As London went dark once lockdown began, one of the many thoughts that raced through my mind was what would happen to cinemas. Much has been written about the government’s lack of support for those struggling in the arts industry. In terms of film, the blow falls heaviest on those working as freelancers as either technical support or the artists themselves, people who provide the two hour endorphin buzz that results from watching a great film. Similarly, much has been written about the often overlooked and unsung heroes, the exhibitors who were forced to dim their projectors. Is it the final blow for cinemas, who were already struggling pre-lockdown? Would audiences prefer viewing from the comfort of their own homes as opposed to venturing out to theatres?
I can speak only from personal experience, but I have found that streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon have frustrated rather than enhanced my cinephilia. Whilst they succeed in providing a wealth of content, this ironically also happens to be their main pitfall. I find myself scrolling through options for hours on end, attempting to find something that will satisfy my movie addiction and, instead of feeling relaxed after a long day of procrastination, I find myself irritated. It becomes frustrating when you are trying to find the ‘right choice’ to suit your mood and instead your attention is grabbed by constant, alternative possibilities. As a result, to avoid the potential regret of a poor choice, I opt to revisit old classics like ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘When Harry Met Sally’ rather than exploring new things. During uncertain times, I want guarantees that real life cannot give at the moment.
One new discovery in my streaming habits that offers a far less frustrating experience is the BFI Player. The BFI Southbank is one of my favourite filmgoing joints in the whole of London, as it offers everything from arthouse to mainstream classics. As it remains closed until September, I have been making use of its streaming platform. It allowed me to see many of the foreign film classics that I always lied about seeing to other film buffs, from The Seventh Seal to 8 ½. Thanks to these, I discovered filmmakers who were able to break boundaries with innovative and effective new uses of storytelling that influenced years of cinema to come. Touching on themes of religion, death and even dissections of filmmaking itself, it was a great way of expanding my somewhat limited experience of foreign films.
Within the BFI Player’s eclectic range of international classics, I also got my grungy, gruesome cult movie fix as well. As a huge fan of East Coast crime films, Abel Ferrara’s ‘King of New York’, a film featuring Christopher Walken and Laurence Fishburne playing to the violent gangster stereotype and employing an array of amazing “New Yawk” accents, was able to satisfy my cult sensibilities. Less philosophical than a Bergman film but it was still entertaining nonetheless.
When I can afford them, I buy Blu-rays from companies like Criterion. These have included lesser known gems from established filmmakers like Martin Scorsese (‘Age of Innocence’ is better than ‘The Departed’, in my opinion) to maestros of international cinema. Without Criterion, I do not think I would have discovered the wonders of Taiwanese masters like Edward Yang or overlooked female filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt.
When certain cinemas finally reopened, I rushed to them instantly, but as with my film choices at home, I again found myself watching a well-known classic. Star Wars’ final instalment ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ still holds up to the test of time and gave me the comfort I craved. However, while I am glad to have the more communal parts of film viewing back in my life, it has still left me longing for something more. The usual distractions of scrunching of sweet packets and running audience commentary were certainly not things that I missed. Nevertheless, it was exciting being able to kick back and escape from the troubles of the world for two hours. The sounds of Stormtrooper blasts and lightsabre battles do not quite sound the same on a laptop, and the scope and scale of planets like Hoth and Dagobah felt even greater on the big screen.
BFI and Criterion have nonetheless managed to quench my thirst for film, offering up a great alternative to the larger streaming giants and to those uncomfortable with going back to cinemas. Whilst I anxiously wait for the Southbank cinema to reopen its doors, I am content with the joys that these services have on offer right now. Cinema has the power to move and change us, regardless of where we watch them. I just hope that people allow themselves to choose a mixture of both cinema and streaming services.
For those in the same predicament as me, here is a list and links to the websites of some of my favourite cinemas in London that need your help and support. In due time, we can hope to do the ultimate service: returning.
Prince Charles Cinema
Arthouse Crouch End
Edited by Juliette Howard, Film Editor