The Glasgow Film Theatre isn’t just the best cinema in Glasgow – if you’re at all interested in independent, European, world, classic or arthouse movies, it’s the only cinema in Glasgow. Sure, it’s run in the kind of ramshackle, bordering on shambolic, way one might expect from a largely publicly-funded charity as opposed to a business proper, and it’s certainly not the most comfortable or spacious of the city’s picture houses, but that’s all part of its charm. And the technical malfunctions that occasionally mar screenings are seldom the fault of the staff – any cinema that tries to enliven its programme with obscure classics and cult gems, as the GFT does month in, month out, is bound to fall foul of the occasional dodgy print (like the virtually unwatchable one of Seven Samurai I endured in there a couple of years ago).
When brothers George and Vincent Singleton opened The Cosmo on Glasgow’s Rose Street in 1939 few would’ve taken bets on the first UK art cinema outside of London, and only the second nationwide, being a success. Would there be any appetite for exotic subtitled features outwith the urbane milieu of Mayfair, let alone in staunchly proletarian Glasgow? The fact that the Cosmo (or the GFT to give it the decidedly more prosaic name the Scottish Film Council saddled it with when they took over the place in the mid-’70s) celebrated its 70th birthday last year is testament both to the pioneering spirit of the Singletons and their successors, and to their hometown’s thirst for fringe culture.
Apart from the quality of it’s programming, what really puts the GFT in a different class from its competitors are its frequent events. As well as being the creative and administrative hub of Glasgow’s ever-improving film festival, the cinema has in recent years hosted Q&A events (often followed by specially selected screenings) with the likes of Quentin Tarantino, James Ellroy, David Simon, Alasdair Gray, Bill Forsyth, David Lynch and US indie-folk hero Jeffrey Lewis, who last year gave a rare public lecture on the classic graphic novel Watchmen in cinema two, complete with panel projections on the big screen (a cause of enormous excitement among geeks of a certain age). The cinema also hosts semi-regular record fair-style sales of second hand DVDs, comics, fanzines, posters and other assorted memorabilia in its upstairs bar, where one can also purchase prints by the GFT’s semi-official resident illustrator and poster-maker, up-and-coming young Glasgow artist Erin McGrath.
Even if you don’t fancy taking in a film, the GFT is one of Glasgow’s foremost cultural landmarks and no tour of the city’s arts institutions would be complete without even a brief visit to admire the ‘B’ listed post-art deco architecture and to enjoy a pint of superb West lager (brewed in the city’s East End according to ancient German purity laws) or pot of delicious Brewhaha tea (another local export) in the cosy environs of the bar, Café Cosmo.
Hard to know what the Cineworld chain’s towering, monolithic outpost at the foot of Glasgow’s Renfrew Street has to offer to the city’s visitors, short of its claim to the somewhat meaningless distinction of being the tallest cinema in the world – and a more cynical man than I might suggest that the view from the upper floors is the most inspiring thing you’re likely to see there – but I don’t wish to denigrate Cineworld. As a faceless, impersonal multiplex it offers the kind of perfectly serviceable, forgettable modern cinema experience one can get in any major city in the western world: thronging queues snake through the large, open-plan lobby and often out into the street (you’d be advised to arrive early: as well as being the tallest in the world, Cineworld Glasgow is also the busiest cinema in the UK); the kiosks teem with wallet- and gum-emptying pseudo-food (staff at other Cineworlds are notorious for searching patrons’ bags and confiscating outside food, though I’m happy to say I’ve never seen this happen in Glasgow); the seating is comfortable and the legroom expansive, though the selection of films isn’t quite so generous. It isn’t all noisy, brainless blockbusters by any means (though they do tend to crowd out more low-key offerings during the summer months) and, to their credit, Cineworld does endeavour to cater to Glasgow’s sizeable Indian and Pakistani population by screening major releases from the sub-continent alongside its more mainstream fare.
When I first moved to Glasgow’s leafy, bohemian West End as a student over a decade ago, the humble, frills-free flea pit vibe of the Grosvenor perfectly reflected the attire and attitude of the students who were its principal patrons. (The cinema is practically on the Glasgow University campus.) I still have fond, if – how to put this? – fuzzy memories of all-night triple bills of the then as yet undesecrated Indiana Jones trilogy in cinema one. However, a few years ago, the financially-struggling Grosvenor was acquired by the G1 empire of Stefan King (the Charles Foster Kane of Scottish nightlife) who promptly gentrified the place almost beyond all recognition, transforming it into a mere annexe of the swanky three-storey bar-nightclub complex next door. Out came the old fittings and fixtures; in went brand new over-stuffed but paradoxically really rather uncomfortable leather armchair-style seating (I think it’s something to do with the angle of the backrests) and a back-row of three person sofas, bookable in advance for £16 (£19.50 at the weekends). They would also let you take your (over-priced, of course) drinks into the cinema with you, which seemed a radical and sophisticated innovation at the time though you can now do it in the GFT and probably in Cineworld as well.
As a consequence, the Grosvenor ends up being neither fish nor fowl: its limited capacity (two screens) means it can offer neither the choice of Cineworld nor the adventurousness of the GFT. That said, it’s location makes it very convenient for West End revellers who fancy taking in a film before, or after, a meal and some drinks, or indeed anyone else who (perfectly understandably) can’t face the prospect of a jaunt into Glasgow city centre of a Friday or Saturday night.