The Astor belongs to the forgotten time of the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema and all the glitz and glamour that surrounded it. The philosophy behind initial moving picture screenings was naturally adapted from the theatre and hence many of the original picture theatres were either converted or built in the same style.
While no match for the grandeur of theatres such as The Princess of Her Majesty’s in the CBD, the art-deco interior of The Astor is still splendid to behold and the cavernous screening room holds well over 1,000 people. Seeing a film at The Astor is like visiting your favourite grandparents; you stuff yourself with food and drink, sit in well-worn but comfortable furniture before hearing the same stories you grew up on. The entire time you feel like you’ve been accepted into warm bosom of a nostalgic yesteryear.
The experience of the cinema has changed dramatically over the time since The Astor first cranked up its projector and while it still lays hold to the claim of the longest running operational single picture theatre in Melbourne, it has been met by long running sagas of financial hardship and ownership dilemmas.
It seems almost unthinkable now when you can download or stream any film ever made with a click of a button, but not too long ago the only place you could watch a feature film was at a cinema. The commercial structure of Golden Age Hollywood cinema lent itself to the single picture theatre model. Movie companies would own the entire structure of film production and distribution, from the initial purchase of cameras and celluloid, right down to owning the theatres themselves. Actors, writers and directors were employees of the studios and these familiarities mean that up through the Golden Age each studio produced films that were identifiably traceable back to their stable of talent. It was only in the 1940’s when these two operating arms of production and distribution were forcibly separated by a Supreme Court ruling that this methodology changed.
Television began to challenge the way in which people experienced watching a film. Some films may have been met with a fairly tepid commercial response upon release but later grew a life of their own. The Night of the Hunter was one of the first of these whose reputation developed upon the back of countless late night television broadcasts. Similarly, the 80s brought us home videos and for the first time copies of films could be personally owned and watched at the viewer’s discretion. The Shawshank Redemption, currently rated #1 on imdb.com’s Top 250 movies, largely owes its endearing popularity to the proliferation of home videos.
I’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey several times over the years. The first time I watched it at home on DVD and while I was impressed by the mesmeric visual sequences, the obtuse nature of the film’s structure and plot left me somewhat underwhelmed and paled somewhat in comparison to other Kubrick classics A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket or The Shining.
Seeing it in 70mm format that Kubrick intended it to be viewed and in a proper cinema radically changes the experience. While the long scenes of spaceship ballet had previously bored me, played out on the big screen they were breathlessly epic. But as much as the visuals were absolutely stunning, it was the immersive effect of the soundtrack which lifted the experience to another plane. The grandeur of the classical score underlines the epic nature of the story, while the chilling tones and deathly silences are nearly impossible to replicate in a standard home setting. The sheer scale of Kubrick’s vision and the technical prowess in producing this is the late 60’s is simply mind-boggling.
Enough surely has been written on the deft artistry behind Kubrick’s hand on the camera, but the chance to experience arguably the finest example of his visual imagination is a truly awe-inspiring occasion, befit of a theatre such as The Astor.