September 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard
A friend asked me recently if I ever went to the cinema. And she went on to suggest that although it was interesting to read about plays—especially plays that seem to have some significance to socialists—the fact remained that many more people go to the cinema than the theatre and that, in consequence, many more readers of the Socialist Standard would be interested in reading about films than are currently interested in reading about plays.
My friend might be right. Readers of the Socialist Standard may attend the cinema more frequently than the theatre, if only because there are many more opportunities to see films than plays. But I have a difficulty. Whilst I may have more chance of seeing a film rather than a play, most of the films available seem not worth seeing.
As a young man I was an early member of the National Film Theatre. I remember visits to the old cinema, under Waterloo Bridge, watching films by Eisenstein (including Battleship Potemkin), Marcel Carne (such as Le Jour Se Leve) and D.W. Griffith (Intolerance and Birth of a Nation), etc. And in all the major cities there were specialist cinemas where you could see non-English-speaking films: films by Vittorio de Sica (like the unforgettable Bicycle Thieves), Luis Bunuel (the savage, surrealist The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), and the early films by members of the French "new-wave” (including Jean-Luc Godard). There were even impressive and enlightening British and American films, like Carol Reed's Odd Man Out, Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives and, a particular favourite of mine, Marty.
I’ve spent many happy and enlightening hours in the cinema. Last year, just for the hell of it, I took an Open University course on “Cinema and Society. Britain in the 1950s and 1960s", which allowed me to re-visit many of those wonderful films of, particularly the early 1960s. Films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, A Kind of Loving and A Taste of Honey, films that were light years away from the previous anaethetised products of the British Film industry, to say nothing of the Hollywood dream factory.
But the changes that had occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in part stimulated by the spectacular events that had already taken place in the theatre, soon went into reverse, and by the mid-1970s the British film industry was largely a production base for American-financed films. It is instructive to ask the questions "What happened to the British cinema industry in the late 1960s and early 1970s?“ and "Why, at least at the extreme, has the theatre not capitulated to the same kind of pressures?” in what must be, necessarily, a simple analysis, there are perhaps two major reasons.
First, other than in the West End of London, theatres are to a considerable extent run by organisation which operate not unlike charities. Many are supported by public donation and public subsidy, and because of this their programmes can, in part, be determined by reference to artistic merit, public relevance and the like. In contrast cinemas are exposed to the pressures of the market. What matters is "bums on seats", not the merit of the films being shown. And marketing devices and the deliberate “dumbing-down" of popular taste, used so successfully in selling tabloid newspapers, can be employed to persuade audiences to make regular visits to the cinema.
Second, whereas each production of a play is an unique event, so that playgoers can spend many happy hours discussing the relative merits of particular productions of Hamlet, The Death of a Salesman, etc., films are available in multiple copies.This means that the same product can be made available at a variety of selling points (cinemas), which the possibility of realising greater profit margins by increasing the number of retail outlets (cinemas). The film industry is therefore more amenable to the application of capitalist modes of production than is the production of plays. It is thus not a coincidence that those who distribute and show films—usually the same commercial organisations—can determine the kind of product (the films) that are made. In this there is an obvious similarity between the management of, say, the distributive food industry and the management of the British film industry. The behaviour of Sainsbury and Tesco is paralleled by that of the Odeon and ABC cinema chains. Supermarkets and cinema chains act as corporate monopolies and as such they reduce choice. And just as independent grocers and "corner shops" are disappearing, so too are local specialist cinema houses. As a recent (7 August) correspondent to the Guardian complained: "In recent years, at least three popular and conveniently located independents have closed, the Parkway and Plaza in Camden and the Lumiere in the West End."
So it is perhaps not surprising that whilst I rarely visit the cinema—because what is shown is for the most part an insulting irrelevance, a cultural diet which seeks to imprison and brainwash—I think it is still possible to find theatre which stimulates and enlightens.