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Seeing Other Cinemas

There was only one cinema in Macclesfield. As in most crumbling post-industrial towns in the north of England, entertainment choices were in short supply. The Majestic was an old-fashioned, family-owned picture house, with a single screen in a gently dilapidated auditorium and a sound system with the audio clarity of a tin can phone. If you did not like the one film showing that week, then tough luck. So when the management decided they would not be screening Aliens, I was gutted. Alien had been a near-mythical movie to me: One classmate of mine had taken a vacation to the U.S. in the summer of 1979 and had seen the original in a cinema. I had always wondered whether his stories about facehuggers and chestbursters were accurate, but, due to the unforgiving "no kids allowed" British film certification system, I had to wait until the film scuttled out on VHS like a dirty secret. Aliens was a chance for me to rewrite that unfairness and see H.R. Giger's Freudian nightmares on the big screen.

So my sister and I drove to the unknown territories of the Davenport theatre in Stockport, a whole 12 miles away. It almost felt like disloyalty: Practically every Friday since the first Star Wars film screened, I had handed my pocket money over to the Majestic. Sure, there had been some dalliances with the Cornerhouse in Manchester, but that was daytime, arthouse fare, and this was a Friday night movie. It was raining outside, so the roads were slippery and unnerving. Inside, the cinema was mostly empty, and the film was every bit as taut and gruesome and unpredictable as I had dreamed. One alien had been traumatic enough; this had dozens, and they were kicking the U.S. Colonial Marines' collective ass. This was the era of one-man armies, of Rambos and Top Guns. Yet when posturing poltroon Bill Paxton's Hudson squealed, "Game over, man – game over," that narrative imploded. This was subtly subversive cinema, and I loved it. When Sigourney Weaver's iconic Ripley took on the alien queen, she did not use her guns or grenades or flamethrower; she used a power loader. She was a blue-collar action hero, grabbing the first tool that came to hand like a sci-fi Rosie the Riveter. The film cracked open the idea of cinema for me: The idea that a sequel without a Jedi or a bullwhip-cracking archaeologist could be as good as the original was unprecedented enough. Years later I would hear that there were missing scenes, so waiting for the director's cut to arrive, complete with sentry guns and inseminated miners, felt like one major step toward understanding film. Still wish I could have seen it at the Majestic, though.

Aliens screens Thursday, July 7, 9:25pm, and Friday, July 8, 7pm.

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