Friday, October 7, 2022 was a black day for film lovers in Edinburgh and for anyone who has ever visited Filmhouse, a fantastic three-screen movie venue that also hosted the annual Edinburgh International Film Festival for years. Without warning, the Centre for the Moving Image (CMI), a charity which receives annual grants for the operation, abruptly closed its doors and laid off more than 100 employees. The shutdown also includes the Belmont Filmhouse in Aberdeen and the annual Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF), which was launched in 1947. The financial difficulties that led to this decision are only part of the problem. The impact of COVID on moviegoing in recent years plus the proliferation of so many entertainment streaming choices for the family household has taken a toll on attendance at movie chains but especially independent venues like Filmhouse. In the U.S., we have already seen the closure of the Cinerama Dome and the 14-screen ArcLight Hollywood in Los Angeles, the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema in New York City and so many others are in danger of vanishing like Facets in Chicago. If you care about the communal experience of a big screen movie experience, then please support your favorite film venue or risk losing it. The Filmhouse was certainly a world renowned shrine to cinema and here are my own memories of the venue from over twelve years ago.
* I wrote this post after visiting Scotland with my wife in the Fall of 2009 and we spent several days in Edinburgh, where our evenings were usually occupied with seeing movies at Filmhouse. This was originally posted on Movie Morlocks, the official blog of Turner Classic Movies (The channel no longer has an official blog and the original posts at MM were not archived).
During a recent vacation in Scotland I saw what I consider to be the ideal contemporary art house cinema. It’s not that I don’t appreciate what the Landmark cinema chain is doing in some major U.S. cities (and thank god for them) or that I don’t value such distinctive venues as the Music Box Theater and Facets in Chicago, NYC’s Film Forum and Anthology Film Archives and all the other film centers that cater to the discriminating movie buff. It’s just that Filmhouse in Edinburgh has figured out the perfect combination of atmosphere, community interaction and creative programming.
Initially started as a one screen operation in 1979 under the creative direction of Jim Hickey (former Creative Director of the EIFF), the 100 seat theatre (converted from an abandoned church) eventually grew to include a luxurious 280 seat theatre in 1985 with a third screen being added in 1997.
And, believe it or not, Filmhouse is publicly funded (by the Scottish Arts Council, the National Lottery, the British Film Institute and other organizations). Since its inception the film center has been the home of the Edinburgh International Film Festival and features state-of-the-art projection that can handle everything from 70mm (in Theatre 1, the 280-seat venue) to 35mm, 16mm and digital video.
You enter through the main entrance on Lothian Road (the original entrance was on Morrison Street Lane) and there is a central lobby that serves all three cinemas. Sharing the same space is an extensive DVD store with titles arranged in an A to Z display that includes all the usual suspects from Chantel Akerman to Hammer Horror to Aleksandr Sokurov to Jean Vigo. Browsing the large selection is a great way to kill time before your movie starts but an even better way is hanging out in the bustling café behind the lobby.
The bar/restaurant, with its ever-changing art exhibitions on the walls, is a wonderful place to visit, even if you’re not planning on seeing a movie. For one thing, the food is good fare for the price (soups, salads, curries, vegetarian choices, main entrees, desserts) and the bar offers a wide range of draught beers, wine by the glass, some ales and over thirty malt whiskies which you can carry into the theatre for further imbibing during your movie. This, to me, is the height of civilized moviegoing and I don’t see why it couldn’t work in the U.S. but it would require management skilled in both restaurant/bar operations as well as film exhibition. And, of course, the real draw is creative programming.
