Cinema Purgatorio and the Ball-Pond from Hell


Screen 2, Row E, third seat on the left

Hell, Dante tells us, has nine circles, each one reserved for souls guilty of particular sins.

The greedy, for example, go to the Third Circle, while heretics are flung down into the Fourth. If you’ve lived a lustful life, full of debauchery and fornication, you will find yourself in the second circle, writhing and naked with millions of other lustful souls who – wait, how exactly is that a punishment?

According to Dante, the worst Circles of Hell are reserved for fraudsters and traitors, suggesting that he’d had an unfortunate disagreement with his publisher over royalties. But the great Italian fell short in his demonic visions, because there is another Circle of Hell: the Tenth.

It is a place of infinite suffering and utter despair, echoing with the wailing of the damned.

It is a movie theatre called Cinepolis Junior.

The company responsible for this living nightmare is a Mexican chain of movie theatres called Cinepolis, presumably Senior, although given that it’s Mexican that might be Señor.
Señor Cinepolis wants to get more children into its cinemas. But, as the LA Times explained in its coverage of the diabolical new scheme, it can be “hard for young children to sit still for two hours, and that can turn a trip to the movies into an ordeal for parents”.
Cinepolis’s solution? Turn it into an ordeal for everyone, so parents don’t have to suffer alone.

That’s why they are building playgrounds inside movie theatres.

Jungle gyms. Beanbags. Slides.

Inside the theatre. Just next to the seats.

May God have mercy on our souls.

Apart from the fact that I’m pretty sure this violates the Geneva Convention, I can’t see how this satanic intervention is going to encourage children to watch films. It’s like primary schools deciding to teach children by taking them to a paintball range. Sure, they’ll see the odd word on a few signposts, and they’ll certainly sound out their letters – “Aaaaa! Eeeee! Miss, he shot me in the face! Oooooo!” – but I’m not convinced it will engender in them a lifelong love of literature.

One could argue that Señor Diablo isn’t actually doing it for the kiddies but is rather offering exhausted parents a chance to spend two hours asleep in a comfortable chair while their offspring gambol about in a tiny bespoke zoo. But then why go to the movies at all? Or is the secret hope that some other parents, slightly less sleep-deprived and more community-minded than yourself, will look after your brood as well as theirs?

the Devil himself has gone into the movie business

No, there are only two logical explanations for this monstrosity. Either Cinepolis was sold the idea by Netflix (“No, really, this will totally get more people into cinemas. Heh heh.”) or the Devil himself has gone into the movie business.

Then again, my own cinema-going history is peppered with fairly hellish moments.
For example, you haven’t known mortification until your parents have taken 11-year-old you to see Dirty Dancing, and, as the resort dancers indulge in some off-duty bum-grabbing and pelvis-grinding, you’ve prayed for the earth to open up and swallow you whole.

Likewise, there was the time I took a girlfriend to see Titanic and she began to sob the moment the film began. I was perturbed. Was it something I’d said? Had she just received terrible news via SMS on her incredibly expensive and stylish Nokia 3110? “No,” she sobbed, “I just know what’s going to happen.”

Happen? But . that was still three hours away! And if she was blubbing now, with everyone still alive, what was it going to be like when Kate and Leo went overboard and tried to cling to that plank? Would she be screaming and thrashing and tearing out her hair? And how could I ask that question without seeming callous? Worse, people were starting to glare at me. Bastard. He’s taken her to the movies to break up with her, and he couldn’t even wait until the end. Bastard.

Mostly, however, hell is other people, the ones you don’t know: the wrapper-rustlers, the straw slurpers, the chair kickers, or simply those peculiar innocents who don’t seem to understand that the story will unfold within the next 90 minutes.

“How is Frodo going to get away from the spider?” they cry. “Hey? How?!” I long to take them aside and tell them that the studio paid $300-million just so that their question would be answered. But mostly I want to ask them why they seem so unfamiliar with the conventions of storytelling. Did they have particularly busy parents? “‘Goldilocks gasped: the three bears had returned! And then – Sorry, love, got to take this call. Good night.”

