The Last Picture Show – How Scotland’s Film Culture Just Got Hammered
Some time in the mid to late 1980s, I attended a short season of films by Shūji Terayama, a Japanese radical best known for his features, Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (1968), and Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1971). The screenings took place at Filmhouse in Edinburgh, which I visited on a semi regular basis to see the sort of subtitled arthouse films I’d previously only been able to watch on small screen BBC2 or Channel 4. Tickets were cheap, especially if you were on the dole, as I was, and spending afternoons watching Godard and Fassbinder, or more current works by Derek Jarman or Peter Greenaway, was a steal for 50p.
The Shūji Terayamaseason, however, was something else again, and seemed to relate more to performance or visual art as much as film. One short film, Laura (1974), had a group of women address the camera directly, with Terayama’s assistant, Henrikku Morisaki, walking from the audience and through the slatted screen to become part of the film, breaking through the frame to interact in the flesh with what was happening onscreen.
Another film, The Trial (1975) focused on characters banging nails into various surfaces. The film’s grand finale saw Morisaki go among the audience handing out hammers and nails, inviting us to join in with the action being beamed onto the wall before us, and hammer nails into it for real.
I’d never seen anything like it, but found this coup de théâtre liberating and exhilarating in a way that opened up the possibilities of what film/art/performance could be, however much Terayama’s provocations were of their time. These days, as commercial concerns take precedence, such retrospectives are more likely to take place in a gallery space. Indeed, in 2012, Tate Modern in London hosted a Terayama season similar to that held at Filmhouse, and featured Morisaki taking part in Laura for the first time in twenty-seven years.
In Scotland, if a Terayama season was likely to be seen anywhere, enlightened curators might want to give it a slot at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, say. It would be ideal for the former Dean Gallery now known as Modern Two. Or it would have been until recently.
The Terayama season, and the climax of The Trial in particular, came to mind as I saw photographs of Filmhouse last week. The pictures showed the windows and doors of the venue where I’d been handed a hammer and nails to take part in Terayama’s film closed up with steel shutters. This action was taken after the Centre for the Moving Image (CMI), the umbrella body in charge of Filmhouse, Edinburgh International Film Festival and the Belmont cinema, Aberdeen, went into abrupt liquidation at the beginning of October. The building is already up for sale, and is described in the brochure from selling agents Savills as a ‘unique leisure-development opportunity.’ The property vultures are already circling.
The nails – or whatever is required to secure the steel shutters – have made the now former Filmhouse look like it is awaiting demolition as part of some slum clearance programme. This wasn’t done for any kind of artistic liberation as with Terayama’s film. This was about closure in every way.
Popcorn Double Feature
When the CMI issued its statement on October 6th2022 that it was to cease trading with immediate effect, it was undoubtedly as shocking to the more than a hundred members of staff who had just been made unemployed without notice as it was to the wider film community, both in Scotland and beyond. Here, after all, were several institutions that were long-standing high-profile bedrocks of cultural life, shut down overnight, with their fate in the hands of receivers.
The statement spoke of the ‘perfect storm of sharply rising costs, in particular energy costs, alongside reduced trade due to the ongoing impacts of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.’
The statement also cited payroll costs, inflation, trading at fifty per cent of pre pandemic levels, the rise of streaming services and public funding having remained at standstill over the previous eight years. It didn’t mention Brexit, but then, it didn’t mention the redundancies either.
Taken at face value, all of what it did say was as undoubtedly as true for CMI as it was for other institutions going bust, artistic or otherwise. Within hours of the statement being issued, however, noises off elsewhere suggested there was a lot more going on beyond it.
There was talk of managerial hubris, of out of touch top-down thinking that couldn’t accommodate new ways of seeing and doing things. When the figures were released of how much public funding CMI had received – £1.5m for the current financial year, an additional £250,000 additional funding for EIFF’s 75thanniversary year, £1.3m emergency funding to help recovery from the impact of the pandemic – eyebrows were raised. And when it became clear that CMI heads were aware of the organisation’s parlous state going back several years, those eyebrows raised even more.
Such eye watering sums are a long way from the founding of Edinburgh Film Guild, the volunteer run body set up in 1927, and who kick started the founding of EIFF twenty years later. EFG has been resident in Filmhouse since 1980, and has remained a separate institution to both Filmhouse and CMI. Now, however, EFG through no fault of its own has been made homeless, and has been forced to cancel its programme. This might have been lost in the outrage at more high profile organisations being lost, but it is perhaps the grassroots origins of EFG that those trying to salvage something from the CMI wreckage might look to for guidance.
