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


Rugby? Thanks, I’ll pass

60.1583A winter afternoon under a hard blue sky. Rugby players, panting, scattered across a field.

The home team trailing by a single drop-kick. The opposition, a juggernaut in the first half, now looking ragged; rumours of food poisoning starting to swirl.

The crowd rolls and roars, an ocean of anticipation, and then it breaks into a storm as the ball comes out. The scrumhalf rifles a flat pass; the flyhalf steadies himself, feeling the pull of the distant posts as he weighs the drop-kick that will define the rest of his life. And then a roar so loud that it seems the sky is a canvas being torn in half by a god reaching down to shake the foundations of the Earth.

Yes, it was quite a moment, that morning behind the primary school in the small Overberg farming town.

At least I think it was, because I wasn’t really fully conscious in the true sense of the word.

What I was, was frightened and confused. Because the flyhalf hadn’t kicked the ball. Instead he’d looked around him as six obese pre-teens with buzz cuts bore down on him, and he’d seen the only player on his team standing in space. Me.

I wasn’t being marked because I wasn’t a threat. My coach had parked me on the wing to keep me out of harm’s way and to prevent me from doing what I always did when the ball came to me: picking it up and kicking it into touch to make the running stop, if only for a few merciful seconds.

And yet now the ball was arcing towards me. I remember my despair that my teammates had chosen this moment to include me in their stupid game. I felt deeply betrayed. I looked at the sidelines, appealing for help from the sensible grown-ups, but I saw only a phalanx of unsympathetic parents: an impenetrable wall of polyester.

Someone was shouting at me: a father in the middle of the wall, a parody of an apartheid patriarch, straining his safari suit at the seams, his bristling moustache stained yellow by cigarettes, his face pale with fury, the veins and tendons on his neck standing out like whipcords lashing the back of a span of Voortrekker oxen.

“Fokken hardloop!” he screamed. And then someone dropped a piano on my head and hit me in the side with an ocean liner. The fat bastards had reached me, scuttling with nightmarish speed across half a field, like a pack of particularly swift crabs made of pink lard. I lay crumpled on the wet earth. The match was over.

I remember that man clearly, but without much ill will. For starters, he’s almost certainly dead now. This happened 30 years ago and nobody that angry or unhealthy could have made it through his 60s. Besides, if the 1992 referendum didn’t give him a stroke, I’m pretty sure the appointment of an English-speaking Springbok captain would have finished him off.

But the real reason I don’t hate him and his stupid rage is that I must have appeared astonishingly dense that morning. I must have looked as if I was farting about on a rugby field without knowing any of the rules of the game. Which was exactly the case.

Nobody had taught me the basics of the sport because they assumed I knew them. And, to be fair, in that tiny community it was a fairly safe assumption. In their universe it was inconceivable that a white boy would know nothing about rugby. When I’d asked my coach to explain the rules to me, he’d brushed me off, perhaps assuming I was making an esoteric joke that only English-speaking gay atheists would find funny. And so I played three or four matches, touched the ball twice, got sat on by lots of fat children, and never had the faintest clue about what was going on.

I remembered the assumptions of that cultural cocoon this week as Springbok captain Jean de Villiers told a radio station that it was “almost the responsibility” of every citizen to support the national rugby team in the coming World Cup.

It was a ludicrous demand. I mean, we’d all still be laughing if the captain of the national shuffleboard team told us it was a civic responsibility, like voting, to root for our team in next week’s Shuffle-Rama Super Slide-Off in Miami’s Final Countdown retirement village.

Yet nobody was laughing at De Villiers. Instead hands were reaching for hearts. National symbols were being dusted off. Marketing organ grinders and their monkeys were grinding out anthems.

We’re being encouraged, even subtly instructed, to join in a game – of identity, of loyalty, of patriotism – whose rules nobody has explained but which we’re expected to know. As for me, I’ve been bundled into touch, out of touch, as confused as I was 30 years ago on that cold, fresh field.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail