Party Spirits: The Return of Midnight Movies

May 9th, 20111:03 pm @

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Too much coffee, dodgy venues, even dodgier films. Midnight movies are the invisible thread connecting the radicalism of the sixties, the anarchy of ’77, to Britain’s renaissance of dissent in the eighties. It’s high time we resumed these nocturnal séances with the ghosts in the last machine, the cinema projector.

Even smiling makes my face ache. Left out of the 2009 remake, West Village hipsters in the 1980 Fame enjoy The Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight, at the 8th Street Playhouse, NYC. It ran at the venue for 15 years, till 1992. it

Even smiling makes my face ache. Left out of the 2009 remake, West Village hipsters in the 1980 ‘Fame’ enjoy ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ at midnight, at the 8th Street Playhouse, NYC. It ran at the venue for fifteen years, till 1992. it’s still playing at the Oriental Theatre, Milwaukee.

British culture needs to rediscover something precious that’s been lost in the era of file-sharing and content streamed directly to your laptop: the ability of random members of the public to seek cover from the rain and the long shadows being cast by hard times, to sit in a darkened room watching a film together. To be thrilled, scared, befuddled, beguiled, entertained; viewing cinema as part of an audience rather than out of one eye as you simultaneously twiddle with an iPad.

In enjoying the company of others as much as the visuals we take part in a collective, imaginative exercise. The “oo”s, the “aa”s, the titterings, snarky laughter; the saying of lines out loud like chants, prayers, creeds, magic spells, incantations; these small acts bring fictional characters to life from shared thoughts and responses. They give them a dimension of reality, materialise them onto the screen with renewed anima and vitality. And now they’re all coming back…

If you’ve seen George Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ or its spiritual sire (also the one film of the last decade that gives hope of there ever being a British film industry again) ‘Sean of the Dead’, you know this much about zombies: they’re easy to kill. (Head shot, cricket bat to the skull). But the zombies, like mad mullahs and zombie films themselves, just keep coming.

So what better visual metaphor could there be for the murmurings of dissent during the recent Royal Wedding than a zombie flashmob in Soho Square? The Square is home to the film industry and much of British mainstream media. (Denmark Street, where all the music publishers used to be, and Charing Cross Road – where high street book-selling is dying a slow death – are moments away).

If it had been organised in America there would have been a proper riot. Flags on fire. Fox News would decry them as traitors, demand court martials. The National Guard would have been called out. Chomsky would be writing a book at this very moment.

Over here, some goths who knew one another over the internet sort-of threw zombie wedding outfits together at the last minute. Not many people showed up (it was the apocalypse, after all) apart from photo-journalists, hungry for blood on the streets, who’d read about it on Twitter. The paparazzi flexed their long lenses. The police stood as immovable and unmoved as one of Grant Mitchell’s arteries, clogged with the fillings of a thousand Ginsters pasties. The zombies milled around Starbucks waiting for something to kick off. It didn’t. Everyone was nicked anyway.

It’s the English way, affront-to-human-dignity by an inundation of damp squibs. Not so much water boarding as part of an officious health and safety regime: being smothered to death with wet wipes by the jovial nanny state.

How’s that plastic wrist-tie feel? Just the right amount of pain to be uncomfortable so you stop complaining about the civil list, but not so painful that you pass out, throw up in your own throat and we have another inquest on our hands? Seen that Michael McIntyre on the TV last night? I can’t stand him, myself, but my old mum loves him. Still, mustn’t grumble, eh? Nice day for it! Move along, now. This is a sterile area.

(For a moment, I invite you to conjure with the Met’s heroic poetic ineptitude in trying to make Soho “sterile”…)

How perfect, how fitting, how apt, that the fancy dress costume they chose for this small act of dissenting street theatre was the zombie. Brainless. Automatic. Parasitic. Driven by instinct rather than reason. Out for blood. Feasting on other people’s brains.

The zombie flashmob has emerged as the defining metaphor for autonomous action mediated by the internet, instant reaction to instant communication. The layers of irony (intentional and unintentional) around these happenings have built up to such a density that even the sight of one leaves me feeling like I’ve eaten too much Wall’s Viennetta. Zombies, new people on social media joining the fray, they just keep coming. Hide in the basement if you like, Mr Clegg. It’s not safe for an anti-hero down there either.

