A column about the Valhalla cinema

Sydney’s film community has taken a body blow in the past month, with two of the already small number of inner-city independent cinemas closing their doors. The owners of Glebe’s Valhalla cinema and the Chauvel in Paddington have found that the challenges of DVD and an ever-increasing number of multiplex screens have made things too difficult. And with DVD-quality pay-per-view movies now available on Foxtel Digital, and even higher-quality home viewing options like HD-DVD and BluRay on the way, you can see why they’ve decided that the odds for smaller cinemas managing to bring in audiences would be roughly the same for a new Police Academy sequel.

Like many people in the area, I suspect, this news made me feel guilty, because while I was a regular visitor to the Valhalla in the 1990s, I haven’t been there for years. And it’s not like we didn’t have any notice it was in trouble – it’s closed several times before. So why did we all abandon a neighbourhood icon in its times of need? While DVD’s an easy villain to point to, I suspect that the answer’s actually more complicated.

The anaemic state of Australian film is another obvious culprit. Cinemas like the Valhalla have traditionally been the industry’s main venues, and now they’re suffering from its inability to turn its subsidies into a half-decent film. And you can’t blame audiences for declining to trust Australian filmmakers again after so many years of abuse. The audience are once bitten, twice shy – and badly bitten if they’ve been to recent flops like Nick Giannopoulos’ The Wannabes, or Strange Bedfellows, in which Paul Hogan and Michael Caton pretending to be gay for tax purposes was apparently as bad an idea as it sounds.

There’s also been a convergence between mainstream and arthouse cinema. Nowadays even a movie about wine snobbery like Sideways can get wide release. This is partly due to the increase in screens – with 12, Hoyts Broadway has plenty to devote to smaller films – but also a broadening of mainstream taste. Even subtitles aren’t the disincentive they once were. Take the Hong Kong screwball martial arts comedy Kung Fu Hustle. In years past, its Chinese language and scenes of dancing, axe-wielding, dinner suit-wearing triads would have seen it relegated to cinemas like the Valhalla. But it had quite a wide release last month, and is still playing at George St and Broadway.

Conversely, Palace Cinema’s screens in Leichhardt and Paddington now show Hollywood films, which would have been anathema to arthouse proprietors in the past. Their Norton St cinema is currently screening Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, and I seem to remember that Paddington even showed a Star Wars prequel. But the great thing is that because it’s a multiplex, it’s also currently hosting the 2005 Greek Film Festival. Although it may not be necessary (the French Film Festival, for instance, sells out), the commercial films can subsidise the indie films. Which is why it’s such great news that Norton St is planning to add four more arthouse screens. And if they have to take some of Hoyts’ revenue to make a profit, Kerry Packer will cope – he owns a casino.

I don’t mourn the arthouse films that once screened at the Valhalla so much, because they’ll find a home elsewhere. What I miss is its heyday as a repertory cinema, screening classic and cult films. More specifically, I miss the amazing posters they used to print with the upcoming months’ schedule. My parents used to wallpaper our house with them, and their programme used to be brilliantly diverse, from the highbrow French pretention of Godard all the way to the schlock horror puppets of Peter Jackson. And you could always get a cheap combo ticket with “Jaffas to roll down the aisle”.

Melbourne has the Astor cinema, which still prints a programme like the old Valhalla’s, right down to the wonderful posters. They’re screening an old Valhalla favourite, 2001, this month, and it’s tragic that Sydneysiders – and kids in particular – can no longer see these kinds of movies on a proper screen. Because the experience is very different – it’s the difference between seeing a painting and its postcard. A big screen completely immerses the viewer, allowing you to enter another world. Whereas no matter how fancy your new-fangled plasma is, you’re still in your boring old lounge room.

So let’s hope that the consortium that’s currently trying to buy the Valhalla and turn it into the Sydney Screen Centre succeeds (retaining the old name, given the blandness of the new one) and succeed in once again making the old Val a showcase for the best cinema history has to offer. The programme needs to be interesting enough to get us out of the house, sure, but if the success of DVD proves anything, it’s that people like watching old movies. So let’s hope audiences actually remember the joy of seeing old movies at the cinema, and support it. Because rolling Jaffas along my lounge room floor just isn’t quite the same.

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