57: Your replies (and a misjudged vagina card)
Hello. I hope you’re doing well and keeping warm.
Welcome along to Border Crossing issue #57. Pull up a comfy. This one has an embarrassing moment from just before Christmas, plus some of your replies to the last issue, about the state of cinema.
First piece in over a year on Gut Feelings zine, from one of the very best essayists I know, Sarah Crowder, writing on hawthorn and heartache.
Another exceptional Twitter thread, here’s @2019_Winston’s investigation into all the guests at the infamous January 2020 ‘Brexit Battalion’ dinner at Brown’s Hotel.
This is two hours long but it’s essential if you’re even half curious about the dreaded NFTs: Dan Olson (Folding Ideas YouTube channel) explains, contextualises and then angrily demolishes the NFT hype. It’s a tour-de-force.
Metro news item about McDonalds in Malaysia having to ration fries. But a three-word phrase chills the blood: ‘global potato shortage’. Dear god, no.
In early December I ordered a box of small Christmas cards from The Vagina Museum. They had ‘merry clitmas’ on them and the printed illustration featured a vagina perched happily on top of a Christmas tree. I’d identified a small number of friends who I reckoned would get a kick out of this card — and obviously The Vagina Museum is an important project, well worth supporting.
The moment they plopped though my letterbox and I looked at them in real life, in the flesh so to speak, I realised it was a disastrous idea. There was no way on earth I could send any of them out. There may be people in my life who’d love a Christmas card with such a drawing on it but I don’t know anyone in my life who’d appreciate that drawing sent by me. Either I don’t know them well enough for it to be appropriate, or I know them too well for it to be appropriate.
Shiver. The thing is, right, I hadn’t remotely considered the joke in context of myself as protagonist, til the cards showed up and became tangible, physical items that I would need to write a festive message inside and post out to real humans.
If you were on that fateful list, heartfelt apologies. Though you’ll never find out.
I don’t know what I was thinking. It was a reality I couldn’t clamber out of, fast enough, mortified. Sorry, Vagina Museum. You still got paid though, which is better than some: when I was in Reykjavik in early 2020, the hotel I stayed in was just fifty metres from Iceland’s infamous Penis Museum, yet I didn’t even have the nerve to walk in. I kept wandering past, side-eyeing the place for two weeks, never spent a penny there.
This is niche but we just finished Succession season three and they’ve left everything perfectly poised (no spoilers) for Succession season four to be a Death In Paradise crossover: the gang moor their super-yacht at Saint Marie to check out the legendary chicken and chips at Catherine’s Bar, when Logan suddenly dies in mysterious, dramatic fashion. This leaves Kendall, Shiv, Tom and the rest holed up in a ridiculously posh villa, while pasty-faced D.I. Neville Parker tries to work out which of them murdered the Patriarch, while struggling to contain his own urges towards whatever gorgeous French police detective he’s currently paired with. Meanwhile P.C. Marlon takes Cousin Greg night-fishing, and Gerri infuriates Roman by having a holiday fling with Commissioner Selwyn.
You’re most welcome, HBO and BBC.
I had some ace emails responding to Border Crossing #56. Thank you. I think the main point made in defence of going to the cinema (versus home viewing) was people highlighting all the distractions at home. I’ll just share a few voices.
Sean Carroll writes:
A good friend of mine is a cinematographer (currently working on Ted Lasso) and he would argue to the nth degree with you. The crux of his argument is simply that due to being in the cinema you pay more attention. How often at home do you look at a phone, or stop for a loo break, or a cuppa?
While other people can be annoying in the cinema, are they more distracting than your home and your life, but you only notice when it’s those other people? Is there an element where your modern TV is only as good as cinema because you miss some of it, while being on your phone? Or do you genuinely watch every minute of it regardless?
Personally, I don't get anywhere those standards as a good viewer. Especially when the PM might lose his job and social media is keeping me laughing. But his arguments have made me think about how I view both film and TV.
Kyle Evans flags this point too, though he ends up closer to my own pessimism:
(long-term reader, first time emailer etc.) As a monthly cinema goer and Wittertainment devotee I was bristling to disagree from the start, but I do essentially think you're right. What I love about cinema is the immersion that you just can't get at home. I don't want to be able to pause it and pop to the kitchen, and I don't want it to be two clicks away from Cosmic Kids yoga on YouTube. But in the last few years I've been very much aware that when we go to the cinema we're 'keeping the flag flying' or whatever, like it’s some kind of moral crusade to keep an old tradition going. And once you're that far, it's dead isn't it?
There's a stats lesson we do at college where we look at average cinema attendance rates. In the 1930s the average Brit went something like fifty times a year. On average! I also just read John Cooper Clarke's autobiography where he says that his Mum (very working class) went to the cinema three times a week with friends and then begrudgingly again with him to see a western at the weekend. We think of the 1980s blockbuster era as being some kind of peak of cinema (well, I do) and it may have been in terms of gross income, but certainly not in terms of public engagement.
Last magical moment: Parasite in Northern Ireland when gigging, big old room with no raked seating, slightly too cold, all of these things added to the discomforting scenes unfolding onscreen. Superb. But this is outnumbered by many recent rubbish moments: bloke on date who ruined Hereditary by constantly laughing because his machismo couldn't handle fear; bloke with kid who started WhatsApping fully thirty seconds into Encanto; hearing a smashy Marvel film through the wall in the quiet bits of Quiet Place 2 (!)
