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My blinds are old and crooked, so when the light slipped under them at six or seven a.m. on Sunday morning, I wanted nothing more to do with southeast London. My head hurt. I was tired. I felt sick.
I rose, showered and left the flat as quickly as possible (I’d say this took around two hours), discarding my previous intentions of walking down the Camberwell New Road in search of the heavily feted Peckham Plex. Instead, I took the tube in the opposite direction, switched onto the Overground at Highbury and Islington, and took the train to Hackney Central. I stumbled down Mare Street and was taken aback.
Now I am thinking about modern cinemas.
The Hackney Picturehouse is a marvel. Particularly on a Sunday morning, when the weather is cold and bright in the way that one imagines Sweden must be. The buildings seem more real than usual, because the sky is so pale. Skips and kebab shops look vivid and wonderful. I half expected a bear to lumber from an alley, coddled in a sheep’s wool ski hat and tight black jeans. The Town Hall Square looks like a film set. There is a library, museum, theatre, municipal offices and an arthouse cinema, making a strong (if a little superficial) claim for Hackney’s independence from the city around it: an idealistic vision, like a miniature Brasilia or Milton Keynes. I entered through the glass doors, took a picture of the façade from behind, queued for a ticket to whatever was showing and paid a reasonable £5 to see Jake Gyllenhaal play an LAPD cop with a webcam fetish.
I bought a small coffee and fought the urge to take painkillers, half-remembering some cock-eyed story about building up a tolerance, or damaging the lining of your stomach, or the risk of developing cancer of the gastrointestinal tract. I read the “brunch” menu, sitting for ten minutes by three howling Irish women, ecstatic and joyous in each other’s company as only Irish women can be, drinking creamy coffees and imbibing plates of cake. Eggs benedict/florentine/royale, kedgeree, smoked salmon with cream cheese and cucumber on sour dough, the obligatory arthouse burger with artisanal fries and hot dogs “voted by Time Out as one of the top 5 hot dogs in town”. I swallowed two paracetamol. Even with the Pepsi bucket full of tap water provided by the staggeringly pleasant and polite bar staff, a chalky sediment lingered in my mouth.
One reason I enjoy going to the cinema is the feeling you emerge with on the other side. Sitting alone in the dark, wrapped up in a story disconnected from the world outside, you pass through a wall, and then arrive at somewhere new. It is the most instant way I know how to do this, though there are other ways. Even pretty awful films can do the job. It happened on Sunday, and after it did, I felt pleased to have made the effort. I left my cup and saucer on the bar, handed my ticket to the usher, and made my way to the top floor of the building.
The Picturehouse reopened just over a year ago, having failed as a music venue. It is a smooth-operating collocation of breeze-block silver, chunky branding and wide, long panes of glass. The light gets in, and gets around. There are sofas and tables dotted about. It is spacious and impressive. As it was barely past midday, the corridors were nearly empty, and I felt I had the run of the place. A group of young people in cardigans were setting up for a feminist film festival later in the day. Struck by the rigorous efficiency of the place, I showed my ticket a second time, and made my way along the corridor to screen number one: the holy of holies, a huge dark auditorium with neon blue stair lights and reclining seats, like the sanctuary of the enigmatic spaceship from Close Encounters. The chairs are fixed on a surprisingly steep incline, which ensures that the screen is never too far from your eyeballs. There were fifteen people in the room, which allowed me to spread out, shuffle and sit up straight without the tall man’s paranoia: the fear that people in the rows behind me are taking glass bottles, and aiming at my head.
The room is black, with speakers and lights secreted in the walls. In the silence between the trailers and the film, I cup my bucket of water and curse the aggressive air conditioning. There is no fanfare to announce the start of the film, no ritual or curtain-up, only a mechanised dimming of lights, an automated play button and the instant emanation on an overwhelming screen.