Edited and Introduced by Arthur Knight, Clara Pafort-Overduin, and Deb Verhoeven
In December 2007, the three of us found ourselves sharing cocktails in Ghent, Belgium’s august, echoing, late-medieval City Hall. The occasion was the opening reception of “The Glow in their Eyes: Global Perspectives on Film Cultures, Film Exhibition, and Cinemagoing” conference. (1) This gathering collected film scholars from round the world committed to shifting attention away from—or at least aslant to—analysing and interpreting films and toward exploring the contexts, and especially the spaces and places, in which audiences encounter those films. Even the most text-centric, formalist film (or moving image) scholar knows experientially that where and when one experiences a film shapes what one makes of it and, in important ways, is inextricable from that “making,” that act of interpretation. But film scholarship and criticism seldom acknowledges this. “The Glow in their Eyes” aimed to change this state of affairs.
Brimming with this missionary zeal, Deb began to talk about Chacun son cinema, an omnibus film Cannes had commissioned that year to celebrate its sixtieth anniversary. Upward of thirty renowned directors were given three minutes each to convey something about going to the movies. Deb thought the shorts were wildly uneven, and she objected to the title (“To Each His Own Cinema”!). But she was intrigued by the theme and the global omnibus format, and she pitched it to Clara and Arthur as a challenge: If feature filmmakers can work in this short, collective format, why can’t scholars—especially in the digital era, when new avenues for publication like Senses of Cinema can work free of print’s genre constraints? What would it look like if a set of scholars championing a new approach to cinema studies used an analogous omnibus format?
The following twenty short pieces, with accompanying illustrations, provide the answer. We invited a host of colleagues on every continent to write a short contribution about their “state of mind of the moment as inspired by the motion picture theatre” (the same topic that Cannes used in creating its 60th anniversary omnibus film Chacon son cinema). The mode of writing was up to each author, with the only constraints being that entries be kept to about 600 words (2) and be accompanied by an image that was somehow illustrative.
The diversity of what this call yielded delights us. There are pieces from Europe, Africa, Australia, the Americas, Asia, and beyond. And the perspectives and voices in the pieces are also, so to speak, all over the map in tone and ambit, though all are more personal than most of the writing scholars usually do. We must emphasize that this collection in no way aspires to be an “objective” representation of practices or conditions of movie-going in any specific place. In fact, this mosaic of small pieces—we like to think of them as “bagatelles”—reminds us how important and meaningful the subjective experience of movie-going is in itself. Many of the pieces are written from “inside” a particular movie-going culture and location in the present; others look back, still from “inside,” on a past or passing experience of movie-going; some are written by “outsiders”—visitors with varying levels of expertise and extent of engagement—in a specific movie-going situation; and still others are written from more complex perspectives that blur clear lines (if such could ever really exist) between “inside” and “outside” perspectives, emphasizing both the located and mobile qualities of films and their viewers as they both travel the globe.
No single theme emerges from the pieces except the constitutive place going out to the cinema (the movie theatre, the salon, the multi- or megaplex, or, indeed, the open air market) has in cinephilia. Together the pieces highlight the different and changing textures of the movie-going experience around the world since the 1970s and point out that it is “a coat with many colours” that could fill our research agendas in many different ways for many years to come. Movie-going is a social experience, and one with meanings attached to it—be they social, ideological, or philosophical.
All our writers love going out in equal measure with, and inextricably from, the movies. And, very importantly, all our writers show how contingent and variable and delicate the experience of cinema is, suggesting an implicit answer to Hercalitus’ classic conundrum—that for all our commitments to analysing and interpreting film texts, we never can really see the same movie twice.
- “The Glow in their Eyes” was organized and chaired by Daniel Biltereyst (Ghent University), Philippe Meers (University of Antwerp), Richard Maltby (Flinders University), Kate Bowles (University of Wollongong), Deb Verhoeven (RMIT University). “Glow” consolidated work done at previous gatherings like “Cinema Contexts” conference, organized by Karel Dibbets, in Amsterdam in 2006, and a series of Commonwealth Fund conferences in London, organized by Melvin Stokes and various collaborates, at the turn to the 21st century. Much of the work from the Commonwealth Fund conferences can be found in a series of volumes edited by Stokes and Maltby: American Movie Audiences: From the Turn of the Century to the Early Sound Era (BFI, 1999); Hollywood Abroad: Audiences and Cultural Exchange (BFI, 2008); Hollywood Spectatorship: Changing Perceptions of Cinema Audiences (BFI, 2008); Identifying Hollywood’s Audiences: Cultural Identity and the Movies (BFI, 2008); and (with Robert Allen) Going to the Movies: Hollywood and the Social Experience of the Cinema (University of Exeter Press, 2008). A volume of essays from “The Glow in their Eyes” is currently in press, edited by Biltereyst, Meers, and Maltby.
- We chose the 600 word target for two reasons: 1. It is in the spirit of “Chacun”’s ration of 3:90 (short:feature length). 2. It keeps the number of screens required to read an essay on-line modest.
It’s a Woman’s World [Korea]
by Yi Ch’ang-ho
Yi Ch’ang-ho is a Korean adoptee from the Netherlands who returned to Korea for an internship at a Korean film company. Since the internship, he has worked many years as a film journalist in Seoul.
The first time I went to a cinema in Seoul, Korea, I felt somewhat out of place. I had just returned to my birth country after being adopted to the Netherlands as a child. I did not give much thought to my sense of feeling out place in the cinema, though, since everything seemed unfamiliar to me—an affect that was amplified by my sense that Korea was supposed to be the culture I should know the best.
What I knew about Korea was mostly from Korean films. Growing up, film had mostly been a private matter to me. Of course, there was an occasional cinema date with a girl or visiting the cinema with my brother when a visually spectacular film was released. Otherwise, I preferred to watch films on DVD at home, partly because I did not like mainstream films and partly because the kind of films that interested me didn’t interest others around me. At university, inspired in part by being a male adoptee from Korea, I became immersed in Korean cinema, ordering more Korean DVD’s online than I could (ever) watch.
After university, I moved to Seoul to do an internship and study Korean language. I do not remember which film I saw that first trip to a Korean cinema. I suspect it was a Korean film, just for the experience, even though I would not be able to understand the dialogue. Nor do I remember which cinema I attended in Seoul.
I just remember feeling somewhat out of place. It was not a strong feeling—tangible but hardly noticeable. To an extent it must have been related to me being “new” to Korea. However, I think it had more to do with the fact that the whole audience was female, with the exception of a few men who were on dates with one of the girls.
This is a phenomenon I have experienced in Korea repeatedly. Numerous social activities, including having a coffee in a coffee shop, seem to be for women only. The only time men engage in these activities is when they are on a date. Almost everything foreign that has been introduced to Korea relatively recently, from cinema to coffee shops and from donuts to religion, is reinvented in Korean society, taking up a social role and meaning foreign to non-Koreans.
Not only is the audience in cinemas female; most people employed in the Korean film industry are also women, as I noticed when working at a Korean film company. After living in Korea for a while, I was able to avoid fish-out-of-water experiences when cinema-going by becoming a film journalist. I would simply attend the pre-release press screenings for work. Still, with most film journalists being women, even then I would be reminded that cinema in Korea is mostly a woman’s world, sharing socially gendered trademarks with most social activities—typicalities that differ from the cultural norms, especially in the cinema, that I was used to in a western country. In this short essay I can’t analyse this phenomenon in depth, and I don’t want to claim any explanatory knowledge based on my limited observations alone. Therefore, I prefer to illustrate this gendered social practice with an example.
Last night after dinner I went to a coffee shop in Seoul’s popular Co-ex mall with a Korean woman. I could not resist looking around to see who was crowding this place on a regular weekday evening. It was filled with women. Some men were there in the company of a woman, but mostly women with their girlfriends. I told the Korean woman that in the Netherlands it is normal for men to have a coffee in a coffee shop (of course, in the Netherlands you go to a café instead of a coffee shop if you want a coffee) or to go to a cinema. Her surprised question in response—“Really? Then what kind of social activities are for women?”—caught me off guard since I never meant that because men go cafes or cinemas that it inherently means those are solely masculine social activities. But to my Korean friend, in the cinema-going (and more broadly cultural) landscape she knows, it was a normal question.
Over the years my sense of that tangible-but-hardly-noticeable feeling of displacement when I visit a Korean cinema has subsided. For me now the cultural activity of visiting a cinema has come to mean the same social meaning as for native Koreans. In the end, it works out fine. When I meet my Korean male friends, we go to eat kalbi, samgyeopsal, kimchijjigae, or twenjangjjigae because restaurants in Korea are equally popular and suitable as social spaces for men as well as women. And when I have a date, I think the cinema is an excellent place to go to. The cinema has become a place for me to go on dates. Without that social context, I do not feel like attending a cinema. Not in Korea. Korea is no longer unfamiliar to me.
