Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

15 April 2015

Imagine experiencing the wonders of those famous cliff-tops in Monument Valley from the constraints of the screen on your laptop. Or the beauty of Italy’s Amalfi Coast from the distance of a television screen.

Indeed, no one looks at a souvenir postcard and claims to have seen the “Mona Lisa”.

It was once remarked to me by a well-known film lover that you haven’t really seen a cinematic masterpiece unless you’ve experienced it in all its intended glory. That’s a key ingredient in the marvellous concoction that is Melbourne’s Astor Theatre in Australia.

The grand old dame has been serving up cinematic flair, on and off, since 1936. And as one of the world’s few remaining single-screen picture palaces, its place among film-loving Melburnians is a mix of sentimental nostalgia and burning curiosity. On any given day, one might catch a double bill of Taxi Driver alongside Dr Strangelove, with the rest of the catalogue providing a solid education in film history: Hitchcock classics interwoven with titles such as The Brain Eaters, Pretty in Pink, The Shop Around the Corner and Cat People.

After staring down the threat of closure more than a few times, Melbourne’s Astor is set to whir back to life under the wing of Australia’s sophisticated arthouse chain Palace Cinemas. But there are a few more acts to go before the Astor reaches the heights demanded by its “picture palace” label.

As Monocle’s own Robert Bound writes in the latest issue of our magazine, refurbishing a relic is a tricky thing. Visiting Bloomsbury’s Curzon cinema here in London, Bound discovered a reborn classic with a refreshed outlook on its place within the cinematic landscape. “This is first and foremost a commercial building”, remarks Curzon’s boss Philip Knatchbull. The Curzon aims to offer cinema lovers something they don’t already have; something not offered by a Friday night at home with a Blu-ray.

And with its marbled pink concrete staircase, gold bars serving classy aperitivi, subtle lighting and thoughtfully retrospective design details, the Curzon indeed shines with a unique spotlight.

That’s the dark cloud hanging over The Astor Theatre in Melbourne now. The Palace cinema chain, the Astor’s new owner, is no stranger to reinvigorating the art of moviegoing for more cultured clientele. Like London’s Curzon, Palace operates an array of lush, cosy theatres rich in design aesthetic and free of overpriced popcorn combos.

But in the case of the Astor, translating 80 years of history into something that will continue to attract new, curious minds won’t be as simple as a lick of paint and a few new door handles. Any modernisation of The Astor Theatre must be respectful of its historical significance, while also considering the expectations of the contemporary cinemagoer. No more murky, black watery coffee or wine in plastic cups. Melburnians are a sophisticated bunch; they can do better than that. The ice cream choc-tops however, now there’s a tradition worth keeping.

Ben Rylan is Monocle 24’s associate producer.

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