Rehousing Cinema: From ‘Cinema Paradiso’ to the Cinema Museum

Cities might be said to have a beat. A rhythm to which life — all the things that animate the city — gets played out. One of the sources of this energy are the relentless manifold changes that take place in the formation of its material, built environment. What at one time were sites of activity and vibrance can, over time, become sights indicative of decline, neglect and disuse. Some buildings may be appropriated for many different uses other than those which they originally served. Others are destroyed and replaced and the land is used for new buildings. Whatever the stimuli for change, the materials and the surfaces of the city’s landscape are in flux. Such ongoing mutations and the concomitant provisionality of space that arises, are perhaps constitutive of what it means for a city to be a city.
The story of cinema’s home — cinemas — and the city is, of course, caught up with this ongoing development and change. Cinemas, like other sites, are left to decay, are re-appropriated for other uses and replaced entirely by other structures. Even though the social practice of cinema-going is certainly far from dead, and whatever the contributory factors, cinema attendance in western markets has declined markedly since its peak in the 1930s and 1940s. Such social and economic changes naturally entail that the siting of cinemas in the city have also radically altered, with the number of cinemas declining in general alongside the rise of the out-of-town multiplex.
     Cinema Paradiso (1988; d. Giuseppe Tornatore) is an exuberant and affectionate homage to the world of cinema and specifically its materialities. It is also a lament for the demise of cinemas that close, decay and are re-appropriated whereby the land or building is put to a different use, thus altering the immediate environment and the practices that take place in and around that location. After many years of self-imposed exile, Salvatore, the former projectionist of the Cinema Paradiso — now a successful film director — returns to his hometown. He does so to mark the death of his long time friend and mentor, Alfredo. Salvatore visits the cinema where he spent his formative years, learned about film and then served as projectionist, following Alfredo’s blindness.

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He finds a dilapidated relic inside and out. In a muted greyish-brown palette, the camera follows Salvatore into the former hub of community life. Promotional posters, upturned chairs, a broken lavatory, light bulbs are strewn over the floor of the dusty auditorium. The wallpaper peeling from the walls is visible as the camera pans left whilst tracking right to reveal the void of black behind the broken screen. In the projection booth, offcuts of film and empty reels litter the room. Its broken windows look out over the square of which it was once an integral part. All these artefacts, which speak of a former era of cinema-going, are deemed to be detritus along with the structure of the cinema itself — worthy only of destruction. Shortly afterwards, the cinema and its artefacts lie demolished to make way for a multi-storey car park. Lined up to observe the demolition are the familiar faces of years gone by, those who were involved and attended regularly, to pay their final respects to the place that brought them together. Their ageing faces speak of a bygone era.

There is, however, another point in the film that Francesco Casetti links to the relocation of the cinema. The trajectories of this relocation are twofold. One is the proliferation of screens and the manifold means of accessing the film object that exist today. The other pertains to the organisations of space that occur outside of the cinema, in the home and elsewhere, to re-create a cinema theatre like experience. One evening, when Salvatore is still a young boy assisting Alfredo, such is the demand from those outside waiting for the next screening that Alfredo uses the glass of the projection window to reflect the film behind the projector, out of the window overlooking the square, where it can be viewed on the side of a house.

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In is this moment, cinema symbolically leaves its house, a moment that Casetti interprets as ‘cinema’s exit from its temple’.[1] This exit is evidenced today in the non-theatrical expressions of cinema taking place in urban spaces with free film festivals, pop-up cinemas, outdoor screenings, themed secret cinema events, and ad hoc screenings. Also present in this moment, however, is the re-appropriation of the material urban space by cinema and for cinema — a wall is illuminated with images from the filmstrip, transforming a building’s wall into a screen. This is a reminder of how the earliest cinema spaces were created by a re-appropriation of existing used and disused spaces in cities — mainly shop fronts, giving birth to the first ‘nickelodeons’ in the U.S. and ‘penny’ cinemas in Britain.
Even if there has been a reduction in the number of cinemas since the heyday of cinema-going, and the artefacts of a bygone era discarded in the process, there are places that are salvaging and preserving just such artefacts through the re-appropriation different spaces. The Cinema Museum in south London serves as one such example of that. The museum is based in what originally opened as the Lambeth Workhouse in 1873, and subsequently became Lambeth Infirmary. The museum took over the surviving building in 1998 that has remained as its home since then. Many of the artefacts in the museum’s core collection — uniforms, projectors, light fittings, doors, ashtrays, display boards, carpets, seats, posters, postcards, film stills, as well as films — have been salvaged from former cinemas to preserve these objects of cinema’s material past. In so doing, this might be read as the re-housing, the re-siting of cinema in the city. In the same way that space was re-appropriated in cities for the earliest cinema theatres, so the former site of the Lambeth Workhouse has been re-purposed as a site for cinema. This time, the space is organised to preserve objects from those original theatres. These objects are given a home, they take on an afterlife which summons the memory of, and serves as an index of the presence for, the periods and former sites they represent. And as people visit the museum — a space dedicated to imbuing the present with cinema’s past — the social practices that once took place around these objects are instantiated once again. In this way, cinema remains caught up in the beat, in the rhythms and flux of the city’s continual material change.

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[1] Francesco Casetti, ‘Cinema Lost and Found: Trajectories of Relocation’, Screening the Past, (2011) <http://www.screeningthepast.com/2011/11/cinema-lost-and-found-trajectories-of-relocation/&gt; [accessed 12 January 2015]

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