My first experience with British cinema was very strange and almost surreal in the quaint way that all things termed “normal” in British culture are odd and unfamiliar to the unindoctrinated American. In an effort to jump start our experiences whilst in London, our Professor Bill Nericcio decided to drag us (It was more like proposed an optional field trip, but dragged sounds so much more dramatic and thus seemed ever so much more appropriate to the subject matter.) to the British Film Institute (BFI) along the South Bank to see The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie by Luis Buñuel. Whilst there, I saw a myriad of differences between my American cinema experiences and my British cinema experience.
The most obvious difference I noticed right away was that the BFI didn’t have giant movie posters or tacky cardboard cutouts hanging up outside along the walls or in their windows like the American theatres do. The second difference was in the outward appearance was that the front entrance to the BFI was just a nicely carpeted entryway that had a classy well-lit bar and lounge on one side and a café / restaurant on the other. Most movie theaters that I’ve experienced within America are inside shopping malls and next to a food court full of cheap fast food restaurants and every inch of wall space is plastered with large lit up movie posters and they usually have cardboard cutouts of the movie characters standing right in the entryway. In addition, the only food available inside American cinemas is junk food from concession stands and alcohol is strictly forbidden.
Delving further into the cinema I also observed the difference in interior design. American movie theatres usually just have the same tacky multicolored abstract carpeting that lead to just a series of dimly lit hallways (featuring yet even more movie posters and tacky cardboard cutouts!) with rows of screen rooms side by side. (Note that not all of the American movie theatres are like this, the Miramar Imax, and the Reading Cinema downtown are the more elegant movie theatres we have in San Diego and thus lack the unfortunate carpeting and have more wide open spaces, but alas they are still blanketed by the unfortunate advertising posters and lamentable cutouts.) The interior of the BFI seemed to be more akin to my concept of a museum than that of a cinema (albeit an American one). The inside had track lighting and colored lighting. It was wide, open and spacious, and had lounges and cafés with colored interior track lighting scattered throughout the building. From what I saw there were only three screening rooms NF1, NF2 and NF3, (unlike the 14 or more in American theatres) and surrounding them in the hallways were exhibits on various films and directors that the BFI finds significant. (In this instance the displays were about Alfred Hitchcock.) I would also like to point out that there were a few Alfred Hitchcock cardboard cutouts, but they were sitting discreetly in corners or along walls advertising an upcoming film exhibition.
This leads to discussion on not only the physical differences, but cultural differences between British cinema and American cinema as well. The first really significant cultural difference is the types of films being shown. While BFI does show current features they also show a lot of classic films that are of social, political, and artistic importance. They show films that are meant to be provocative and make the audience think – not just action films that are meant to be entertaining. The BFI also has a film archive that contained thousands of films available to the public to watch for free. This shows that the British really take their film and the culture of film seriously in that they feel it is something everyone should have access to (much like libraries and books) and it would be completely contradictory to find something like that in American cinemas since their sole purpose is to make money. I feel that appreciation of the cultural value of film isn’t as wide spread in America (indeed, it may only be limited to those who study film or others related to the industry) as it is in British culture. I feel that so much effort was put into the BFI to make it easily accessible to the public and to make it trendy so that people will want to come and experience the films for themselves.
To add to the idea that the British Film Institute was more like a museum than a regular movie theatre was because they had security guards (who wore ear wires and talked into their sleeve just like the secret service) everywhere. I'm not sure if this was to protect the exhibits or if it was to make sure that no one snuck into the film without a ticket. It was really hard to tell, but either way it was very different from the type of security we see in American movie theatres. The most we get is a mall cop, but more often than not security comes in the form of a teenager with a glow stick and a clip board counting the number of people in a theatre.
Also, focusing in on the actual screening rooms themselves I have taken note of even more differences. The first major difference is that the seating in British theatres don’t go all the way down to the screen like the American seats do. Instead, those last few rows remain empty space instead. Another interesting fact about British movie theatres is that they are all assigned seating. Yes, even Odeon and Empire Cinemas do assigned seating. The seats themselves also remind me of theatre seats (such as the king you would find in the San Diego Civic Theatre) and not movie theatre seats (with movable armrests).
Overall it was a very fun and fascinating experience that redefined my notion of what the cinematic experience should be like and has instilled in me a curiosity to go and visit other movie theatres whilst I am here in London so that I can compare them to the BFI as well. (Since I get the feeling that the BFI is not the average movie theatre, I would like to gain a broader frame of reference.)