I’ve often felt depressed going to the cinema recently and never more so than when I went to see Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For in Montreal. I rather loved the film; the hushed heightened way the characters spoke seemed like a 40s movie — a kind of pulp poetry; the glossy black and white of the image which has the effect of turning adolescent comic-book yearnings into film noir dreams; the beautiful way the film turns images into metaphors (e.g. the moment Joseph Gordon-Leavitt shrinks at the card-table and gets diced up by the cards he’s lost at); how the sharp square lines of Josh Brolin’s mug seems made for a comic book tough guy; the luscious greens, blues and reds with which Eva Green is coloured as a femme fatale. The film worked. The problem was the cinema itself. I saw Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For at the Scotiabank Cineplex. Dames, killing, sin: that’s the stuff of movies and dreams; the S in the Scotiabank is pictured as a dollar sign enveloping the globe. It’s not that money is prosaic. Money is also the stuff that movie dreams are made of. But there was something that bothered me about the juxtaposition of Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For and Scotiabank Cineplex.
Earlier in the day I’d gone to an exhibit called ‘Vies de Plateau’ at Pointe à Callière, a cultural history of the Montreal neighbourhood I grew up in. As part of the exhibit, we were shown a map of the neighbourhood in grid form highlighting its landmarks. The map showed the big factories and train stations and churches. But half of the landmark buildings were cinemas. The Plateau in Montreal was were the first purpose-built cinema in the world was built, seating 1200 and already with air-conditioning in 1906, the Ouimetoscope, on the corner of St. Catherine Street and Montcalm. Other landmark movie palaces from 1914-1921 included The Globe, The Regent, The Papineau and the Rialto, which was modeled on the Opera de Paris. Except for the Rialto, which is now a concert venue, all of these cinemas have disappeared.
Returning to Montreal I often experience a sense of spectrality. Some of the buildings have changed, the skyline is not quite what it was but largely the geography of the place remains the same. One’s sense of walking through space is no different then when one was a child or a teenager. Looking at Jeanne Mance Park, one remembers spending one’s childhood there in the same swings, in the same wading pool, straddling the lions on the statue, picknicking. It was called Fletcher’s Field then but it still looks pretty much as it did. The same applies to St. Urbain, Pine Avenue, St . Laurent, Rachel, all those streets one grew up in.
The difference is that at one point one either knew or recognized everybody on those streets; that’s what happened when one walks through them every day of one’s life to get to either Jean-Jacques Ollier, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, McGill University or whatever school one happened to be going to when living on the Plateau. Now one walks through those streets and the streets themselves are the same, the geography of travelling through those spaces is unchanged, one turns at the same corners, but now one knows none of the faces that walk through them, and yet the ghosts of those loved ones from long ago appear in one’s memory, the street acting as its own form of urban madeleine, bidding hello to all those people you once knew and reminding you how much they once meant and how one treasures those memories still.
Because I’m of a generation that grew up with and at the movies, old cinemas have a particular resonance: A double bill of Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks at the Atwater was my first time at the movies in Montreal; seeing Saturday Night Fever at the old Palace, which was the size of a football stadium and packed with people itching to disco; watching Casablanca for the first time at the Seville, then a repertory cinema, and drinking hot apple juice spiced with cinnamon; queuing up around the block to see Aliens at the Imperial, working as an usher at Place du Canada and rushing in to the cinema every day I worked there so as not to miss the chainsaw scene in Scarface; going to see experimental cinema at the Méliès and nursing a coffee for hours reading a book and fervently wishing one of the many fascinating cinephiles seated around me would include me in their conversation; treating my brother and cousin, both six years old, to see Superman with the very first money I earned at the Loewe’s, a lifelong memory for both, but being annoyed with them because as soon as I finished taking one to the bathroom the other wanted to go and I ended up missing half the film; wearing huge platforms to make me seem taller and blowing smoke into the teller’s face so she wouldn’t ask me for ID and getting in to watch porn at the Beaver; coming out of the Parisien during the World Film Festival and unsure of what to make of Blue Velvet but knowing it was great; going on dates, holding hands surreptitiously, protesting in front of the old Pussycat theatre, maybe it was even called the cinema L’amour already with the L shaped like a woman’s open legs and the apostrophe shaped like a penis poised and pointing. Later on, already a confirmed cinephile, seeing Sirk for the first time at the Cinémathèque; or taking thermoses and sandwiches to the Buñuel retrospective at the Conservatoire so as not to miss any of the films one might never get a chance to see again. These are memories not only of one’s life but of what one hoped and longed for, who one dreamed of being, at each of those points in one life, a condensed madeleine of a moment before the narrative alters, moves onto different tangents, zigzags its way onto who and what one is now.
What remains of these cinemas are the material remnants of a spectral past that is still very vivid in me. They’re the memories of my life. And it’s interesting to me that they revolve around films and cinema because cinema is itself a spectral form. Historically it was the imprint light left on celluloid of that which was once but no longer is until it is revived by light once more. What you get is a kind of spectral presence, an appearance made of light and shadow that gives sound and movement to that which no longer is. And of course these shadows were brought to life in dream palaces with names like Seville, Elysée, Riviera, Globe, Regent, Palace, Paris or even Papineau. Exotic places, Elysian places, grand places, places of culture, of royalty, palatial, chic or even just the greatest of historical figures. Ghosts came alive to arouse and give shape to one’s dreams and desires in the grandest and most grandiose of places any working class person had ever been to; and you could go at any time and stay for as long as you wanted. These dreams of sex and sin and dames and a better life or even just a better hairdo and nicer living room furniture had names fit for purpose; they seemed to respect and even ennoble working people and their aspirations.
On my way to see Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For, I noticed that the old York had disappeared, the old Loewe’s is now a huge gym were you could get yoga classes, the old Palace is a Foot Locker, the old Parisienne is an empty space to let, though a remnant of its raked floor is still visible and has not been filled in. The Rialto is a protected building but now a venue for live music; only the old Imperial is still going, the central cinema for the World Film Festival but even the queues outside seemed to be just Golden Agers. It seemed fitness is now more of a vehicle for dreams and desires than movies.
I hated seeing Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For at a cinema called Scotiabank, with the S pictured as a dollar sign encircling the globe. And I’m a bit unreasonable about it. It’s never bothered me that Arsenal play at the Emirates or that Man City play at the Etihad so why can’t a cinema also benefit from that kind of sponsorship? For most of their history films have been a commercial proposition. They’ve been about making money. But films were never only about money. In fact films made money when the dreams and aspirations their stories conveyed connected socially with those of large sector of society. What was important was to give those dreams vivid expression, incur an intensity of feeling in the audience, make those spectres connect with the real in a social form. To have reduced all our dreams to dreams of money instead of money being a byproduct of the articulation of a great variety of different hopes, aspirations and nightmares — of a job in a certain way well done — is somehow to have diminished everything that films meant. At least to me. Maybe cinema was always about the commodification of dreams and maybe I only feel bad about it now because the commodification seems of the bargain basement variety. I’m not sure. But‘Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For at the Scotiabank seems to me a juxtaposition in terms wavering between a comedown and a kind of barbarism.