Philip Turner, Moskva Kino: The Cinemas of Southwest and Central Moscow (Brantwood Books, St Paul’s Cray, Kent, 1999) ISBN 0 9531021 0 6 44pp. £6.99stg
Philip Turner, Warner Cinemas: An Outline History (Brantwood Boks, St Paul’s Cray, Kent, 1997) ISBN 0 9531021 2 2 30pp. £9.95stg
Philip Turner, MGM Cinemas: An Outline History (Brantwood Books, St Paul’s Cray, Kent, 1998) ISBN 0 9531021 3 0 30pp. £9.95stg
Philip Turner, Showcase Cinemas: An Outline History (Brantwood Books, St Paul’s Cray, Kent, 1999) ISBN 0 9531021 5 7 29pp. £9.95stg
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Uploaded 1 March 2000
I firmly believe that the history of cinema needs to accommodate the history of the buildings in which the films were screened, as well as the history of the making and reception of the films themselves. At its purest, watching a film takes place within an event of “going to the pictures”, an event that varies with the location of the cinema and the quality of its design, construction and furnishings. For over a century, cinema buildings have dominated skylines in cities and small towns and suburban areas, or have been the focus of the later suburban shopping malls. At the same time, they have functioned as the modern equivalent of the Greek agora – socially-significant multi-purpose meeting places. So, for me, the cinema is as important as the school or library as a centre for social and cultural activity within a community.
Not all cinema enthusiasts share my concerns of course: some are more interested in the projection technology, or the entrepreneurial or architectural aspects, which have become the major focus of theatre and cinema historical societies all around the world. Philip Turner is such an enthusiast, his major focus being on the industrial and technological history of cinema — who owned and operated the cinemas, on what principles, with what types of technology, and with what degree of public acceptance. But all these matters are relevant to my concerns – they underpin the social function in important ways.
So, I wish I could be more enthusiastic about these four small monographs, which I opened with great hopes. My main problem with them is the writing style, which is not at all reader-friendly. Too many sentences are very long, convoluted and full of parentheses – even, at times, simply ungrammatical. For the academic reader, the lack of any form of citation providing information about sources is also a problem: the main sources seem to have been directors and employees of the cinemas and cinema chains, which contributes to a slightly breathless endorsement of company policy and practice. This even leads, in the case of the Warners volume, to a disclaimer: that if the account of the modern Warners cinemas reads like “a company advertising brochure” (1), that is due to the company’s innovative procedures.
But for other cinema enthusiasts, these defects may be countered by the enthusiasm of the writer for his subject, by the wealth of detail provided, and by the excellent illustrations (photographs and diagrams).
Each volume begins with a summary history. The Moscow volume opens with an overview of the current state of Russian cinema, then provides some introductory comments on design and facilities. The volumes on British chains also open with an historical summary, providing basic information about the American parent company, then more detail about the British operation. Most of this information is familiar, but these introductory remarks are essential in contextualising the more recent developments which are the main focus of the books.
There are detailed descriptions of specific cinemas. This is the major focus of the Moscow volume, which provides details on the history and architecture and current operation of twenty-five individual cinemas in central and south-west Moscow (although the “free location map” promised on the front cover was not included with my copy, and would have been a great help). The photographs show the contrast between the monumental style favoured in earlier days (the Forum, opened in 1914, for instance, or the Udarnik, opened 1931, or the Zaryadye, opened 1967), and the very modest and unassuming facades of those cinemas which have fallen from their former glory, like the Moskva (built in 1913, and now with its foyer candle-lit, and shared with a video store).
The British volumes give comparable detailed descriptions of a representative sample of individual venues: the Warner Croydon – Valley Park Leisure Centre representing the “edge-of-town Warner multiplex”, for instance, or the MGM Hammersmith representing one of the major refurbishments. These volumes are, however, much more focussed on the chains rather than the individual cinemas, and concentrate on demonstrating stylistic and entrepreneurial innovations, through company history, illustrated with high-quality (if small) black and white photographs. There is a strong concentration on more recent developments, and currently-operating venues, particularly multiplexes. The Warners and Showcase volumes end with statistical information on current and planned venues.
For the cinema buff (as opposed to the filmbuff), these small books would complement those published by cinema and theatre societies and individual enthusiasts in other countries. They are advertised as part of an on-going series: a fifth (on Cannon Cinemas) has already been published but was not provided for this review. I would hope that future volumes will have had the benefit of the services of a professional editor to polish the writing style till it does justice to the content.