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We Can’t Lose the Collective Experience of Going to the Movies to This Pandemic

Going to the movies feels fundamentally different from simply streaming videos: it's a collective experience, and often inspires discussion and argument. In 2021, when the pandemic finally recedes, we should build socialist film clubs.

Film Forum, New York City. (@jmm / Flickr)

Among my fondest recent memories — not just of the time before the pandemic, but of that strange time when it seemed like we were winning — was a visit with a group of friends to the Peckhamplex in south-east London, in 2018. We were there to see Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, a ticket for which cost less than the price of a beer in the many eateries of the “Peckham Levels” that stand above this basement cinema in a converted 1980s car park.

At the end of this astonishing, freewheeling, and, for what it’s worth, strictly Marxist science fiction comedy, the young, working-class audience that this cinema is so rare in catering to spilled out onto the street; around Peckham Rye station old-school communist graffiti graced the underside of the railway bridge. What a time to be alive, I thought to myself.

Being chronically ill, advancing rapidly toward middle age, and already a little sedentary, I wasn’t missing activities that I didn’t do anyway (clubs, gyms, zoos) for most of 2020, but I badly missed the cinema, and especially, cinemas like this one.

It hit me most of all that these were what I missed most — except, perhaps, not having a constant ambient dread of being infected with something that could kill me — on reading the current issue of the Manchester Modernist Society’s beautiful little magazine, The Modernist, which is devoted entirely to cinemas. The pictures in there of shabby old Odeons, the profiles of old haunts like the cavernous Renoir in the Brunswick Center, the pieces on favorites such as Barbarella and The Trial, gave me an intense longing to be able to crowd into a darkened room with a load of strangers and let the dream machine roll.

I’ve always been a fervent filmgoer, and had been depressed to watch the way the once-thriving independent cinema scene in Britain, including in London, has been ground down to a couple of chains, such as Curzon and the notoriously union-bashing Picturehouse, or a National Film Theatre that runs apparently incessant seasons of the same Great Directors, seemingly to bankroll its actual remit, with Kubrick retrospectives gradually forcing out, say, Ousmane Sembène. Only tiny cinemas like Close-Up Film Centre in Shoreditch or the Star and Shadow in Newcastle seemed to be carrying the torch.

Among the last things I did before the cinemas started to close was attend the sort of screening the NFT used to specialize in — South, a terrifying silent film about a failed Antarctic expedition, with live piano accompaniment, a series of stark images that rattled around in my head for months afterward as we were forced into our own experiences of isolation. Conversely, I’d been loving Kino Klassika‘s wonderful season of Soviet musicals, across various venues, which were a perfect temporary salve for the post-election shell shock.

It’s silly to be a snob about (always capitalized) “Film,” but nine to ten months of watching a load of things at home on television, no matter how interesting, is a good reminder of what television is and what cinema is, and how they are not the same thing. Although the lights are off and, naturally, talking is not encouraged, a cinema experience is a public one, something that happens in groups in a place. That’s among the reasons why it has so often been a focus for the Left, and why film clubs have been so much a part of socialist activism over the years.

Lenin, notoriously, once declared that “for us, the cinema is the most important art” (words that are still engraved on the ticket hall of one of my favorite cinemas, Kino Muranów in Warsaw), and in the interwar years, local socialist groups, whether Labour or Communist, would often show the then-banned classics of socialist cinema to rooms full of enthusiasts, whether it was Eisenstein’s Strike or Battleship Potemkin, Pudovkin’s The End of St Petersburg or Dovzhenko’s Earth. Often, discussions would spill out from the meetings, as the ideas and images of the films inspired and intrigued the filmgoers.

A lot of the experiences with film I’ve most enjoyed and that have remained with me most have been political rather than purely aesthetic. In the 2000s, encountering the amazing film Finally Got the News, on Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers, at a screening at the 56A social center in the Elephant and Castle — introduced and with a commentary by a former Ford Halewood shop steward, no less — inspired me and some friends to set up our own short-lived film club. There has always been so much more to socialist filmmaking than worthy and grim social realism, and we tried to stress that, with semi-legal double-bills that ranged from Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar next to Georges Franju’s Le Sang des BêtesThe Bed-Sitting Room alongside Steptoe and Son Ride Again, Threads alongside La Soufriere (these last two were a little too brutal, in retrospect).

But one of the things behind that film club was that a group of people who had met online wanted to meet others, through offering something generous, both food for thought and, usually, some actual food (we’d also usually lay on a bottle of cider and some crisps, at least). It didn’t always work, of course, but it was an effort in trying to get us off the internet, collectively. But now we’re trapped in it, for our own good.

In 2020, I often tried to replicate this with friends — collective but remote viewings of favorites from, say, the Mosfilm Youtube Channel — and while it did often make us feel a little less alone, it was no real substitute. Film is also about that darkened room full of freely breathing and coughing strangers, audiences reacting to something at once in real time, and it’s about the discussions and arguments afterward — it’s about the things you can’t predict, and can’t do in your flat. So one thing I’d love to see in 2021, when the efficacy of the vaccine gradually surpasses the criminal ineptitude of the government, is the return of the socialist film club. See you at the double-bill of Strike and Sorry to Bother You.