The wide lens

Commercial cinemas sapping all dreams and romance from film

In ruin. marcemarc, CC BY-NC-SA

I’ve often felt depressed going to the cinema recently, but this all came to a head when I went to see Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For in Montreal. I rather loved the film; loved how the hushed heightened way the characters spoke evoked the pulp poetry of 40s noir dialogue; the glossy black and white of the image, which visualises adolescent comic-book yearnings as spectres of desire. And then there’s the beautiful way the film turns images into metaphors, like the moment Joseph Gordon-Leavitt shrinks at the card-table and gets diced up by the cards he’s lost at. The sharp square lines of Josh Brolin’s mug seem made for a comic book tough guy, and the luscious greens, blues and reds with which Eva Green is coloured as a femme fatale are fabulous.

The film worked. The problem was the cinema itself. I saw Sin City 2 at a cinema called the Scotiabank Cineplex. To explain just why this jarred with me so much, we’ve got to go back a bit – to my childhood, growing up in Montreal.

My strongest memories tend to revolve around the cinema. I remember that a double bill of Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks at the Atwater was my first time at the movies in Montreal. I remember seeing Saturday Night Fever at the old Palace, which was the size of a football stadium and packed with people itching to disco. I watched Casablanca for the first time at the Seville, and drank hot apple juice spiced with cinnamon. I queued up around the block to see Aliens at the Imperial, worked as an usher at Place du Canada and rushed in every day I had a shift so as not to miss the chainsaw scene in Scarface.

Palatial. bcnbits, CC BY-NC-SA

I went to see experimental cinema at the Méliès and nursed a coffee for hours reading a book and fervently wished one of the many fascinating cinephiles seated around me would include me in their conversation. I treated my brother and cousin, both six years old, to see Superman with the very first money I earned at the Loewe’s. I wore huge platforms to make me seem taller and blew smoke into the tiller’s face so she wouldn’t ask me for ID and got in to watch porn at the Beaver. I remember going on dates, holding hands surreptitiously.

These memories, this spectral past is still very vivid in me. And I find it interesting that they revolve around cinema because film is itself a spectral form. Historically it was the imprint light left on celluloid – something of the past that could be revived by light. And this happened in palaces with names like the Seville, Elysée, Riviera, Globe, Regent, Palace, Paris, Papineau. These were exotic places, grand places, places of culture, of royalty, chic, and their names echoed this.

In these buildings, the grandest and most grandiose of buildings any working class person had ever been to, ghosts came alive to arouse and give shape to one’s dreams and desires. You could go at any time and stay for as long as you wanted. These dreams of sex and sin and dames and a better life or even just a better hairdo and nicer living room furniture had names fit for purpose; they seemed to respect and even ennoble working people and their aspirations.

Scotiabank. stevenharris

On my way to see Sin City 2, I noticed that the old York had disappeared. The old Loewe’s is now a huge gym were you could get yoga classes, the old Palace is a Foot Locker. The old Parisienne is an empty space to let, though a remnant of its raked floor is still visible and has not been filled in. The Rialto is a venue for live music. Only the old Imperial is still going. These are examples from Montreal, but I’ve seen it happen everywhere I’ve lived. Apparently fitness is now more of a vehicle for dreams and desires than movies are.

And here I was, seeing the latest film in a cinema called Scotiabank. The logo of the place is a dollar sign enveloping the globe. Maybe this is a bit unreasonable of me. It’s never bothered me that Arsenal play at the Emirates or that Man City play at the Etihad, so why can’t a cinema also benefit from that kind of sponsorship? For most of their history films have been a commercial proposition. They’ve been about making money.

But films were never only about money. In fact, films only made money when the dreams and aspirations of their stories connected with those of a large sector of society. What was important was to give those dreams vivid expression, incur an intensity of feeling in the audience. Being at the Scotiabank cineplex somehow crystallised all this. It’s a symbol of filmic dreams being reduced to dreams of money, and that’s somehow the same as the diminishing of everything that films meant. At least to me.