but I couldn’t. I think now that more a failure of my imagination than any true comment on the place.

2. Film-going in London happens in three broad and slightly ill-defined zones. The first is the centre of town. Despite the continuing disappearance of cinemas**, central London retains a great number and wide variety. They range from in quality from the Cineworld in the Trocadero, a many-floored hellhole that has lingering traces of most unpleasant odours ever encountered, to the friendly elegance of the Curzon Mayfair, where it is possible to imagine it is 1939 and you’ve popped in to see Le Regle De Jeu. There are monster screens for blockbusters like The Empire, and official dispensers of cinematic nutrition in the British Film Institute at the Southbank*** and the Institute Of Contemporary Arts.

The ICA: Conveniently sited so the Queen can pop along to see the latest Bela Tarr

Forming a ring beyond the centre are the art houses, most of which have moved away from the homemade carrot cake of the old days to Konditor & Cook-level high-end snacks. To the west, you have the Riverside in Hammersmith and the Electric (at least before its accident), the Coronet and the Gate in Notting Hill; to the north, the Tricycle in Kilburn, the Everyman in Hampstead and the Screen on the Green in Islington; to the East, Richmix in Shoreditch and the Rio in Dalston; to the south, the Ritzy in Britxon and the Clapham Picture House.

And beyond them, the chain multiplexes of the suburbs. Not that boundaries are clear – heading west, you reach the Odeon Whiteleys, resolutely suburban (despite its recently acquired and slightly bizarre aspirations to be a place of fine dining), before you get to the Gate, and a rather more depressing mall multiplex, the Vue Islington, lies a few hundred yards to the south of the rightly much-loved The Screen on the Green.

3. There’s no doubt that, say, the Ritzy and Streatham Odeon offer manifestly different experiences, something than only increases with the passing of time. Although it would be excitingly contrary to claim otherwise, the food is better at the art houses. And at the Ritzy, for instance, you might expect a staff of more than two people on duty at any one time. You would also expect them to be able to give a pretty fair assessment about the movies showing – they actively want to work in a cinema (OK, they would prefer to making the films, but you’ve got start somewhere…) The running times are scrawled on a blackboard, which is meant to feel friendly and homemade and make you forget that the Ritzy is owned by what’s now a chain of 20 sites. 

But when it comes to what’s on screen, the gulf isn’t always as wide as you might expect. I’m not sure the Ritzy would show many of the flicks starring local action hero Jason Statham, but next week it will be showing Skyfall and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted as well as Palestinian documentary 5 Broken Cameras and bleak European thriller Barbara.

Meanwhile, there are surprises lurking in sleepy Vues and Cineworlds. And this has been the case as long as I can remember. As well as Blue Velvet in Purley, I am pretty sure I saw the hilarious, anarchic, brain-scrambling Repo Man at what is now the Beckenham Odeon (either a Cannon or an ABC at that stage). I definitely saw Spike Lee’s debut She’s Got To Have It at the dusty old cinema on Queensway, in the building that later became a T.G.I. Friday’s and was empty last time I checked.

In recent times, I saw bonkers but engaging faux-exploitation movie Black Snake Moan (the one in which Samuel L Jackson chains Christina Ricci to a radiator in attempt to induce cold turkey for her nymphomania) late night at the Streatham Odeon, a big old place on what some reckon is London’s grottiest shopping street.

And I watched the sly, appealingly daft Norwegian horror satire Troll Hunter at the Cineworld in Wandsworth’s Southside (né Arndale) shopping centre, an unlovely place that has layers accruing the worst in architecture and consumerism of the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s, ’00s… While I saw No Country For Old Men at the Ritzy, I caught the Coens’ True Grit in Streatham.

And fittingly, we saw Drive on the Purley Way, a stab at American-style edge city that is home to not just the usual range of major out-of-town outlets, but also Europe’s largest pan-Asian restaurant. Sharing its car park is a multiplex with a post-apocalyptic atmosphere. The ticket booths once filled with living beings are long empty – the few survivors of the disaster have been left incapable of responding to simple requests. My friend Steve and I saw Zombieland here late one night (having seen Up earlier in the evening), and would have been unsurprised if we had been savaged by the undead on the way out. And rolling out of the car park and accelerating onto wide, ghostly streets was much more appropriate way to keep the mood of Drive in your minds than it would have been catching a tube. For a couple of hundred yards, at least, you can squint and believe you’re in the Valley…

The Vue Purley Way: Useful if you want to pick up a bed to take home

*This is actually the comparison Croydon’s elected politicians promote.

**The Lumiere in St Martins Lane and the Metro/Other Cinema in Rupert Street were particular favourites of mine. On the other hand, at least I’ll never have to go the cinema in the Swiss Centre again.

***Still the NFT as far as I’m concerned.

Homeland’s David Harewood makes the case for Streatham.

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