Cinema in the City [Argentina]
by Diego Diaz (translated by Silvia Tandeciarz)
A film and media studies specialist, Diego Diaz currently serves as research associate on cinematic production at the National University of La Plata in Argentina.
Silvia R. Tandeciarz is Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies at the College of William and Mary. A specialist in Latin American Cultural Studies, her current research focuses on post-dictatorship cultural production in Argentina.
Going to the movies is a vital part of the social and cultural life of the city of Buenos Aires, an everyday practice that recognizes no gender, age, or class distinction. Some film openings are announced with clamorous street publicity; others pass virtually unseen on small posters hung on the door of some forgotten room. But it doesn’t matter, because everyone goes to the movies. Diverse films from all over the world always find an interested public, as do Argentine films, which have resisted the onslaught of what is a huge global industry.
A few years ago, however, the cinematic landscape was less encouraging. During the nineties, the daily and common movie-going practice for porteños (Buenos Aires city dwellers) was diminished by the privatization and segmentation of the grand traditional cinema-salons of the city center and periphery. A new cultural model dominated by the logic of the market attempted to dislodge the old. Commercial films produced and executed by the great multinationals began displacing more artistic, artisanal, and critical fare. The disappearance of these films in turn led to the waning of those cultural rites forged through film-viewing practices. Traditional salons located in urban neighborhoods were quickly transformed into multiplexes. Those that resisted this change had to close their doors. Buenos Aires became a city plagued by cinemas where only the most commercial movies could be watched over and over again.
And yet, despite the neo-liberal push, independent film survived. Movements of committed artists, neighbourhood associations, cultural centres, together with new State legislation, together managed to sustain an alternative space where another kind of film could be found: not only Argentine film, often forgotten by the public and lambasted by the critics, but also world cinema, from remote, unknown, and uncertain places. An alternative circuit of cinematographic diffusion began to take shape, a circuit that today has an overwhelming presence in the city’s cultural life: the cosmopolitan city glimpsed in the streets is also represented on movie screens; a world cinema that is, at once, also a way of seeing the world.
Since 1998, this diverse and fragmented spectrum has given rise to what is today one of the city’s sources of pride: the International Independent Film Festival of Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente, BAFICI). A space that repeats and renews itself yearly, and whose reach extends beyond the circle of cinephiles, touching the hearts, illusions, and desires of all those who live and walk these porteño streets.
It was also in the nineties—a cultural and political paradox, perhaps—that a new generation of Argentine moviemakers engaged with the new reality of social conflicts, history, and memory to produce noteworthy films, novel for their thematic and aesthetic content as well as their modes of narration. Cinematic criticism baptized this movement as The New Argentine Cinema. Once again the stories of the people were being projected: these were the stories that mattered, were useful, were liked. Sitting in the few ancient salons that still dared to show national cinema, the public could sense that everything was new, or that something was changing. New young names appeared that rapidly became associated with renovation, their styles as provocative as they were different from one another: Lucrecia Martel, Adrián Caetano, Martín Rejtman, Pablo Trapero, and others, who also wanted to film differently.
To view and make movies today in Buenos Aires entails a cultural practice originating in this ambiguous and complex legacy of the nineties, a legacy of privatization and resistance, transformation and adaptation and of new authors, directors, critics and publics.
Movie-going as Resistant Community [Chile]
by Verónica Feliu
Verónica Feliu, a Lecturer in Spanish at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has researched the Chilean women’s movement during the dictatorship period (1973-1989), focusing on performance, representation and testimonial. Among her articles about Chilean feminisms is a chapter in Translocalities/Translocalidades: Feminist Politics of Translation in Latin/a Americas, forthcoming from Duke University Press.
Going to the movies in Chile in the 1980’s was a fundamental experience in my life, one that has certainly shaped not only my perspective on cinema, but also my aesthetic sensibility by and large. During that time in Chile all aspects of life, including every cultural expression, were molded by a military regime that had already lasted a decade. Nothing functioned outside the scope set by a permeating system of thought, order, and raison d’être. Conversations, movements, even clothes and hair styles were reflections of a time in which cultural identity was constantly harassed, questioned, prohibited, distorted, detained.
I was young and part of a generation that was avid and hopeful, yet hopelessly realistic—we had seen too much, we demanded the impossible.
The impossible turned out to be more than we expected, and definitely more than we can imagine retrospectively. In Santiago, the capital, we had five art theaters: Cine Arte Normandie, Teatro de la Universidad Católica, El Biógrafo, plus the theaters of two international cultural centers, the Goethe Institute and the Chilean-French Cultural Institute. These cinemas were created in the 80’s and they powerfully counterbalanced the absence of cultural production originated by the state. They were also vanguard endeavors whose contribution to the cultural scene could compete with that of the most advanced democratic societies in the world. The most memorable movies of my young adulthood will be forever linked to these theaters.
Being at one of these alternative cinemas was a whole event in itself. Except for Cine Arte Normandie, which was located in a big old building, they were all small theaters situated in bohemian neighbourhoods and did little to advertise themselves. They displayed classical or rare posters from acclaimed or avant-garde productions, some of which were for sale. There was no popcorn smell, nor sodas to buy. People would bring candies or ice cream bonbons bought elsewhere. There was always smoking before and after the movie. By far, the best part was the gathering of people at the end when everybody exchanged comments about the film. Moviegoers shared a sense of satisfaction that was triggered by the thought-provoking movie, and were thrilled to be surrounded by others they felt a strong connection to. It was this sense of belonging, of sharing a worldview with others, of living for some minutes in a space without enemies or threat, that made going to these theaters so special and remarkable. Even if the movie was disappointing or too obscure, the act was complete by just recognizing some faces and glimpsing others who would most likely be at the next demonstration in the main Plaza.
But there was something else that has remained with me after all these years. It was the subtle and yet firm conviction that movie-going was not really about fun. At least not what fun means nowadays. There was certainly a sense of cult, of something you share only with people you feel intellectually close to. But there was also the aesthetics of the small space, elitist if you want, secluded, almost prohibited, that made it so exhilarating. We knew we were doing something that was only partially permitted by the authorities, regarded as some sort of a safety valve for our political desires to change the system. In a way, we knew we were observed. That double sense of being part of something and feeling renegades at the same time transformed this into a unique act, almost a performance.
After dictatorship ended in 1990 and Chile was incorporated into global markets, most movie theaters became part of the big multi-cinema chains in which little room is left for the individuals to feel their own breath, let alone to reflect upon what the movie has left in their minds. However, wonderfully enough, all the 80’s art theaters not only remain, but have become essential to a new generation of moviegoers. These youngsters no longer fear that culture could be something that puts their lives at risk, but they nonetheless have inherited the sense of complicity and excitement that a small theater and a somewhat complicated movie with an open-ended resolution gives to the restless mind.
Shared Memories/Memoria Compartida [Italy/Puerto Rico]
by Juana Iris Goergen
Juana Goergen is Professor of Spanish, Latin American and U.S. Latino Literature at DePaul University, Chicago. Among her works as a critic is Heroínas del Bronx (1998), and as a poet she has published La sal de las brujas (1997), La piel a medias (2001), and Las Ilusas/Dreamers (2008).
Malato d’amore. The title was in line with my writing project in Italy, Ars Amoris.
Besides, after four weeks in Bellagio, mostly working on my writing I was quite ready to explore on my own, testing my language fluency in the process. Two days before my flight home, I went to Milan in search for Da Vinci’s journals at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. On my way there, I found a theatre showing the film Malato d’amore. The poster seemed oddly familiar, but I was so busy thinking of the Ambrosiana’s treasures, I simply looked at the show times and decided to come back to the theater for the nine o’clock showing.
I was a bit late. When I got in, the air was filled with the sounds of laughter, and all I saw was a little white heart falling to the bottom of a red screen and breaking in two. Nice, I thought, a good Italian comedy. The following scene induced more laughter, including mine. An old couple was eating soup, making the loud slurping noises I always tell my kids are not appropriate to make at the table when they eat soup. No dialogue, just the hyperbolic and stereotypical sounds of “bad manners.” Have I seen this movie, I wondered. The next scene answered my question. It started with an expression, “Oh Benedetta,” that was very unfamiliar in the soft but high-pitched sounds of the Italian translation, but through which I could nonetheless hear “Ay Bendito, ” a very familiar expression in the original Spanish, the most authentic expression of “Puerto Ricaness.” Malato d’amore was Mal de amores, a 2007 Puerto Rican film, produced by Oscar winning Puerto Rican actor Benicio del Toro, written and directed by Carlos Ruiz Ruiz. I had taken my niece to see it, as a Christmas present, on my last trip to the Island.
I was amazed by how that mostly Italian crowd in Milan visibly enjoyed what I thought were very local, very stereotypical Puerto Rican jokes. I was laughing, too, sometimes at the translated gist of Puerto Rican Spanish: “Ay Bendito” (Oh, Benedetta) or “mi Pana” (equivalent to “Bro” in American English) translated as “Guarda Cretino!” But more than anything I was moved by how through a film a little island in the stream of the Caribbean waters, whose cinema is said to be in its infancy, was making the crowds in Northern Italy laugh with “gusto.” It was a comedy and I laughed, but I also cried!
