Rooms with a View

gft_ext1There are pictures on the wall of the Glasgow Film Theatre that show it in its heyday. Bit by bit, it’s got a little more cramped. Where there was once a sweeping Deco foyer with plenty of space overhead, a false ceiling has been shoved in to make way for a bar. And now the little café on the ground floor has been gutted to make way for Screen Three.

Digital filmmaking has created an environment where less theatre-goers have to choose between more films. Where shipping a film print to a destination once involved a stack of reels the size of the average drum kit, you can now Fedex a humble hard-drive containing the main attraction. Projection rooms are getting smaller, but so is the average audience size for the ever-increasing archive of content.

Modern cinema design hence favours increasingly smaller theatres like Glasgow’s upcoming Screen Three, allowing smaller groups of fifty or sixty punters to huddle into a space that increasingly resembles someone’s living room.

I spend a lot of my time in such bespoke mini-theatres. In Soho’s movieland they call them screening rooms, because that’s what they are. And for distributors, exhibitors and reviewers, it’s perfectly fine to relax in a plush chair with a posh sound system to assess next month’s movies for review or consideration. What they miss out on, however, is that vulnerable, ineffable sense of community that one gets from being an audience member, in a crowd, in a truly big cinema. I still cherish memories of The Empire Strikes Back, Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park at the vast Empire in Leicester Square. Last October’s Scotland Loves Anime jammed hundreds of fans cheek-to-cheek to laugh and cry and gasp at a roster of films from the apocalyptic Evangelion 3.0 to the intricate Garden of Words. Do audiences miss out on something if they see such epics on a mere laptop? What about if the screen is only marginally larger than your rich mate’s telly? After all, if a giant robot is supposed to be forty feet tall, doesn’t it help the whole movie-going experience if it actually is?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History, out now from the British Film Insititute. This article first appeared in NEO # 118, 2013.

Carry on Cossacks

LakeKaban-thumb-300xauto-38328One of the pleasures of long-haul flights is getting to mainline a bunch of movies that you wouldn’t otherwise stand a whelk’s chance of watching. Which is how, somewhere two miles above Novosibirsk, I found myself watching The Treasure of Lake Kaban, a completely bonkers movie set in Tatarstan.

The poster says it all, from the Lara Croft rip-off and the aspirant Bond, all the way to the irritating little dog. Ivan the Terrible scowls at the left – it is he, in flashback, who attacks Tatarstan’s capital, Kazan, causing the beautiful princess Soyembika to bury her greatest treasure in a secret location. Meanwhile, over on the right is an “American” carpet-bagger called, wait for it, Diana Jones.

The tagline shrugs: “Nyet vremeni obyasnyat” (There’s no time to explain). And apparently there isn’t, as a frustrated army doctor-turned-archaeologist, a nutjob who thinks he’s an alien, and a Russian navy conscript trying to find enough cash to buy out his commission, all converge on the small republic, where local colour amounts to a whole bunch of relics of Russian’s Mongol marchland – dances, cossacks, daggers, and most memorably in the gene pool, if the smouldering Elvira Ibragimova (that’s her in the shorts) is anything to go by.

The script, by Georgiy Kirvalidze and Dimitriy Terekhov, is based on ideas by three others – although there is such antic chaos in the movie that one might be forgiven that three completely different films were being made at once. There are allusions to many tourist sites in Kazan, and local legends such as the Zilat, the region’s own variant of the Loch Ness monster.

Played straight, there would have been plenty of majesty and scenery here to out-Dan Brown Dan Brown. But The Treasure of Lake Kaban plumps for madcap “comedy”, all pratfalls and kicks in the goolies, as wannabe rock star Kiril (Alex Sparrow, who is apparently something big in Russian X Factor) gurns and mugs his way around a series of monuments and sewers, trying and largely failing not to stare down the cavernous cleavages of his co-stars and nemesis. The result plays as if the Chuckle Brothers have been put in charge of the Da Vinci Code, with all that that implies.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of the Silk Road, which doesn’t have any monsters in it, but does have more belly dancing.

Indian Giving

Mark Schilling’s latest article in Variety discusses some of the issues facing modern anime, including the ever-growing rush to outsource, plummeting demographics and hybrid contents. Yours truly is briefly quoted with a very conservative estimate of the size of the foreign labour pool — Ryosuke Takahashi puts it a lot higher. Schilling suggests that declining numbers of children are responsible for declining numbers of anime, but I do not entirely agree with this, or at least, not with the way that the data is presented here. The peak of production in 2006 was generated by an insanely high investment interest from abroad, which is still playing out today as all the investors sue each other over what went wrong.