Wednesday, December 31, 2008

They Mentioned My Home Town, So I Gotta Say Something, Right?

According to a new piece in Variety, Art House Cinema (capital A, H and C) is on the wane in the UK. Their number one example? A local institution, the Phoenix right here in Oxford, "a revered university town arthouse, [which] was screening Waltz with Bashir -- alongside Mamma Mia! and Wall-E"

What isn't mentioned, of course, that the local Odeon cinemas here often screen foreign language fare (well, more often than five years ago, and more and more often all the time). Of course, it shows it badly - their projectionists seem utterly incompetent, their seating doesn't compare to the local Vue (for example) and they regularly botch up in any other number of ways - but it shows it.

Oxford probably isn't a typical town.

We're also lucky enough to have The Ultimate Picture Palace. Situated ten minutes walk from the absolute centre of the cinema, this genuine independent - not part of a faux-alternative chain like The Phoenix has been for decades, but a cinema that belongs to and is pretty much run by just one man - shows an encouragingly eclectic mix of this, that and the other. Until recently, the Ultimate - or UPP, as we know it here - was quite forboding. It was dirty, the air smelled and stifled, the seats were hideous. But in just the last couple of months a drastic and exciting refurb has left these problems all but erased from memory. Now, all we need is for the front of the cinema to get fixed up too, and the programmes to start coming out on time and... well, okay, there are still issues, but it shames the Odeons already. This week Blindness and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas are playing, though this is an atypical line-up, perhaps to pad out the inter-holiday nothing week. Things are normally far more exciting and, if gossip is to be believed, only going to get better.

I don't think the issue is that "arthouse" cinema is dying, but that films for smaller audiences are being relegated to the off-circuit houses, like the UPP, or to DVD, whether they are arthouse or not. The bigger the target audience, the larger the chance of a chain screening - simple maths shows that the bigger target yields more hits, but arthouse isn't the only small target, and some "world cinema" spreads across a pretty big bullseye anyway.

And, no, this has nothing to do with art. It's commerce, I know.

There is a semi-solution, an imperfect one. It comes in the form of Netflix-type-rental, Blu-Ray players, reallty big home cinema screens and day-and-date or straight-to-DVD releases for any less than mainstream offerings. You might not get the shared experience, the communal kick of a night out at the movies, but you also won't have to deal with the Marge Simpson hairstyle in front of you, the blabber mouth behind you or the excessive (nay, spiralling into the stratosphere) ticket prices. And I swear, compared to a screening at the Odeons here in Oxford, my bedside second TV gives a perfect presentation.

Home cinema is probably the destination for a very large amount of "arthouse films" in the coming years - and there's bound to be complaints. Whinging, even. Some audience groups just don't know they've got it made - UK horror fans, for example, have had to deal with straight to DVD or imports to get at the real deal releases for some time already.

(Also absent from the Variety piece? Any indication that Wall-E is a work of art with far more resonance, integrity, intelligence and insight than a dozen Waltz With Bashirs; any suggestion that, actually, The Phoenix programme has been this way for a good few years).

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