Golden oldies in focus

29th March 1996 at 00:00
Reva Klein recalls her childhood at an exhibition celebrating 100 years of cinema. Everyone has their favourite childhood memory of going to the cinema. Mine makes me wince a bit for I had a rather bizarre penchant for gladiator movies in the days before gladiators had peroxided perms and names like Decimator Dave.

At the age of 10, heaven on earth consisted of sitting in the local movie house in St Louis on Saturday afternoons with a gargantuan vat of popcorn and a few of my buddies, watching lurid B movies set in ancient Rome featuring enchained, mini-skirted men with vulnerable faces being pitted against murderous bullies and the occasional lion.

It must have appealed to that nascent sadism of children out of which some (of us) never seem to grow. The fact that the soundtrack was always out of synch with the action somehow added to the compelling theatricality, the deeply un-suburban other-worldliness, the sheer escape of these bloody, nerve-racking escapades.

So it was with some disappointment that I came away from the Museum of the Moving Image's Cinema 100 multi-media display, in London's South Bank, without having seen a single grimacing man with bulging, glistening thighs. There are, however, thousands of other memorable cinematic images in the Cinema 100 museum trail and the accompanying Picturegoer exhibition, both of which celebrate the centenary of cinema.

The trail features seven multi-media stations, each one providing an interactive guide through a specific historical era of the cinema, covering areas from technical developments to clips of the most memorable films made. While easy to access, the text is geared at an academic or, at the very least, well-informed audience and is presented in a densely packed format. I had the distinct impression that this was not the province of the casual browser. The chief recipient of the information is more likely to be the tenacious devotee, who can happily stand in what is likely to be a busy museum and take it all in.

There is plenty for the less serious, too. MOMI's collection includes original artefacts from cinema history, including film costumes from the Twenties, Charlie Chaplin's first film contract from 1913 and an original model from Gremlins 2, circa 1990. And there are the usual MOMI attractions filling up the 3,000 square metres of exhibition space, including the permanent exhibitions of still and cine cameras going back 100 years, the social and political history of film and television in this country and elsewhere, a mock-up of a Hollywood studio of the Thirties and much, much more.

The special centenary exhibition, "Picturegoer: How 100 Years of Cinema-Going Changed Our Lives", is a carefully documented, wonderful evocation of cinema going from the beginning until now, covering the golden age of the silent movies in the Twenties, the creation of movie stars such as Rudolf Valentino and Charlie Chaplin, the era of the escapist picture palaces of the Thirties and Forties, the film industry's response to the threat of television and, closer to home, the wave of mass marketing, film merchandising and the multiplex cinemas of recent decades.

The exhibition, which runs until May 19, also contains the memories of ordinary people, collected during a national television appeal earlier this year, on the role of the cinema in their lives. Their recollections sit side by side with original film posters, full screen projection and stills of films over the last century and ephemera. For anyone who loves movies - with or without gladiators - this is an exhibition guaranteed to quicken the pulse.

There is also a foyer display of the five new stamps commemorating the centenary of film that the Royal Mail is issuing on April 16, depicting such diverse aspects as the Harrogate Odeon, the Pathe News cockerel and the interlocked lips of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in a still from That Hamilton Woman.

For teachers, MOMI's education officer Margaret O'Brien has written a handbook, Picturegoer, which covers the special exhibition of the same name but also is a good reference guide to the museum's permanent exhibits. As someone who has taken her children and numerous friends through the museum at least a million times since it opened in 1988, it looks like being just as valuable a resource for parents whose children consistently high-tail it through the various exhibits to get to their favourite bits.

The handbook is a sensible mix of historical background and ideas for classroom activities. While it has been designed for teachers of upper primary children with a particular emphasis on history, it is flexible enough for use with older children and covers project work across the curriculum, specifically English, science, art and design.

What is clear from the handbook, and from the exhibition itself, is that, given children's love of the cinema, it is a powerful hook for drawing them in to almost anything.

Entry to exhibition and museum Pounds 5.95 adults, Pounds 4 children, special educational group visits prices available from MOMI, 0171 815 1350. Picturegoer handbook, Pounds 3.95. Museum of the Moving Image, South Bank, London SE1 8XT. Tel: 0171 928 3535.

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