Within hours of CMI’s announcement, a petition had been set up by filmmaker Paul Sng and curator of independent film events organisation Cinetopia, Amanda Rogers, public meetings held and a campaign to try and save – not CMI – but the institutions that had been in its care – been formalised, with Sng and fellow filmmaker Mark Cousins at its helm. Significantly, support for the campaign has also come from EIFF’s director Kristy Matheson, and Filmhouse programmer Rod White.
For all this heroic activity, there remained an overriding sense that, if the Film Festival, Filmhouse, Film Guild and Belmont can go, nowhere was safe. This despite the stampede of events great and small that have seen theatres, concert halls and festivals return to full operations for the first time since the pandemic. This was done with a heady sense of optimism that might have convinced some of the paying public that the so-called new normal was just a case of business as usual. If only.
As if on cue, the National Galleries of Scotland announced that Modern Two, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s second space, housed since 1999 in the former Dean Gallery was being forced to close for the winter. The pandemic and rises in energy bills were again cited, as was the seemingly all-consuming ‘perfect storm’. Other organisations, including the National Museum of Scotland, and Dance Base, have indicated they too are under pressure to survive.
As sad and tragic as events surrounding CMI and Modern Two remain, none of it should come as a surprise. Nor are such crises exclusive to Edinburgh or Scotland. Of course, the enforced closure of venues due to the pandemic left its mark, as will the spectacular rise in energy bills. And Brexit. Let’s not forget Brexit, however it might be unboxed.
What has happened with CMI and Modern Two was an accident waiting to happen and is one likely to have more casualties. For all the well-meaning support that came from emergency funding packages, they were little more than sticking plasters shoring up what in CMI’s case, at least, looked like an already gaping wound. No one was ever going to be saved. As someone pointed out elsewhere, the words of Nathan Coley’s installation in the grounds of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art say it all. ‘There Will Be No Miracles Here’.
An ancient Japanese proverb decrees that ‘The nail that sticks out shall be hammered down.’ Whether this had any kind of influence on ShūjiTerayama and his nail based film, The Trial, I have no idea. Either way, the proverb is said to mean something roughly along the lines that those jealous of those who stand out will do all in their power to hammer them into line with everyone else. Applied to the CMI collapse, it might be perceived as pointing to a form of top down thinking that, rather than liberating those with a hammer as Terayama did, becomes a form of maintaining control by whatever means are deemed necessary.
Meanwhile, beyond the CMI collapse, life and art go on elsewhere. The Edinburgh leg of the French Film Festival is about to begin screenings throughout November and December at both The Dominion in Morningside, and in multiple form artspace, Summerhall, which also has its own Summerhall Cinema! programme. Cinetopia, the curatorial film-based organisation led by Amanda Rogers, recently screened I Ken Whaur Im Gaun, an immersive film and sound installation exploring oral folk traditions in Scotland, at the French Institute in Edinburgh.
Cinetopia has also worked with Edinburgh based feminist-surrealist magazine, Debutante, on Electric Muses, a night of rarely seen women-led surrealist films at Leith Theatre. Then there is the likes of Braw Cinema Club, showing cult classics in the bowels of the Banshee Labyrinth pub, while Out of the Blue has hosted the social based Take One Action Film Festival.
These initiatives and other community-based cinemas past and present show the same sort of pioneering grassroots spirit that fired the founding of Edinburgh Film Guild by a group of cinema obsessives who wanted to see films no-one else was putting on. None of them need or needed a monolithic organisation such as CMI to helm things. But then, neither did EIFF, Filmhouse or the Belmont.
As it is, the collapse of an organisation nobody asked for has caused the need for a CMI Welfare Fund GoFundMe page to be set up. Give generously. Those made redundant deserve every penny.
Word on the street is that the EIFF name has been bought from CMI, and that the festival will happen in some form in 2023 after being offered space in Edinburgh International Festival HQ at The Hub. There is talk too of a potential film-friendly buyer for Filmhouse, while campaigners are also looking at continuing operations in other premises.
Beyond the current debacle, if one wanted to play devil’s advocate, one might suggest that the slow-burning disaster movie currently being played out in all sectors could actually take things back to some kind of level playing field again, where organisations were run from the ground up rather than the top down as is currently the case. Whatever happens next, that really might be something worth hammering home.
The CMI Welfare Fund GoFundMe page can be found here.