Although Theatre 1 appears to be devoted almost entirely to recent releases such as Coco Before Chanel starring Audrey Tautou, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre and Jon Amiel’s Creation, Theatres 2 and 3 are more likely to play repertory titles or smaller indie features and documentaries. A look at Filmhouse’s schedule for September included a revival of The Godfather (1972), Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Modern Times (1936) with Charlie Chaplin, Citizen Kane (1941), a mini-Jean Renoir tribute featuring The River (1951) and the rarely seen The Woman on the Beach (1947), earlier, lesser known Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz films such as Jamon, Jamon (1992) and Don’t Move (2004), the Oscar-winning documentary Born into Brothels (2004) and the corporate prankster doc The Yes Men Fix the World (2009), which premiered on HBO in the states.
The event that interested me the most, however, was a comprehensive retrospective on Japanese director Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses, 1976) that included such rare screenings of Band of Ninja (aka Ninja Bugei-cho,1967), Oshima’s only anime, Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968), a Cinemascope anti-authoritarian farce, and more familiar titles such as Death by Hanging (1968) and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968).
It’s also not unusual for various commercials to play before the main features here but at least the majority of them are stylish and fun such as the hilarious new Volkswagen commercial which is inspired by The Big Lebowski which you can view on Youtube.
During our brief visit we saw the new Pedro Almodovar film, Los Alos Abrazos Rotos (English title: Broken Embraces, 2009), which has an intriguing, film-within-a-film plot structure that gives Penélope Cruz one of her best roles to date and references Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) in one of its storylines. Although there are occasional flashes of black humor throughout, this is an intensely serious, noir-like psychological drama which can make you forget you’re watching the same director who also gave us Dark Habits (1983) and Labyrinth of Passion (1982). As usual, Alberto Iglesias provides an emotionally compelling score which at one point samples Cat Power’s “Werewolf” to evocative effect. I won’t say any more about it since it’s already been well covered on the film festival circuit and is due for theatrical release in America in November. But if you consider yourself an Almodovar fan, you won’t be disappointed.
More than a week later on our return trip to Edinburgh, we caught Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009) which recently premiered at the Telluride Film Festival among others. A raw, searing slice of life about a disaffected teenage girl trapped in a dead end existence in poverty-ridden Essex, England, the movie is like a Ken Loach film on speed with unexpected moments of pure visual poetry like riffs from a jazz saxophonist. Unsentimental to the max, Fish Tank ends up being a moving experience thanks to the extraordinarily “real” performances of the entire cast, particularly first time actor Katie Jarvis in the central role, burning the candle at both ends.
Both films were presented flawlessly – there was never a focus or framing problem, the audio was perfectly balanced – and the audiences were quiet and fully attuned to the screen and not fiddling with their blackberries or cellphones throughout. I don’t know if these were merely fluke screenings or if this is the norm for Filmhouse audiences but I wonder if an environment that elevates the viewing experience to a major event can change audience behavior? Maybe not but it seems to work in Edinburgh.
There are, of course, other wonderful cinema options in Edinburgh that we didn’t have time to sample such as the Cameo Picturehouse, which some Edinburgh locals profess to like even more than Filmhouse, the Edinburgh University Film Society, and the amazing Edinburgh Film Guild, now in its 80th season (it began in 1929) with scheduled retrospectives on Mario Bava, Sidney Lumet, Pre-Code Hollywood, Spaghetti Westerns (including two Sergio Garrone oaters I’ve always wanted to see – 1969’s Django the Bastard and Face to Face, 1967), Lost Classics of Irish Cinema, American Political Documentaries, Apocalyptic Cinema (such as the 1964 British sci-fi programmer, The Earth Dies Screaming), and so much more.
*Filmhouse is now closed and it may never re-open but I cherish the memory of it. Many of the movers and shakers that contributed their creative energies to the complex have since moved on as well such as Jim Hickey, who went on to become a filmmaker (the documentary William McLaren: An Artist Out of Time, 2010) and producer (2005’s Frozen starring Shirley Henderson). As you can see from the official Filmhouse link – https://www.filmhousecinema.com/support-us – a placeholder page with limited information has been posted but to keep up with any future developments on the CMI situation, you should probably follow local news sources in Edinburgh.
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