Movie time spiced with local Flavors

Hollywood honors its films Sunday night at the Oscars celebration. But moviegoing overseas has its unique twists - from tipping French ushers to watching exotic musicals in India. We asked Monitor writers around the world to grab a seat and describe their cinema experiences.

MEXICO CITY

By Howard LaFranchi

As a kid growing up in northern California back in the 1960s, I always found my town's old movie theater the perfect venue for passing on the tale of the girl who'd died at the show when a bat flew into her beehive hairdo and bit her.

I thought of that urban legend recently when I spied a rat scampering across the floor of the crumbling movie theater where I sat munching popcorn in Ayacucho, Peru. The rain puddles on the hulking theater's concrete floor told me the place had seen better days, but the rat left me in a quandary. Do I run out, and miss the end of the subtitled musical romance from India I'd paid a dollar to see? The warbling main couple had me hooked. So I propped my knees up on the wooden seat back in front of me and saw the movie to its end.

Lest I make it sound like moviegoing in Latin America is back in the Dark (or at least silent) Ages, let me correct the false impression immediately.

Aside from the occasional old theater like Ayacucho's - which by the way carried outside a sad "For Sale" sign on what had once been a proud marquee - most cinemas from Mexico to Chile are now modern multiplexes or older movie theaters converted to include several screens.

When I first moved with my family to Mexico six years ago, Mexico City still had few multiscreen theaters. We saw Disney's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" in a cavernous theater. That place has since been torn down. Now we go mostly to American-style cineplexes boasting seats with the obligatory cup-holder armrest. Admission is still a bargain - about $4 - although you pay extra to reserve seats. Even obscure European "art" films sell out quickly when they are showing in small shoebox theaters.

Jerusalem

By Nicole Gaouette

These days, the Israeli moviegoing experience starts outside the theater. Before you enter, at least one machine-gun-toting security guard carefully checks your bags and asks if you are carrying a weapon.

The only way to ensure you sit with friends is to buy tickets with or for them. As far as I could tell, there's no science to the seating distribution: I ended up far back and over to one side, staring longingly at the empty seats front and center.

Once the lights dimmed on an American movie subtitled in Hebrew, there was an international irritant - the sporadic ringing of cellphones - and an Israeli surprise. Smack dab in the middle of a scene, the screen went black and the lights flickered on. While I sat there dumfounded, people around me got up to stretch, visited the washroom, or grabbed a snack. Israeli movies, I learned, have an intermission - whether you like it or not.

PARIS

By Peter Ford

In the home of "film noir" and the art movie, cinemagoing traditions have undergone some radical changes over the past 20 years. And not, say French purists, changes for the better.

American moviegoers wouldn't feel out of place in the majority of theaters here: They would recognize the smell of popcorn, they could find their way through the maze of narrow passageways from one cramped auditorium to another in the ubiquitous multiplex, and they would probably know the films as well.

Two-thirds of ticket revenues in France come from Hollywood movies, which is a constant source of anger and debate among French filmmakers and intellectuals.

Ticket prices are still under control in France, only rarely topping $6, but you can come across hidden extras. Some cinemas retain ouvreuses, women who used to show you to your seat in return for a tip. Now they do no more than tear your ticket as you go in, but they still expect the tip.

A few movie houses still employ ice-cream girls, selling their wares in the aisles from trays strapped around their necks. But most just sell popcorn and candies in the foyer. All of them ban fast food from nearby pizza parlors or shwarma joints.

Traditionalists need not despair, though. The Latin Quarter in Paris is full of tiny independent cinemas, some of them no more than holes in the wall seating 30-or-so people, where the only decoration on the black-painted walls is a notice warning patrons about pickpockets. And somewhere in Paris, somebody is always showing a retrospective season of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.

TOKYO

By Ilene Prusher

Going to the movies in Japan is a lot like it is in America, only pricier.

Watching the typical Japanese feature costs about 1,800 yen or $16, about twice the average American ticket price. At such prices, going to the movies has not traditionally been a family outing. Nor is a film chosen at whim, but is often reserved for dates, special occasions, or something viewers are sure they want to see.

At the same time, it's considered perfectly common and acceptable for people to go to films by themselves, and they often do. Others look for special deals: One night a month, most theaters have a bargain film for $8.60, and women take advantage of the same rates on Wednesday nights, which is "ladies' night."

Films are rarely shown late at night here, which seems odd for such a huge city. So if you don't get to the 9 p.m. showing on a Saturday, you've missed your chance. And theaters fill up quickly, especially at peak times on weekends.

That means you can arrive an hour early and wait in line. Or, if you really want to make sure you get a seat for a film that's in demand, you can pay for special "reserved seats." For a whopping $25, you will get your seat in the prime section of the theater, where seats are covered with white chair coverings.

I happen to have discovered an art-house theater in my neighborhood that shows films from around the world, and offers a variety of prices for different categories of buyers. At Cine Amuse, tucked into the fourth floor of a small building, one such category is "foreigner," which offers tickets for about $13 to anyone with a foreign resident's card: Only a student ticket at $10.50 is lower.