I had committed myself to write a piece about Puerto Rican cinema and cinema-going, and all of a sudden there it was, the inspiration I needed in the most unlikely of places, Italy. Puerto Rico has benefited enormously from the creation of both the Puerto Rico Film Commission and the Corporation for the Development of Arts, Science and Film Industry in Puerto Rico. It is well known that many American pictures had been filmed in Puerto Rico, from the Woody Allen film Bananas (1971), to films with George Clooney and Kevin Spacey (Men Who Stare at Goats, 2009) and Johnny Depp (The Rum Diary, 2010), but since the Oscar nomination of Lo que le pasó a Santiago (Whatever Happened to Santiago? 1989), and 12 Horas (12 Hours, 2001), movies like Cayo (2005), Maldeamores (2007), Ángel (2007), and Party Time: The Movie (2009) have continued to prove the great talent in and possibilities of Puerto Rican Cinema.
Unlike in Italy, however, in Puerto Rico these films are shown in art houses, which are not very popular with the general public. (One exception was Talento de Barrio [Straight from the Barrio, 2008], which because of Daddy Yankee’s musical popularity, was shown in regular cinemas to millions.) In that cinema in Milan, I was overjoyed and proud—a Puerto Rican comedy made me cry and brought me home.
Rochefort in Leningrad [Soviet Union]
by Peter Hourigan
Peter Hourigan has spent many years going to the movies, being involved with film society and film festival bodies, as well as teaching movies with secondary students. He also leads adult discussion groups with Centre for Adult Education (Melbourne).
It was 1969. At that time, travelling to the Soviet Union was somewhat rare and adventurous. But I had braved possible political peril, walked around Red Square, visited Samarkand, and walked down the Odessa Steps—as any good cinephile should. Even for a film lover, however, it was not easy to see a film.
Nevertheless, I actually found my way to a small outer suburban cinema in Kiev which was showing Part 2 of a film version of The Brothers Karamazov (Bratya Karamazovy, 1969). I achieved this despite the officials in my hotel telling me that the film wasn’t showing in their city.
Towards the end of my tour, I was in Leningrad. In my hotel, I caught up again with a young American linguistics student with whom I’d previously shared a compartment on part of the Trans-Siberian rail journey. On a mid-summer’s day, as we were walking along one of the main Prospects, we passed a kino with advertising for a film I recognized without needing to transliterate the Cyrillic script: Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC. (or “One Million Years Before Our Era,” in the non-religious USSR).
A different kino was showing another film I recognized but also knew well. I waxed eloquent to Joe about how I loved this new French film, so much so that he wanted to see it—language difficulties aside.
Let my travel diary take over:
June 22nd, 1969
Breakfast is improving. Service is becoming quite reasonable at last. After breakfast, I went out with Joe again. And our main destination was Demoiselle de Rochefort [The Young Girls of Rochefort; 1967]. We had time to fill in, so I took a photo of the movie’s poster, and of another interesting theatre.
Outside the theatre we were hailed by a Russian who gave us lots of interesting info. He started with the usual questions of a black-marketeer – “Hullo boys. Do you speak English? Where do you come from? And how long in Leningrad? Do you like L? And where are you staying.” And, then, usually the question if we have any money to change or clothes to sell. However, this time not before he had pointed out an interesting roundabout. But the question did finally come. [I was approached this way about sixteen times in Leningrad]
Then the movie. First was a ten minute newsreel, style of the 1930’s, and of patriotic things or work (parades, good workers, etc.). Then Rochefort. The dialogue was dubbed in Russian, the singing left in French. I had told Joe part of the story beforehand, and told him what was happening as it went along. And he loved it. He came out just as exhilarated as the film makes me.
What was interesting, though, were the cuts made in the film. Several were possibly to fit it to the length of movies Russians are used to (such as leaving off the first few pre-credit minutes). A poor cut was leaving out Maxence’s attempts to buy the portrait of his dream. It weakened his impact in the story. Also cut was any reference to the details of the murder of Lola, the cafe scene in verse, and the carnival demonstration of the capacities of a [Western] motorcycle. Perhaps that would have shown up Russian bikes in a poor light? But it was really interesting to see this, and see the different treatment it received at Russian hands.
It’s interesting how we tend to think of a Film as something permanently fixed, a performance immutable forever. A stage performance we accept is different each time. But for me this Rochefort experience reinforced just how so many things can change our experience of a film – where we see it, how complete the version is or perhaps the language overlaid on all or part of the film, the impact of any deletions (which may be for political factors or because a collector has souvenired a favourite item), the company you’re in at the time, as well as your own past experiences of the film.
I’ve seen the film a number of times in the years since. I’ve even seen a rather bland, overproduced stage version in Paris. But the experience of that Leningrad viewing has become part of how I respond whenever I see it – whether on TV, VHS, DVD or as part of a retrospective. But I’ve lost touch with Joe. I wonder if he’s seen the film again since? And if so, what it meant to him?
My Hope for a Diversified Cinema Culture in Örebro, Sweden
by Åsa Jernudd
Åsa Jernudd is a senior lecturer in Media and Communication Studies at Örebro University, Sweden. Her dissertation (2007) concerned Movies and Entertainment in Örebro 1897-1908. Historical film studies, observing social and cultural aspects of exhibition and cinema-going in Sweden, have since been favoured areas of research.
We were off to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), a family event. I was going to buy tickets on the Internet. The new Harry Potter film played in two of the ten salons at the town’s multiplex, Filmstaden, one of which has a large screen worthy of a cinema. Filmstaden is the only cinema open in Örebro in the summer and its owners, Bonnier, have a monopoly on film exhibition in the cities and towns of Sweden. In the local paper I’d read that the large screen salon had had problems with the ventilation so I looked for information on the website (http://www.sf.se). Not finding any, I tried calling the company. Having dialled the number available on Filmstaden’s website, I was put on hold, a voice informing me that it would take nineteen minutes before they would respond. I gave up.
The salon with the large screen was filled to the last of the 315 seats. The commercials and trailers were over and the Harry Potter feature was ready to roll when a commanding voice cut through the subdued talking and the sound of teeth grinding popcorn. “There are a lot of people here tonight, so—please prepare for the possibility that the room will become hot and stuffy.” Now they tell us!
There is no consumer choice because there is no competition and there is no way to influence the business. This is an ideal situation, of course, for a media conglomerate to run an effective vertically integrated business. I don’t nostalgically yearn for a pre-multiplex situation when the town had seven one-salon cinemas. Indeed, the same company owned practically all the cinemas at that time, too. I didn’t even find it worth mourning when the only commercial competition in town was forced to close down a few years back. Just like Bonnier, this other company (Sandrew Metronome, later Astoria Cinemas) was at the mercy of large, international film companies, of commercial interests and practices.
During the winter season, Örebro does offer an alternative cinema, namely Bio Roxy (http://www.bioroxy.orebro.se). In a cinema venue from 1913 and at the grace of the local municipality, school screenings take place and films that aren’t viable for the commercial circuit are screened on a regular basis. Bio Roxy is, however, constantly under threat of being shut down, and though the employees try their best to present the cinema as interesting to the local public, the meagre means with which it operates doesn’t give it much of a chance to succeed.
Digital culture is expanding and transforming cinema as we know it. The largest rural based non-commercial cinema circuit in Sweden is, for example, currently in the process of digitalizing their 500 cinemas (The National Federation of People´s Parks and Community Centres, http://www.fhp.nu). I put my hope to this development! The digital image will improve, costs will be reduced and a new, diversified film culture will evolve. Hopefully the archives around the world will come together and solve the legal and economic problems that prevent films from being put on the digital market in new copies that preserve their pristine quality. The digital cinemas can hook up to film festivals around the world—and Bio Roxy will have a future.
In such a film culture utopia, Bonnier can continue showing blockbusters and mainstream films packaged in consumer-arrogant forms, hide behind industrial methods, and haul in cash on popcorn—and I won’t complain!
(For more on Swedish cinemas, see theatre historian and photographer Kjell Furberg’s lushly illustrated website at http://www.algonet.se/~furberg/)
Astor – Harmonie [Germany]
by Frank Kessler
Frank Kessler is professor of film and television history at Utrecht University and former president of Domitor. He is a co-founder and co-editor of KINtop. Jahrbuch zur Erforschung des frühen Films and currently leads a research project entitled “The Nation and Its Other” (http://www.uu.nl/hum/nation-and-its-other).
Growing up in the town of Offenbach, Germany, just across the river Main from the much larger city of Frankfurt, my memories of going to the movies as a child and a young teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s are in fact more about the theatres than the films. Or rather, when I do remember a film, I almost always recall the cinema where I saw it, while I do have quite vivid memories of the theatres anyway, even when I only have vague recollections of the films I went to see there.
