As nations go, Australia seems to have more than its fair share of globally recognised icons. Kangaroos. Koalas. Boomerangs. Didgeridoos. Vegemite. The Sydney Opera House. Hugh Jackman. Hugh Jackman’s pecs. You get the point.
When visiting a particular country, most tourists will try to tick as many of the famous and iconic off their list as they can, under the assumption that that’s the best way to experience what a country has to offer. In my travels, I’ve found that many times, what really sums up a place and its people might not necessarily be obvious or grand at first sight. They might not even be known to the outside world, but may very well be among the most enduring, most cherished icons to the locals themselves.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to draw your attention to the Astor Theatre.
Everybody who lives in Melbourne knows the Astor. Nestled on the corner of Dandedong Road and Chapel Street in the suburb of St. Kilda since 1936, it is as much a landmark as it is a monument to a bygone era. It’s not the city’s oldest cinema (that honour belongs to the Palace Westgarth), but it is pretty much the only single-screen cinema still in business. Yes, just one screen in an age where multiplexes commonly hold over a dozen screens. But that is precisely part of its charm. The Astor is living history.
Sadly, that may not be the case for much longer. Due to a dispute between the landlord and the cinema operator, the Astor will be forced to close down in early 2015. A group of loyal fans recently started an online petition to boycott any new tenant that takes over the building, and the response has been encouraging so far. Only time will tell if these valiant efforts are successful. If this is indeed the twilight of the Astor’s lifespan, then I am glad I managed to visit before its final show.
But what’s so special about this joint besides being as old as your grandpa? I must admit I am somewhat partial to “Golden Age thinking” as described in Woody Allen’s “Midnight In Paris” — the romantic notion that the past is somehow better. While certain outdated elements like technology have no place in our time, there are others that are sorely missing from the modern moviegoing experience.
To me, the foremost thing is character. Old-time picture houses like the Astor are singular both in form and identity. They literally don’t make them like they used to. Nowadays, going to the movies almost always means heading to a mall, where you find samey-looking franchises operated by faceless corporations. Like others of its era, the Astor is a standalone building with a rather distinct look of its own. Its rustic brown-brick facade and unmistakably 1930s architecture is a good hint of what to expect inside.
Even then, upon entry I found myself caught off-guard by the feelings this place evoked in me. I smiled as I realised why the Astor felt so familiar. It reminded me of the single-screen cinemas that hosted some of the most formative movies of my childhood (no, I’m not THAT old. There were cinemas like these in Malaysia well into the 90s). Stepping into the Astor brought back a lot of fond memories. It also made me feel like I’d stepped way back in time.
Like a clueless tourist, I stood there in the foyer, staring at the space around me. A strange structure caught my eye, and it took me a while before I recognised what this was: an actual Box Office! The term is thrown around so often, its easy to forget that back in the day, there really were these big wooden boxes where tickets were sold. I’d never seen one before in real life, so it geeked me out to no end.
Alas, the Box Office was no longer in use. No matter. There was still lots to soak in and savour. If you were to compare the current interior with archival photos, you’d be amazed to see how little has changed. The original art deco theme from the 30s remains to this day. Although its glory days were long behind it, with peeling wallpaper, cracking paint and a faint musty smell betraying its age, the Astor was generally well-kept. Besides, the wear & tear gave it a comforting, lived-in vibe.
The cinema’s antiquated projection equipment had found new life as decoration pieces, along with various bits of movie memorabilia. Posters of classic films lined the walls, and the cool thing is that many of these films still receive actual play from time to time. The Astor is well-known for its savvy programming, and it’s common to have an oldie paired with a current release as a double bill.
For that night, both the offerings were relatively new: Terry Gilliam’s “The Zero Theorem” and Spike Jonze’s “Her”. Having seen the latter, we planned to catch only the former. At AUD16 (roughly RM46), the tickets for a double bill are about the same price as a single movie anyway. We went upstairs to the screening floor, and noticed that it was more lavishly decorated than the foyer. I wasn’t too crazy about the slightly garish carpeting though, as it didn’t go with the overall design.
A crowd had started to build by this point, and it seemed to be comprised mostly of hardcore film buffs. I overheard a bunch of guys discussing Australian cinematographer Dion Beebe’s body of work. He’s the guy who shot Michael Mann’s “Collateral” (wonderful digital work), and Rob Marshall’s “Memoirs Of A Geisha”. I would’ve gladly continued my eavesdropping had it not been time to go in.
On the way in, I passed the concession stand. Nothing unusual, just your run-of-the-mill popcorn, snacks and soda. We decided to save our tummies for a proper dinner later on, so I won’t be able to tell you how the F&B here ranks against other cinemas of the world. Any thoughts of food soon disappeared as we entered the screening hall. My eyes were drawn to a massive curtain covering the screen, the kind you’re more likely to see at the opera nowadays. In the days of yore however, that was how cinemas announced the start of showtime. Fancy chandeliers and faux balconies completed the classy air. The hall itself was huge, with a screen large enough to give IMAX a run for its money. Well, almost.
While it prides itself on its old-school ways, the Astor’s projection system is pretty up-to-date. Boasting a fully digital AV setup, the picture was as crisp and rich as anything you’d get in today’s upmarket cineplexes. Unfortunately, their sound-proofing was still stuck in the past. Hard surfaces all over — from floor to ceiling — resulted in a lot of echo, making it hard to hear the dialogue. Not that good audio would’ve made the movie any better. Let’s just say this was one of Terry Gilliam’s most muddled works.
The seats could’ve used some upgrading as well. Made of wood and leather cushioning, many of them were badly in need of repair. To be fair, they were still quite comfortable. Another thing to note is that it’s all free seating, which might be a problem when it’s a full house. Regardless of the movie playing, I doubt the Astor has seen a capacity crowd in a while. Could this be the real reason for its owner wanting to close it down? We will probably never find out, but I do know that a cinema like the Astor Theatre, warts & all, is irreplaceable.
Their tagline is “Fine Films And Atmosphere”. Based on just one evening spent with this grand dame of Melbourne’s cultural scene, I’d say it more than lives up to this promise. It might not represent the definitive moviegoing experience in Australia, so it’s a little hard to stack this up against the other entries on our “Moviegoing Around The World” list. But standing out is what an icon is all about.
In that sense at least, and in the hearts & minds of many fans, the Astor will live forever.
In case you missed it, here are our previous adventures…
(Note: 1st, 2nd, 4th, 9th and 10th pics copyright The Astor Theatre. All other pics copyright Electroshadow.com)