That cinematic backwater thing – maybe I just need to chill

I thought I’d leave a week until I blogged about last Monday’s ‘Cinematic Backwater‘ debate which kicked off the excellent Fazeley Digital Festival. I thought maybe I’d calm down in the interim, that the underlying issue of ‘does it matter that Norwich get cool films before Birmingham?’ would vex me less.

Suffice to say I’m still vexed. And I’m even a bit more vexed because having now aired the topic in public I could see that I wasn’t alone in feeling frustrated at the current state of film exhibition in the city. For those new to me moaning about this take a read of the original post that resulted in this event being created. I was joined by a fantastic panel: Roger Shannon – Film Producer & academic; Ian Francis – film festival curator; Rachel Carter, Film Producer and co-founder of Fullrange Media.

All agreed that yes, it did matter that some films tend to only get to Birmingham on their second-run. Not all in the audience agreed but in general the discussion covered:

  • the dominance of film programming by the few to the detriment of the many;
  • questioned whose role audience development is in the region;
  • pondered the cultural priorities of a city where Digbeth can have three modern art galleries but no cinemas;
  • debated the link between a thriving culture of exhibiting the weird/leftfield/arty/independent and the impact that might have on the films that we produce out of the region.

Roger brought with him a whole bag full of consultants’ reports from the past 20 years that in one way or another touched on the issue of whether Birmingham needs a new arts cinema. He drew our attention in particular to a recent report by Tom Fleming ‘Mixed Art-form and Media Venues in the Digital Age’ (link to PDF).

There was some reference to the Arts Lab/Triangle era and there was much nodding at the suggestion that what we need now is perhaps the best of that (its radical edge for a start) combined with the dynamic and vibrant social media scene that’s currently setting the city apart. That’s perhaps where this discussion should go next.

For me though it still comes back to competitiveness. Those in the city with access to resources and the power to influence decisions need to understand that when Norwich are getting interesting films ahead of us then the time for action is now.

Birmingham – a cinematic backwater

(Trailer for Synecdoche, New York. I want to see this NOW)

First some nostalgia: I’ve been a Birmingham cinema-goer for a long time. Get me drunk enough and I’ll bore you to within an inch of your life by listing the films I’ve seen in cinemas now long gone. From The Towering Inferno in the upper circle of the ABC New Street to queuing round the block for Jaws at the Beaufort in Washwood Heath and watching Godzilla double-bills with my Mom at Ward End’s Capitol.

At some point in the mid-1980s I discovered ‘arthouse’ cinema. Or rather my brother did and I picked up his interest. The Triangle was our cinema of choice and it did that repertory thing of combining new leftfield film releases with retrospectives and cult movie double bills (I recall a packed 11pm screening of Taxi Driver and Hardcore).

One of the things I discovered as I combined a love of the mainstream with world/independent cinema is that the former would arrive in Brum on the week of release but the latter always tailed behind. I’d be getting excited by reviews of Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice only to realise that it wouldn’t be showing anywhere near here for a week or two or three after its initial release.

The reasons why were partly about the scarcity of prints and the whims of distributors but also to do with the pattern of regional film theatres established by the British Film Institute in the 1960s which effectively overlooked Birmingham as a regional centre for non-mainstream film viewing (see Terry Grimley’s excellent article in The Birmingham Post last year for more context).

This week I note that nothing’s changed. The list of non-London cities showing Charlie Kaufman’s highly-rated new film Synecdoche, New York in the week of its release include: Sheffield, Nottingham, Manchester, Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle, Norwich, Edinburgh, Glasgow. Birmingham’s not up there. Oh we’ll get it okay – as soon as next week at the superb Electric. But that’s not good enough. I’ve been waiting until next week since the mid-1980s and I’m sick to death of it. It may be just lack of venues and when the MAC is back on stream it’ll all be fine. Or maybe we don’t have the punters, maybe they’re a more eager, cultured lot over in Norwich. If so then let’s get some audience development initiatives underway.

I doubt it somehow – we’ve been seen as a second-run city for cinema for as long as I can remember and I’m really not sure how we can change that perception. Not even publicly subsidised digital distribution has helped. Ideas anyone?

The Triangle Cinema – Gosta Green, Birmingham

[Update – December 2012: I was sad to read that Peter Walsh, who featured in the video below, has passed away. Not only was Peter really helpful to us at the time we were making the video, allowing us access to all areas of the Triangle buildings, but through his programming of the Triangle Cinema effectively opened my eyes to the joys of non-mainstream and world cinema. Ian at Flatpack has written a short piece about him as well.]

After much searching I have at last found the video I made in about 1988 about the Triangle Cinema in Gosta Green, Birmingham. I can’t fathom why there is so little is writen about this place during its Birmingham Arts Lab period in the 1970s or later, when I used to go there, as The Triangle. It was originally a cinema and in the late 1960s a TV studio for the BBC.

The video was produced whilst I was a trainee at a place called Handsworth Viewpoint about which I may write more at some point.

There is a longer version of this video somewhere, I’m sure it was about 10 minutes long. This is a 5 minute version which was on a VHS video labelled ‘Dave Harte showreel’. The other stuff on the showreel hasn’t really stood the test of time – this at least has some historical interest and a top soundtrack by Big Audio Dynamite: