The Last Picture Show

Outdoor Cinema

The deplorable state of cinema in Limerick was driven home last week by a wonderful cinematic event that saw eight films screened across the streets (and buildings) of Limerick city. Over the years, there have been a total of twelve cinemas in the city centre; in 2009 that total is a big fat zero. What’s on at the Movies? A Cinema Revival Week For Limerick City ran for six nights from May 2-7 and was part of an exhibition called Tetris, an initiative of The Sculpture and Combined Media Course at the Limerick School of Art and Design. What’s on at the Movies? is the work of Carla Burns who, according to her Artist Statement, is “interested in our relationship to the past”. To this end, Carla brought the spaces that were occupied by these old film theatres back to life by screening films inside, but mostly outside, the buildings where these cinemas once existed. These films included the works of such lauded film directors as Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg and John Ford. A number of notable actors such as Buster Keaton, Robert Mitchum and John Wayne were also on view and some of the cinematic genres on offer included westerns, horror and comedy films. The films screened were: Metropolis (1927); Night of the Hunter (1955); The Birds (1963); An American Werewolf in London (1981); E.T. (1982); The General (1926); The Searchers (1956); and Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Due to work commitments and other social engagements I was only able to attend the event’s final performance at the former Thomond cinema on Nicholas St. Unfortunately, I missed the first six screenings, five of which had been shown outdoors. Fortunately, the final day turned out to be a double bill featuring two films that I’ve seen many times on the small screen. And both The Searchers and Cinema Paradiso are films that are ideally suited to the big screen due to their particular use of images and their thematic concerns. Although some seating was provided, attendees were encouraged to bring their own, so I brought my fold-up chair. As there was no admission price I also brought some popcorn for the other patrons to enjoy (most of them were art students, after all, and would surely be spending what little money they had on art materials). Carla introduced The Searchers by pointing out that it was screened in 1960 at the very venue where we were now watching it. The western has waned in popularity over the last four decades, although it has occasionally been resurrected to both commercial and critical acclaim since. John Ford made many westerns and John Wayne starred in many of these. In The Searchers, Wayne puts in one of his best performances as Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran who returns to the home of his brother and his family three years after the war has ended. He never reveals why it has taken so long for him to return, but it is obvious that the events of this time have had a significant effect on him. Another star of this movie is Monument Valley, which provides a magnificent backdrop to much of the action. The film also provides some imaginative uses of framing and it was a treat to see this film in its proper setting

Giusseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso followed after a medium-sized intermission. Carla had intended to show the original theatrical version, but wound up showing the Director’s Cut instead. However, the only people who objected to the longer version were the guys who were trying to close the building at 11.00! Tornatore’s film was a great choice to finish the event as it is both a celebration of the cinema and an elegy for small-town film theatres. The film recounts the older Salvatore’s recollections of his formative years in a small village in Sicily just after the Second World War. These recollections are triggered by his discovery that Alfredo, a man he knew as a boy, has just died. Toto, as he is known as a child, spends most of his time at the local cinema where Alfredo is the projectionist. The first half of the film is excellent as it chronicles the relationship between Alfredo and young Toto, played wonderfully by Salvatore Cascio. There is a lot of humour in these scenes as there is in the scenes where we watch the villagers as they pile into the theatre to watch news reels, Italian films, and Hollywood movies every week. The power of the Catholic Church and its use of censorship is parodied to great effect and provides for a more subtle form of humour. The film also uses slapstick comedy and mirrors the type of humour that the audiences attending the film would have liked. The latter half of the film is less effective as an older actor plays a teenage Toto and the scenes in the film theatre become fewer and fewer. The film is nostalgic and sentimental, but it also has a lot of humour and is a wonderful testament to the communal power of the cinema

