(First published as part of Architecture Ireland's "Writing Space" series)
Does anyone remember the Screen Cinema, plugged into a corner of the aptly named Townsend Street? Although now demolished as part of a wider re-development of the area, the Screen, as I recall it, was a rain-grey, lumbering clunk of a structure, with an appealingly cartoonish brass usher planted outside. It was incongruous and cheap, vibrant and inviting: somewhere, whenever I visited, I felt both at home and happily anonymous within. In retrospect (always a hazy vantage-point, I admit), I'm even tempted to suggest that there was a poetic charm to this building: in that, as a stuck-together, eminently affordable sort of space, people came to it, willingly bringing whatever of their own experiences they had to hand to meet and to process what was on offer – a space of exchange and accommodation, rather than consumption per se.
I mention all this because, long before dedicating myself to exploring poetry, I was an enthusiastic (aspiring) film-buff: a happy fanatic, whose week-to-week routine was more or less ordered by the movies I watched and, a little later, the reviews I read. At thirteen, my parents' purchase of David Thompson's History of Cinema: 1894-2004 seemed the most generous and exciting of Christmas gifts; three years later, I accepted my grandparents' almost-too-casual offering of Roger Ebert's The Great Movies with a blend of reverence and unholy thrill. Such emotions were doubtless sharpened by the intensities of a teenaged existence: the emotional promise and formal complexity of cinema, the sense of there being a world before me made up of achieved invention and meaningful human relationships, absorbed the many (albeit sometimes quite simple) confusions and curiosities of adolescent living. Love, sex, and loneliness, war, violence, and even politics, all had a glamour and compelling choreography on-screen that seemed instructive, however remotely, for me in my suburban world – watching and re-watching (what I consider) classics like Stagecoach (1939) and The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), The Innocents (1961) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Some Like It Hot (1959) and Pride and Prejudice (2005). It was from this odd, if often joyous maelstrom of moving pictures that I drew my first ideas, however half-formed, about art and experience – including my own experience as an at least fitfully feeling, somewhat sentient individual.
The same holds true today. While I'm conscious that there's a great luxury in the fact, I can say with some certainty that my favourite films have helped me, if not always to understand the myriad dramas of life and history more clearly, at least to recognise the value there is in paying attention to these. As such, I baulk at suggestions that film – and art more generally – is inevitably a kind of escapism; for me, movies have always been a means of situating my life, small as it is, in the world as it exists around and beyond me. And in this respect, unsurprisingly, my ongoing endeavours as a film appreciator have affected, if not actively infiltrated and organised, my approach to poetry.
I once acknowledged this directly – in a poem written at aged seventeen or so, but never published. In it, I tried to pay tribute to a number of Westerns that my Grandad had introduced me to as a child – including Stagecoach (1939), High Noon (1952), The Searchers (1955), and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) – while also conveying something of the strangeness and compulsion that defined those youthful encounters. The piece is called “The Last Cowboy”, and goes (if you'll indulge me) as follows:
to walk like the last cowboy,
wandering into the sun.
'That’ll be the day', Ethan said,
and I repeated in my head.
Later he shot
the Indian down –
I stopped dead
in my tracks then.
The coach, I knew, was saved
when the bugle rang, but
The Ringo Kid had only crossed
the desert: the alleymen
were waiting back in town.
I dived with my wooden spoon,
got them every time.
Maybe they fell
to Boot Hill
where Doc was heading
(though I did not realise).
'Small Price to pay for beauty',
and stepped away
as the bank bars crashed shut,
through the hole in the wall,
the mind’s door, into
the big country.
Reading it now, I believe the poem was an attempt (a limited one, but earnest) to come to terms with what the director Francois Truffaut once called the joy and agony of making a film – or in my case, of watching Westerns, with their peculiar combination of violence and myth, of assured finality and gusting desire. More than this, I think “The Last Cowboy” intuits a kind of productive tension between the conventions of the genre and my own rituals of movie-going: between the openness longed for, “the big country” on-screen or out there, and the structures which seem both to enclose and to brighten that dream, like the looming presences of town, bank, and graveyard in the poem – the factual world, so to speak, from which the Western must be re-imagined and entered. A grammar of disjunctions plays out between the poem's first expression of want and the closing (if very much un-closed) image of largeness and potential discovery, and yet there is little doubt as to the strength of imagining that the Western as a genre, and the very experience of movie-going, makes manifest. Put another way, it seems that at their best – to my young mind at any rate – these films held out a chance (to adapt a line by the poet Elizabeth Bishop) of dreaming our dreams and having them, too.
