There are three things I try to find as soon as I arrive in a city for the first time: a reliably divey bar, a nice public park (preferably with kiosk), and a cinema with an intriguing program. After that, my tastes mercurially fit to match the landscape, but generally once I’ve taken care of a drink and a walk, the cinema can help with the rest.
In 2001, I was a temporary transplant in New York during the dead of winter. Night after night, I’d find myself stuck outdoors, out of my depth, and – worse – out of warm clothes. I’d followed clichéd heartstrings to Brooklyn, and my then-flame was working most nights at an infamous rental store called Kim’s Video, the kind of place overrun by film school students who organised VHS tapes by indecipherable genres. Meanwhile, I’d kill the lonely evenings, stalking the chilly East Village streets looking for a warm spot to perch in for a few hours at a time. I got to know the surrounding businesses a little too well before I stepped into a late night café that – voila – had a set of wooden bleachers and a large, makeshift screen hidden out the back.
“As a culturally unruly teenager growing up in the suburbs, I longed for both cinemas and cities, places to experience lives removed from my own.”
It’s not the décor, or the ticket price, or the kind of projector I remember. Instead, it’s that shared 86 minutes spent watching Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday flicker in the dark, before the room transformed back again into just four walls and a sticky floor. Cinemas have the almost magic ability to act as havens, a darkened room in a sprawling metropolis that can feel enormous and homely all at once. They welcome you in, give you shelter and – depending on what’s showing – can expand your vision beyond a confined aspect ratio.
As a culturally unruly teenager growing up in the suburbs, I longed for both cinemas and cities, places to experience lives removed from my own. I’d pore over the printed programs from the (now defunct) Valhalla in Glebe, eyes agog at titles like Meet the Feebles, imagining the kinds of people I might bump into in the lobby. Years later, I’d jostle side-by-side with a group of Hells Angels who’d biked into town for a repertory screening of the Maysles’ Altamont Free Concert documentary, Gimme Shelter. That’s the thing – most of my favourite memories of ‘the cinema’ aren’t about the films at all, they’re about what happens before and after the credits roll.
Whether it be a screening room set up in a Balinese basement, a bus in Edinburgh during an arts festival, or a night-time picnic cemetery event in Hollywood – there’s much more to the idea of what a cinema means to a city than just bricks and mortar, or grass and sky. It’s the teenage boy you recognise from The Wolfpack taking tickets at Metrograph in New York, it’s the wild night you end up having after a film lecture at ICA in London, and it’s sitting behind Parker Posey in a packed screening of Spiderman and not being able to concentrate on the movie at all.
Cinemas are, essentially, a place to come together (a space that is single and ready to mingle). Somewhere to introduce someone to a beloved celluloid experience, argue passionately about your cultural memories, and eat too much popcorn. But they can also simply be an oasis of warmth on a brisk city night when you’ve got no place else to go.
Kate Jinx is a writer, broadcaster and film curator (mostly). She is the Director of Programming at Golden Age Cinema in Sydney, appears regularly on ABC TV’s arts and culture programs The Mix and The Critics, and is a houseplant enthusiast.
Image top: Golden Age Cinema & Bar second birthday. Photograph by Tim Da Rin.