It was an amazing experience to watch these films in the company of an attentive audience and in such a cozy atmosphere. The crowd at the second feature was significantly larger than that at the first and, judging by their collective laughter at regular intervals throughout the screening, were quite vocal in their enjoyment of the film. The characters on screen sat watching films with tears in their eyes, mostly from laughter, and we laughed too as we sat watching them. The collective joy of laughing at a scene with dozens of others is one that you just don’t get when watching a movie at home. During the film’s more pensive moments I enjoyed hearing Ennio Morricone’s moving score add to the moving pictures on the screen. And I suppose I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like to attend movies that were made for the big screen in the days before television, DVDs, and video cassettes came along and made going to the cinema less of an event. Nowadays, there’s not as much incentive to go to the cinema because the quality of the titles on offer is not as good and they may be made with an eye on the DVD and TV markets. I don’t know enough about art to comment on how successful this event was in artistic terms. However, from a cinematic point of view I felt that this was an original idea with a lot of thought behind it. I would think that it also took a bit of research and technical expertise and the artist achieved this while making it look a lot easier than it was. I liked the choice of films and was impressed by the atmosphere at the screening I attended. I was also happy to have the opportunity to chat to Carla and other film fans about the two films and many others as well. Ultimately, the evening made me think about the very first time that I watched a movie in a film theatre and caused me to revisit some of my past

I was nine years old when I first went to the pictures and the film was Superman (1978) starring Christopher Reeves as the Man of Steel. The film was released in Europe in early 1979, although my recollection was that I would have seen it sometime in the spring or even summer of that year. I watched it in Tipperary town and I imagine that rural cinemas would have received new releases a little later than their urban counterparts. I don’t recall much about the day, but I do remember that I was taken there by my neighbour, Jimmy Drea, and some of his family. Even driving the ten miles to Tipperary would have been an adventure for me back then and I still remember travelling in their van. I was an avid reader of American comic books at this time and I had been fascinated by the adverts for the film on TV. Of course, we only had a small black and white Ferguson back then, which made the experience of watching the film on the big screen and in full colour even more magical. I doubt if I would have seen many films at that stage and I probably didn’t understand it all, but the size and colour and the sound definitely made an impression on me. I have one vivid memory of that time. In the days that followed I tried to create my own comic book version of the movie by sketching out scenes from the film in a school copybook. I think that I was worried that I would lose my memory of the film. This was in the days before video tapes and DVDs and I guess I thought I’d never see the film again. I’m sure that the copybook is long gone, but what I’d give to have a look at it again

Of course, cinema in Limerick is not completely dead. For many years, The Belltable has been bringing films to Limerick that the “official” cinemas chose to ignore. They are currently running a forthnightly summer season that continues tomorrow with Philippe Claudel’s Il y a longtemps que je t’aime (I’ve Loved You So Long) (2008). Even though I’ve already seen the film on DVD I’m going to go see it again tomorrow. The film features a powerful performance by Kristin Scott Thomas in the lead role of Juliette. In many ways the film continues some of the themes of Carla’s programme as it is centres on Juliette’s relationship with her past. It’s best not to know any more of the plot before watching it as it slowly reveals itself over the course of the film. The film will be shown on May 12th at the Belltable’s temporary location on Cecil St and begins at 8.00pm. You can view their full programme here. Finally, as time goes by, here’s a few tunes


As Time Goes By – Dooley Wilson

Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (Titoli) – Ennio Morricone

I Knew These People (spoken word from Paris, Texas)

Saturday Night At The Movies – The Drifters

I Am A Cinematographer (Palace Bros cover) – Hezekiah Jones

Inside the Cinema – Culture Rejects

Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe – Okkervil River

A Movie Script Ending – Death Cab For Cutie

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3 thoughts on “The Last Picture Show

  1. Pingback: My Favourite Films & DVDs of 2009 « Town Full of Losers

  2. Thank you for your comment, Dave, and for those poetic words from Bertolucci. I must admit that I go to the cinema less often than I did, primarily because my local omniplex rarely shows the films that I want to see and because the audience often seems to be watching a different film to the one I’m watching. Carla’s event was wonderful in many aspects, but I really enjoyed the collective experience of watching the films, particularly Cinema Paradiso, with likeminded people. It’s a pity that Limerick doesn’t have a “proper” cinema that caters for its numerous film fans

  3. A very generous and insighful remembrance of childhood cinema and of Carla’s endeavour. I think people are starting to forget that films are made for the big screen. I can’t quote Bertolucci verbatim, but it’s something like: ‘sitting in the dark with other people, dreaming with your eyes open’.

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