Paradise squandered

By Tim Concannon

London must save the institutions that allow its citizens to imagine a better future through contemplation of the city’s past, starting with Kennington’s Cinema Museum, the Lambeth workhouse where Charles Chaplin was once incarcerated as a small boy. Today a home to an exceptional collection of material from a century of cinema, the museum faces imminent closure due to the Brexit panic of its owners, South London and Maudsley NHS Trust. They should reconsider.

For the amusement of the global elite whose pampered lives are audited in the ‘Paradise Papers‘, London is wrecking the future of its culture in an effort to turn the city into a heritage museum, with – needless to say – a shop and a fancy café attached. The 0.001%, who hide their wealth offshore to avoid tax, are destroying cities such as London which they claim to love by turning the buildings into casino chips and the citizenry into debt-bonded servants of the casino, working on precarious zero hour contracts in the impossible pursuit of ever owning a home of their own.

With Brexit’s cliff-edge fast approaching, Theresa May’s Conservative government hangs on to power by a fingernail. Yet in a miasma of looming precarity, with Ministers coming up with their own foreign policies while on holiday, perv MPS, a Brexit rebellion of Tory backbenchers, and two Cabinet resignations, voter’s support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party is around 3% or less.

We must look to other sources of inspiration to build a better future for 8.7 million Londoners. There are worse places to start in charting a course to that future than to look at the successes and mistakes of the past in a city that dates back, at least, to the Roman occupation. In ancient folklore, it was often thought that the ancestral spirits of the land resided in the ‘wild wood’. Trees are organisms with greater stature than people, living for far longer than us. Trees connected populations to ancestors’ voices in their imaginations because they could picture their great grandparents – people from a century or more before – looking out across the same tree lines and forest vistas.

In the Twenty First Century we’re connected to people from a century ago by literature, newspapers and magazines scanned in and available online, by architecture, and above all else by cinema.

In Jacques Richard’s 2004 documentary about the godfather of the global film conservation movement ‘Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque‘, answering an interviewer’s questions in front of a screen onto which a Lumière brothers’ film of a street procession in Seville in 1895 is projected, Langlois says:

“My goal was to show shadows of the living coexisting with shadows of the dead, for that’s the essence of cinema. It collapses time and space. It goes beyond the 4th dimension.”

“So it’s like early news reporting?’ The interviewer asks Langlois.

‘You call it news but it’s much smarter than that. Because news reports are rarely intelligent. They go about filming a head of state, or a horse or whatever, whereas these scenes live and breathe. It’s real life. Which mere news, as we know it, can’t capture.’

Only cinema can do this: capture shadows as flickering, fluttering, moving images, moths in an illuminated jar. Not only how people and those moments looked, but people’s emotions in those moments as well. We are the first generation of human beings who can look back into our great grandparents’ lives. We can see the gaze in people’s eyes a century ago, as they look out at us as well, into an uncertain future.

Over the last two years, together with the poet, author and critic Roz Kaveney, I’ve made a radio programme, ‘Music for Films‘, for London’s arts radio station Resonance 104.4 FM, in which we’ve visited many of the magic spaces of cinema in the city. To navigate our reimagining of the streets we’ve arranged 270 and counting films with Tube stations, on a détourned version of Harry Beck’s beautiful, sublimely coherent map of the Underground network; films that are shot at, near to, or which are in some way linked to each stop. (You can also download extended versions of the show as a podcast, ‘More Music for Films’).

In these explorations of the city with our listeners we’ve made discoveries which have moved us to the point where we couldn’t go on recording. On one dérive, wandering up the stairs at the mock gothic renaissance Gala bingo hall in Tooting – originally the Grade I listed Granada theatre designed by Theodore Komisarjevsky in 1931, a chipped china souvenir plate commemorating Hollywood’s love of Ivanhoe and King Arthur – we realized that the view of the faded frescos of knights in armour and Moorish traders we were looking at had inspired a young Angela Carter to write one of her most memorable scenes. The opera sequence in her novel ‘The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman’, when peacock feathers on posh ladies’ hats come to life and attack the bourgeois patrons, is Carter’s description of the surreal and gaudy imagination rising up and overthrowing a cruel and elitist reality. It could have been painted by Max Ernst. The Granada was one of Angela’s cinemas, enshrined in her memories of going to the pictures with her dad when she was little. In her hand-written manuscript notes, kept in the British Library collection, Carter writes about the Granada cinema:

“to step through the door of this dream cathedral of voluptuous thirties wish-fulfillment [sic] architecture was to set up a tension within me that has never resolved the tension between inside + outside, between the unappeasable appetite for the unexpected, the gorgeous, the gim-grack [sic], the fantastic, the free play of the imagination…”

In a companion piece to our show about Neil Jordan’s film of Carter’s script for ‘The Company of Wolves‘ you can hear Roz reading the scene from Angela Carter’s novel, sitting in the upper stalls where a young Angela once looked out at across the Puginesque arches and gilded paintings of fantastical Crusaders and Saracens. Below, a handful of South Londoners contentedly play bingo amid the pleasant bleeping of fruit machines. Roz is barely keeping it together, because as well as being an Angela Carter fan, Roz was her friend.

Cinema and cinema buildings are like churches in that they can connect us to the emotional presence of people who are no longer alive, and sometimes they connect us to the unexpected or to the divine as well. Yet they’re also secular temples because – like all art – cinema belongs to everyone.

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