no-one ever uses the little cinema’s official name, a Greek-French hybrid suggesting racecourses and leopardskin seats. It was opened some forty years ago as the Bug House, and the Bug House it will remain to the natives.
It has none of the trimmings of the big-circuit cinemas—no neon signs, no glossy stills from the current film, no huge foyer with ankle-deep carpeting, no coloured photographs of the stars. Its size and prices of admission (sevenpence and tenpence, half-price for children) permit only the irreducible minimum: a poster in dropsical display faces a century out of date, a timetable of features over the paybox, and a tiny lobby opening directly on to the street. Through the door of the auditorium float out scraps of dialogue: You can’t do this to me, Watch out Tex, that gun is loaded, I am the Hooded Terror, and, gaspingly, through blood in the throat, The treasure’s- in- the- And then there’s the whine of bullets again or the dull matter-of-fact thud of bombs or the hysterical scream of sirens or the high-pitched violin which means that Something Is Coming Out of Space. There are softer sounds too—the quivering sweetness of Tin Pan Alley music with its suggestion of an enormous emptiness in the background, like blancmange eaten in the Gobi Desert, and the husky voices that say I love you, Baby and I shouldn’t have done that, and, sooner or later, This thing is bigger than both of us. One feels an eavesdropper, there’s something sad and Noah-naked about these sounds from the darkness.
But inside it isn’t sad. There’s a smell as scruffy and cheerful as the children who fill the place—orange, chocolate, horsehair, tobacco, and the ghost of geraniums from the accumulation of disinfectant with which an old man in a shabby uniform, a long-service private in the glittering army of commissionaries, deluges the theatre at the interval. The old man has long ago given up the attempt to keep the children in order; they yell greetings to one another, climb over the seats, run up and down the aisle at breakneck speed, and make an extraordinary number of visits to the Gents’ and the Ladies’. The cinema might have been designed for them; its open-back seats are so narrow and closely-spaced that a normal adult sits with his knees either up to his chin or pressing into the person in front, his elbows digging into his neighbours. And each row of seats is bolted together, so that when the children sway backwards and forwards together (Hiyo Silver!) everyone moves with them. Whether you like it or not, you’re part of the audience at the Bug House.
The children come for sociability, for the raw material of their games, for bright words to decorate their conversation, even to have the future make promises to them—a house with a swimming-pool, a private aeroplane, a girl like Jane Russell. The old, who are, together with the children, the backbone of the audience, come for oblivion, gulping it down like strong tea. They’re past the age for games and they know just what the future’s promises are worth. They’re quite content in the warm and noisy darkness, giving their feet and worries a rest; and for those who live alone, there’s even the illusion of a sort of family life, the rowdy innocence of the children around them chasing away the feeling of being the only person left alive in the whole world.
The Bug House offers something else, though. It reduces films to their essentials, it knocks off their veneer. It not only underlines the impact of a first-rate film, it brings out the startling excellences scattered throughout the mediocre. Films seen there stick in the memory for years, the inward eye prizes details like the policeman’s cape dripping with rain in the stuffy parlour, the graceful clumsiness and slow speed of a giraffe, the bearded soldier screaming like a fractious child under the boiling oil—one has been awarded moments of truth, instantaneous and exact descriptions of life and death and geography, of the huge variousness of existence.
For it’s easy, in the plushy comfort of the supercinema, to take the film for granted, as if it grew naturally out of the screen; we find nothing marvellous about the shining curves of a new Bentley being impelled by the ignition of petrol vapour. It’s only when a Model T, square, frail, antique, chugs past us, shaking with the vehemence of its greed for movement, that we realise that internal combustion is a technical miracle, And perhaps it’s only in cinemas like the Bug House that we capture the true flavour of the film, that, however blase we’ve become about it, we can, in that atmosphere so close to the sideshow and the nickelodeon of the industry’s early days, suddenly perceive with a shock of delight that these shadows are telling us a story, that these pictures really move.