As it happens, it's a concentrated form of this sensation that I associate with the former Screen Cinema: the feeling of wandering back into the sun, more alive to myself and my surroundings for having been a member of my own hole-in-the-wall gang for a while, a secret movie-goer (the outsider inside). Every film fan, of course, and possibly every city-walker, carries around with them a living emotional archaeology of this kind – a way of experiencing, in this case, their favourite movie-houses that is rooted in their own personal tangle of memories (big-screen or otherwise) and creative inclinations. For me, there is a richness in such democracy; knowing that my own recollection of the Screen is really just one more iteration of a potentially infinite series of traces, or half-traces, of its space through the lives of Dublin's denizens.
Strangely, maybe, it's for this reason that I felt so sharply the conversion of that cinema’s hardly attractive, but utterly intimate blockhead chic – its relatively small interior of too-steep steps and luscious red carpets – into what I understand will be a rental hub. Just by being there and providing the service it did, this rather run-down space had made the city a home of sorts, for me and countless others – and in a manner, it must be said, that Dublin's ever-encroaching maze of unaffordable hotels and upmarket apartment complexes by definition cannot.
Although it may be rhetorically heavy-handed to say so, I believe that this last is a far-from-trivial point – and transports the largely personal pangs above in what (I think) are some interesting directions. I find myself speculating: whether, from a certain angle, the case of the Screen may be seen to exemplify the physical and emotional erasures on which the new Dublin is being built – the logic of eradication that has driven the capital's commercial and property boom into palpable, bright-shining reality. Following this vista to its final frame, indeed, I wonder if the monetisation (and marketisation) of urban space in Dublin, which demanded the total re-purposing – if not extinction – of the Screen site as such, is so very different from that force now driving ever-larger numbers of people into homelessness of one kind or another.
These observations obviously could be tested further, although perhaps in a different format than this – which is, in essence, an attempted emotional cartography of one small corner of the changing city, and in particular as it connects to some aspects of my own life. What I do want to stress again, however, is that they are far from irrelevant to such a project. For in truth, the more precisely I try to contextualise the vanishing of the Screen, and especially when I pass along Hawkins Street, aiming for the Rosie Hackett Bridge, the more I'm possessed of what is increasingly a double-nostalgia: for the cinema itself (as I've been describing), with its compact shape and atmosphere of warm, faintly ramshackle welcome, and for its visually drab but emblematic near-neighbour, Apollo House – which for a few, all-too-brief weeks in December 2016 was made to shape-shift into what also might be called a zone of belonging. The political tide pummelling through the city at the time, levelling one communal space after another in favour of the corporate sheen of a new urban aesthetic, seemed momentarily reversed when activists occupied the building. And their message was clear: that homes were for the homeless (and thousands of supporters around the country affirmed their support for this credo); State-held empty buildings and vacant houses were to be viewed as public property, and could be shared accordingly; even our Tánaiste at the time seemed energised (if not shocked) by the programme, pledging that by 1 July (2017) no homeless families would be living in hotels or B&Bs, that safe and appropriate accommodation would be available to anyone in need. Just as the Screen is now in the process of being rebuilt as a rental hub, today Apollo House has been bought for private development for the sum of €50m; and as everyone knows, more people than ever are being forced to make the surrounding streets and hostels their place of permanent, precarious residence.
No doubt there's a number of conclusions that can be sketched from the fate of these two buildings together – civic, cultural, even emotional, and in terms of the overlap of these drifting dynamics (the poetic itself, maybe). One, however, would be to recognise plainly that Dublin, a city often mapped and marketed in light of its rich cultural legacy, can be a hostile environment to live in. And it's precisely this fact, overwhelming as it is, that our architecture of neoliberal persuasion is designed to suppress: the planned retail plazas; the gleaming suites of rental units and expensive student accommodation centres; the corporate docklands.
Which leads me to query: can there be a meaningful poetics of urban gloss? I'm uncertain. What I do know is that I still go searching for the cracks in the facade, the nooks and the very occasional open places of the city that haven't yet been re-touched, re-tooled, re-constituted to generate more revenue or look more lucrative for the latest press release. Likewise, I try to pay attention to the oppositional voices (of artists and activists alike) that insist, against the mainstream narrative of urban progress, on another way of imagining, negotiating, and participating in the spaces of this city, which for a short time we called our own. These days when I cross Townsend Street, I sometimes wonder if we will again – stepping into Dublin, determined to dream our dreams and have them, too.