Sunday, 26 August 2012

The Last Projectionist at The Electric, Birmingham, etc.

During a brief stay in Birmingham I had the good fortune to attend a screening of the documentary The Last Projectionist (2011) in the cinema the film features. The Electric in Birmingham has gone through a number of incarnations and is now a restored, clean and bright two screen independent - with a management sufficiently proactive to have also produced and directed the film itself. I saw the film in screen two, sitting in a seat that is used in the film I was watching; on leaving the building I took an opportunity to congratulate the producer who had just finished talking to his staff about some sundry matter in the bar.

I found the film itself charming and informative, good-humoured, sanguine but nonetheless passionate. As usual I have written a short piece on IMDb.

The cinema has decided to go the way of the handful of independents - the Phoenix in North London, The Electric in West London and the Rex in Berkhamstead - in creating a higher-end atmosphere front of house, with restored period fittings (such as the original kiosk Automaticket dispenser, right) sitting alongside comfy seating areas and a comprehensive bar. I'm a functional cinema-goer and rarely indulge this part of the experience. My impressions of the cinema are based on the auditorium: comfort, audio-visual quality and sightlines, for example. Screen two benefits from a small stage area in front of the screen, which is similar to the second screen my favourite independent, The Picturehouse Uckfield. Such a space not only gives the screen and so the film room, but also formalises the presentation in an unquantifiable manner. Claustrophobia is not conducive to a good screening experience.

The Last Projectionist was the second of two films I saw during the week at the cinema. At the first, Ted , I was very much aware of the spectres of the fleapit that the cinema was at periods in its development. That's fine for a smutty comedy such as this and my experience was none the worse for it. After all, the sagacious talking heads who bemoan the loss of the cinema experience of old are more interested in the quality of the film itself.

The 'Giant Screen', Millenium Point
Interestingly, one of the men talks about his equivocal relationship with IMAX and we are shown footage of him manipulating the vast reels with a small fork lift. The implication is that this takes place at an IMAX in Birmingham's Millenium Point. However, when I went there a few weeks ago to see The Dark Knight Rises again, I was disappointed to find that the IMAX technology had been removed and that the cinema in place in the IMAX-style building was simply providing a greater capacity of screen (and volume). Some enquiries confirmed that films shown are not IMAX and despite their best efforts some of the civic promotional campaigns still refer to the venue as an IMAX cinema. It does make a difference but I guess that difference has a price tag. Clearly IMAX, for all its benefits of clarity and presence is an expensive proposition.

I did take an opportunity to see a straightforward film (The Bourne Legacy) in the central Odeon which is also featured in The Last Projectionist. Like many long standing post-war cinemas, it caters to large numbers but compromises on the seating and sightlines, with no raking to the seating. Parents brought young children and chatted - it was clearly a low-pressure afternoon out of the house. My favourite cinema experience over this time in Birmingham has been at the Cineworld - a more modern, purpose-built cinema whose sickly anonymity front of house is more than catered for by the screening experience within. It helped that I saw The Imposter which is a wonderful documentary.

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