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Cinemas & Cinemagoing: Art House & Repertory by Allen Eyles


The Academy, Oxford Street

The Academy, Oxford Street

The origins of both the British film society movement and the art house/repertory cinema sector lie in the creation, in 1925, of The Film Society to screen important foreign pictures that were not being shown in Britain. Its organisers included the film critics Iris Barry and Ivor Montagu and the filmmaker Adrian Brunel, while George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells were among the founder members.

The private Sunday afternoon screenings, which took place at cinemas in the West End of London, became very popular, attracting over 1,500 people. They introduced the latest developments in technique and subject matter from abroad by showing such films as Die Freudlose Gasse (Joyless Street, Germany, d. G.W. Pabst, 1925) and Berlin: Die Sinfonie Der Grosstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a City, Germany, d. Walter Ruttmann, 1927). Important new Russian productions, banned by the Censor, were imported and film-makers like Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein introduced their work in person, amid accusations that the Society was politically motivated. Many historically significant films were also revived, including examples of German expressionism like Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Germany, d. Robert Wiene, 1919).

Curzon, Mayfair

Curzon, Mayfair

Then, in 1928, Elsie Cohen hired a run-down cinema in the centre of London for a year and successfully showed many recent Russian and German films. She next persuaded the owner of another cinema, in Oxford Street, to let her relaunch it as the Academy with a similar policy. It became the first and most prestigious British art house cinema with such successes as Kameradschaft (Germany, d. G.W. Pabst, 1931) and La Grande Illusion (France, d. Jean Renoir, 1937). The moderne-style Curzon in Mayfair was built as a rival in 1934. Many other cinemas played foreign films at times but the only other purpose-built art house was the Cosmo in Glasgow (opened 1939). A plan to open branches of the Academy in towns like Leeds was scuppered by World War Two, when bomb damage closed the London cinema as well until 1944.

Another specialised area of film exhibition was repertory programming, as practised by chains like the Classic Cinemas, while the Everyman Hampstead achieved an international reputation for reviving foreign and English-language films to an art house standard. The Film Society continued to fill in gaps among old and new films until 1939, regularly featuring new British documentaries.

Cosmo, Glasgow, c.1970

Cosmo, Glasgow, c.1970

The Edinburgh Film Festival was established in 1949 to bring new work into the country. The Academy, Curzon, Cameo-Poly and other leading art houses premiered serious work with English subtitles while dubbed versions of action and sex-orientated European films were released to a wider market. Some French productions of artistic merit were fully released, with subtitles, on the major cinema circuits, including: The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la Peur, d. Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953), Rififi (Du Rififi chez les hommes, France, d. Jules Dassin, 1954) and Mon Oncle (France, d. Jacques Tati, 1958). Other major Continental productions, such as Golden Marie (Casque d'or, d. Jacques Becker, France, 1952) and La Verité (d. Clouzot, France, 1960), were released in both subtitled and dubbed versions.

In the art house field, new directors and movements were discovered and became fashionable as a result of one or two acclaimed films: Akira Kurosawa, following Rashomon (Japan, 1950); Satyajit Ray after Pather Panchali (India, 1955); Ingmar Bergman through The Seventh Seal (Sweden, 1957) and Wild Strawberries (Sweden, 1957); Miklós Jancsó with The Round-Up (Hungary, 1965); the French 'New Wave' with The 400 Blows (Les Quatre cents coups, d. François Truffaut, 1959) and Hiroshima mon amour (France, d. Alain Resnais, 1959). Following their big screen runs, many films were widely appreciated by film societies, which eagerly booked these pictures, usually on 16mm.

Telekinema, London

Telekinema, London

In 1952, the British Film Institute obtained the Telekinema, built on London's South Bank for the 1951 Festival of Britain, as the first temporary home of a new National Film Theatre, its long-desired members' cinema. Initially, the NFT revived films that were out of circulation but it then began to premiere new work, such as that of the British 'Free Cinema' movement (including Karel Reisz's We Are the Lambeth Boys, 1959) and new productions from little-known countries such as Yugoslavia.

National Film Theatre, London

National Film Theatre, London

In 1957, the BFI combined the opening of a new, purpose-built National Film Theatre with the launching of the London Film Festival, designed as a non-competitive showcase of films presented at other festivals. The LFF soon began adding its own choices and has steadily grown in scope and size to the present day. The NFT continued to combine retrospectives with seasons of new work.

In the 1960s, a wide cinema release was achieved by films like La Dolce Vita (Italy, d. Federico Fellini, 1959) and Two Women (La Ciociara, Italy, d. Vittorio De Sica, 1961), although they were principally shown in dubbed versions. At the same time, the addition of smaller screens at the Academy and the National Film Theatre enabled a wider range of more esoteric films to be shown in London.

Outside London, in 1967, the BFI set about establishing a chain of Regional Film Theatres modelled on the National Film Theatre, with full-time RFTs at Brighton, Manchester and Newcastle and part-time operations elsewhere, presenting a mixture of public and private showings.

Harbour Lights, Southamption

Harbour Lights, Southamption

Often introduced by the London Film Festival, directorial discoveries such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Bernardo Bertolucci and Pedro Almodóvar have continued to generate interest in foreign cinema. But the general decline in cinema attendances affected both the art house and repertory sectors by the 1980s. Foreign-language cinema also suffered from the competition of American independent productions spurned by the major circuits while the increasing choice of recent and old films on television, not only on the free channels but also as delivered by video and satellite and cable stations, virtually abolished the repertory cinema.

The regional network established by the BFI largely survives as the main source outside London of specialised cinema. Along with a small number of independent art houses, it is the principal alternative to the multiplex, which has experimented with regular semi-art house nights - but the wide commercial release of a foreign subtitled film such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (China/Taiwan/US/Hong Kong, d. Ang Lee, 2000) or Amélie (France, d. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) is a rare exception.

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