November 21, 2010

Peace Corps Moment – Movie Time – Poland 1998

(at the bottom of the stairs,
go left for the cinema.
go right for the train station,
straight ahead for Zabrze's PO)
There’s not much to do in downtown Zabrze, even though the population tops out at over 250,000. This subset of Katowice in southern Poland is more like a small country town than city. There’s a MacDonald’s. A few small stores. The bus stop. The Post Office. My school. And the movie theater.

Not just any movie theater, but a remnant of those years gone by when the screen is so wide you have to turn your head a little to see the edges. The building has maybe 500 seats, with an overhanging balcony that sits another 100. And, being Poland, there’s no need for all that extraneous safety nonsense; when the lights go down the room is pitch black until the film begins. The exit doors on either wall have thick chains wrapped around the release bars, padlocked shut. You may risk death to see this film, but you do so in grand style.

When I first start showing up, the staff are a bit taken aback. On a Saturday afternoon, I expect a line, but I’m the only one there. The clerk is unsure whether to sell me a ticket or not. But she does. Slowly, as the weeks turn into months, they get to know me. On days when they would turn anyone else away, I’m allowed in. Oh, I still pay my 12 zloty (about $2.50), but that’s fine. And, even more amazing, like all other European theaters the seating is assigned. Every time – for the entire 2+ years I live there – I’m required to choose my seat. 600 empty slots but I still have to make that decision.

Sure, on occasion, a more well known film has a handful of other viewers, but the majority of the time I’m by myself, sitting in the aisle seat of the third row, in the darkness of this cavernous room, eating popcorn and feeling a bit of a mogul. My own private screening of the latest release. Over the months, I go to everything that’s shown – sometimes out of desire, but mostly out of boredom. Makes no difference to me who or what is playing … I rarely know before I arrive. The posters go up every Friday afternoon, but it’s all a bunch of titles to me. I have no TV. No newspaper. No internet. So often I enter a movie without any of the hype.

Seeing a movie in this way is liberating.

Matrix is a complete shocker to me, with no idea of what I am about to see. Phantom Menace is also a surprise, but on the opposite end of the spectrum. I see Disney’s Tarzan and marvel at the animation while trying to decipher the Polish dubbing. Well, at least Disney puts some real care and expertise into it, where the characters on screen closely match the type and tone of voice. My Favorite Martian? Yeah, not so much; it is subjected to the usual Polish dubbing of a single, male baritone reciting each portion of the dialogue in the same unending, unemotional drone; the somewhat audible English plays underneath. Yet, that in itself is sort of funny, lousy movie or not.

It becomes an adventure to guess what a movie is about. Payback with Mel Gibson hints it’s a typical action flick, but turns out to be something funnier and darker. Fight Club drops on me like an atomic bomb and I love it. The Sixth Sense is amazing, because no chance of a spoiler. And yes, without all the buzz, I think The Blair Witch Project is an actual documentary, and it scares the shit outta me.

Nowadays, I’m so connected and updated about what’s coming out and who likes it and who doesn’t and plot twists. I’ve got internet and TV and movie magazines and friends and a constant stream of what’s happening nonstop. I’ve lost that exploratory wonder from those days in Poland. Movies are still good, but they’re not mysteries anymore waiting to unfold in the dark. I miss that.

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