When I was first allowed to go to the movies without a grown-up by my side, mostly accompanied by a friend from school, I must have been twelve or thirteen years old. We had a preference for films with soldiers in them, ancient Greeks or Romans, but sometimes also World War II battles (Catch-22 , which we saw even though we were under age, turned out to be an utterly disturbing and confusing experience). The cinema we usually attended was an already relatively run-down theatre that has now been closed for many years. It was called the Astor and situated quite conveniently in the centre of Offenbach, directly opposite the bus stop. The somewhat faded charms of the Astor, together with the program consisting mainly of action movies, Spaghetti Westerns, and comedies (Catch-22 was actually shown in the more up-market Universum), had a paradoxical effect on me: alongside the excitement and the curiosity about what the film would bring, there was also a feeling of a certain uneasiness, a tension as if I was about to do something illicit. I am sure that many others will have similar recollections of going to the movies during puberty. There was of course the occasional nudity and, more generally, a confrontation with images that made me wonder, “do I actually want to see this?”—the violence, the sensuality, the things that a child definitely was not meant to behold. And thus there was deep inside a realization that movie-going somehow was related to moving out of childhood into something else that was both attractive and repulsive, both exciting and threatening. The Astor, for me, was a curious place, one that both promised and refused a sense of belonging.
A few years later, when the Astor had probably already closed down or was about to do so, my taste in films had changed considerably. I was a student by then at the University of Frankfurt, had managed to live through fifteen months of military service, had my driver’s license and could use my parent’s car in the evening. This newly acquired independence and mobility took me regularly to a cinema that was the first art house in Frankfurt, the Harmonie. Once a neighborhood theatre, it had ended up showing X-rated movies before being taken over by a cooperative of five young cinephiles. So it was not only a place where one could watch an ambitious mix of newly released art films and classics from the repertoire, but it was also perceived as something like a political experiment, a collectively owned cinema where people associated with what was then called “the non-dogmatic left” went to see films that often told stories about unconventional lives. Among the most successful films, which had runs of several months and re-appeared regularly in the program afterwards, were Alain Tanner’s Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l’an 2000 (Jonas Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, 1976), Coline Serreau’s Pourqui pas! (1977) and Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971—it must already have been a re-run when I first saw it)—and, not to forget, the almost always sold-out Saturday night cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). The Harmonie had (and still has) a balcony where one tried to get a seat, preferably in the first row. The Harmonie was also a door to something else, to another way of life maybe, even if that only happened on the screen. However, there was nothing threatening about that. Going to the Harmonie clearly was about “belonging” as well, but this was where one wanted to belong.
In the end, of course, the difference in my experiences of movie-going at the beginning and at the end of the 1970s was only partly due to the cinemas as such. Obviously, the Harmonie could not have existed in Offenbach in the early 1970s, but even if it had, it would have been as ambivalent a place to me as the Astor. At that point in my life, it was the age much more than the films or the theatres that determined the way I felt about going to the movies—as something both alluring and frightening, or, later, as something I wanted to be part of. So when, and where, exactly does one become a cinephile?
The Quiet Spectator [Japan]
by Hiroshi Kitamura
Hiroshi Kitamura is Associate Professor of History at the College of William and Mary. He is the author of Screening Enlightenment: Hollywood and the Cultural Reconstruction of Defeated Japan (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010).
Japan today is a nation saturated with American consumer culture. Born and raised in this island society during the 1970s and 1980s, I, like many others, grew up an avid fan of Hollywood movies. U.S. cinema fascinated me not only because it amused and entertained, but also because it offered a glimpse of the larger society that gave birth to it. One could gain a taste of “America”—and even learn something of it—from the movies.
But one time, I learned about my own “Japaneseness” at the theatre. The feature presentation was The Naked Gun (1988), which I saw at my neighbourhood movie house some twenty years ago. The antics of the gray-haired Leslie Nielsen were absolutely hilarious, I thought. Others were enjoying this comedy, too. Then suddenly, a large burst of laughter disrupted my viewing. Surprised and disturbed, I looked behind and saw a middle-aged Caucasian (most likely American) man—the only non-Japanese viewer on site—about to roll on the floor in hysterics. People around him seemed bothered by his explosive laughter. That moment, something dawned on me: I, like many other movie-goers in Japan, was a “quiet spectator.”
Some might think that silent viewing reflects a uniquely “Japanese” tendency to appear reserved and obedient in public spaces. But this tendency was not always common in the beginning. When the movies entered mainstream Japan in the 1910s and 1920s, theaters were often rowdy and raucous spaces. Contemporaries noted that audiences often applauded, cheered, and jeered in overpacked houses. The trend appeared particularly strong in lower class neighbourhoods in large cities as well as in smaller cities and provincial centers. “Loud audiences” were also spotted in the wake of World War II.
What, then, accounts for the emergence of the quiet movie-goer? One reason was specialization. Early film screenings often appeared in spaces where other forms of entertainment (such as kabuki and yose) were performed. These venues tolerated eating and drinking, laughter, applause, and name-checking of the stars. The expansion of film-specific venues motivated businesses to distinguish their amusements from traditional pastimes. This tendency grew around “modern” theaters in upscale districts and intensified after World War II, when many exhibitors began to employ limited seating, one-screening-per-ticket policies, no smoking, and at times no eating or drinking during the show. These practices constrained audience behaviour, particularly “rowdy” mannerisms.
Another reason was government intervention. As the movies turned into a national pastime, politicians and public officials began to perceive cinema as a dangerous influence, particularly on children and women. State officials quickly enforced regulations to maintain “public morals” and “respectable” behavior in the theatres. In many venues, the police began to observe movie-goers from special booths created in the theatres. This practice continued much throughout the prewar era and revived briefly during the occupation, when new laws were further created to control the quality of theatres. Such policies yielded a lasting influence on theatres and movie-going.
The spread of Western cinemas—some European but mostly American—also played a role in the change. Since the 1910s, many overseas imports attracted educated consumers in the cities who looked upon Western culture as a source of amusement and intellect. As the share of such cinemas grew, “respectable” behaviour appeared to spread. Trade observers noted that audiences in Euro-American cinemas were generally better-mannered than Japanese film fans. “The audience,” wrote Joseph Anderson and Donald Richie in the late 1950s, “is usually very quiet during the showing of a first-run foreign film.”
Back in my neighbourhood cinema the movie was over, and I exited the theatre—together with others who were now chatting and laughing loudly—realizing that I shared a similar viewing practice with others around me. In contemporary Japan, watching the movies in silence, a practice which took decades to develop, has become a common cultural practice—even for “a first-run foreign film” as irreverent as The Naked Gun.
Where is Cinema? [United States]
by Jeff Klenotic
Jeff Klenotic is Associate Professor of Communication Arts at the University of New Hampshire. Forthcoming work includes “Putting Cinema History on the Map: Using GIS to Explore the Spatiality of Cinema” in New Cinema History. For more details about his research, including the Geographic Information System Mapping Movies, visit http://jeffklenotic.com.
In the era of digital video, conventional wisdom holds that cinemas need films more than films need cinemas. Today’s moving images move farther and faster than ever before and their adventurous portability seems to trump the staid permanence of the movie theatre. This leaves many in the film audience rarely, if ever, setting foot in a cinema.
Given these historical circumstances, the most provocative question to ask may not be “can cinemas survive?” but rather “do venues need films or projected videos to be considered cinemas?” Or putting it bluntly, do cinemas really need films? Film projectors do not run twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and yet the electric sign on the front of the building still reads “cinema.” The sign may be switched off overnight but the venue isn’t categorically changed. Powering down a car or dimming its lights does not make it any less a car; it simply alters the range of uses to which it can be put (a fact which contributed enormously to the pleasures and popularity of drive-ins). No cinema employee removes a theater’s marquee at night only to restore it in the still hours before the first matinee. Moreover, when the day’s projectors do start cranking, they crank only in certain places taking up measured portions of a cinema’s usable square footage.
Much goes on in the spaces of cinema real estate beyond the projector’s reach, as anyone who has ever gone to a cinema for the express purpose of watching people and playing video games in the lobby can duly attest. Perhaps we should respect convention and stipulate that, yes, cinemas do need films in order to be truly classed as cinemas. But if we do, then precisely what percentage of time and space must projected images and sounds occupy in relation to the overall volume of pleasures afforded by those places we would choose to brand officially as cinemas? Fifty-one percent? Such quantification seems absurd, yet the question remains.
U.S. box office data indicates theatre attendance is up and suggests that cinema-going is alive and well, owing in part to the country’s recessionary economy. Cinemas offer escape and create reassuring cultural and physical connections for people experiencing acute socioeconomic isolation, regardless of whether any given film is found to be entertaining.
