Future Cinema: Casablanca


16th March 2013

You may recall that late last year Matt was forced to go and watch Grease at a Future Cinema event by his wife. Well, I've gone one better: I forced my wife to go and watch Casablanca at the latest Future Cinema screening, and neither of us had to do a single hand jive. I did have to pretend to be a humourless resistance fighter and allow the missus to have it off with a rakish bar owner though, so, you know... swings and roundabouts.

You've probably heard of Future Cinema already: specialists in "living, breathing experiences of the cinema", they put on movie events which involve screening a beloved classic in the midst of an immersive, interactive live show. My only experience of it, and of its sister venture Secret Cinema, was a handful of fairly negative reports which cited enormous queues, gargantuan amounts of standing around and poor presentation of films as the overriding memories to be taken away. To be fair, Matt enjoyed his Grease experience, but then Matt is a very, very simple man who also enjoyed Gangster Squad. Clearly I needed to experience Future Cinema myself, otherwise I would never be able to slate it on Twitter with a clear conscience.

I decided that Casablanca was as good a film as any to have a living, breathing experience of, given that it may well be the greatest film ever made. I love it with every fibre of my being, so it was entirely up to Future Cinema to either do it the justice it deserves or bugger it up beyond belief. The fun began as soon as I booked - I received an email from Rick Blaine himself inviting me to Rick's Café Américain (read: the Troxy theatre, east London), which was surprising given that he was running his bar nearly fifty years before email was invented. He also furnished me with a fake ID card in the name of a Polish migrant, Zajzon Donka.

Printers are also commonplace in 1940s Morocco.

I googled Mr Donka in order to get into character and discovered that he's a technical support agent for steamradiators.com. It has to be said, the anachronisms were piling up at an alarming rate.

Once at the venue, the first thing we encountered was one of those massive queues I'd read so much about. There was a little street theatre to entertain the poor, huddled masses sheltering from the unseasonal Moroccan drizzle, which involved random people being humiliated by an overzealous police officer played by an actor who clearly enjoyed humiliating people. This was actually quite entertaining - people being humiliated is always fun as long as none of them are me - but as it turned out the queue moved fairly quickly and we were soon inside Rick's.

The first thing I noticed about Rick's Café Américain was that it wasn't a dingy 1940s north African gin joint but a huge, 1930s art deco theatre. Not entirely in keeping with the film's setting, I thought, but I also thought maybe I should stop looking for things to criticise and just enjoy myself.

If it's December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in Stepney?

We took a table and started work on a bottle of wine while events unfolded around us. A chap who was clearly meant to be Sam was tinkling away at a piano, so I went over and said hello and took his photo. A lady approached our table asking if we knew anything about exit visas so I told her that Rick had probably stashed some in Sam's piano, and she gave me a sexy wink and wandered off. I was beginning to enjoy this immersive theatre experience. Not long after, the overzealous policeman approached while I was fiddling with my phone and asked if it was a radio. He obviously wasn't as tech-savvy as Rick. While I was mentally debating whether to engage with him as a fascistic rozzer or an actor in a silly costume, he made me stand up in the middle of the room and proceeded to humiliate me which, predictably, was nowhere near as much fun as watching other people being humiliated. Eventually he left me alone and I made a point to leave my phone in my jacket for the rest of the night.

Play it again, Clive

Meanwhile, a swing band on stage belted out songs from the soundtrack and around us the events of Casablanca were acted out by people who'd been in a few episodes of Holby Blue. I actually enjoyed this bit; it felt like the immersive, interactive experience we'd been promised, and it all happened in such a way as not to demand my full attention, but to provide frequent minor nuggets of entertainment throughout the night. After a couple of hours of this, the lights dimmed and the film began.

Now this is where the concept falls down. All that "living, breathing experience" stuff is undeniably fun, and in some cases better than watching a plain old stage show. But for a lot of punters it's the preamble to the main event: they've come primarily to watch a film, and secondarily to be humiliated by a jobbing actor. Yet the atmosphere created by the theatre element is entirely the wrong one in which to expect everyone to suddenly shut up, sit still and watch a film. So they don't. People carry on chatting and wandering around, while Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman break each other's hearts in the background like emotional wallpaper.

But what wallpaper.

Perhaps it's the film choice that's wrong: Casablanca deserves every second of your attention for 102 glorious minutes. Maybe something like a Fast And Furious film, or something else that you could enjoy without actually paying it the slightest attention, would work better. Because make no mistake: the film, no matter how great or classic, is subordinate to the preceding live entertainment.

That said, the preceding live entertainment is very good. Future Cinema work their tits off to replicate the film's mood, and to some extent they succeed. But the format, and its marketing, still need a few tweaks before everyone walks away from one of these events having truly lived and breathed cinema.

Tickets for Future Cinema: Casablanca are still available here.

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