Once you've bought the ticket, no need to arrive on time. At last count, the coming attractions lasted for 23 minutes.

TBILISI, GEORGIA

By Scott Peterson

Just because the Caucasian republic of Georgia fought a civil war for years, in the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union, doesn't mean that there isn't a heavy appetite for shoot-'em-up action films from the West - and other lethal pursuits - at the best cinema in town.

Georgia's economy is in the doldrums. But Friday night, the most well-heeled teenagers here buy beautifully printed color tickets with the logo for "Charlie's Angels" - a small fortune at 5 lari ($2.50) apiece - and settle in to the spacious and immaculately clean, wood-paneled theater.

Trailers for "Vertical Limit" and more violent fare wow the packed audience, which is as much into gnawing popcorn as teens in suburban America. Coffee and tea are on sale, too, as well as beer.

Older folk remember when there were more than 50 cheap theaters in the Georgian capital during Soviet times - "because there was nothing else to do," says a man named Serge. Restrictions still remain for young couples, but nothing stops groups of boys and girls from eyeing each other carefully in the foyer - or in the real attraction, the arcade.

On the ground floor, theatergoers let their hair down and play Formula One video racing games and fight "terrorists" trying to take over Manhattan. "Gunblade: Special Air Assault Force" is especially popular, as a teenager, Sophie, and her friends try to wipe out attackers from Times Square to the UN Headquarters. "The Big Apple needs your help.... Go for it!" the machine insists.

"Did you come for the movie, or this?" she is asked, as she guides her game helicopter into a cluster of firing attackers. "There can't be one without the other!" she answers.

NEW DELHI

By Punita Ghose

A big day for millions of Indians means going to see the latest movie starring their favorite matinee idol. It's not unusual to read in the newspapers about police baton charges to discipline the restive crowds at theaters. And the Indian movie industry, based in Bombay, or "Bollywood," gives Indians an endless season of new blockbusters released almost every Friday, causing long lines to form in the wee hours of the morning for tickets.

No national statistics have been gathered on this subject, but scalping could well be a major sector of the Indian economy. Some Indians go so far as to lobby their local politicians to secure tickets for a big-name movie release.

So what's the attraction? Frankly, Indian movies are like no others. Made in 15 different languages, most masala (literally spicy) flicks are at least 2-1/2 hours long, with improbable plot turns, impossibly beautiful heroines and handsome heroes, intolerable villains, and at least a dozen bouncy song-and-dance numbers, each filmed in exotic locales with endless costume changes. In keeping with India's traditional values - though dance movements can be blushingly suggestive at times, and fight scenes can be excessively violent - there is absolutely no kissing.

Audiences sing along (many buy the soundtrack in advance), they hoot at any hint of passion, clap enthusiastically in fight scenes, and occasionally fling money at the screen during sexy dance numbers. Small wonder, then, that in small Indian towns, there are separate enclosures for women to view movies free of harassment.

There are movie theaters for every budget. In the richer neighborhoods, you'll find glitzy multiplexes, where a ticket can cost more than a day's wages ($1.45). More common, however, are the tin-roofed dank halls of everyday urban and rural India. There, the chairs are often shabby, and rickshaw pullers and laundrymen sit in the cheap seats up front with bags full of peanuts.

In most theaters, walking to your assigned seat means crunching past heaps of peanut husks. Few moviegoers dare to risk this task during a rare quiet scene.

But one thing you'll find in nearly all cinemas are three and four generations of a single family trooping in together, often carrying bags of aromatic homemade snacks to be opened noisily and passed from grandmother to father to daughter.

Punita Ghose is a researcher in the Monitor's New Delhi bureau.

BEIJING

By Steve Harris

In the "New Dream Hall" at the popular Red House Theater in downtown Beijing, with its wide leather seats, Dolby surround-sound, and art-house ambience, you might not think you were in the bustling, dusty city that is Beijing. But with the sound of cracking sunflower seeds and the more-than-occasional Christmas-carol ring of a cellphone, indeed you remember: This is China.

If you're not up to cracking your own sunflower seeds, which is a nationwide pastime here, then you can help yourself to a bag of "sweet popcorn" (30 cents) and a can of coconut juice (50 cents). If you're looking for a more home-grown flavor, you might try the snacks sold in vacuum-sealed bags: dried shredded squid, Korean-style kimchee, prunes, and salty plums. In the mood for something more Western? Have a microwaved hamburger and a "Black Rose" chocolate ice cream bar.

But while the food at the snack bar is mostly local fare, the movies are predominantly foreign-flavored. Five of the six films shown at the Red House Theater last weekend were from the United States. Only one of the films was Chinese. And the major draw last Saturday night at the Capital Theater in Beijing was the American film "Vertical Limit" - more than 400 people turned out to fill the large theater.

The romance of moviegoing has not been lost in China. There are always a few claps during the "kiss" scene, and many big cinemas sell flowers so a guy can buy his sweetheart a rose.

Steve Harris is a freelance writer.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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