Not every cinema, however, is faring equally well, and some are doing better than others. Stadium theatres have moved to the fore by emphasizing seat comfort and other environmental touches, in effect selling the sizzle as much as the steak. Sometimes the sizzle actually is the steak, as is the case for another apparently increasingly popular form of cinema-going—the cinema café. Such cinemas literally do sell choice cuts of meat, along with other culinary fare and alcoholic beverages. The film itself becomes something of a condiment, a rub, an added value that contributes flavour to the convivial dining experience and social interaction.
Many nonprofit theatres are also flourishing, and not only due to bold programming but because they have reconnected cinemas to communities—selling seat sponsorships and vesting locals with a sense of cinema-going as a ritual act of social responsibility, not to mention an excellent opportunity to schmooze, network and air the local laundry. Like cinema cafes, nonprofits depend increasingly on alcohol and cuisine. These services have as much to do with the hospitality industry as with the film industry. Gold Class Cinemas take hospitality to an extreme, creating places approximating the first class section of an airplane.
In all such settings, the most culturally meaningful narratives and performances are arguably occurring off-screen.
Movie-going and the New Town Centre [United States]
by Arthur Knight
Arthur Knight is an Associate Professor of American Studies and English at the College of William & Mary, where he also teaches Film and Cultural Studies. He’s the author of Disintegrating the Musical: Black Performance and American Musical Film (Duke 2009) and runs the Williamsburg Theatre Project (moviegoing.wm.edu/wtp/).
Compared to when I arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1993, the landscape of movie-going is at once remarkably different and remarkably similar. These differences and similarities, I think, reveal a lot about the uncertain place of movie-going in America right now, a place that might be best labeled “marginally central.”
Two anecdotes. The photograph is of Williamsburg’s largest cinema on the evening of Monday, May 25, 2009, the U.S.’s Memorial Day and the traditional beginning of summer movie season. As you can see, the theater was nearly empty. The shot’s not rigged. I hung around for ninety minutes, observing the few customers and hoping to get a spectacular—monumental? ironic?—sunset.
I wish I’d had the foresight to bring an audio recorder to the same cinema in mid-July when I went with my 13-year-old daughter to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) the Friday evening of its first week. The auditorium was full of teenagers, who also thronged the cinema’s lobby and forecourt. Pleasant to see, fun to experience, but not surprising. The surprise was the spontaneous scream of the girls in the audience when teen star Taylor Lautner appeared in the trailer for The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009). I’ve never heard anything like it except in films of The Beatles.
Clearly Taylor Lautner holds an important—a central—place in his fans’ current emotional lives. And movies like Twilight and Harry Potter help fans of the books share their experiences with one another and reach out to non-initiates—in the public space of the movie theatre. But the empty theatre of Memorial Day hints that this centrality is limited to specific movies and perhaps increasingly detached from going to the movies in general.
In 1993 Williamsburg had three movie theatres. One was the Williamsburg Theatre, running since 1933, in the old centre of town. It was an art house, which it still is, though it also now stages performances and, increasingly, serves as an arts center for the wealthy retirees who’ve swelled the town’s population in the last couple of decades (this theatre is now named the Kimball Theatre; see http://kimballtheatre.com). The other two theatres were multiplexes, one from the late 60s, one from about 1990, both built in then-new shopping centres. As the town grew and sprawled, neither plaza remained new or central, and by 2005 both multiplexes had closed. The Williamsburg Theatre’s programming had become so marginal to general community life that the local paper lamented there was no longer a cinema in town!
This didn’t last long. The New Town Cinema 12 opened in 2005, and in spring 2009, nearby the 12, the eight-screen Movie Tavern opened, serving food and drink along with films (see www.regmovies.com/theatrelocations/ and www.movietavern.com/index7.php for the websites of the chains that run these theatres). These competing cinemas are similar in their new-ness and their programming of Hollywood fare. But they’re also similar in being the spatial centres of newly built “communities” that mix housing, shopping, restaurants, services, and offices in ways meant to create new, “organic” neighbourhoods (see www.newtownwilliamsburg.com and www.highstreetwilliamsburg.com).
Obviously, the developers of these neighbourhoods see movie-going as central to community life, and they’ve staked a lot on it. As a moviegoer, this delights me (more programming variety would delight me still more). But it’s hard to imagine—even with the amenities of new-ness: spacious lobbies where young and old can avoid too much contact, stadium seating, digital 3-D projection—that going out to the movies is in fact that central to current American life. How much space do those ardent, screaming Taylor Lautner fans (and all the other, perhaps less emotive, fans they can stand for) need? How much commercial, quasi-public space can they support?
As the era of American expansion gets shaken, if not halted, it’s likely that one or two of Williamsburg’s cinemas will remain, and the others will become holes in the increasingly dispersed centre(s) of our town.
Update: As of the end of 2010, all three cinemas are still running and, at least from appearances, doing about the same as they were in summer 2009. But one thing has changed. Many of the shops and restaurants that used to surround the New Town 12 have closed, leaving it increasingly alone in its commercial landscape. The commercial spaces around the Movie Tavern have never properly filled in, either, so in this regard Williamsburg’s two multiplexes also mirror one another.
Film and the Quest for an Authentic “Cross-language”
[Democratic Republic of the Congo]
by Pius Ngandu Nkashama
Pius Ngandu Nkashama is a professor at Louisiana State University. He is poet, novelist, playwright and critic. The most recent of his six novels is En suivant le sentier sous les palmiers (2009) and his most recent play is Bonjour Monsieur le Ministre (2007). He has also published a survey of African literature, a critical anthology, critical works, and two novels in ciluba, his maternal language.
In 1976, the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters from the National University organized in Lubumbashi (Congo, then known as Zaire) the first Festival of African Cinema. The event was very popular especially among the upper classes. The repertoire, already classical at that time, ranged from Touki Bouki (1973) and Badou Boy (1970) by Djibril Diop-Mambetty to Boubou Cravate (1972) by Daniel Kamwa through FVVA: Femme, villa, voiture, argent (1972) by Mustapha Alassane or Le Wazzou polygame (1971) by Oumarou Ganda.
The screenings were scheduled in the Ciné-Emporium auditorium in the city-centre’s commercial district, where international aid workers and managers of public administration also live and work. This meant that the festival took place in the context of a discriminatory economic hierarchy, which excluded local indigenous citizens.
Two films attracted the curiosity of students and prompted sharp criticism: Les tam-tams se sont tus (1972) by Philippe Mory and Walanda (1974) by Alkaly Kaba. The quarrel was not caused by the themes of these movies, let alone the acting or the characters, but rather by the “language” heard in the dialogue. A memorable sequence evoked a hilarity hard to control: in a distant village, an old grandma sits on the ground in front of her house, preparing the ”foufou,” scolding her grandchild for being badly educated according to the “tradition of the ancestors.” And she not only spoke an impeccable French grammar (a bit much!), but she also conjugated the verbs with great emphasis on “correct imperfect subjunctives and even the subtle past-perfect.” An improbable performance for this grandma in full possession of her faculties: “encore eût-il fallu que tu comprisses” (“If only you had understood”). Amidst an indignant and unanimous roaring, the audience uttered an appalled “NO!” They booed the organizers of the cultural week bluntly, as if they had tried to commit a linguistic crime.
At that time, Zaire was obsessed with “authenticity,” conforming to the doctrine of the political establishment in a country governed by a one party system. The controversy turned into a radical rejection of types of experiences like this film festival. Then we teachers, we decided to leave the air-conditioned room for outdoor meetings in the outlying cities of Kamalondo and Katuba. A bed sheet was used as a projection screen in the middle of the market, and the audience rushed spontaneously into the plaza to enjoy the films. Since the films were projected on a bed sheet, the audience could place itself either in front of the bed sheet or in the back of it, and the transparency of the medium allowed for the image to be readable on either side. Consequently, and with authority, depending on the side on which they stood, the viewers could interpret the characters as being either left-handed or right-handed.
We opted on this occasion for the works of Ousmane Sembene: Borom Sarret (1966), Mandabi (Le Mandat/The Money Order, 1968) and Emitaï (1971). To our surprise, some viewers claimed without hesitation that the characters were speaking in Kiswahili or local Ciluba, while the original language of the film was Wolof or Dioula. The most daring ones even claimed that they recognized the actors and that the film had been shot in their own neighbourhoods: “Here, this coarse paunchy is our neighbour, Kambala Papa himself, with his gestures and burlesque mimicry.”
Afterwards students analyzed the reception of this singular event. The theatricality of the viewing situation mirrored the scenarios in the films and amplified their effects and meanings. So Ousmane Sembene got involved in a very special way of making films by the use of African languages, but also by the specific dynamics of the narrative. The film discourse had managed to establish itself as a cross-language, a performance that would be repeated in all the languages of the world: “Life (truly) is a long quiet River.” Whereas oppressive régimes insinuate that power is only a matter of money and bullets, the cinema affirms that culture can reconstruct the universe by re-appropriating history and the dream of a transgression that reunites the people until the triumph of Liberty.
