Monday, 16 July 2012

A Tyneside Tribute

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Having just passed 100 posts, and with the blog revamping all but complete, I'd like to take a more personal, more elegiac tack than you may be used to. Many of you will be keen for me to get back to mainly reviewing films, and I will, very, very soon. But, if I may indulge myself just once more, I'd like to take a moment to tell you about a very special place (and no, the rest of this blog won't sound this cheesy. I hope).

In case you haven't gathered from my recent posts and incessant twittering, I've just moved house. I upped sticks with my family from Lesbury in rural Northumberland to Uffculme in equally rural Devon. The move was a little stressful, for reasons I won't go into right now, but I'm finally starting to feel settled and hopefully getting inspired for future articles and reviews. As right as moving feels or felt, there's a lot of stuff in Northumberland that I'll miss: the people of City Church and City Group in Newcastle, the Alnmouth and Lesbury cricket pitch, my friends and former colleagues at Lionheart Radio, and, of course, the Tyneside Cinema.

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The Tyneside, for those who don't know, is an independent cinema located on Pilgrim Street in the centre of Newcastle. It was originally built as a news theatre in 1937, where people who could not afford radios could pay sixpence to watch a 75-minute newsreel that would be repeated throughout the day. The man who built it was Dixon Scott, great uncle to directors Ridley and Tony Scott. The cinema recently celebrated its 75th birthday with a series of events, some of which I was lucky enough to attend. Its current patrons include Mike Figgis (director of Leaving Las Vegas and Internal Affairs), Mike Hodges (director of Get Carter and Flash Gordon), and Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys.
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But more than this, the Tyneside Cinema was a cornerstone in my development as a film fan. Having had a very casual approach to film throughout my teenage years, this all changed at university when I began applying my degree training to the arts, and in the process discovered Mark Kermode. After leaving university, I needed to find a cinema where I could feed my interest in film, somewhere that would offer me variety, a welcoming atmosphere where I could discuss films and form opinions, and a place where I could go when I needed solitude, to escape from the tedium of working life and be regularly challenged in my conception of the world around me.
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If this all sounds pretentious, then I apologise. The fact is that the Tyneside gave me some of the most powerful, fulfilling and memorable experiences of human culture I have ever come across. There's an idea that before people were rich enough to fly regularly, the cinema served as a window on the world; people would go to see a James Bond film to get a glimpse of exotic locations where no cheap package tour could take them. The Tyneside did the same for me: it took me places I never knew existed, and demonstrated that cinema could do things I never thought possible.
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My first experience of the Tyneside is a good example of what I mean. Inception had been on general release for three weeks and I still hadn't seen it so I went to check it out. I settled into the plush, comfy velvet seats with enormous legroom, and sat back to enjoy the film. Fans of Inception may remember the entrance into the first level of the dream: the chemist has a drink of champagne before going under, causing the whole first level to be beset by heavy rain. Two hours later, having been completely mesmerised by Christopher Nolan, I stepped out of the cinema - into the pouring rain. The experience was so hypnotically engrossing that I thought I was still in the dream.
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I've had many experiences of being mesmerised by films in the comfort of my own home, such as watching A Clockwork Orange for the first time on late-night TV, or seeing Blade Runner for the first time on DVD. But this was the first time that I can remember having such a vivid experience at the cinema. There'd been other cinemas that I'd liked attending growing up - the Regal in Northwich, the Odeon in Chester or the Warner Village at Cheshire Oaks, where I saw the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But even with the unquestionable quality of said trilogy, this was the first time I had truly forgotten where I was during a film. The film did most of the work, but the cinema played its part.
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The screening of Inception was not the last memorable experience I would have at the Tyneside. I remember going to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, being perhaps the only person in the cinema over the age of 14 and laughing my head off as hard if not harder than anyone else in there. I went with my Dad to see the re-release of Apocalypse Now, and was so taken in by it that I literally couldn't speak for 20 minutes afterwards. We Need To Talk About Kevin became the most unlikiest of date movies when, after Lynne Ramsay's extraordinary film had concluded, small talk with two girls in the row behind me turned into a 2-hour conversation about the film at a local bar - at their request. Most recently I attended a 1am screening of Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, with the whole audience cackling and shuddering in perfect unison. Not even talking back to Rocky Horror can compete with the sight of 250 horror fans all leaning forward as the camera zoomed in on Bruce Campbell's face and then shouting as one: "Groovy!".
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So the Tyneside has great personal significance to me because of my fantastic experiences within it. But there's more to it than that. For me the Tyneside represents how cinemas should be run, which sadly is increasingly the exception rather than the rule. It's a cinema run by people who genuinely love film, rather than people who genuinely want to sell popcorn. It offers its paying audience the widest possible range of films, rather than just settling for what the distributors think will take most money and plastering said films on every available screen. It treats its audience like people, not like veal calves, providing them with high-quality seating, sound and picture quality, whatever the film and whatever the weather. And it is built upon the principle that the audience is intelligent and demands engagement, rather than being morons who only pay their money to escape.
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Just as when it first started, the Tyneside now serves as an alternative to the American-heavy culture of the cinematic mainstream. It is a cinema rooted in serving the local community, giving a voice to local filmmakers and encouraging young people to make films and discuss films freely and confidently. The cinema makes money, make no mistake, but you never get the sense that it is existing solely for that purpose. Every member of staff you encounter, from the projectionists to the box office staff, from the ushers to the waiters, feel part of something special and take great pride in what they do. It is the kind of cinema I envisioned when I wrote my WhatCulture! article on New Horizons back in June. These are the kinds of cinemas that need to be protected and given the environment and facilities they need to flourish, because we will really miss them if we allow them to close.
 
If you're a resident of Newcastle, I encourage you to join the Tyneside here and support your local cinema. If not, I encourage you to find your local equivalent, where you can experience films properly and create memories every bit as evocative as mine. From now on my main cinematic watering-hole will probably be the Exeter Picturehouse, where I saw Martha Marcy May Marlene (my favourite film of 2012 so far) and will hopefully be seeing The Dark Knight Rises next weekend. Hopefully both the film and the cinema can live up to my expectations.
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Finally, for posterity, here is a list of every film I saw at the Tyneside during my residence in Northumberland, together with links to my accompanying reviews. Thanks for reading.

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Inception (twice), The Illusionist, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the restored version of Metropolis, Winter's Bone, The Social Network, The Arbor, Mr. Nice, The Kids Are All RightThe American, Black Swan, The King's Speech, a midnight screening of Peeping Tom, a special screening of Wings of Desire, the re-release of Apocalypse Now, Senna, Sarah's Key, The Skin I Live In, The Guard, Kill List, Tinker Tailor Soldier SpyWe Need To Talk About Kevin, The Deep Blue Sea, The Artist, The Hunger Games, a 1am screening of Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, and A Royal Affair (review forthcoming).

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P.S. I'll be doing a Review Revisited of Scott Pilgrim very soon, so watch this space.

All images are (c) Tyneside Cinema.

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