Take a trip into the silver screen via Secret Cinema's temporal created worlds
A thousand custard pies, a cockeyed gypsy wedding and a glittering multiplex; can you guess the odd one out? Clue: All three come as part of the 21st century cinema experience. Answer: You didn’t really think of heading to the multiplex, did you?
This is the underground Parnassus of Secret Cinema, pop-up screen experiences that have seen cult and classic films taking on some of the most unusual of urban spaces, including a disused railway tunnel, underground car parks, warehouses and a Hackney-come-Coney Island fairground. Like a travelling circus, in these temporal and created worlds the big screen is just part of the fanfare. Conjurer in chief, Secret Cinema’s founder, 34 year old Fabien Riggall describes it aptly - just what you would imagine ‘if cinema had gone raving.’
Secret Cinema, now in its third year, was born out of Future Shorts, the short film festival and network that has been a fixture on the film scene since 2003. It was a natural progression says Riggall, ‘We’d be showing a collection of short films alongside musicians, DJs, photography. Creating a whole audience experience around a film became the heart of it.’ Thus kicked off Secret Cinema; soon attracting its own fan base. The idea is astoundingly simple, match-making film, location and a little extra frisson. Three days before a screening, paid-up audience members are issued the key details of location and dress code. As to what they will actually be watching, well that’s not the only surprise of the night.
Which brings us back to those custard pies; one thousand of them delivered last November to The Troxy, an east London former cinema and bingo-hall. This was Secret Cinema’s homage to Bugsy Malone and what ensued was a splurge of gigantic proportions. As the audience got stuck in (waterproof ponchos provided) Riggall let out a sigh of relief. ‘It was a risk,’ he says, ‘it could all have been too much. Actually, they loved it.’
Music, performance, props, lighting, trapeze artists, not to mention film projection, Riggall is quick to admit that such events can teeter on the brink of disaster – the Troxy took some persuading with those pies - but ‘that’s what makes them really special’ and anyway, as he has discovered, ‘the audience really trust us.’ For Bugsy Malone all the women were asked to bring a flower for the boss, Fat Sam. At Secret Cinema, everyone can expect to assume a character and the space, of course, has its own.
Inventiveness and attention to detail have drawn comparison with performance theatre groups like Punchdrunk and Shunt Theatre Company [itself an unlikely resident in the London Bridge station vaults]. And, like these companies, the crossover is more evident now than ever. Remembering its cabaret roots, Secret Cinema appearances at the summer festivals – including Glastonbury, Bestival, Lovebox – have become part of its annual calendar. A screening of Black Cat, White Cat at last year’s Latitude festival came complete with a gypsy wedding. This year you can expect The Blues Brothers. And whatever else that means.
Before then, Secret Cinema has another outing to prepare for, and with audience numbers swelling to 4,000, an increased run of six nights. ‘This is by far the most ambitious yet,’ says Riggall, ‘and a hugely inspirational film that I think people will be happy to see. If we get it right – and build the world right – people will wobble.’ It’s fair to say much of the secret might be out by the last night, but according to Riggall, you can still be surprised. Besides, like those illicit parties in the woods, the magic is what you make of it.
For any age, it’s true that film and fantasy can create childlike awe and wonderment, which perhaps was the starting ground for actress Tilda Swinton and film-maker Mark Cousins’ Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams, which took residency in 2008 in a Victorian Ballroom in the coastal town (and Swinton’s home) of Nairn in the Scottish Highlands. If you brought along a tray of fairy cakes you were in for free. ‘We tilted at movie windmills together’ is how organiser Mark Cousins described it’s free-wheeling attraction. ‘But to us it wasn’t different. The Ballerina Ballroom was just how we see movie going.’
Last year Swinton and Cousins followed it up with a ‘covenant of movie kinship’, pulling a 30-seat mobile cinema mounted on a 37-tonne truck – the Screen Machine – from Glencoe to Nairn, with enthusiastic help and – of course – film screenings along the way. Their pilgrimage called for a ‘roving, raving, ambulant, perambulate circus of grannies and firemen, walkers, skateboarders, mountain bikers, hobblers and totterers on stilettos’ to join the happy breed. Warnings were issued to those that flocked to, please, beware of the midges.
Like any auteur, Swinton is adamant the summer pilgrimage will not be repeated. This year, or whenever the pair’s next foray into curating a film festival takes place the key element, its safe to assume, will be surprise. And that’s the very best of it.