The zombie has joined other dressing-up, Halloween characters in the popular British imagination:

  • the pirate;
  • the devil girl;
  • the slutty nurse / schoolgirl / [insert x];
  • the spooky MIB goth / V from ‘V for Vendetta’ / Guy Fawkes / Anonymous / Venetian masquerade guy;
  • the wodewose (Caliban, Rob Zombie, white rastas, that wierd troll made from newspapers in Morris dancing… essentially, any hairy man);
  • Father (Greg) Christmas (invented by James I’s Court masque writer, Ben Jonson, as a plea to the King to ignore the puritans who were running the show, and for the return of Merry England. Hurrah!)

It’s easy to make a zombie costume and copy the slack-jawed walk. It’s a character anyone can do instantly, because we all know the stories and the tropes. They also do lady zombies, which is handy since there’s a lamentable lack of familiar female carnival icons to draw on. (Myself, I like the panto “leading boys”: Jane Voss, the lady Highway robber; or Mary Frith, the ‘Roaring Girl’ who Middleton and Decker used as the basis for their play about a long-stem clay pipe-smoking, cross-dressing, female Fagin of the Eizabethan underworld).

The irresistible rise of the zombie as part of popular iconography is down to George Romero, to midnight movies, and to horror film fans like Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg who – like me – grew up gorging on Channel 4’s output of underground and “cult” films in the eighties. Before you could get the films on VHS or DVD, we bought Danny Peary’s book of one hundred ‘Cult Movies’ and ticked off the ones we’d seen.

As soon as we were old enough, we went to film festivals and midnight screenings. We got to see the films with other people, who – like us – had internalised the narratives into their lives, given each scene and moment a personal meaning. Also, for the hetero-inclined shy males among us, there was a slim possibility that there’d be girls in attendence. (There weren’t, by the way; or if there were… they weren’t all that interested in Ed Wood or John Waters. This is why Tarrantino was like the second coming for film buffs of a certain age: by the time of ‘Pulp Fiction’, he made films you could watch with your girlfriend.)

The spirits of cult cinema have woven themselves seamlessly, unconsciously into the fabric of our culture and our secular mythology. Midnight movies link everything from the roots of film-exhibition – Victorian fairground rarie tents and stage conjuring – to the magic places of psychedelia and punk hidden behind London’s Oxford Street, under scabrous bridges in Edinburgh and off darkened, red brick thoroughfares in Manchester.

A few minute’s walk from Soho Square, London’s most famous midnight film theatre, the Scala, started out in the basement of 60 Charlotte Street. In June 1979, friends John Wyver, Dick Fiddy, Tony Mechele, Steve Woolley and Chris Wicking set up a club that showed films and had a night of semi-legal archive TV, including a week of the ‘Prisoner’.

The club took its name from the Scala Theatre which stood on the same site from 1904 till its demolition in 1969. The location has a history as a theatre going back to the New Rooms in 1772, and resonates with links to popular culture. (For example, in March 1964, the exterior and interior of the Scala Theatre were used to film the concert footage of the Beatles in Richard Lester’s ‘A Hard Day’s Night’.)

The only building nearby that acts as a physical link to this past is Pollock’s Toy Museum, home to beautiful toy theatres and one of the most important, and overlooked, buildings in central London. It stands as the remaining example of the magic and novelty shops, penny arcades, private museums, peep shows and magic lantern theatres which flourished in the small side streets of the West End from the 1790s, with names such as Haddock’s Androids in Norfolk Street, the Leicester Place Panorama, the Sans Pareil theatre. (Charles Dickens purchased the entire stock from one that was going out of business, and would perform as the “Unparalleled Necromancer Rhia Rhama Rhoos”.)

The profusion of these shops and cheap entertainments was part of the fashion for amateur conjuring and “recreational rationalism,” the debunking of superstition for fun. They were the spiritual cousins of American Dime Museums, which often had peep show machines and exhibited some of the earliest motion pictures.

