Last night at the Magic Cinema screening at Ort Café I asked Alan Fair (Small Heath-born cinephile and former MAC film programmer) to cobble together some notes about Saturday’s bike ride around the old picture palaces of Brum. Here’s his amazing essay less than a day later:
Alhambra, Essoldo, Tivoli, Rialto, these are names for the mouth to conjure with, as a child these words were the closest I came to exotica, these were words that ended in vowels that weren’t ‘e’ ferchristsake!
Of course and more importantly these names were the abracadabra that allowed me to see all those things and places and people that weren’t in the quotidian world of inner city Birmingham. Picture Palaces was such a wonderful term and it rang as true to my experience as did the dreams I woke from on summer mornings. The cinema names not only conjured the Mediterranean, the Moorish citadels of the Spanish plains there was also those reminders of closer to home but still no less exotic for these names revealed the class nature of British history, the grandiose harkening back to medieval times; The Grange, The Coronet, The Manor, those dreamy distant images rendered hyperbolic in the comic books I would read. Alas all it appears is lost, like the flickering shadows on the screen and the blue smoke paisley patterns written in the air above my head as the brilliant light of the projector was rendered palpable by the luscious lips of Rhonda Fleming, the impossible masculinity of Victor Mature. Open mouthed I saw in those brief gaps in the soot laden street of Birmingham 10 as the way to the stars, the sweeping staircase of the Grange unfurled onto Coventry road and beckoned me up just as David Niven was beseeched upwards to share a space with the demigods of European thought.
So mostly the names have gone, but thankfully not the memories or the architecture of those oneiric forms, saved but transformed by the changing moods and cheapening desires of the marketplace, where now not dreams but plastic buckets and paint and occasionally and more appropriately these buildings are still places of social gathering and community. It was armed with this arcane knowledge of what was called “Sights in Motion: A pedal-powered invisible cinema” that a group of us, signed up already to the inherent philosophy of the wonderful ‘Still Walking Festival’, embarked on a peripatetic pilgrimage pursuing these transformed halls of memory.
The mistake made by all urbanists is to consider the private automobile (…) essentially as a means of transportation. Such a misconception is a major expression of a notion of happiness that developed capitalism tends to spread throughout society. The automobile is the centerpiece of this general propaganda, both as sovereign good of an alienated life and as essential product of the capitalist market. (Guy Debord, “Situationist theses on traffic” 1959)
What became clear as we pushed off was that such a quest but not just the journey into nostalgia of a couple of old folks but was rather a wonderful pathway to the past in the present, a group of seekers buoyed by pneumatic tires and enthusiasm, men and women young and old and all sharing the common complaints of backsides on leather seats and the joys of cycling in the inner city, urban explorers reaching the euphoria common to those in tandem with each other’s thoughts. The first cinemas we came across, in Stirchley, had now been transformed into workshops, this became a theme of the trip, the city once known as “the workshop of the world” had rediscovered its heritage in the abandoned dreams of years gone by. Armed with the knowledge of our leader (literally) we began, as all travelers must, to discern these hard (crumbling?) facts of transition and history.
We must replace travel as an adjunct to work with travel as pleasure. (Guy Debord.1959 Ibid)
As the earth began to move beneath the sun’s warmth so to we moved across the built environment, also involved in our small way with a transformation. I wondered as we wandered how many people back in the thirties and forties had traveled to their local cinemas by means of a bicycle, how many patrons pushed forward on pedals while puffing on Woodbines and Park Drives, eager to catch the charismatic fallout from Errol Flynn, from Paul Robeson, from the transcendent Bette Davies? Through Small Heath and Greet, through Alum Rock and Washwood Heath, we dawdled alongside impossibly grand edifices, The Capitol, watched over with benign warmth by the patrons of the Muslim Community centre, who told us with glee about visiting the cinema in “the old days” to catch the antics of Bruce Lee, then further on to Malik & Sons Cash and Carry, still delightful in deep azure and startling white, the fascisti (sic)emblems picked out perfectly in their stucco rendition of imperial (another name often given to cinemas) Rome.
Even if during a transitional period, we temporarily accept a rigid division between zones of work and residence, we should at least envisage a third sphere, that of life itself (the sphere of freedom, of leisure – the truth of life)Unitary urbanism acknowledges no boundaries; it aims to form a unitary human milieu in which separations such as work/pleasure or public/private will finally be dissolved. But before this, the minimum action of unitary urbanism is to extend the terrain of play to all desirable constructions. This terrain will be at the level of complexity of an old city. (Guy Debord 1959 ibid)
What seemed, at first, like the ruins of the dream life of angels quickly became a celebration of the dynamics of the city, as our group of seekers learned to find, so did we begin to enjoy the city captured through the screens of our own desires, to re-map the city as an environment for sharing rather than dividing up. The lines of our drift through Birmingham’s car city presumptions made new byways of discovery, by ways that cyclists and pedestrians learn to re insert themselves into the urban environment where, what was clear to us was, we can once again celebrate the city as a place for people.
Thanks to all on the “Invisible Cinema” trek, it really was a day to cherish.
Photo: Mark Wilson