Istanbul: From its Film Festival to its Film History [Turkey]
by Mustafa Özen
Mustafa Özen is film historian and literary translator. He graduated in Graphic Design at the University of Marmara in Istanbul and in Film and Television Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He wrote a dissertation about the early cinema in Istanbul. Currently he is working for the EYE Film Institute Netherlands.
I cannot recall what was the first movie I ever saw in my life. However, my earliest memories of going to the movies during my childhood in my home country Turkey go back to the film screenings held for special occasions and open air screenings during the summer season. They were held in my hometown, a former fishing village located on the shores of the Marmara Sea which was a popular summer holiday destination for the middle class from Istanbul. The screenings consisted of various kinds of movies ranging from Turkish melodramas to the first Superman (1978) movie featuring Christopher Reeve, from nationalist historical films in which the enemy would surrender to the brave Turkish hero to horror movies like Friday the 13th (1980). I remember that during the projection of horror movies, out of fear I preferred to stare at the ceiling or the stars in the sky than at the screen, which resulted in me missing at least three quarters of the movie.
At the age of eighteen I moved to Istanbul for my studies, and my passion for the movies got a new dimension. It was no longer of importance that I see all the Oscar-award-winning movies, nor did I have to know by heart who were the award-winning actors and which film was awarded for which category. Now I was fascinated by European cinema. The International Istanbul Film Festival played an important role in how I got familiar with this “new” genre. This all happened during the early 1980’s —that’s when the festival was launched. For me this was the happening of the year, and each year I was excited and overwhelmed by the idea of seeing new movies during this festival. This is how I got to know the movies of the French film director Eric Rohmer, how I got to see an impressive Pier-Paolo Pasolini retrospective, and how I got in touch with the first movies of the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. I will never forget how these movies impressed me in those days.
My last visit to the International Istanbul Film Festival dates from 1993, the year I moved to the Netherlands. Since then I have been to many film festivals, in my new homeland and abroad. However, none of them were as magical as the film festival in Istanbul. You never forget your first love. Nevertheless, in my new homeland I got the opportunity to realize a research project that combines my love and passion for Istanbul and cinema. The project resulted in a dissertation about the first decades of cinema in the former Ottoman capital in the period from the first public screenings in 1896 till the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. This is how I have paid tribute to and expressed my gratitude for this extraordinary city and its film festival, both of which have been very decisive in my life. I’m glad that I have been able to do something for them in return by drawing up a detailed history of the emergence of cinema and cinema-going in Istanbul.
Crime and Pleasure [Netherlands]
by Clara Pafort-Overduin
Clara Pafort-Overduin teaches in the Department of Theater, Film and Television Studies at Utrecht University. She has published work on Dutch film culture in the 1930s. She has collaborated with Douglas Gomery on a new edition of Movie History: A Survey (forthcoming in April 2011).
The cinema as a place, a specific location, has had very different meanings in my life. I grew up in a strongly religious family. We didn’t have a television. Going to the movies was absolutely forbidden.
To my horror I found myself accidentally in a cinema when I was eight. I was invited to a surprise birthday party and did not dare to tell my friend I was not allowed to enter this heathen place. Frantically I looked around to see that there were no passersby who could recognize me. The sparsely lit cinema hall, the dark red chairs, and the softly shimmering golden lamps did not ease my mind at all. This was utterly wrong. How on earth could I explain this to my mother if she asked me about the party? When the first images appeared on the large screen, I decided to close my eyes. I only opened them once to see why my friends all screamed and where this horrific noise of rattling rifles, hoof beats, and loud neighing came from. Large brown horses with Indians on their backs came running through the water. I had just enough strength to stay seated and to suppress the urge to cry. I felt no relief when we finally left the theatre. “What do I tell mum?” kept going through my mind.
Four years later we had moved to another street in town. Every morning when we walked to our new school, my two sisters and I had to pass that same cinema. Like many theatres it had changed into something even worse: a sex cinema. We always turned our heads and never dared to look.
Another four years later I finally found the courage to go to the movies with my best friend. She was the one who told me everything about Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978). I knew the stories and all the songs by heart. She taped the sound tracks for me. At her place I watched television secretly and learned how to dance. She told me I had to see the Dutch movie Spetters (1980), which was said to have very exciting love scenes. We decided not to invite our boyfriends. I was still afraid someone would catch me red-handed at the cinema but even more thrilled by the idea of going to see this movie. We went and came out very impressed—not because of the promised excitement but because of the suicide of the character played by the actor we liked most.
It was only after I had left home that I started to visit the movies regularly. But even 200 kilometers away from home cinema remained a bit dirty. Right after my first very respectable movie (Amadeus, 1984), a man invited me for a drink. Naively I accepted, only to find out how he fantasized about us being naked on the carpet in front of his hearth. This time I did run.
Many years later the cinema is no longer a place where I can get caught. It is a place where I can withdraw from all obligations. For me, the best time of the year is the end of January when the International Film Festival in Rotterdam is held and I can spend days watching movies. It is always cold and windy. Before seeing any film I walk across the platform in front of the large Pathé Cinema. My high heels click in different pitches when they hit the different pavements of steel, wood and stone. I turn and walk back, safely into the warmth of the movies.
My mum never asked.
From the Red Screen to the Multiplex [Russia]
by Elena Prokhorova and Alexander Prokhorov
Elena Prokhorova is Assistant Professor of Russian at the College of William and Mary, where she also teaches in Film and Cultural Studies program. Her research focuses on identity discourses in late Soviet and post-Soviet media. Elena’s publications have appeared in Slavic Review, Slavic and East European Journal, and Kinokultura.
Alexander Prokhorov is Associate Professor of Russian and Film Studies at College of William and Mary. His research interests include Russian visual culture, genre theory, and film history. His articles and reviews have been published in Kinokultura, Russian Review, Slavic Review, Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema, and Wiener Slawistische Almanach.
Douglas Gomery ends his 1992 book Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States with an optimistic vision of Russia joining the global film market. In 1990, he notes, Time-Warner announced it would:
join with the Soviet film industry to construct American-style movie complexes in Moscow and Leningrad. . . , [multiplexes that would] take the experience of contemporary movie-going in the United States and transfer it to the ‘new’ USSR. The two Soviet complexes. . . w[ould] take credit cards for payment, offer soft drinks, introduce popcorn to Soviet moviegoers. . . [and] be the first air conditioned theaters in the Soviet Union. Innovations that ha[d] come over the past decades in the United States w[ould] emerge ‘instantly’ for the Soviet filmgoer.
The brave new world of capitalist film consumption just around the corner didn’t quite arrive as Gomery imagined it. The “swift” outcome of the market reforms spearheaded by Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost turned into decades of painful transition, the results of which remain unclear. One thing is certain: the Time-Warner multiplexes were never built.
To be fair, the task of transformation was monumental. Soviet movie-going hadn’t been thought of as a profit engine. Cinema was part of the planned economy, a tool of ideological education, and a safe leisure activity for the population. The State Ministry for Cinema (Goskino) controlled the production, censorship, distribution, and exhibition of Soviet and imported films. The average price of a ticket was about thirty kopecks and remained unchanged from the early 1960s until the collapse of Soviet film distribution system (fig.1). Still, lacking alternative leisure activities, Soviet moviegoers of the 1960s and 1970s attended at the highest rate in the world: a yearly average of twenty-three times in cities and nineteen times in the countryside. However, only eight kopecks from each ruble in ticket sales went into film production. (1) The rest maintained 150,000 obsolete one-screen cinemas, paid salaries for teachers and doctors, and patched other holes in the Soviet budget. Additionally, Soviet television, widespread enough by the 1970s to compete with cinemas, was allowed to broadcast theatrical films for free and thus never brought in revenue for the film industry. Finally, like the whole Soviet command economy on the brink of perestroika in 1985, the Soviet film industry suffered from falling oil prices and mismanagement.
In 1986 Soviet filmmakers convened to address the state of the industry. Inspired by glasnost, they focused on abolishing political censorship and the centralized administration of film production and articulated a new model of cinema. They “liberated” themselves from the Soviet-era distribution system but failed to establish mechanisms to receive revenues from the expanding and unregulated video market. On top of these woes, in 1991, alarmed by piracy, the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA) imposed an embargo on screening American films in Russia. By the mid-1990s Russia was producing just twenty-eight films a year and Russians were going out to the movies just once every four years! (2) Most Soviet-era theaters were turned into warehouses, car dealerships, and flea markets.
