Update: After a few pieces of earnest feedback that I’m actually taking away from people’s experiences, I decided to alter the details of this post to exclude direct mention of the movie. Given the strong negatives of the overall experience, I feel like what movie it is doesn’t really matter. Still, doesn’t do to diminish someone else’s time. Fair warning: This post still contains details from the event that are pertinent for giving a coherent review. Some people may feel these details are spoilers. I’m including them not to be a jerk, but to be illustrative.
Wanted to offer some feedback about Secret Cinema from Friday, March 21st. This is my second Secret Cinema experience and I was really looking forward to it. My first was the Casablanca showing about a year ago.
Aspects of this Secret Cinema event were very good. I’ll just list them for brevity’s sake:
- Exploring the space was amazing. Every room was exquisitely detailed. The notion of serendipitous interaction with other people and actors is a brilliant idea that in some cases played out very well.
- Some of the actors were amazingly good. One actor in particular was a genuine pleasure to be in the presence of. My date and I lingered in his room for quite some time just watching him interact with people. So good.
- The court room scene was an unexpected and mostly fun experience.
That said, the were some extremely negative aspects of the experience. To be honest, the negatives of the experience so far outweighed the positives, I don’t think I’m likely to participate in Secret Cinema again. Especially considering that some of the negatives were consistent from my first time at Secret Cinema last year.
When we arrived, we were greeted by someone who told us to go “over there” where a group of people were gathered, so that we could get our hands stamped. We were immediately asked to show our tickets by a woman patrolling the line. I had the email on my phone, so I started loading it. The person asking me was very abrupt with me. She then moved on to the next people in line. As the line moved towards the front, I was asked my last name, and had my hand stamped without ever seeing the tickets. Which begs the question — why was I questioned about my tickets if all that was needed was my last name? Also, while waiting in this line, a man dressed as a police officer swore at the people in line in front of us and told them to speak when spoken to. Okay, if this were a prison movie or if we were in character as suspects for something or kidnapped people perhaps, that makes sense. However, if his character is an officer on the street and we’re upstanding citizens, what sort of behaviour is that? Just felt oddly mean and degrading for no clear reason.
When we entered the Chinese Laundry, we were greeted by a character who was to shepherd us into the underworld. This character was openly antagonistic. Beyond being a bad actor whose awkward Boston-meets-Chicago-meets-London gangster accent was just painful, he seemed to be just indulging in the opportunity to swear at us without making it feel like a legitimate experience at all. The mismatch between what would have made sense and what he was doing was so conspicuous that it took away from the experience. If he had chosen to say nothing at all, the effect would have been more resounding and interesting.
Once we were inside, I was greeted by a tall guy in a dark suit and hat. He bumped into me from behind. I turned to face him and apologised, unclear at that point that this was his act. Face to face, he leaned in close and blew e-cigarette smoke in my face. I could smell his not-clean breathe and feel the moistness of it on my lips. Gross. He then said, “You want to make a hundred bucks?” Let’s take a step back and think about real life. Let’s imagine that we’re in the real world. I’m in a club. Some guy walks up to me, runs into me, blows smoke in my face, then asks me if I want to do work for him. How would I feel? I would feel like punching the guy. I would settle for getting away from him as quickly as possible because he’s a really unpleasant guy to be around. So, given that this is ostensibly play (though there was nothing playful about him blowing smoke in my face), I just said “No. Not remotely.” He looked at me disgusted, told me “You’re not going to have any fun around here,” and walked away.
Ironically, he was pretty much right. What he didn’t understand is that I already wasn’t having any fun. No aspect of the experience so far put me in a state of freedom to play. Nothing so far felt like there were safe bounds between reality and play and that we were all in this together. No, in fact the experience felt much more power imbalanced in favour of those who knew what was going on than those who didn’t.
Secret Cinema feels more like the Stanford Prison Experiment than a playful immersion in the world of the movie.
Sadly, the list of bad interactions keeps going.
At one point, we were all ushered into a real court room to witness a fake trial. I was grabbed aside and drawn into a room with a guy who told us to render “Not Guilty” no matter what in exchange for $500 bucks. This seemed like the moment to be playful for me. Getting to participate in an intense jury debate sounds fun. Sadly that wasn’t the way this worked. I was to do as I was told here. Being told what to do and when to do it is not fun. Then, in the court room one actor posing as a bailiff told us to stand in one place. Then another came along, swore at us, and told us to go stand somewhere else, asking who told us to stand there in the first place. Hilariously, it was his fellow actor. Being treated like dogs expected to roll over again and again is not fun.
At another point, we tried to go into a club but we were stopped at the door by an actress. She told us it was members only and that we couldn’t just walk in “unless we had something for her.” We offered her as much money as we had, but it wasn’t good enough. She kept up the act of surly door minder to the point that my date and I just felt truly unwelcome and walked away. It wasn’t mean-with-a-wink, it was just mean.
Later, I was standing in one of the rooms and a guy walked in, pointed harshly at me, said, “You — come with me,” and stormed out. Not a chance in hell. By this point, I was so fed up with the experience that I would rather stand off with the guy right then and there than engage in any more “play.”
I can keep going, but you get the point. I’ll leave out the other court room bailiff who stopped us to extract a “jury fee” from us and all the other small interactions that were antagonistic by default. Why couldn’t actors just have interesting personalities? Why was aggressive, exploitive behaviour the default interaction with every person? Sure, the movie they showed was a gritty movie, but that doesn’t mean that every person you meet should treat you badly as the first note of the interaction. Also, the fact that everyone in the movie is a grifter is ostensibly a secret, so we should have had no idea why the hell everyone was being so abusive. The whole thing feels like an indulgent experience for the “actors” and an abusive experience for the attendees.
