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“Scala!!! | TAKE ONE | Reviews Watch Online”
Co-directors Jane Giles and Ali Catterall put together an energetic story, a superb fit for what Scala must have felt like. They interview the misfits who worked and spent time there and were, for lack of a better word, different. However, at Scala, that difference thrived. The cinema was not comfy and clean, but for these people, it was a safe place from the outside world, and they could watch films that interested them.
SCALA!!! shows us just the sheer number and variety of films that were run: different genres, lengths, languages, levels of explicitness, violence and more. Anything that could be put on celluloid found its way onto Scala’s dirty silver screen via a legal loophole in the proper name of the cinema. Officially, it was Scala Film Club, and, as a club, they could screen pretty much whatever the programmers wanted without complying with the same rating system as ordinary cinemas. This range may seem insignificant today, with online access to film almost ubiquitous, but in the 1980s, the world was different. The UK was different. Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government was in full brutal swing.
Through archival images and text, Giles and Catterall take us through the history of the cathedral-like building Scala called home. In the 1920s, it was built as King’s Cross Cinema. It changed hands a few times and even had a short stint as a primate centre. Iggy Pop and Lou Reed played there, but it eventually settled as Scala Film Club’s new digs in 1981. They renamed it Scala after their original residence on Tottenham Street and continued their mission to run films of any nature.
Giles and Catterall show Scala’s story through interviews with former staff and patrons, including familiar faces from today’s pop culture, some of whom were either completely or relatively unknown during the 1980s. Adam Buxton, John Waters, Stewart Lee, Ben Wheatley, Isaac Julien and Douglas Hart all feature, to name a few. We are even told the story of a young man with hair gelled two feet above his head and painted-on eyebrows ordering a cup of tea from the cafe in Scala. Shortly after, he was on Top of the Pops with his group Culture Club. It was Boy George. That is what Scala was and stood for – a culture club.
Who these people are now gives an insight into what Scala was like then, with their personalities and work showing who was going in and out of those doors. One Scala goer (and future writer/activist) was Paul Burston, who talks about Jean Genet’s UN CHANT D’AMOUR (1950). The short film was originally banned because of its homoerotic content, but it found a home at Scala. “You couldn’t really walk into Blockbuster and rent it,” says Burston of the film. The documentary then explores how the LGBTQ+ community was in a very different place in Scala’s day than it is now.
“It was an extremely chaotic time with AIDS, Thatcher, Clause 28,” says Rory Perkins. Clause 28, introduced by Thatcher’s government, was a series of laws that prohibited “the promotion of homosexuality”, which was in effect from 1988 until 2003 in England and Wales. This landscape would have impacted the cinema as a centre for the community. The documentary shows the cinema within the larger sphere of politics as a representation of defiance. So, the authorities took action when an opportunity for a crackdown arose.
In 1992, Scala screened a film billed as “a surprise screening”: Stanley Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. However, the film was withdrawn from distribution in the UK in 1974 by Warner Brothers at Kubrick’s behest and as Jane Giles, a Scala programmer, reflects, “It [the screening] became a really big deal.” Giles was convicted of a breach of copyright in 1993, and the cinema was forced to close its doors.
In reference to this, the documentary nods to another Kubrick film, DR STRANGELOVE OR” HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964) by using an Or and alternative tile of their own: SCALA!!! OR, THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE RISE AND FALL OF THE WORLD’S WILDEST CINEMA AND HOW IT INFLUENCED A MIXED-UP GENERATION OF WEIRDOS AND MISFITS.
From what was going on inside and outside the cinema doors, the documentary shows us that Scala was not just screening films that were unlikely to be seen elsewhere; Giles and Catterall are positioning the cinema within the context of the society of the time, illustrating its cult status.
SCALA!!! visually captures as close to the cinema-going experience as possible. The interviews are graded in colours reminiscent of old film prints from the era, enriching the stories. Adding to this are the animations: whether it is stories of the staff on magic mushrooms or the in-house cats wandering amongst the audience, they evoke the creative energy that those there must have felt in the Scala at the time.
Where Scala sat in Kings Cross now looks different from the rundown and deprived state it was in during the 1980s. The area was home to the seedier sides of life: violence and crime. It is no wonder the authorities made a crackdown when an opportunity arose. In some ways, the area’s gentrification is good, and in other ways, it is not: Scala both enriched and represented the time and the place.
Scala has been gone for thirty years, but the building and its name remain as a music venue. It also lives on as a film festival: Scalarama. Despite Thatcher’s best efforts to ruin this celebrated mix of people, art and culture, the spirit of Scala lives on. This documentary perfectly tells its story, helping to keep Scala’s ideas and messages alive.
SCALA!!! is now available via BFI Player and the BFI Blu-ray release.
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