In its origins, British cinema was one novelty among many. One of the first studios – not just in England, in the entire world – was the ‘glasshouse’ built in 1897 by pioneer George Smith. Smith made his money from a music hall mentalism and muscle-reading act, which he’d perform at Brighton Aquarium. He re-invested the proceeds, leasing St Anne’s Well Pleasure Gardens in Hove which under Smith’s watchful eye eventually featured demonstrations of hot air ballooning, parachute jumps, a monkey house, a fortune teller and a hermit living in a cave. Cinema was the logical extension of this: cheap entertainment for the masses seeking pleasure, thrills, the odd and the novel. Something to pass the time during an afternoon’s stroll.

It’s important to remember that the midnight movies of the very early seventies that defined “cult cinema” weren’t political manifestos. By 1972, the counter cultural revolution in the States was over with the re-election of Richard Nixon. Midnight movies may not have blown people’s minds, but – in the immortal words of the late John Peel – they certainly breathed on them pretty hard.

This wasn’t Lindsey Anderson’s ‘If’, or Kubrick, or Goddard. This was novelty, schlock, hucksterism, exploitation. Movies like ‘The Harder They Come’ and Bogdonovich’s ‘Targets’ , ‘Night of the Living Dead’, David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’, John Water’s ‘Pink Flamingos’, Russ Meyer’s movies, or even ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ were meant to titillate, outrage, subvert but in a playful way. There was nothing self-improving about staying up past midnight watching double bills with other deadbeats. These were students and hippie bohemians, people with no jobs to go to at 8 a.m., waiting around for the next wave of change to carry them somewhere better. Nocturnal films shows were cheap kicks to pass time, but they kept the transmission of many symbols – unconscious and ambiguous – alive and contemporary by subtle re-invention.

Films like the 1936 ‘Reefer Madness’ (originally ‘Tell Your Children’) held both hippies and the hip in its thrall from the sixties through the eighties, not only because of its ludicrous ‘warning’ about the evils of cannabis; but also because, beyond the hokey message, the bizarre performances and surreal mise-en-scène appealed to people’s camp sensibilities. You could giggle knowingly at ‘Reefer Madness’ as you could at ‘Eraserhead’, even while Lynch’s first masterpiece simultaneously stretched your consciousness like so much chiaroscuro play doh.

In his youth, John Waters idolised Kroger Babbs, one of the legendary ‘Forty Thieves’ who operated outside Hollywood’s self-censorship system, the Hays Code. Babbs made fake sex education films like the notorious ‘Mom and Dad’, that allowed people in the American Midwest to see a vagina on the screen (in a birth scene, admittedly).

In London of 2011, the taboos that presided from the thirties to the eighties have been dispelled. In fact, we’re drowning in an ocean of nipple tassles, S&M performance art nights under the proverbial Victorian brick arch.

Guardian Media and Windows Phone corporate partner, Secret Cinema – the acme of bespoke film nights – is now reassuringly expensive, at £35 a head. Nice if you work in banking. Secret Cinema’s strap line is “Tell No One”. Oh dear I think I already blew your cover, Fabien, sorry. How about I write something faintly dismissive about your clientele and hope that, with the ineffable wisdom of the crowd, the hoi polloi continue to stay away in droves?

Artists aren’t doing their job, which is not simply to provoke a response. It’s to shake things up a bit. Create conditions for actual personal and social change, not just go through the motions of changing things.

In the cultural sphere, acts of disruption, dissonance and dissent have become part of a nostaglic homage to the past. A crucial difference between the eighties – when Woolley and co founded the Scala film club – and now is that culture, in both its populist and elitist modes, no longer presents a real threat to the established order. To a great extent it is the Establishment. The radical energy that gave rise to Red Wedge and the anti-Apartheid movement has dissipated over twenty years of uninterrupted economic growth.

We’re in the midst of greater social upheaval than under Magaret Thatcher, so where is the joyous, communal revelling in bad taste of an Alexei Sayle gig now? (An emotionally exhausting experience that was somewhere between two hours of mass euphoria and mass vomiting.) Where is the next Derek Jarman coming from? Or for that matter, the break that brings a new Tilda Swinton to prominence? A film deal for the next Julien Temple, Issac Julien or Hanif Kureishi?

Cinema, like all public institutions in Britain, is still in the thrall of a strange symbiosis between the philosophy of Charles Saatchi – the Tories’ chief media manipulator throughout their previous term of office – and the avant garde. Challenging, confrontational art is a differentiated marketing widget.

