-WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS-
The appeal of Secret Cinema seems to derive from a competing set of discourses that characterise the precarious position of contemporary film spectatorship. In one sense it caters to a symbolic, perhaps even nostalgic yearning, for the ‘magic’ of the cinematic space. The shift from auditorium to home viewing, the often substandard experience offered by the multiplex, and the myriad leisure activities based on a dissolution of the binary between producer and consumer, have arguably challenged traditional cinema like never before. Secret Cinema arguably looks to reaffirm the sense of experience confronting these challenges head on by amalgamating the film text with theatrical display, creating performance beyond the screen and integrating the audience as participants rather than viewers. It is also, paradoxically, a throwback to earliest days of cinema while being thoroughly (post)modern in attempting to immerse the ‘audience’ into a simulated meta-spectacle using an unashamed appropriation of parodic fantasy packaged cine-literate consumers.
The clash between reality and representation, past and future, art and entertainment, all play out through Secret Cinema’s latest incarnation, a hugely ambitious theatrical rendering of 80s classic Back to the Future (Robert Zemeciks, 1985). Constructed in a purpose built Hill Valley town square at the Olympic Park, Hackney an aura of 50s retro is created through iconic locations from the film: Lou’s Cafe, Hill Valley High School (hosting the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance), Hill Valley Radio and some additions like Ruth’s Frock Shop and Roy’s Records. The film’s famous clock tower overlooks the square position on a giant facia of the Dept. of Social Services building, which also serves as the screen onto which the film is projected.
The scale of this nostalgic theme park could have proven to be the event’s downfall before it even started with the now well-publicised cancellation of the first week of screenings. When the event did get underway on Thursday the 31st of July immediate social media comments were wide ranging with some incredible enthusiasm contradicted by complaints of long queues, lack of organisation and high cost. If the original ethos of secret cinema was the ‘secrecy’, and a vibe of cinephilic exclusivity attached to that, this event certainly marks a move towards the mainstream. Ironically the bad publicity may have actually increased the hype and as we approached the venue it was clear that most people (including ourselves) had embraced, the heavily asserted, call to dress in 50s garb.
Strolling leisurely from Hackney Wick station at 5:30 on Saturday the 2nd of August, we arrived at the queue. Only having to wait 15 minutes we went through ‘security’ very quickly, of course giving up our lifeline to the present (smartphones), and proceeded into Hill Valley. Just having an initial look around there was a lot of fun to be had. Twin pines ranch (complete with live animals) is the first film inspired location we passed, followed by the Lyon Estates advertising billboard where Secret Cinema’s ‘official’ photographer took photos. A yellow school bus and Cadillac convertible offered rides around the central square, which was bordered by period shops, businesses and mock houses belonging to characters from the film. The actors interacted enthusiastically with the public often doing little skits. The wild haired Doc Brown performed strange experiments, Biff and his gang went around pretending to cause trouble and Marty himself arrived generally wandering around wearing a confused “where am I” expression. However, apart from the obvious characters, everyone was so well dressed it was hard to tell who were the actors and who were members of the public. All of this imbued the sense of immersion and interactivity the event is obviously trying to produce.
Undoubtedly, seeing the ‘real-life’ recreations of key moments from the film - synchronised on the whole very well - was the best aspect of the entire experience. Particularly good was the arrival of the Delorean car looking exactly like it’s filmic counterpart. Huge excitement and cheers from the crowd followed as the time machine reversed out into full view (mirroring perfectly the sequence from the film), and this was followed with pyrotechnics that coincided with the 88MPH jump back in time. Marty Mcfly’s skateboard scene, George punching out Biff to win Lorraine, and the lighting striking the clock tower finale were also really well dramatised. The actors all looked great and performed their roles with gusto. The audience were hugely in tune with the film and the theatrical simulations cheering, booing and clapping throughout.
Interestingly, all the ‘meta’ elements designed to bring the film-world off the screen to immerse the spectators, actually served to reinforce how good Back to the Future is as a film text in and of itself. There is almost no superfluous baggage in the narrative, the exposition is all woven in via plot or character development, and it is very funny and exciting. Perfect is an absolute definition but Back to the Future is a cut above the dour, over-long, portentous blockbusters of today. Indeed the success of the entire Secret Cinema immersive experience is fundamentally predicated on the strength of the film being shown.
There are criticisms to be made. We entered at around 5:30 and the film itself didn’t start till around 9:10 with the intervening 3 hours designed to get you to spend as much money as possible. We didn’t encounter issues with queuing that some had reported however food and drink were very expensive. Added to ticket prices and costumes (which many people had obviously spent time and money on) the evening doesn’t come cheap. The official photos were a particular gripe in terms of cost and quality and this relates to the whole ‘no phones’ issue. Many people did sneak phones in and with this event definitely a shift towards overt commercialisation trying to police phone use was somewhat redundant. On the other hand it was refreshing to be, for a few hours only, in the moment and not photographing or tweeting everything. It is undoubtedly the case also that good weather is vital and we were lucky in that regard, and it was difficult to feel fully immersed with the overwhelming presence of the John Lewis' dwarfing the entire arena.
On the whole the experience was hugely enjoyable with the majority of the audience/participants fully embracing the interactive spirit of the concept. Ironically, Back to the Future is an apposite phrase with which to describe the Secret Cinema experience as it points to cinematic future that borrows from the past. It will be very interesting to see where this concept goes next.