And now, for our Feature Presentation

I dedicated my first blog post to one of the things that I missed most during pandemic lockdown this year — libraries. I talked about the role that libraries have played in my mental health journey and how they are a place of solace and sanctuary for me. In that blog post I mentioned that, alongside libraries, there is another institution where I seek refuge. It’s my favourite place of all. My spiritual home. Somewhere that not only provides a safe haven but also rejuvenates my very soul. To quote the Faithless song, God is a DJ, “this is my church; this is where I heal my hurt.”

I’m talking about … the cinema.

As I write this it is the eve of my first visit to a cinema since March (I’m off to see The Personal History of David Copperfield tomorrow). No trips to the movies for four months may not sound like a big deal to many people. For me, however, it is a very big deal. To give you some perspective, when I was in my twenties I would see close to 100 films a year, at the cinema. Right now, as I type, I’m listening to Dan Golding’s tribute to the great, now late, film music composer Ennio Morricone on ABC Classic (specifically I’m listening to music from Cinema Paradiso — “how meta”, as the kids say these days!) Oh, and I’m wearing my Star Wars: Rogue One t-shirt.

Get the picture?

My undergraduate degree, 30 years ago, was a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Theatre and Film Studies at University of NSW, studying under the tutelage of Dr Ruth Vasey. For the first time in my life I had the opportunity to fully explore my personal interests. High school had been a tortuous time of towing the line. Studying the subjects that “smart” kids should study. Following in the footsteps of a brother who was nothing like me. Forced to pursue “good marks” at the expense of the things in life that are actually important. But all of that changed once I started tertiary study.

For the first three years of my post high school life it was a requirement to go to the cinema. It was an expectation that I see film after film at the cinema and watch hundreds of movies on VHS (which was made easier by the fact that I worked in a video store). It was my homework to deconstruct every aspect of what was happening on the screen, in the soundtrack, and in the social and political context surrounding a film’s production, release and promotion.

All of a sudden education went from remembering scores of useless physics formulae without understanding or caring anything about them, to exploring the influence on Hollywood of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. Instead of staring out the window and wishing there were dragons coming to destroy my mind-numbing Economics classroom (and me along with it), I was up all night exploring the tightrope walked by filmmakers in the 1950s as they rebelled against McCarthyism. I was even lucky enough to appear in a couple of films (just as an extra) during this period of my life.

My eyes had been opened. So this is what it felt like to explore your own interests. This is what a glimpse of my true self looked like. This was a revelation for someone with BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder), like me. I had bestowed upon me the gift, from my lecturers and fellow students, of support, encouragement, belonging and understanding. The fruits of family life previously denied me were now being tasted for the very first time at the age of 18.

And it was all thanks to the magic of cinema.

For most of my adult life I could be found at the cinema (or library) when I was thought to be, or even expected to be, somewhere else. Many a lecture or tutorial was skipped in the late 1990s when I went back to university life for further study —a Graduate Diploma of Teaching, would you believe? The University of Western Sydney was tantalisingly close to Penrith Plaza and its magnificent new multiplex cinema and retro American diner.

Fast forward a few years and many a “sickie” (that’s a day off work when you’re not actually ill, for any Americans who are wondering) was spent at the movies when I should have been at work. During some very dark times of depression, I lived within walking distance of Melbourne’s Chadstone Shopping Centre and I was capable of spending an entire day and evening at the cinema. I would see three or four films on these days, with just enough time between to visit the toilet and restock provisions.

I love movies. I love everything about them. The music. The cinematography. The storytelling. The boundless possibilities.

I love cinemas. I love everything about them. The smell of popcorn. The sense of anticipation. The lush curtains. The cheesy local advertising. The previews of other films that are on my “to see” list. The transcendental experience.

I love modern multiplexes.

I love hidden, secretive art-house cinemas.

And I love nothing more than a beautiful, old heritage cinema.

During the decade or so that I lived in Melbourne (2002–2010) I fell head over heels for The Astor Theatre in Chapel Street, St Kilda. Opened in 1936 as a purpose-built, single screen cinema, The Astor is an art deco temple of worship for filmlovers. A trip to The Astor to see a double-header of obscure, cult, retro films (on celluloid no less) was an immersive experience. The ushers wore vests and bow ties, the kiosk sold wine and cake, the cinema’s resident cat (Marzipan) sat next to you on a period chaise longue in the foyer, and a pianist in a sequined dress tickled the ivories on a baby grand. If I could live in a moment in time and space it would probably be at The Astor Theatre in the mid 2000s; closely followed by the multiplex in Parramatta in the 1980s with its adjoining video game arcade!

When the very existence of this glorious monument to dreams was threatened I joined the fight to “Save The Astor” … and I’m very happy to report that she’s still with us. My post-lockdown return to cinema was actually going to be a few weeks ago, and not tomorrow. We bought tickets to a Sunday matinee screening at The Astor of The Wizard of Oz. It was to be my 5 year old son’s first ever visit to the old movie theatre. But it never happened. Melbourne kind of imploded with COVID-19 and we stayed home, which these days is 100km North by Northwest of Melbourne (see what I did there?) in Ballarat.

Which brings me to the other important cinema in my life — Ballarat’s The Regent. Eight years older than The Astor, The Regent was also a purpose-built single screen cinema up until it was converted to a multiplex in the 1980s. The conversion, fortunately, involved the preservation of the building’s heritage features and Cinema 1 still retains much of the original scope and architecture from the late 1940s (the cinema was largely gutted, in 1943, by fire). The foyer features a magnificent chandelier and, like many heritage buildings, it is the ceilings that truly speak of the history of the cinema. The Regent is a reminder of a time when going to the movies was an event; an occasion; an experience. For me, it still is. I’m one of the handful of people still sitting in the cinema at the end of the credits, after everyone else has left and the usher is patiently waiting, garbage bag in hand.

So it goes without saying that I am really rather looking forward to my afternoon at the flicks tomorrow. My running group has been forced back to its “virtual” status by the current pandemic situation in the state of Victoria. The local library is open again, but is currently only offering the basic services of borrowing and returning … no lingering allowed. So, without the camaraderie of my running group and a library to hide in, I’m very grateful that The Regent is re-opening its doors.

I can almost smell the popcorn already …

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