Initial signs of recovery came with the construction of multiplex theatres in major cities. The first Western-style multiplex theatre, Kodak-Cineworld, opened in 1996 in Moscow (fig. 2). In 1998 James Cameron’s Titanic, for the first time since the late 1980s, gathered crowds in the surviving movie theatres across the country and boosted the Russian film distribution system. A decade later, Russia had 756 movie theatres with 1,949 screening rooms, half in the newly built urban vertical malls, 8% with capacity for digital projection. In 2008 118.4 million tickets sold, collecting 801 million dollars in revenues, with an average price of $6.8 dollars per ticket. (3) That said, only 15% of Russia’s population attends movie theaters, mostly teenagers and young professionals who choose to watch Hollywood releases. (4) Most Russians stay home and watch the television series that constitute the lion’s share of the film industry’s output. Of the films released in Russia in 2008, Hollywood accounted for 60% of revenues, Russia for 25%, and Europe for 13%. (5) As 2010 dawned, Cameron’s Avatar ruled Russian cinemas. (6)
Perhaps Gomery was right to end his book on US film exhibition and movie-going with a vision of Russia joining the global film market—even if that joining was not as instantaneous as envisioned. After all, a big part of Russia’s success in this new global market is about American blockbusters, if not Time-Warner multiplexes.
- Kokarev, Igor.’ Rossiiskii kinematograf: mezhdu proshlym i budushchim. Moscow: Rossiiskii fond kul’tury. Russkaia panorama, 2001. 16, 23.
- Nancy Condee. “Imperial Ectoplasm.” Kinokultura. 6(2004): http://www.kinokultura.com/articles/oct04-natcine-condee.html
- Kseniia Leont’eva et al. Kinoindiustriia Rossiiskoi Federatsii. European Audiovisual Observatory, 2009. 36, 90.
- Radio Program Kul’turnyi Shok: Toska Po Luchshei Zhizni: Sovetskoe Kino Protiv Rossiiskogo. Daniil Dondurei Kseniia Larina, Aleksandr Shpagin. Radio Station Echo of Moscow, Ekho Moskvy. 25 April 2009. http://echo.msk.ru/programs/kulshok/587732-echo/
- Ksenia Leontieva 104.
- http://www.kinobusiness.com/ 11 January, 2010.
Fig. 1. Soviet-Era Movie Ticket (1970s)
Fig. 2. Kodak-Cineworld Multiplex, downtown Moscow
On Not Leaving the Cinema [Portugal]
by Marta Reis
Marta Reis is a Portuguese documentary filmmaker, Assistant Professor of video production in the Sound and Image Course of the Portuguese Catholic University since 2005, and a member of the Black & White Audiovisual Festival Organization Committee since 2007. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Film and Audiovisual Studies.
I found out early in my life that I wasn’t into fantasy cinema. My very first cinema memory is of going to see Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940) with my father. It was a catastrophic experience. Despite my father’s patience and goodwill, I was terrified of the movie and insisted he take me out of the cinema and leave the building. It was the only time that I have left a cinema in the middle of a film. I was five.
The rest of my life has involved reconciling the thrill and magic of cinema-going with this opening disaster. As a kid, I never considered the option of a career in filmmaking. This should have been an obvious first choice for me. My whole life was spent either in front of a movie screen or a TV screen, but I blame my reluctance on the ongoing effect of my foundational Fantasia experience. By the time I had an allowance and began going out with my friends, I quickly realized I was addicted to cinema going. Finally, when I was confronted with having to choose a field of study at college, I at last saw that I was only interested in filmmaking and acting.
Eventually I enrolled in a sound and image course where I had the opportunity to experience filmmaking with a great teacher—award winning video artist Joan Braderman—and a whole new world opened up for me—not the world of cinema fantasy but the world of documentary. The opportunity to meet and interact with new people and new cultures suited me like a well-fitted glove.
Since then I have been constantly engaged with either creating my current or planning my future documentaries. I’m still two projects behind, so I have to figure out a way to catch up soon or I‘ll end up buried with my old ideas.
It’s easy to think that being so involved with filmmaking would diminish the thrill of entering the projection room or the desire to go to the cinema, but for me what happens is quite the opposite. I find I have instead an increasing urge to watch, see, and get to know all I can about the cinema.
For me, the idea that the new media that allow you to watch the movies you want, comfortably on your couch, with surround sound, etc., could precipitate the end of cinema-going doesn’t ring true. I can only conclude that the magic and excitement I feel when I enter a movie theatre is also felt by millions of others and is an experience that, despite being very lonesome, is in fact shared. There is something extraordinary in the fact that one is (sometimes) amongst many others sharing the same sense of energy and emotion. All this makes this experience of cinema-going unique. Although your own mood can influence your film choice, when you, together with your fellow cinemagoers, are confronted with the story there is always some kind of catharsis. So, film can be personally very therapeutic and collectively galvanizing. In fact, when we enter a cinema we are expecting so many things that I firmly believe this act is actually irreplaceable.
Walt Disney compensated me for my Fantasia catastrophe with dozens of beautiful (and sad) stories that accompanied me throughout my whole life, and I figure now that, somehow, this initially distressing experience woke me up and made me want to understand the medium. From the outset I was intently aware of the cinema’s power and wanted to take advantage of it. But for now, as a filmmaker if not always as a filmgoer, I’m sticking to documentary!
The Experience of Cinema Culture in Manila [Philippines]
by Emmy Schilders
Emmy Schilders obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Languages and Culture Studies at Utrecht University in 2009. Part of her degree program was an exchange to the University of the Philippines, at the department of Mass Communication. Currently she is studying for a Master’s degree in Culture Management at the University of Antwerp, Belgium.
It was as an exchange student from the Netherlands at the University of the Philippines’ broadcasting department that I experienced cinema-going in Manila. The audience’s reaction, the movies shown, and the popularity of cinema as a form of entertainment all showed me a new and unique cinema culture.
The Philippines is a third world, but also a postmodern, country. Money is an extremely important factor in everyday life, but modern consumer experiences are too, especially in the capital. Besides watching television and singing karaoke, entertainment is found in hanging around in one of the countless malls: window shopping, walking out of the mall to grab a cheap snack from the streets, then going back in the mall for air conditioning.
It is easy to go to the cinema, because every mall has one. Manila counts over thirty cinemas, most of which are multiplexes, if not megaplexes. Although the majority of the population in Manila lives from 5000 Philippine pesos (about 107 USD) a month, cinema-going is popular. An average meal costs 50 or 60 Php. A ticket for the cinema is 130 Php. A beer in a “nice place” costs 100 Php as well. But movies have the magic factor, letting you forget about your daily life for the time being.
The first movie I saw in a cinema in Manila was a Hollywood comedy. When the first joke was made on the screen, I was stunned. All the people around me started laughing out loud. Tears where rolling out of their eyes, even though the joke was not that good. The atmosphere in the cinema was guiltless, accepting, nice. It felt like the audience forgot what was happening on the streets, and really entertained themselves.
For me, going to the cinema became a way to get out of daily life too. I lived between local people in a “nice” slum and felt how a movie could draw you out of your own little world. Besides laughing out loud at comedies, Filipinos cry watching drama (or a Disney movie), they put their hands on their faces watching horror films. Some Western people I met there called it childish, but I stick with “compassionate”. The Filipinos are a lovely public. If the movie does not get you into it, the audience does.
With few exceptions, all the movies seen in the multiplexes are produced in Hollywood, a legacy of American colonization. Filipinos in Manila speak English well. No movie is subtitled or dubbed. Hollywood movies are released early in Manila compared to Europe. In the Netherlands, we might wait as long as six months after it premieres in the United States to see a movie, but in Manila Hollywood films arrive much sooner.
The influence of Hollywood does not leave any space for other foreign influences. No Bollywood or Korean movies find their way to the multiplexes. Only national production sometimes competes with the domination of Hollywood. When Metro Manila Film Festival is upcoming, or right after, you will find Filipino films accepted in the programming.
Filipinos give an extra dimension to cinema-going. It is a great audience—a great public—to be a part of. Whereas in the Netherlands the cinema public is watching the movie for themselves, the Filipinos create a close, warm, and charming atmosphere for everyone, even in these big Americanised multiplexes.
A Montage of Movie-going in Cuba
by Ann Marie Stock
Ann Marie Stock is a Professor of Hispanic Studies and Film Studies at the College of William & Mary. Author of On Location in Cuba: Street Filmmaking during Times of Transition, Founding Director of Cuban Cinema Classics <www.cubancinemaclassics.org>, and editor of Framing Latin American Cinema: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, she has been to Cuba more than fifty times over the past twenty years.
Establishing shot: Cityscape. Pan: train station, multi-story hotels and offices, boulevards lined with arched walkways; moving cars, taxis, buses, pedestrians. Focus on massive white marble structure. Close-up: steps filled with people—some seated, others standing, a few walking to join the multitudes. Atmosphere is expectant, as if a rally or parade were about to begin. Jump-cut to pair of wood-framed glass doors; they open. Cross-cut to people, standing up in unison, rushing down steps. Tracking: crowd runs en masse towards building, a theatre, with open doors. Zoom in first on theatre and then marquee with letters spelling “Cine Payret” and “Meryl Streep.”
It was while strolling up Havana’s Paseo del Prado towards the Capitolio that I observed this sequence. More than a decade after those Cubans film fans dashed to watch their beloved Hollywood actress in The House of the Spirits (1993), the images remain vivid; they serve herein to illuminate this island’s vibrant cinema tradition.
