The Cinema Museum

​What do all the great film directors, young and old, have in common? An insatiable passion for cinema, both old and new, a desire to explore, experience and understand the artistic process, the pains of creation, the intense labour that goes into bringing unique and memorable stories to the silver screen.
Speaking of intense labour, these troubled times we are living through have shown us the importance of knowing one’s history as a people, as a society and as species. It is hard to disagree with George Santayana, who said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, especially now, when this ‘sentence’ of repeating past mistakes is likely to hang over the head of so many people and nations.
The art of cinema has always distinguished itself not only by being the youngest established art form there is, but by capturing the essence of human condition at any given time in history. But we all know what cinema does to the human psyche, how it enriches our daily lives, how it thrills us, entertain us, tears us apart and then puts us together, all with a few carefully chosen compositional sparks of genius projected onto celluloid. What we could all do with is being reminded of both the importance and the frailty of cinema now where everything is threatened with oblivion, mediocrity dust and decay.
For quite a few years the Cinema Museum has been on the verge of annihilation, only to be saved at the last minute by us, through petitions, pleas and high profile endorsements by some of our most beloved film actors, critics and scholars, people who care and who understand its importance in London’s cultural landscape.
The Cinema Museum represents more than just an old building, hosting the occasional old timey film screening. It is more than bricks and mortar, demanding respect due to its seniority. It has life and hopefully a future. It also happens to hold an astonishing collection of film books, posters, DVDs and memorabilia, carefully preserved and catalogued. It is a portal into a world of magic, which sometimes lies forgotten, but can hopefully always be there within reach, allowing glimpses of what life used to be like in 1910s, ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Why does that matter so much? Because, whether we like it or not, the past will always represent a great resource of inspiration for future writers, artists, filmmakers and anthropologists.
I’ve been lucky enough to discover a series of events hosted regularly by the cinema museum called Women & Cocaine. No, it is not a high-class escort service, but it addresses feminism in a more glamourous and cinematic way, whilst providing an excellent insight into what is known as the beginning of the Golden Age of Hollywood, its treatment of women offscreen and representation of women onscreen. Its name is taken from a quote by legendary stage (and often screen) actress Tallulah Bankhead, who, together with Mae West, accounts for close to 90% of the most risqué one-liners of the Pre-Code era in Hollywood: “My father warned me about men and booze but he never said anything about women and cocaine.”
It is true that women have finally started to gain more recognition for their achievements in the Western society, but the gestation period has been too long and the ‘anger’ is justified. For anyone who needs proof of how incredibly talented and fierce the actresses of the 30s were, just go to a screening of one of the Women & Cocaine films, discover some incredible cinematic gems, be surprised at how fresh and relatable some 1930s scripts are and more importantly connect with the people who organise and run the Cinema Museum and Women & Cocaine.
They’re a tight knight group, lead with passion and dedication by lifelong friends Ronald Grant and Martin Humphries, who have put their soul into collecting and preserving all the marvellous items that show the intricate and painstaking journey of filmmaking, from the story idea, to projecting it onto celluloid, cutting it, marketing it, distributing it. Visiting the Cinema Museum always gives me a thrill of anticipation, as if I’m meeting new friends, inviting them into my life and wanting them to like me.
And it is true, for making new friends is one of the joys of being part of the Cinema Museum experience and fighting together for its future. Caroline Seddon, the brains behind the successful Women & Cocaine night, tells me how wonderfully accommodating and supporting both Ronald and Martin have been when it came to her project, now in its 6th edition – an unmissable special screening of Queen Christina, in partnership with Pride London.
Old camera projectors are, for some people, myself included, like time machines propelling us into someone else’s imagination. Some who lived many years ago, but who was no less human than any of us are now. Watching old films brings an universal truth to life: humans have always been complicated, we’ve always had very complex emotions within us. The difference between a film made in 1920 and one in 2019 is that we’ve found new ways of expressing the same emotions. But even the new ways aren’t as new as one would think.
Take a recent screening of a very old film at the Cinema Museum, for instance: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The success of the story lies not only in the fact that we can all relate to a certain degree with both central characters, but in also it being such a cinematic oeuvre. John Barrymore’s performance is as astonishing as John Malkovich’s in the flawed but entertaining Stephen Frears version of the same story – Mary Reilly, if not moreso, given that he had no voice to work with, only his gestures and his haunting eyes. The cinema experience is unparalleled, a true step through the looking glass, most notably accentuated by the marvellous piano improvisation by Tony Berchmans, founder of CinePiano.
Cinema screenings of old films with piano accompaniment are as close as one can get to a true experience of film viewing in the silent era. Living old experiences through modern skins can always bring a fresh view on a piece of art, thus becoming privy to someone’s imagination and dreams.
Imagination is important to understand the life of the people who have lived, who loved, what they loved, how they loved, how they suffered and how they rejoiced.
The importance of the Cinema Museum transcends the relevance of early cinema, even the early auteurism of the great Charles Chaplin, control freak par excellence. His indelible mark on the place is not to be ignored, of course. One truly believes that if it hadn’t been for Chaplin’s connection to the site of the museum, it would have disappeared long ago. Chaplin’s genius is not to be contested and any monument in his honour is to be cherished.
But the Cinema Museum is also an oasis of precious memories threatened to be buried by a sandstorm of digital pixels, which have already taken over most of our daily lives. I’m not being a sentimentalist when I say that we need an occasional break from the technology we’ve become addicted to, but a visit to the museum might turn out a refreshing opportunity to look at film through the lens of time and realise that even if it’s recorded and catalogued it doesn’t mean it will be there forever.
The frailty and delicacy of our cinema history is paramount to our future.  The collection amassed by Ronald and Martin needs its audience, needs to be preserved for posterity and hailed as the incredible institution it is. 

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