The ghost of the broken horses

The Civic Theatre is celebrating its 75th anniversary and had open days all this weekend. I went along five years ago when it reopened after the massive restoration and I guess I was hoping for something better than that, but, oh no, I was disappointed.

Various rooms had displays set up with old photos and programmes on them, there was a video playing on one of the balconies, “The Mighty Civic” showing in the main auditorium, and an incomplete cabaret was performed in the Wintergarden. I was left wandering around all the rooms and corridors, looking at the all the elephants, tigers and golden decorations and wanting to know the stories behind them, but remaining uninformed.

The Civic historians seem obsessed with Freda Stark. It’s almost like the Civic Theatre served no other purpose than to host cabaret evenings where Ms Stark painted herself gold and danced for the GIs. A neatly sanitised golden lady was trotted out for this anniversary. The main difference being that at the end of the night she didn’t go off and smear her gold paint over some homesick soldiers. Of course, that side of things is much more glamourous than celebrating, say, the 2.30pm session of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie in 1990.

But it’s really disappointing that there is a noticeable gap in the history of the Civic. No one seems to care about the history of the theatre from its remodelling in 1975 until the restoration in the late ’90s. Yeah, it wasn’t the greatest thing to have that second Wintergarden theatre wedged inside the building, but it happened and it shouldn’t be forgotten. Ditto the all-over mud-brown paint job, and the succession of nightclubs in the basement.

I’ve also noticed that the since the restoration, the Civic doesn’t feel like an old building anymore. Everything inside is really nice and neat and new. Nothing creaks or smells musty. There are no dark corners any more where decades-old bits and pieces lurk. I remember once heading to some toilets off the side of the stalls. I got about halfway down this steep, dimly lit flight of stairs when I got the heebie jeebies and turned back. The Civic has no such spooky places any more.

The Civic needs to start going bump in the night again.

The Incredible Film Fest 2001

It’s 7.50 am on a Sunday morning. A group of tired, dazed, bleary-eye people wearing pyjamas are standing outside the Civic theatre. Some wander off to a nearby Burger King for some breakfast, other start the long walk up Queen Street. All have just spent the last eight hours inside the Civic watching a bunch of B-grade movies.

But wait, let’s stop and go back four weeks to where I find myself grabbing five copies of the program to the Incredible Film Festival.

At home reading one of the five copies of the festival program, I concluded that all the films were lame and I didn’t want to see any. For the first week of the fest I ignored it, hoping that it would go away.

Then a friend of mine said “I saw “Sex: The Annabel Chong Story” last night. It’s really interesting.” So I bought a ticket. To recall that is like a junkie recalling their first hit of heroin.

I saw “Sex”, and had another look at the program. Some titles appealed to me. I figured I’d go and see a few films. Then I considered buying the festival pass, which would let me see all the films for only $88. I reckoned there were at least eight films that were interesting enough, so I plonked down $88 and the ticket lady gave me a huge pile of tickets – one for each film.

It was like a challenge. “Go on,” the tickets were saying. “I dare you to go and see every film in the festival.” I took up the challenge. It took up my life.

I alienated friends, family and flatmates. My life revolved around the films. I had to remember to eat first, or rush out between films and grab something quick. I found myself relying on coffee to stay alert during some of the days where I saw three films in a night.

At first it was hard seeing two films in a night. It was almost physically exhausting. But by the third day when I saw three films in a row, I had adjusted and could cope.

I figured out where the best place to sit was, how viewing a film with subtitles is better with no one sitting in the seat directly in front. The music played before and after the films became familiar. The guy who ripped the tickets, the dude who made coffee, they were all part of my cinematic whanau. I even saw the same faces in the audience – other people like me who’d come to see all the films.

On the final night, I saw the four remaining films. The movie marathon was at midnight. I was originally not going to see it because it seemed too difficult – eight hours of movies straight. Then I considered seeing the first film and calling it a night. But after the first I realised I could manage a second. Then, after sucking down cans of V, eating chocolate bars and a mince ‘n’ cheese pie, I realised that the junk food fuel would keep me in the elevated state required to make it to the end.

My legs ached, I was tired, whenever someone in a movie said something about needing sleep I knew exactly how they felt. On screen sex and violence provided no thrills, but I would have gladly sat through a film with people going to sleep in it. I sat there through five B-grade movies, two of which were pretty terrible. I did it and I burst out onto the street and took in the early morning sun and made my way home.

I don’t think it’s possible to devote two weeks of your life, including eighteen hours in one day, to seeing truckloads of films if you hate movies. The sort of person who sees seven films a year, or whatever the national average is, doesn’t do bad-arse festival stuff like that.

It’s about love of movies, and the joy a good film brings and it is completely accurate to be called the Incredible Film Fest, because it was an incredible two weeks.