Like many things I love — the 50 minute-ish album as artistic statement, the 3pm kick-off — I will be sad for cinema's demise but feel it's somewhat inevitable.
Man, I really feel you with that concluding sentence, Kyle, thank you.
This ‘concentration at home’ thing is an angle that I hadn’t considered. Though I appreciate it’s real, I’m amused by the idea that we benefit from external discipline and formality, to control our behaviour in order to watch a film. Much of that is surely family dynamics, though? Without kids, I’m slower to appreciate that. It’s so interesting to me that the externally imposed rigmarole of keeping your family quiet in a cinema (where rules are proscribed, yet other people’s indiscipline is more commonplace) might actually be easier to achieve than keeping everyone focused at home.
Another thought emerges from that: young people playing video games on big screens at home know precisely when to focus and when to chill out. They can be solitary or communal, play with friends or strangers, or alone, often utilising complex, constantly shifting variants of the above. And those gamer kids (and grown-ups) do this without losing immersion, or intensity of experience, with great fluidity. They leap smoothly between different levels of reality and focus. And often, they do this for many hours on the trot.
So I suspect my own generation’s presumptions about immersion, attention span and discipline, are themselves part of an interim (and fast fading) technological culture.
On cinema’s unique atmosphere, my dear sibling Anna Madeleine, who is a passionate (mostly horror) cinephile, writes:
Horror and more arty films are better on smaller arthouse style cinemas, mostly for the atmosphere of the venue and also so you can see the whole screen. But still, the surround sound and screen size does it for me. Also, I like to go with people or alone, it’s a different experience each way. I saw Dune with a small group on a big screen (Cineworld Wembley) and I loved it. The cinema experience added to the film and I wouldn't have got those big sweeping cinematography sections as well at home. I saw the new Matrix there too, it was shit of course but the action was good and I'm glad I saw it there and not at home.
My favourite cinema experiences pre-pandemic were: I will never forget seeing Black Panther in Wood Green Vue with a packed full house 99% Black people and lots of kids, families and groups of young adults. It was absolutely magic. Really loud and joyous.
Going to see Victoria in Curzon Soho on my own, late showing I had no idea what I was going to watch tbh — it had been recommended to me by a friend who worked there as a projectionist. Not full auditorium at all, and totally emotionally immersive, so much it really felt like I was inside the film. Then I came out into the busy streets of Soho at nighttime, it was really surreal vs real and wonderfully weird.
Along similar lines, Marc Ollington writes via WhatsApp:
I would have agreed with you until I saw Spiderman: No Way Home. Never have I been in such a charged, glorious, celebratory atmosphere. I know these event films are few and far between but the whole thing made me fall in love with cinema again. It was such a visceral experience, with genuine shouting, crying and delight in screenings across the world.
Spiderman is the sixth most successful film in movie history and that’s during a pandemic. This film will live long in the memory. My daughter won’t forget seeing it — and that reaction from the audience around us. I think it’s maybe the most important film in the recent history of cinema, as it’s probably secured its future for the next generation.
I do agree that historically a single Great Work (or a Wildly Successful Work) has the potential to fully re-awaken the relevance of an entire genre or discipline of art, though it’s incredibly rare. We can’t know yet if the smash hit new Spiderman is that level of one-off exception or a game-changer (and I haven’t seen it yet) but I do hope Marc’s right. One thing though: in over-arching format, surely it’s closer to being an episode within an enormous, sprawling boxset (that is, the Marvel universe) than a pure stand-alone film?
To digress for a moment, Marc made a great point about an aspect of television drama that winds him up and, he argues, prevents even great TV shows reaching the heights of the best stand-alone filmmaking. We talked about this in the pub last night, so I’ll paraphrase: Marc is critical of the way many drama seasons end, where the story is twisted and forced into an open-ended shape, designed to secure and hype the next season. The purity of a ‘complete’ piece of work is most transparently diminished by this imposition over creativity of ‘possibilities for commerce’. He’s right of course, a multitude of shows end dismally, because everyone wants their series to continue, ad infinitum. People in TV are shit at endings, compared to filmmakers who tell a story in one go. Even as Marc and I sat talking in Crystal Palace (a few minutes before Marc tripped over with a full tray of drinks and completely drenched Jim and Tim) somewhere nearby the singer Darren Hayman (who lives in Palace) was tweeting:
I think series on streaming should have a notice on them, saying whether the story is finished or not. ‘We’ve done this, it’s all wrapped up’ or ‘Yeah we’re really holding out for a season 2 so I wouldn’t bother with this for now.
Seriously good idea, Darren.
Okay, unconnected, I must mention that Barry Dolan (of Oxygen Thief / Non Canon infamy) also got in touch but not about cinema, rather about the Kafka essay gem. Then out of the blue, he’s posted me a copy of Daniel Pennac’s early 1990s treatise Reads Like A Novel, which lands somewhere between a manifesto and a guidebook for reading for pleasure. It’s a succinct reader’s Bill of Rights, if you will. Thank-you so much Barry, it’s wonderful.
I guess I must write more about structural changes in the arts (please god not NFTs though!) — it’s a huge, fascinating topic. As recently as 2019 I would’ve sworn total fealty to the VR/AR revolution. Now I lean hard the other way, towards grimey bootstrapped travelling weirdo troupes bringing light to an apocalyptic wilderness.
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All my love and all good things, as always.