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The multiplex addict’s guide to slightly braver cinema

26 September 2011 | London Calling

After a typically rubbish British washout, autumn’s quality cinema can’t arrive fast enough.

It’s that time of year when we start to feel the good film itch. Despite the odd much-hyped festival import summer has never been a great season for flicks. So what if the screens are full of prequels, sequels, Vikings and B-list rom coms? We’re supposed to be out sipping Pimms in the sunshine, not hunched in a dark auditorium. But after a typically rubbish British washout, autumn’s quality cinema can’t arrive fast enough.
 
Cue the BFI’s annual London Film Festival, a reliable new season highlight. I love the BFI, because it combines the thrill of a mildly edgy art-house offering with all the padded, post-show-talk comfort of a national institution. I’ve always fancied myself as an art-house sort of girl; the sort who spends her Thursday afternoons watching subtitled monochrome epics before discussing them in small dark bars, casually referencing lost classics of underground Slovenian cinematography while smoking a cigarillo and wearing a hat. Of course, in reality I invariably find myself, glazed-eyed and sticky-fingered, watching a supposedly ‘empowering’ but in fact painfully conventional chick-flick in a crowded Sunday afternoon multiplex that smells of taco seasoning and stale Haribo. The BFI is my middle-class middle ground, and a damn good middle ground it is too.
 
This week the Institute announced the opener for their 55th London Film Festival in October: 360, a multi-perspective relationship drama written by Peter Morgan, directed by City of God’s Fernando Meirelles and starring a British dream-team of Anthony Hopkins, Jude Law and Rachel Weisz. 360 joins a delectable platter of other goodies on offer including Route Irish, Ken Loach’s latest Iraq-based thriller; The Great White Silence, a showing of the recently restored official record of Scott's expedition to the South Pole accompanied by live music; and a whole host of masterclasses, panels and special events.
 
So far so good; but not quite enough. This autumn I have vowed to seek out other rewarding film experiences beyond the BFI.  I have no excuse; both because London has an embarrassment of options for the tentative cineaste, and because I feel I owe it to the industry (and my own future viewing pleasure) to go and seek them out. Piracy – an unfortunate word that lends a Depp-like glamour to a lazy crime – has become depressingly acceptable even among those who can easily afford the price of a ticket. And straight-to-your-sofa online DVD delivery services make it all too tempting to keep pumping royalties to the same old Hollywood trash that the ad men have ensured stay front of mind.
 
Step one: explore pop-up and secret cinema. Pop-up screens proliferate in the summer with their rather optimistic emphasis on outdoor locations; this year Films on Fridges, which showed Olympic-themed films in Hackney on a screen made of fridge doors, and Portobello Pop Up, a non-profit cinema built underneath the Westway flyover on Portobello Road, offered unique nights out. But there will be others to discover as the nights draw in. Finding pop-ups before they pop-down is pretty easy nowadays, mainly thanks to the online grapevine; Twitter and Facebook are great sources of inside information. Thanks to an intriguing tweet, I’ve just signed up to Secret Cinema to get in on their November event that promises to “change how we watch films” thanks to “secret audience. Secret locations. Secret worlds.” Now that sounds a better bet than The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1.
 
Step two: seek out shorts. If you fancy a bit of experimentation without the commitment, shorts are ideal; if they’re great, they make you feel like you’ve had a shot glass of inspiration, and if they’re terrible, you don’t have long to sit in your seat and squirm. Kino London is a unique monthly “open-mic short film night” held in various London coolspots (next stop, 1st September: Vibe Bar, Brick Lane) which allows any filmmaker to register and show their work under six minutes long. With “no themes, no pre-selection and no restrictions”, it’s a proper lottery, and each month they even crowdsource an idea from the audience which is produced as a short in time for the next screening. Our Indie Cinema offers a similar concept, bringing the short film community together in Farringdon for regular showcases of brand new indie work.
 
Step three: get to know your venues better. I recently went to see the glorious Tree of Life at the Curzon in Soho. Set bang on Shaftesbury Avenue with a chi-chi Konditor and Cook cafe beneath, I had assumed it was yet another expensive central London tourist-trap – before I discovered the well-curated selection of European art-house films on offer, as well as ballet, opera and theatre screenings, director Q&As, and ‘salon’ lectures. Simply by getting to know the programme better I have made it easier for myself to go and see Pina rather than Potter on an impulse after work.
 
Admittedly, this is mild stuff. I’m not quite at the local-collective-produced, street-cast docu-drama shown at abandoned railway hoardings stage yet; in all honesty I still like a film with a great story and a half-comfortable seat. But it’s definitely a step in the right direction. Cigarillo, here I come.
 
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