Ever been the only one in the cinema?

I don’t normally post things about movies I’ve been to see, but tonight was kind of noteworthy in a strange way. I went to the cinema and I was the only customer.  Would I
have gone if I had known this would be the case?  That’s difficult to say, but it was a kind of unusual experience.  In the end the ladies working as projectionist and bar staff at my local arthouse cinema came and joined me in the auditorium, we decided on a having 30 second interval and we chatted about the movie afterwards.  I discovered that neither of them had already seen the film yet, which made me feel slightly better about forcing them to stay to run the film for just me.

So, what was olliit that I went to see?  A Finnish film by director Juho Kuosmanen, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki.  It’s a boxing movie with a romantic dilemma at its heart. Based on a true story from 1962, it is stylishly shot in high contrast black and white making the step back to the sixties easy to make.  Olli the central character, is preparing for the fight of his life to win the world title…..and then, he falls in love, just when he needs to be focusing every cell in his body on the physical and mental preparations to face the challenge posed by his American opponent.

Apart from saying that I really enjoyed it, I’ll leave a glowing review about the movie from The Independent and a metascore from IMBD.com of 91% to do the real film promotion.

So why was I alone in the cinema on a Sunday night?  Are we not ready for Finnish film in the small, but very international town that I live in?  Were people put off by the theme being boxing?  My two companions for the evening were rather perplexed, it wasn’t even raining.  The same cannot be said for 1962 Finland where it seemed to be torrentially raining for large sections of the film!

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Three films, three classes and three reactions

My art and cultural education course that I teach to my groups of 15 and 16 year olds normally begins with a module about film and filmmaking.  This year has been no different. Film as a cultural experience is close to the world of the teenagers and easily accessible to them. With three large groups to teach and a total of 90 one thousand word essays to mark at the end, I chose, for my own sanity to use three different films. This way I would at least have some variety in the resulting report reading.

I like to select films that are just outside the pupils own film going experience and ones that challenge the to consider certain choices made by the film makers concerned.

The first class are now half way through watching the Schulman brothers’ and Henry Joost’s film Catfish and are absolutely loving it. It’s a film I’ve used before and knew that I was on fairly safe ground. The Facebook relationship story with its documentary style and tense moments works tremendously well.  It is a scenario that they can easily identify with.

The second class are now half way through Asif Kapadia’s documentary Senna. The initial reaction of the class to watching a documentary film for two hours was fairly sceptical. They want a good story…..they said.  I asked them to be patient with the movie and after fifteen minutes of watching it was clear to all that a good story is exactly what the film delivers. I explained before the start that I had thought long and hard about whether I should show this film. The film uses only genuine footage to tell the story of the life and death of the formula one driver Ayrton Senna.  The car crashes in the movie are a crucial part of the narrative.  A genuine death on film is course different to the countless deaths that teenagers observe in the more normal film fodder that they consume. I discussed this with the class before the film and offered an alternative to anyone who really didn’t want to watch. We are at the moment half way through watching the film, it hasn’t reached its climax yet, although the film is being watched in a focused silence….not always easy to achieve in a classroom of 32 watching a film together. They seem to realize that this is something different and that from my perspective is exactly the point. Senna is an excellent movie when it comes to throwing a new light on the sort of detached sense of realism with which we approach most films. Normally we have to give ourselves over to suspending our disbelief, but here we are living and thinking along with real people, their conflicts, their relationships and the risks they take. I’m curious to see how the second half is experienced.

