The question "Are we living in 1984?" arises every so often in the popular consciousness. The reference to George Orwell’s dystopian, 1949 novel about a future totalitarian government is not usually a good sign. In 2013, it was Edward Snowden’s leaked documents about the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance operations that caused a massive spike in the book’s sales.
Today the novel is back on bestseller lists and featured prominently in local bookstore displays as the question looms yet again. But this time, comparisons between 1984’s fictional Oceania and our current administration dwell less on the idea of an all-seeing “Big Brother” and more on the concept of “doublethink,” which might as well be called “alternative facts.”
On Tuesday, Apr. 4, you can decide for yourself whether or not we’re living in 1984 when more than 180 independent cinemas across the country band together to screen Michael Radford’s bleak film adaptation of Orwell's novel, starring the late John Hurt as protagonist Winston Smith.
The screening date has special significance: Apr. 4 is the date Smith -- who is tasked with rewriting history as an employee of the sinister "Ministry of Truth" -- begins keeping a forbidden diary.
For the organizers of "United State of Cinema," as the coordinated screening is called, 1984 directly speaks to the civil liberties at stake under the current administration. "The goal is that cinemas can initiate a much-needed community conversation at a time when the existence of facts, and basic human rights are under attack," the project's website states. "Through nationwide participation and strength in numbers, these screenings are intended to galvanize people at the crossroads of cinema and community, and bring us together to foster communication and resistance against current efforts to undermine the most basic tenets of our society."
Local participants include San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Balboa Theater, the Empress Theater in Vallejo, Larkspur’s Lark Theater, Oakland’s New Parkway and Berkeley’s Rialto Cinemas.
Joel Shepard, YBCA’s film and video curator, says joining the national event was a no-brainer. “It appealed to me because it’s all basically independent cinemas who are doing this,” Shepard says. “Since we’re independent, we don’t always do the greatest job of communicating with each other. This was a great opportunity to be more of a coalition and show that we’re independent but also dependent on each other.”
In fact, Shepard says so many cinemas jumped at the chance to join the coordinated screening that the company responsible for making 1984 on Blu-ray temporarily ran out of stock. Wisely, he got his copy early.
Shepard remembers seeing -- and enjoying -- 1984 in 1984, when it was released in theaters. “It wasn’t a flop, but it wasn’t a hit,” he says. What stands out for Shepard even now is Hurt’s performance. “This is the role he was made for," he says of the British actor.
Hurt passed away in late January at the age of 77, but 1984 director Michael Radford is still around to comment on the film. For the upcoming screenings, Radford is filming a short introduction and Q&A session to be sent to each participating cinema as an extra treat for audiences.
YBCA’s screenings are free and open to the public, but cinemas charging admission have all committed to giving some or all of the ticket sales to a deserving nonprofit. So if after watching Radford’s 1984 you conclude we are indeed living in 1984, that's a small silver lining to consider on your way to Room 101 (where poor Winston gets "rehabilitated").
'1984' screens at cinemas across the U.S. (and in Canada, the U.K., Sweden and Croatia!) on Tuesday, Apr. 4. Click here for the complete listings.