By Grace Curtis
Hello, hello, hello. First of all, let me apologize for this interruption to your regularly scheduled Jack. He has kindly agreed to let me write a guest article for him this week: though not strictly about a film, this is still cinema related. Cinema adjacent, if you will.
The theme, of course, is the humble movie theatre, or rather one movie theatre in particular. Like cocaine, going to the cinema is something of a regular treat for me. And, as with all regular treats, it’s easy to fall into hard-to-break habits (some of which are harder to explain to a judge). Since coming to Norwich to study I must admit I’ve only once gone to the super-worthy, ultra-indie, organic, home grown local theatre of Cinema City. Back home I pride myself in supporting the local indie theatre almost single-handedly, but here I’ve managed to fall into the lamentable habit of going to the Odeon every time. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with the Odeon. It is clean. It is civil. It is ever so overpriced. Basically, it’s a non-place; a perfectly neutral location carefully crafted so as to not leave an impression. The same cannot be said for Hollywood Screen Cinema.
Hollywood Screen is the sort of Cinema that inspires reverence. I ended up going there because my friend Raf will literally not go to the movies anywhere else: it has a hold on him, as it now does on me. It’s also cheap as hell, which is why the rest of our friends all happily piled into a taxi on campus and directed the driver to take us there. I assumed we were going somewhere in town. I was wrong.
After about ten minutes I honestly started wondered if the driver was plotting to murder us. The spire of the town hall was just visible in the distance, but we were speeding right past it into unknown territory. At last he dropped us off, speeding away with a dark chuckle (I imagine) and leaving us in a place quite unique in the history of human endeavour.
Anglia Square shopping centre is an open air shopping mall surrounded on all sides by an enormous office block. On the bottom is the square, but there is a sort of second level where the cinema resides on a concrete runway. From what I could tell the two most upmarket shops bordering the square were Poundland and Greggs, but since both places are very dear to my heart I was not complaining. It was, however, utterly deserted. From our elevated location near the cinema I could see that there was not a soul in sight. Later, after we had come out, I did hear footsteps approaching in the distance. I flung myself back around the corner for fear of what I might see. The whole place had the aura of a once-bustling metropolis wiped clean by an unseen, malignant force.
The cinema itself was another matter. It looked like a spaceship constructed by an alien race of brutalist architects, with a logo that looked like the title for somebody’s middle school powerpoint presentation. There was also a disturbingly realistic mural of Alan Partridge on one of the walls (I later found out the film Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa debuted there. I imagine the Hollywood Cinema staff tell their grandchildren of that day). He leered at us as we stood, looking around the square like lost children.
Upon entering the cinema we were hit at first by the overpowering smell of old carpet. Once I was used to it I was able to appreciate that the lobby itself was actually rather cute. The staff, perhaps sensing the wide-eyed confusion of these lost students, were extremely friendly. There seemed to be only two of them in the whole building, but that was enough, as we were the only group there. To my surprise they seemed to be normal young people just like us, working away at the counter with wry, knowing smiles. Yes, we know, they seemed to say. Drink it in.
Hollywood Screen did not disappoint with regards to our main reason for coming. With my student card the price of entry was almost half that of the Odeon, and the snacks were cheaper too. Another charming thing was the display board. It was made of rubber with the letters stuck on in the classic fashion – all accurate times for that day, just as google had reported. It was sort of hidden from customer view, but it still made me happy to notice it and think of somebody coming in every morning and sticking on the movie titles and times. Perhaps a suited manager, tongue between his lips, balancing on a wobbly stepladder. God bless him, I thought.
With our tickets purchased we traveled up a wide staircase, ascending deeper into the guts of the building. I think Hollywood Screen is a re-purposed office block. It certainly feels like one. As we ascended the stairs, life-sized models of such characters as Garfield, Sully from Monsters Inc. and Darth Vader loomed over us like angry gods (Garfield was actually man-sized – an interesting if disturbing interpretation.) We took several more twists and turns through anonymous looking white doors, and the smell increased as we got closer to what I was now thinking of as the beating heart of the building. We passed through the door marked ‘Screen One’ and found ourselves in an extremely narrow staircase. I was starting to wonder just what this screen would look like. Perhaps an empty conference room with a laptop on a box. Perhaps a man in a dishevelled suit would come out and just describe the events of Wonder Woman to us in extreme detail. As it happened I was not correct in either case.
Instead we entered what an amphitheatre might look like if ancient Greeks had been underpaid office workers. It was the biggest cinema I’ve ever been in, with twice or even three times as much seating as the Odeon. The screen was inexplicably set back on a large stage, with mothballed curtains either side of it. Do not mistake me: this was not a stage from the Theatre Royal. It was not a stage even fit for a particularly shit inner-city secondary school. I can’t honestly imagine it being used for anything other than public executions in one of Terry Gilliam’s nightmarish bureaucratic dystopias.
There were about fifteen people sat in the cinema, including us. The seats were very comfy (if a little sticky). We got all nestled and comfortable, and then the show began. The sound and picture quality was just fine, but there was a bit of a problem with the local wildlife. Throughout the movie several moths flung themselves across the screen, perhaps seeking for a moment to physically inhabit the same space as Gal Gadot – and who can blame them – becoming illuminated by the projector like so many twinkling stars above us. Aside from this pleasant distraction, the actual experience of watching the movie was unremarkable. One could argue that the huge room even lent itself to a more cinematic experience. So there.
When we left (now feeling very empowered thanks to Gal) the building was completely empty. There was not a single staff member to be seen anywhere. In this state, and with night having now fallen, the place took on a sort of eerie beauty, like an abandoned insane asylum. I theorized that our projector was operated by a ghost to save money. We wandered back out onto the street and called a taxi, and a few minutes later watched a tired looking youth lock the doors from the inside. I can only assume he slept there. Then the taxi arrived and we ran down a set of concrete stairs and out of the shopping centre, back to something resembling a normal street. The taxi sped us back towards civilization, back into the future, or perhaps a pre-apocalyptic past. Our time at Hollywood Screen was over.
In conclusion – well, I’m not sure how to conclude. I have no clue why Hollywood Screen exists, nor how it has existed for so long. All I know is that I’m glad. I’m glad that in this increasingly gentrified world we still have places which lie preserved from the ever-turning wheels of progress, places which defy good sense and good taste and exist only out of pure bloody-minded stubbornness. I’ll go again. You should too, while this unicorn of a place lives on. For within that oppressive, smelly, moth bitten cinema is something magical – an inner beauty to which we can all aspire.