In many ways, my third choice was the one aimed most specifically at my teenage audience. I wanted to make use of a film where music played a strong part. Sometimes I look a little bit further back into film history to find films that nobody in the class is likely to have seen. This is what I did and chose Alan Parker’s 1991 film The Commitments, a film about a struggling and ultimately, failing, bunch of teenagers trying to form a band in Dublin. The movie is packed with music, has a lot of humour and the leading roles are almost exclusively filled by teenagers. On the face of it you would think a highly appropriate film for one of my classes. Here too, after one lesson we are about half way through the movie, but I find myself perplexed by the reaction of the class to watching it.  It is a film that is heading towards being 25 years old, but I certainly feel that that isn’t the problem, it has aged relatively well. When a class is watching a film I often find myself watching the class, gauging their enjoyment.  The problem we are having is that they aren’t getting the humour. I can see that there are one or two in the class who are getting it, but the majority are watching in something of a stony silence. So why is this……? At the end of the lesson I had no time to quiz them; it could be a language issue, the strong Irish accents aren’t always easy, but then I have subtitles on to make it more accessible (they are after all watching in their second languages – Dutch being their first). Or is it that the Irish/British humour is so different to that of the Dutch? This is a regular topic of discussion with my Dutch colleagues at school. In our bilingual department we use so much British or American material to support our educational programmes, and humour, particularly British humour, is so often problematic. How can sensibilities in this area be so different? A point of discussion for another blog post perhaps, but for now I am spending the weekend wondering whether to scrap the second half of The Commitments and try something else!

Theatre and the Premier League connection

Part of my work is to teach theatre studies to fifteen and sixteen year olds in a relatively provincial Dutch town. For the last ten years as a school we have been able to fund two trips to local theatres for each pupil involved.  The shows that have been seen have ranged enormously from one man stand-up to dance shows and from try-outs before national tours to straight forward plays. Excellent though many of the performances have been, with this not being Amsterdam, Rotterdam or the Hague, we have never really had the chance to expose the pupils to truly large scale productions.

Like in education in many other countries we are having to cope with budget cuts in many areas and it looks likely, that this school year, it is not going to be two shows, but only one.  The pupils will undoubtedly like the time out from school to visit the theatre still, but as a teacher it presents a problem.  The idea of the trips to see shows is to expose the pupils to an area of the cultural world that they might not otherwise find their way to. If we allow them just a single visit, it means that particular visit really does have to hit the mark.  On top of this, as a teacher I have to find alternative filling for the course to replace the missing theatrical experience.  However, in many ways, finding more cultural material has never been easier.  With the rapid move towards digitalization in education there is so much that you can bring into the classroom at the press of a button.

small theatre war horse

I was reminded all to clearly of this fact yesterday when I visited my local multiplex cinema for a live streaming of Micheal Morpurgo’s War Horse from the National Theatre in London.  Apart from a few moments when the failing satellite link causes the sound to drop out, it was a fantastic way to experience the show.  OK, being there in the theatre would have been truly spectacular, but this film version really wasn’t bad at all.  There are even a view advantages over the ‘live’ show, such as it takes you closer to the action and gives you multiple view points.  If I could lay my hands on a DVD of such a performance it is certainly something I could make use of in my lessons.  It could be used to talk about any number of the aspects of the craft of good theatrical productions, all within the context of an extremely accessible show.

And yet I am troubled slightly by the ease of switching the live performances of much smaller scale theatre for the Premier League of theatreland in the form of a filmed and streamed production.  Obviously there are many aspects and details of the production that are lost in a video transmission, sharing a space with the performers, the intimacy of the experience and the simple tension of a live performance unfolding in front of you.  All these are regrettable loses, but if I continue my Premier League football analogy, I am troubled by the effect on grass roots theatre, the smaller clubs in football terms.  The National Theater is a great institution, with a prestigious and well-earned high reputation.  It is spreading its wings, and moving into new areas through live streaming of shows, as are others, such as the Bolshoi Ballet and the Met. Opera in New York.  If this brings new audiences to the arts that is fantastic, but it must not be at the cost of diversity.  The dominance of the few ‘super’ clubs at the top of the football ladder has come at the cost of others lower down.  A result of the national and international branding of these clubs.  Such a chain of events may well present similar problems in the cultural world.

In the coming years I will undoubtedly be digitally streaming my pupils’ cultural experiences often enough.  And as I saw yesterday, the quality will definitely be high.  But I want also to offer my pupils real, first hand theatrical experiences.  A performer literally just feet away, the interaction with the audience and the wonder at the performance of an actor casting his performance out into the darkness of the audience at even the smallest theatre.  These too are so valuable things to see and experience.  They are the things the pupils tell me about the next day at school.