Fantastic Fest Review: Scala!!!
The very punk history of London’s legendary art/grindhouse cinema
By Richard Whittaker,
12:31PM, Sun. Sep. 24, 2023
The histories of modern alternative cinemas and punk are oddly intertwined. Maybe it’s just coincidence, that they both emerged in the late Seventies, that they thrived in the same grimy spaces. But in Scala!!!, the history of London’s seminal boundary-pushing theatre, the flicks become a side note to the scene – and sometimes the tunes.
Scala!!! (or, to give it its full name, 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) looks at a particularly brief period in the history of London’s legendary purveyors of provocative motion pictures. The original site had been home to a cinema, on and off, since 1920, but it’s the era from 1977 to 1993 – its most storied and important – that interests former Scala booker Jane Giles and co-director Ali Catterall.
However, don’t expect much discussion of its innovations in film programming in mid-Eighties Britain. The connection between the Scala and Britain’s punk and post-punk scenes is established quickly, as the first three patrons/talking head interviewees are DJ Mark Moore, PiL cofounder Jah Wobble, and The Duke of Burgundy director Peter Strickland (himself initially as much an avant-garde musician as he was filmmaker).
But as Scala founder Stephen Woolley notes, it was no accident that his haven for cineastes, scumbags, and insomniacs became so connected with rock & roll: Instead, it was a deliberate effort to weave the cinema into what would be now seen described as alternative and queer culture. It therefore makes sense that the Scala survives today as a hub of Central London’s DJ scene, and much of the film is dedicated to the musical history of the Scala over its cinematic legacy (more Iggy Pop than Pasolini).
Initially, it feels more like a partner piece to Blitzed! The 80s Blitz Kids Story in its exploration of a venue as a center of a scene. When it does move to the film side, it does seem like the same old suspects of British cinema history (Kim Newman, Alan Jones, et al), so it’s oddly cheering to see less familiar film wonks of the same era like comedian Stewart Lee and Attack the Block director Joe Cornish’s long-running creative partner Adam Buxton turn up and recall the all-nighters, the mix of softcore and art house, and the general sense of cultural liberty.
If anything, the biggest gap is the lack of British filmmakers and critics on the importance of the Scala. John Waters and Mary Harron did manage to make the cut, but the long list of locals who were also regulars are relegated to odd audio clips and a graphic. That Giles and Catterall rather cheekily refer to former Jesus and Mary Chain bassist Doug Hart as a filmmaker (which is true, but like name-checking race car driver Paul Newman) seems like they’re aware of the omission.
Similarly, there’s a weird glossing over of exactly how the Scala operated (a fascinating idiosyncrasy of British licensing laws) and what finally took it out (it wasn’t, as the filmmakers suggest, a grand conspiracy by Thatcherite forces but an act of hubristic self-sabotage that invoked the wrath of Stanley Kubrick). Equally, the allure of what projectionist Ali Kayley refers to as the “brutal beauty” of the area seems more like a hellish environment to watch a film, although one given a droll elegy from staffers left cleaning up cum and corpses.
But even for every infuriating diversion and act of self-indulgent revisionism, there’s also a sense of undeniable excitement, of the Scala as a place of cultural excitement. There’s a particular pleasure and resonance in the screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse for Fantastic Fest, for the Scala, with its grindhouse-meets-art house programming and DIY attitude, seems a clear progenitor for the early days of the Austin-based cinema chain. After so many years of documentaries about 42nd Street and drive-ins, it’s good to see a non-American cinema get its time on the silver screen.
North American Premiere
Fantastic Fest Screenings
Wed., Sept. 27, 1:50pm