No, I have to admit that I’ve never had the idyllic cinema experience – cinema paradiso. My consolation, however, is that Mexico and California are a world away, and I will never endure cinema purgatorio, either. Cinepolis Junior? Hell no.


Published in The Times


The other mother

'Close, Close' by Claudette Schreuders, 2011

From ‘Close, Close’ by Claudette Schreuders, 2011.

Most days, if the weather allows it, the shepherdesses drive their herds down to the park.

The streets that flank it are busy, but once the women have wrangled their animals through its wrought-iron gate, they can relax: the park is fenced, tree-filled, shady. The shepherdesses sit, their legs straight out in front of them, and begin to discuss the state of things in a combination of Xhosa and sighs.

Meanwhile, the herds have quickly dispersed throughout the park. Two species predominate: large golden retrievers, grazing on cat faeces, and small pink primates, grazing on each other. One of the primates screams; a shepherdess looks up sharply. “Mabel! Don’t push the baby!” The guilty shuffle apart. The nannies go back to their slow lament, and the toddlers go back to being disgusting. Away in the hydrangeas a retriever licks a child off its haunches, then licks it upright again.

As a nature documentary it is fascinating – you can almost hear Attenborough murmuring a commentary about the human two-year-old’s ability to eat its own body weight in earthworms – but to someone who is physically cautious it is worrying. For a moment I wonder if my anxiety is the result of corporate fear-mongering. The sanitary-industrial complex spends vast sums telling us that fatal microbes lurk everywhere; that we should wash our hands with ever more virulent chemical cocktails in case we catch plague from “dirty soap” that has touched the festering, pus-oozing sucking wounds we used to call “hands”. We know that this is hogwash, and that regular doses of dog gob and topsoil help build robust immune systems. And yet the sheer barbarism of the toddlers is jolting. Surely their nannies should be, you know, nannying them?

Then again, maybe they are. For a few years I had a nanny, a vast Xhosa woman called Priscilla. We would watch The A-Team together, and during those peculiarly ferocious but impotent fire fights, in which thousands of rounds were fired without hitting anything, she would shake her head and cluck, “These men, they are wasting their bullets.”

But it wasn’t just the A-Team who wasted their bullets. Any futile endeavour was a waste of bullets to Priscilla. In the end, I think, some of that philosophy, of preserving one’s psychic ammunition, rubbed off on me.

Looking at the feral toddlers in the park, I must consider that similar lessons are being learned here. They seem abandoned, but perhaps they are being taught not to waste their bullets on pointless anxieties. By being given as long a leash as Child Welfare allows, they are discovering that life is risk. More importantly, they are learning that they are trusted, and that they can therefore trust themselves. Before my alarmed eyes, they are growing a spine.

But my unease remains. It seems unjust that these children are learning lessons from women who should be raising their own children instead of leaving them in a township with an over-taxed grandmother. I also wonder: when the parents of these children go off to work in the morning, what do they imagine is about to happen? Do they picture a kind of antebellum idyll, with big black Mammy cooing over their honey-chile, hoping that the vast divide in personal freedoms can be ignored in a haze of nurturing? Do they have an inkling of this Lord of the Flies setup, and are secretly hoping that their township mother might inflict some of the tough love on their child that they themselves are too squeamish to offer? Or is it something in between, a complex relationship that fluctuates between guilt, gratitude, pragmatism and denial?

Whatever the relationship is, it ends; and when it ends, it is left unresolved. We discuss the politics of employing poor black women to raise comfortable white children; we engage with the economics of it. But somehow the psychology of it, of having a second mother who is then sent away by one’s first mother, remains unspoken. Perhaps those who have had nannies don’t know how to talk about that strange vanishing in their pasts, because it was long ago and tinged with loss they don’t understand. I still remember how Priscilla smelled; of Vaseline and Zambuck, now and then of snuff. But I can’t remember why she left, or whether or not I told anyone that I was sad to see her go. For white children, that relationship ends in silence; but the sound of silence lingers on for years.

The toddlers in the shrubbery are being infected with life but also imbued with a sense of belonging to an African mother, to an African whole. When they go home they will be scrubbed and disinfected. It would be nice if some of the soil remained inside them.


First published in The Times and TimesLive