The most absurd reality of this is that I’m an extremely playful person. I love fancy dress. I love acting a fool and not taking myself seriously. I do a lot of public speaking and feel very comfortable in a semi-structured environment that is semi-contrived and semi-real. I was once kicked out of a public park with some friends for acting out Hamlet on the amphitheatre stage after the park had closed. For god’s sake, I went to Burning Man last year and had an amazing time. I also got really into this night. I rented an authentic 20s suit and followed all the procedures ahead of time. So did my date. I wanted to come and have an exciting and playful night. If someone like me can’t get into Secret Cinema, who the hell is it for? Who would have a good time?
Back at the start of the night, after getting our hands stamped, we walked to where we had to give up our phones for the evening. Part of my work is building systems that operate at all hours of the day on complex infrastructure. Sometimes systems break and I have to act quickly to figure out what’s going wrong. It makes me very uncomfortable giving up my phone because it’s my notification mechanism when things go wrong. Also, I use my phone as part of two-factor authentication to lots of systems. If they lose my phone, it would be more than a day of work to get things back in order, starting with buying a new phone and a trip to my service provider to get a replacement SIM. Not to mention the trouble it would be trying to get them to cough up the money for the phone later. Not remotely my notion of a good time.
So, I questioned their procedure, asking what assurance I have that they were going to do this correctly and not cause me tons of grief. The response I got was a compassion-less “We haven’t lost a phone yet. This is company policy.”
Interestingly, none of the information I was given ahead of time included an explanation that this would be required. I went back through every email and every web page I was directed to. No mention at all. If they had told me ahead of time, maybe I would have changed my mind about going. Maybe that’s their reasoning behind surprising you with it when you get there.
The guy taking my phone explained that I would be given a ticket that would allow me access to my phone at any point if I needed it urgently. Unhappy but not willing to end the evening five minutes into it, I gave up my phone, took my packet and went inside.
At the end of the night, my date and I went to retrieve our phones. There was already a group of people starting to accumulate, but we were first in line. A guy still acting half-way in character took our ticket, radioed for our phones to be brought up then walked away. Minutes into this, with no more info about what was happening, one of the other people waiting had someone return with a satchel with his ticket’s number on it. The woman returning his phone peeked inside the bag and then asked him to describe his phone to her. This is their system. They decided that a number and a satchel was the correct way to do this. Interrogating people afterward is insane. If you take my phone from me and give me a reclamation means for it, I do not expect to also have to prove my knowledge of my own property. It also rang closely of being asked for my tickets at the entrance when my name was all that was required.
Being honest, I lost my temper at this. I spoke harshly to this lady. Something along the lines of “Just give him his fucking phone back.” Reasonably, he looked surprised. She looked antagonistic right back at me and told me this was necessary because they wanted to make sure people got their correct phone. I would argue that it’s complete bullshit and that they should come up with a more reliable system if they wanted to take ownership of tens of thousand of pounds of nearly identical devices. If I found any ticket lying on the ground, went to them, answered their question with “an iPhone,” I would have a super high likelihood of walking away with a phone that wasn’t mine. It’s a bad system at best. Also, when we got our phones later, they didn’t ask for a description. Arbitrary treatment where someone else has power over you and you just have to do whatever they cook up for you to do is not fun.
Around that minute, chaos ensued. A group of people down the hall had been setting up a table for returning phones to people. It was unclear who we should be talking to. It was also completely obvious that the organisers had done nothing ahead of time. They were sorting the phone satchels numerically while fifty-ish people stood and waited. This was around 5 hours into the evening. It didn’t occur to them to have this done ahead of time? That at the end of the movie people would want to leave? Or to make sure the phones stayed in order as they were collected? I cannot understand why this was an issue at all. Every coat check I’ve ever been to just gets this right by default.
The group of us waiting for our phone grew from the original ten, to fifty, to probably half of the people at the event. This is an interesting data point, because we were leaving early. As we walked out of the movie hall, multiple people told us to stay because there was a dance afterward. We didn’t exactly feel like dancing. When the credits rolled, I felt like I had put up with the fullness of the experience and, relieved, could now leave. Perhaps some of the more than a hundred people gathered in the hallway felt the same way.
So at this point we were waiting somewhere between the desk and the table (theoretically, our phones would come to the desk where the guy had radioed for them), we heard someone shouting “Over 200 on the right, under 200 on the left”. They were trying to partition a mob of more than a hundred of people *after* it had become a mob. Also at this point, despite having left early to get out before the crowd, my date and I were now swimming in a mob of people with no idea where our phones my show up — the desk where the guy had radioed or the table where the mob was looking.
We walked to the tables (where they were still shuffling phones while people waited) and asked. We were told to please wait in line. There were no lines, just two mobs of people running the length of the hallway now. I was feeling sort of apoplectic at this point so I just walked away. I would rather sit quietly somewhere than wait in an infinitely long line while they sort out something that should never have been a problem. My date was more persistent with the person holding back the mob, got a bit aggressive, and had our phones returned immediately. I feel bad that we jumped the mob. I feel like we got special privilege because we were rude, which is not something I ever want to be. This feeling is counterbalanced by the fact that we took special efforts to get ahead of exactly that situation and the incompetent handling of the situation ruined that and left us standing around with no notion of what to do until the situation was going to be a mess no matter what.
When we got back home, my date noticed that they had managed to scratch up her screen protector in the process of confiscating and returning our phones. No damage to the phone, fortunately, but it indicates that they weren’t going out of their way to take care of our phones.
In sum, Secret Cinema made for a bad evening. If I had it to do all over again, I would skip the event without batting an eyelash. I would have had more fun watching a lot of other movies alone.