Monday 8 January 2024

Mutant cinema: "Scala!!!"

, a new doc by Jane Giles and Ali Catterall, evokes a very specific form of cinephile nostalgia: for a time when central London rents were so low exhibitors and punters alike could afford to take a gamble or two. For the entirety of the Thatcher years, that combination of risk, adventure and discovery was provided by the Scala cinema club, a fixture of the midnight-movie circuit, first at its original home on Tottenham Street, then in the insalubrious midst of pre-gentrified Kings Cross, where the venue's reputation for being close to all things underground was only bolstered by the rumble of passing Tube trains, threatening to drown out the terrified shrieks and orgasmic moans onscreen. This was where David Lynch's Eraserhead - that talisman-film - enjoyed its first run, swiftly blowing a succession of British minds; it was also where pretty much every notable cult film of the era began or wound up, in prints of varying distress. Watching on, from the darkest stalls in London: an uncommonly diverse audience of buffs, outcasts, oddballs, students, bohemians, horndogs, radicals and dossers, some of whom would go on to contribute to British cultural life in some way, and who return here to share their recollections of the place and what it meant to them. It was an illustrious starting point, all told: its programmers included Stephen Woolley and future Paul Thomas Anderson associate JoAnne Sellar (and later Giles herself), the coffee bar was staffed by jobbing actor Ralph Brown (Danny the drug dealer in Withnail & I), while the clientele ranged from teenage troublemakers (Mark Moore from S-Express, Ben Wheatley) and wide-eyed suburban dreamers (Adam Buxton, Joe Cornish) to restless post-punk seekers (Jah Wobble, Matt Johnson) and a pre-fame Boy George. As the musician and filmmaker Douglas Hart points out, there were other places in London to see arty films, but the Scala was something else: a scene. The actor and card-carrying Scala regular Paul Putner recalls "you could basically sit with your back to the screen and see something just as enjoyable".

Crowdfunded and pieced together over many long years - taking Giles's hefty coffee-table history Scala Cinema 1978-1993 as its template - the film that bears the Scala's name is a little rough-hewn, in a way that probably befits its scruffy subject: the filmmakers have visibly had to spend a long time trying to regather a community (and community spirit) that dissipated when this ramshackle creative hub closed its doors to movielovers three decades ago. The Scala, we sense, was the kind of place that left everyone who passed through those doors with an anecdote, which accounts for the density of these 96 minutes, but also the occasional lapses into repetition and haziness. (It can be a touch spotty in its coverage: lots of juicy front-of-house titbits, not so much on how everybody kept the projector running for as long as they did.) The talking heads are broken up by choice archive footage, and representative film clips that have a brash energy lacking from, say, this year's major awards contenders: lots of flesh, lots of pubic hair, lots of colour, lots of grue. (The Scala titles would make a hell of a watchlist, but good luck tracking them down on Netflix.) What's in here for anyone who got down to London too late to sample the Scala's seamy delights (or never got down to London at all)? Well, an idea of a film culture that wasn't readily infantilised, childproofed or safe: what these interviewees conjure up between them is a pre-digital, pre-algorithmic age where you could conceivably wander into something off the street and have no clue what you were about to witness, nor whether you'd even get out alive. (The Scala had its own casualties, recounted here, which isn't a possibility you much consider upon eating truffle fries in those lovers' seats at the back of the Everyman.) Maybe, too, a sense of an all-embracing, proto-inclusive ethos, evident as much in the Scala's derangingly busy-looking monthly listings leaflets (Laurel and Hardy fan conventions next to Return of the Living Dead, Nosferatu amid new releases) as in its look-the-other-way door policy, a management choice that welcomed as equals teens tiptoeing nervily towards adulthood, grizzled rockabillies and key members of the Black Audio Film Collective, straights, gays and all points in between. This was the kind of levelling democratic space that doesn't tend to last long in aggressively capitalised cities; and, the way Giles and Catterall tell it, it went down fighting over the right to show a film. The building, I can report to non-London readers, is still there, sliced up into a nightclub and snooker hall, tucked in among the Betfreds and Vape Huts and reflected in the glass and steel of today's far tidier, vaguely cowed Kings Cross. But as Scala!!! engagingly demonstrates: it was the people who made it.

Scala!!! is now playing in selected cinemas.

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