Cubans’ zeal for the cinema is not surprising, given their nation’s commitment to this cultural form. The second decree of the revolution, in fact, called for the creation of a national film institute; film would be the medium through which the new identity and ideology would be forged. And indeed, over the past half-century the island emerged as a center for making and disseminating movies: Havana hosts the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema each year; virtually every provincial capital boasts film events; and Cuba is home to the International School of Film and Television, attracting young audiovisual artists from around the world eager to learn from accomplished filmmakers.
Cubans pack movie theatres for international blockbusters as well as for made-at-home features, animated films and documentaries. Some habaneros even plan their vacations to coincide with the December Festival, when they can see two, three, or more films each day. The passion (and patience) of Cuban film fans struck me when Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate, 1994) premiered in 1993 during this event. Outside the Yara cinema, the line of hopeful ticket-buyers spanned the entire block; it then turned the corner and continued down the hill about a half-mile. Screenings of Alea’s film were continuous with the first beginning at 10:00 a.m. and the last ending at 3:00 a.m. for several days running. Aficionados who missed out on the first—and maybe the second and third tanda—improved their odds of reaching the ticket booth by remaining in line for much of the day.
Film-going is not just an urban activity in Cuba, for video clubs have proliferated across the island. Once I drove east from Havana all the way to Baracoa, crossing the treacherous mountain pass known as “La Farola.” Even the smallest hamlets in the most remote areas had video clubs, often only a room in a modest home but always marked by a hand-lettered sign. Bringing films to people in the countryside has been a priority from the early years of the revolution—as evident in Octavio Cortazar’s documentary Por primera vez (For the First Time, 1967). Whereas cine móviles (mobile cinema units with a generator and projector) were once needed, now this can be accomplished much more easily with VHS and DVD. Recently, viewers across the island watched Juan Carlos Cremata’s road movie, Viva Cuba (2005), the very same week it premiered in the capital; digital technology has eased significantly the process of reproduction and dissemination.
Young filmmakers are connected to their counterparts around the world and to audiences in cyberspace. They routinely copy files onto flash drives and upload their work on YouTube and other sites. And yet, they lobby for their work to be shown on the island’s big screens, and miss no opportunity to go to the movies themselves. Whenever I file out of one of the many cinemas on the island—the Acapulco or Riviera, Actualidades or Novedades, Alegría or Maravillas—I invariably run into one of these “street” filmmakers. And I am reminded that even after more than a century, movie-going in Cuba continues to be magical.
Defining moments in Cinema-going [Australia]
by Deb Verhoeven
Deb Verhoeven is Professor and Chair in Media and Communication at Deakin University (Melbourne). She is Deputy Chair of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia and President of the Board of Senses of Cinema Inc. Her most recent publication is Jane Campion (Routledge, 2009).
#332: Going to the Cinema as a Social Experience
When I cry at films, I cry noiselessly. I never used to cry at all. But since I’ve had kids it’s as if my bladder really is too near my eyes and it is physically impossible for me to remain unaffected by films in which children are harmed. The pull of my tears is no measure of a movie’s success. The merest hint of injury can set me off, against my better judgment. As a film critic I’ve learned over the years to sit at media preview screenings alone and leaky, well away from the impassive magistrates of the critics’ circle. Increasingly I don’t bother with press screenings, preferring to see films in public venues with ordinary audiences, where outpourings of emotion and other ‘bad behaviours’ are not only tolerated, they are expected—even desired.
It’s a full house at the Melbourne Film Festival and I’m having a silent sob during the final moments of Ana Kokkinos’s Blessed (2009). The screening has been disturbed by piercing wails of distress emanating from a dark place deep within the cavernous stalls. Compared to all this audible anguish I’m feeling relatively discreet. And so despite a storyline that should have me struggling to suppress a four-tissue torrent, I’m successfully keeping a lid on it. Or so I think. As the auditorium impolitely brightens, the young guy sitting next to me, leans over, puts his arm gently round my shoulders and asks with an expression of genuine concern, if I’m OK.
There’s more than one reason to cry at the cinema.
#21: Going to the Cinema as a Formative Experience.
Suburban drive-in. Back seat of the HR station wagon. I’m around five years old and dressed in my official night-time regalia – a mismatch of flannelette pyjamas, corduroy slippers, woollen dressing gown. On arrival, one of my brothers is tucked like contraband under a blanket beneath my feet. The other one fidgets next to me, suppressing his urge to tell. The film we’re supposed to be seeing is The Love Bug (1968) about which I remember almost nothing (though I will concede my first car was a beetle so you never know how these things eventually come out). Instead it is the B-feature that has remained pressed against my memory.
During the break between movies we are bedded down in the car boot. But I am awake, my parents facing forward, oblivious to my backseat viewing. I am five-and-a-bit and I am wise. I think I know everything there is to know about play-dough. I’ve even eaten it. But this is something else. This is the return of the digested. Rampaging plasticine dinosaurs chewing up tiny, pathetic, plasticine people. I am transfixed as amputated limbs dangle from rows of tiny, sharp teeth and colourful clumps of carnage are scattered mercilessly across the distant sheet. Cocooned behind the windscreen and two layers of bench seats I can see everything. I can see, more than my parents know I can.
I am five-and-bit more and I am all the wiser.
Beyond the Time Barrier [Australia]
by Jake Wilson
Jake Wilson is a film reviewer for The Age (Melbourne), and a former co-editor of Senses of Cinema. He has a website here.
A primal scene from my 1980s childhood: my first Marx Brothers film, A Night In Casablanca (Archie Mayo, 1946), seen at age nine on the big screen. Three minutes in, we get a wide shot of an exotic marketplace: men in robes and fezzes go about their business, while Harpo Marx leans against a post in the foreground wearing his usual trenchcoat and inane grin. A guard approaches: “What do you think you’re doing, holding up the building?” Harpo nods with enthusiasm. The guard grabs him roughly (“Come on!”) and the building collapses, with both getting away just in time to turn and gasp at the rubble.
That gag, I now realize, supplies the key to my early cinephilia: what affected me above all was the abrupt transformation of space, typically by violent means. Other moments I thrilled to included Arnold Schwarzenegger blasting his way through a police station in The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984); the shopping mall demolition derby near the start of The Blues Brothers (John Landis, 1980); alien laser beams zapping monuments in Earth Vs the Flying Saucers (Fred F. Sears, 1956); Dorothy’s house swept up in a tornado in The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939); the steam train sliding off a collapsing bridge in The General (Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, 1927)…
Never underestimate a young boy’s taste for destruction. But there was more to it than that. An enthusiastic reader of fantasy and particularly of time travel stories, I was used to daydreaming about irrational spaces: secret passages, underground railways, magic doors guaranteed to vanish when you tried to find them twice. Not by coincidence, I saw all the films mentioned so far at the Valhalla in Westgarth (in Melbourne), an old-school revival cinema that specialized in transforming movie-going into an Event.
In the heyday of video, such a venue already seemed an anachronism—even an extra-dimensional portal in its own right. It makes sense that the Valhalla hosted 3D festivals long before the technology came back into fashion; many patrons of all ages shared my fantasy of breaking through the ultimate barrier, the one separating the space of the movie theatre from the projected universe beyond. Every week, crowds gathered at the Valhalla for ritual late-night presentations of The Blues Brothers and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975), dressed as if to gain entry to some exclusive club; locked out, they took revenge by tossing missiles and lewd comments back at the screen.
Then there were the major festivals on the Valhalla’s sacred calendar, the 24-hour science fiction marathons designed as tests of fortitude and endurance. When you showed up at 7am with a sleeping bag and a backpack full of junk food, it was the start of a journey into the unknown. It didn’t even matter if the films were dull and your friends left. Part of the adventure was dozing off in Inframan (Shan Hua, 1976) or Night of the Comet (Thom Eberhardt, 1984) and waking at 3am just as the credits rolled, to yawn and stretch with the rest of the crowd and wonder how the reels you missed compared with your dreams.
Nowadays the former Valhalla is part of a chain of multiplexes, and a movie theatre is mostly just a place where I watch movies. Perhaps an exception should be made for the Australian Cinematheque at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art, which I’ve visited twice in the last couple of years: once for the Australian premiere of Out 1 (Jacques Rivette, 1971), once for the Andy Warhol double bill of Restaurant (1965) and Kitchen (1965)—titles I never expected to see in Australia, shown free of charge to mostly empty seats. Far from the enthralling catastrophes of slapstick or science fiction, these are films where, deliberately, nothing much happens for long stretches of time. Yet it’s just this experience of sheer duration, an event unfolding at its own pace, that takes me back to where I began: the sense of barriers breaking down, the ordinary world dissolving, cinema as a place where it might be possible to live; spectacles of violent inaction, annihilating time instead of space, ruthlessly replacing your life with their own…