Two Sundays a month Guildford’s primary independent arts venue, the Boileroom, undergoes a quiet transformation. In partnership with the SoCiMa Social Cinema project, the normally loud and bustling live music venue morphs into an intimate non-profit community cinema, showing films and documentaries of all historical and cultural backgrounds; in order to provoke our social conscience. SoCiMa does not view cinema as some abstract art form detached from social existence, rather film is a part of that very existence and deserves to be enjoyed, discussed and critiqued as such. This is something a modern trip to the cinema does not entail and indeed I find the whole experience quietly radical, interrogating the very way we experience and appreciate art in contemporary society. For SoCiMa what matters, as much as the film is the interactions and discussions it engenders and is complex relationship with real-life issues. The escapism of the modern film industry, mediated through superhero protagonists or sci-fi CGI, is out the window. It is time to see cinema as intimately bound up with social issues that affect every one of us.
As soon as I arrived at the Boileroom I am welcomed and ushered into an intimate, thoughtful and considered discussion by ebullient SoCiMa founder Learoy Ellis-Moore. Once again, the contrast with the modern film industry is abundantly clear. Instead of half an hour of trailers, there is a half an hour conversation revolving around this month’s theme of “Reconciling Difference” preceding the film and how it relates to the night’s choice, 1988’s Rain Man.
Rain Man is, as per the theme, a reconciliatory tale. It follows the obnoxiously masculine Los Angeles wheeler dealer Charlie Babbit (Tom Cruise) as he discovers, after the death of his father, that he has an older brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) previously unknown about, and that the mental institution his brother lives in has inherited his father’s $3 million fortune. The revelation is intensified for Charlie by the fact his brother is a severely autistic savant, unable to deviate slightly from a strict routine. He is severely lacking in communication skills, but exceptionally gifted in other select areas, like mathematics and in memory. Initially pulsing with self-centred rage that “his half” of the inheritance has been left to a brother who does not even understand the concept of money, Charlie kidnaps Raymond, initially intending to use Raymond as leverage to get the mental institution to pay him his inheritance. What starts out as an audacious, rent-seeking smuggling, soon blossoms into a road trip of brotherly love as Charlie learns to appreciate his brother’s many idiosyncrasies. Rain Man, therefore, is a classic Hollywood tale of the importance of family over money, and of understanding rather than attacking difference.
Rain Man has its flaws, and plenty of them. Largely stemming from the film’s unquestioning adherence to contemporary Hollywood cliché, which places disappointing straitjackets on the actors, characters, aesthetics and storytelling. Acting-wise, competent and considered performances by both Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman are rendered uninspiring and unsurprising, with both actors’ abilities reduced to performing well-established ‘types’. Cruise plays the slick, white, attractive male American capitalist and Hoffman the endearing, child-like ‘oddball’. While the film deserves credit for occasionally reaching beyond these boundaries, particularly by making an autistic character a lead protagonist in the film – something that sadly remains a ground-breaking activity – in general Charlie and Raymond Babbit remain stymied by their overarching stereotypes. Stereotypes also leap abound in the film’s directing, which is draped in well-worn “Eighties” iconography. A grating synthesiser soundtrack, sandy American highways and garish clothing, amongst other things, feature heavily in the film, and while we can excuse these for being “of the time”, there’s also a sense they reflect the film’s lack of critical perspective, and unwillingness to genuinely challenge the way we think about autism on and off the silver screen.
Despite the deficiencies in the film, it proves to be an excellent talking point for the discussion we all have afterwards. The different responses we all have to the film are fascinating, touching upon not just issues specifically related to the plot, but also broader themes related to family. For example, the influence of Charlie and Raymond’s (unseen) father over the film was discussed at length, and how our varying understandings of the relationship between him and his sons reflected our distinctive personal backgrounds and upbringings. It is this very multiplicity that highlights the value of the SoCiMa project. Not only does the discussion advance the month’s theme of “Reconciling Differences”, but it also opens us up to how films can be varyingly interpreted, and how the true value of cinema lies not within the film itself, but rather the social bonds and discussion it creates through its circulation and interpretation.
The experience of SoCiMa at the Boileroom, then, is one that I cannot recommend highly enough, particularly for art- and film-aficionados and those who love a thoughtful debate. For all interested, SoCiMa returns in January 2017 with a theme of “Corrupt Commodities” focusing on bankers and the 2008 financial crash, with the first film showing being the documentary Chasing Madoff on the 8th January. Tickets can be bought here (http://www.theboileroom.net/listings/events/8-jan-17-social-cinema–the-boileroom/), and for such an interesting theme, I wouldn’t advise missing out.
Text by Jake Roberts
Featured image taken from coolplaces.co.uk, retouched by Donna Darafshian.