Prior to the banking crisis, there seemed to be a new brand of vodka to sponsor every installation piece at the now defunct Shunt Vaults (most of its custom came from City workers looking for a novel after-hours drinking environment). Brechtian alienation has ceased to be a way for the audience to retain its critical faculties. It’s become another bourgeois bohemian lifestyle affectation. Verfremdungseffekt now belongs with bespoke coffee emporia, burlesque, ukuleles and trilby hats. Not to people who live in Newham, Rhyll or Bradford.

Rather than trying to manufacture an elitist social movement to leverage revenue, or end up with a Facebook group full of strangers, the most shocking and radical thing to do now would be to create spaces where anyone can show up and simply enjoy other stranger’s company, watching thoughtful, beautiful, revolting, moving films with likeminded people.

The canon of these films, the experience of seeing them as part of an audience, their symbolism and spirit needs to be constantly reviewed, re-experienced, re-invented, added to every decade or so.

Being part of a society by socialising is equally as important to the continuation of cinema as a popular art form as it is to politics. I’d go so far as to say the two are connected. David Lynch told the Guardian in response to this question:

You’re also a champion of new technology. Would you ever release a film just on your website?

That’s where everything is heading very soon. It will just be downloads. But it doesn’t matter how people get hold of a film; as long as they can see it in the right way it will still be beautiful. If people can see a film on a big screen, with the lights low and good sound, then they still have the chance to enter another world. Some films do better on a small screen than others, but if you saw 2001 on a phone it would be just the most pathetic joke.

Want to watch a film? Any film. It’s a few mouse clicks away. Ripping it off is illegal, admittedly, and you may have to wait a few hours. But if you have the inclination, there it is: the whole of cinema. More than one hundred years of it. So why are you idly scrolling through blogs and Twitter? Why aren’t you leaving your cubicle, spending an an hour to an hour and a half with some friends, enjoying a story being told? Where’s your spirit of inquiry gone?

Despite of – or, perhaps, due to – the fecundity of content and choice that the digitally connected enjoy, we live in curiously incurious times.

The earliest sell-out midnight movie shows – like Jodorowsky’s ‘El Topo’ playing at New York’s Elgin Theatre in 1970 – happened through word of mouth. It was driven by a spirit of exploration and individual’s curiosity, rather than an aspiration to be part of an exclusive scene.

In 2010, Woolley recalled of the founding of the Scala film club:

I had fire in my belly and wanted to create an alternative NFT, where you could laugh at Buñuel, weep at Sirk and scream at George Romero. In that first month we showed all-night Judy Garland classics and a celebration of Gay Pride Week shoulder to shoulder with macho men such as Toshiro Mifune, Robert Mitchum and John Wayne.

We put on double bills, triple bills, all nighters on Friday and Saturday, and had a fully licensed bar with the best jukebox in London; the original venue in London’s Charlotte Street became a magnet for all sorts: New Romantics, off-duty policemen eager for a dose of Clint Eastwood, Chilean refugees, rockabillies, and Divine fans lapping up Pink Flamingos.

In 1981, the Scala moved to the former King’s Cross Gaumont. The Kings Cross Scala began and ended with ‘King Kong’, the original hairy revolutionary who dared to fall in love with a woman who was not only from a different species, it was… well, it was never going to work in the long-term, put it that way.

In a British context, Kong reminds me a lot of Morgan, played by David Warner in the sublime 1966 Karel Reisz film ‘Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment’. Raised among East End Leftists, it shouldn’t work out between Morgan and his posh ex, Leonie (played by Vanessa Redgrave). And… you can probably guess the rest, but watch the film.

So, long story short, we’re bringing it all back. The first Black Mass is happening in London, around midnight on 28th May. It’s free to anyone.

My hope is that occult gatherings like this spring up all over the place; that it encourages people to similar acts of dissenting cinema exhibition, not solely to imaginary metropolitan hipster elites but to friends, lovers, the dispossessed and sleepless. That it becomes part of the growth of film societies allowed by cheap video projectors, not only in cities but in rural communities, Highlands and Islands.

Let’s all feel the dreamlike, blurry immersion in the world of ‘Blade Runner’ in the opening chords of its perfect musical score. Let’s burn imaginary virgin coppers in wicker men, Know Where We’re Going.

We do this because our ancestors did it. It was fun then and it’s fun now. You know it makes sense.