Last night I went down to the South Bank and watched the National Film Theatre die.
Fair's fair, it's had a good innings. For fifty years it's been the London home of the British Film Institute, and thus by extension the home of British film culture generally. It's given generations of moviegoers access to films from all over the world that they simply wouldn't have seen otherwise, both in its regular monthly programmes and in the annual London Film Festival. Time and again, you hear people in the film industry say how their experiences at the NFT ultimately inspired them to make their own movies. So it hasn't just shown great films, it's been indirectly responsible for creating them too.
But on March 11th 2007, the National Film Theatre closed its doors for the very last time.
Okay, in three days time it'll re-open them again under the new name of BFI Southbank. But that doesn't make for such a dramatic opening.
The new BFI Southbank consists of the NFT building members already know and love (containing three cinemas and a reasonable cafe), plus an extension built out of the ruins of the old Museum Of The Moving Image. There are a whole range of new facilities available in that extension, which won't be available to the general public until the opening date of March 14th 2007. But last Friday, they held a sneak preview tour for a small number of BFI members, and The Belated Birthday Girl and I managed to get ourselves onto the guest list. I don't have any pictures of what you can expect inside the new building (didn't want to risk getting thrown out, frankly), so you'll have to make do with a verbal description.
The most important change is that the entrance to BFI Southbank has moved to Theatre Avenue, the walkway between the old MOMI site and the National Theatre. People frequently complained that the National Film Theatre entrance was hard to find, hiding behind bits of the South Bank Centre and under a concrete bridge. One look at the picture above, and it should be apparent that nobody's going to complain that they can't find BFI Southbank: a gigantic glass front, with large panels to the left and right summarising the current month's programme, and a white lightbox showing you exactly where the door is. Part of the idea behind the name change is to develop the BFI in the public imagination as a brand, and having the logo emblazoned in giant letters across the building seems as good a way as any.
Once you get inside, there's a large lobby leading off to various rooms. (Fascinating fact from the members tour: the concrete pillars within the lobby are the actual supporting pillars of Waterloo Bridge, which runs over the top of the building. Rather than try to cover them up, the architects have made them a feature.) The NFT3 cinema - curiously, the screens are keeping their original names - is immediately accessible from the lobby area, while you'll need to walk a little further to get to NFT1, NFT2 and the Film Cafe. Where things start getting really interesting is when you look at the new spaces that have been set up.
First off, there's a Gallery area. As was explained on the members tour, the BFI is dedicated to the moving image in all of its forms, but up until now they haven't had any way to showcase the growing field of video-based art. The Gallery has been created precisely for that purpose. It'll be showing a different exhibit every couple of months, and the opening one is Traffic by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy. It's a series of four installations, based around the couple's memories of key film-watching moments in their lives. Each installation features a movie scene recreated using moving miniature models and live video cameras. The feed from the cameras is edited by computer into a movie projected on a big screen behind the installation - and also showing on a small screen within the installation, to an audience of model versions of Jennifer and Kevin themselves. It's charming, witty (especially if you're familiar with the movies being referenced), and the sort of thing you could spend ages examining in detail. The McCoys also have a second piece in the foyer, The Constant World, and it's probably more fun if you discover how that works for yourself like we had to.
One of the BFI's major assets - its huge archive of moving image material from both TV and cinema - is given two major spaces to itself. The one that has potential for drawing in huge amounts of passing trade is the Mediatheque. It consists of a couple of dozen viewing stations, each of which has access to around 300 films from the BFI archives, from one-minute shorts to full length features. You simply book a session at one of the stations, log onto it and pick what you want to see. On the basis of the fifteen minutes or so we spent there, the screen navigation is a little clunky, and they still hadn't quite got the rewind and fast forward functions to work: but once the bugs are ironed out, this will be a fabulous resource for anyone who loves film.
The list of films you can choose from will change on a regular basis, and will be posted on the Mediatheque site, so you should be able to walk in there knowing exactly what you want to see - or just browse through the categories and see what takes your fancy. Alternatively, there will be regular compilations of highlights from the list in the Studio, a 40 seat digital auditorium with excellent picture and sound quality, plus comfy seats. It's the one new actual cinema that's been added to the complex, and a rather fine one it is too. Apart from the archive compilations, the Studio will also be showing digital copies of feature films both old and new in the evenings.
All this plus a new restaurant called benugo (sadly not open on the preview night, but I'm digging the flock wallpaper), the long-awaited return of the BFI Filmstore shop... and did I mention that the Gallery and Mediatheque are both completely free? With all of that going on, I'd like to hope that BFI Southbank will open up the cinema experience to a whole new audience of people. And that's before you factor in the normal monthly film programmes. Because I didn't just go to the NFT last night to watch it die, of course. No, I was buying tickets for the Optronica festival, and the London premiere of Peter Greenaway's Tulse Luper Suitcases trilogy, and a new season of Chinese martial arts films. Not bad for a dead cinema, really.