Astor La Vista

Thursday, 25 September, 2014

Words by Declan Mulcahy
Illustration by Sarah Layton

A week after the Astor theatre announced its impending closure, I went along to one of the Sunday night sessions—a Fellini double feature. I got my ticket and meandered upstairs like any other time I’ve visited, bought one of their delicious choc-tops, and settled in for the show. Only when the lights dimmed and the opening credits flickered onto the screen was I hit with a pang of sadness, realising that this was the beginning of the end. While it wouldn’t be the last time I’d settle into one of the Astor’s stately leather seats, this was an experience I’d only be able to repeat a few more times before the doors close for the last time.

There’s no point going into the grisly details behind the business’ usurpation. Most major news outlets have covered that ground for me, and I’m sure many of you are familiar with the history of animosity between the theatre operators and building owners. But sitting in the dark as the credits rolled on Sunday evening I felt compelled to write something in celebration of the Astor, and to provide some perspective on the misery behind its closure.

The first film I saw at the Astor was Some Like it Hot, and I can still remember sitting in awe as the music blared and the reel began. The light that shone from the black and white images projected onto the screen turned the whole theatre grayscale, incorporating the silhouetted heads of the audience into the cinematic world. ‘Magical’ seems like too twee a word to describe the experience, but there really is no other way to put it. Whether you go along and see a Hollywood classic, a gem of European arthouse cinema, a cheesy 1980s blockbuster or a modern masterpiece, for two hours you are pulled out of 21st century Melbourne and into another place entirely.

I’m no purist—and definitely no expert—when it comes to discussions of film format, but I can’t deny that the experience of visiting the Astor is enhanced infinitely with the display of a 35mm or 70mm print. The vivid colours, the graininess of the image, and the occasional blots and scratches, all serve to create a feeling of authenticity and pull you into the screening all the more. Basking in the glow of such an archaic form really does turn a film at the Astor from a simple night out to a fully-fledged experience. One of my favourite memories of the theatre was seeing Apocalypse Now for the first time, in glorious 35mm. Coppola’s film is so enormous, in every sense, and seeing it at the Astor somehow made it even bigger, blasting me with sound and image.

Sadly, we can’t save the Astor. There’s the hope that the building’s owner will at least keep it as a cinema, but it seems unlikely that the tradition of quality programming and the authentic experience will continue beyond early next year. Until then, all we can do is go along for a few more nights and savour every last moment of its long and celebrated life. If you’ve never been before, pick out a film from the program and get over there. If it’s been a while since you’ve attended one of their screenings, it seems an apt time to take up the habit again. If you’re a regular attendee and diehard fan of the theatre—well, just keep on doing what you’re doing. I’ll see you down there some time.