Lotterywest Festival Films Blog

Always Different

Friday 27 November 2015

Why Somerville and Joondalup are among the World's Best Cinemas 


Stroll, on a warm early-evening, past the lemon-scented gums, kauri, weeping peppermints and Virginia creepers on your way to the Norfolk Island pines of Somerville; Perth International Arts Festival's 63-year-old summertime, outdoor cinema institution on The University of Western Australia campus reminds you that cinema-going is a ritual – always different, always the same.

My childhood cinema visits were to the 1916-era Spa in Buxton, Pennine England, with my parents. With the films at the Spa, I saw the rituals of queuing, gazing at posters, selecting tickets and snacks, the almost ceremonial process of handing my ticket to the usher and receiving it back, torn, then finally, locating a seat in which to sit and wait a little longer. I remember seeing Return of the Jedi at the Spa – my joy at having seen it was heightened by being in an exciting public space after a series of old-timey rituals that had, for whatever reason, been put in place years before.

This tuned my thoughts into a vague but interesting idea that the conventions of cinema-going could be, and perhaps already were, reproducible everywhere. Eventually, I started visiting other cinemas; I marvelled that in Stockport, the building was ‘modern’ – much newer than Buxton’s Spa – the screen was bigger, and the auditorium was very steep! (This was slightly scary, as well as fascinating). At the huge 1937 Odeon in Epsom, they had a balcony! In the tiny cinema in Dorchester, following the trailers that screened before Unforgiven, the sides of the screen moved outwards to make the screen a different shape! And yet all of these strange cinemas had the little paper tickets that were handed over to be ripped, the posters in the lobby and the smell of popcorn – the same basic tenets that were always different, always the same. I learned to appreciate the nuances – the thrill of being presented with something in a unique way heightened the senses and enhanced the films.

In the 30-odd years since then, I have watched movies in some truly great, world-class cinema spaces. I saw a fairly ordinary film at the 1939 Crest in Westwood, Los Angeles, but sat grinning at the amazingly vivid cityscape murals on the walls. At the tiny Roman Gekijo grindhouse, below the train tracks in Shimbashi, Tokyo, I learned that some places have head-spinning local film cultures about which the rest of the world knows almost nothing. And every cinema that I visited in Vienna – the bare wood, teal and orange, 1960 modern optimism of the Gartenbaukino, the ‘bijou’ red velvet of the 1951 Metro and the minimalist black-box 'Invisible Cinema' of the Austrian Film museum – seemed possessed of the idea that 'here, cinema is special'; it was as if Vienna itself were showing off cinema as its own beloved asset. In all of these places, I had the feeling that my surroundings had been crafted by people who cared and who agreed with me that cinema was all about sharing a space.

In several Perth suburbs the cinemas are mid-century cultural jewels. Picture-houses in Leederville, Northbridge, Nedlands, Fremantle, Mosman Park and Como remind me of similarly beloved independent screens in Lisbon (São Jorge), Edinburgh (the Cameo), Lille (Univers) and Newcastle, UK (The Star and Shadow). The spirit of all of these cinemas is fostered by their patrons as much as their management. Australia is blessed with cared-for cinemas in their hundreds across the country, and the rate of cinema-going per person in Australia remains one of the highest in the world – more than in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK or India.

Settling into the start of the season at UWA Somerville, near the north-western shore of Matilda Bay in Crawley, and at ECU Joondalup Pines, the bustling heart of Edith Cowan University, I know that both outdoor cinemas are every bit as good as those bastions of programming and place-making. They are on a par with Vienna’s Gartenbaukino, the Cinéma de la Plage in Cannes and London’s BFI Southbank. The rituals at Somerville and Joondalup speak to the Western Australian summertime – the strolling, picnicking and anticipating are enhanced by the warm breeze, the scent of pine, the dusk birdsong and the sense of ‘secret playtime’. The cinemas are renowned across Australia for their commitment (63 years and counting for Somerville) to excellence in international cinema. I believe that they are among the very best cinemas in the world, for people from all across the city to experience diverse and exciting films. It's a real privilege to be here and curate this program. Western Australia is wonderfully different to anywhere I have been and yet our shared love for cinema remains the same.

Program Manager: Film

Written By Tom Vincent

Watching 300 plus films a year for both work and pleasure, PIAF’s Film programmer Tom Vincent subsists on a steady diet of international cinema and short films – all to bring the most compelling stories and striking cinematography to Perth’s favourite outdoor cinemas.