Sunday, May 04, 2008

The state of old movie houses

This is a very late post. Sorry, I've been travelling a lot lately.

There is something that I have long wanted to write about in this column but never had the chance to do until now: What have become of public movie theaters in the country. I’ve written about it a couple of years back in my blog though, but a recent trip to Davao City rekindled the urge to make public commentary about it.

I spent a considerable part of my growing up years inside movie theaters. I’m still a film enthusiast today. This was because I grew up in a family where most members were huge fans of the movies and of celebrities. An aunt was a diehard fan of Amalia Fuentes while one of my yayas was a certified Noranian to the very core; both were the types who were willing to kill or die for their idols. My fascination and lifelong interest in films became deeply ingrained while finishing my my elementary grades in Davao City where I had the great fortune of having for a best friend someone whose family owned movie houses. This meant free admission to the movies anytime, although most of the films we got to watch were the Chinese kung fu variety. These were movies were people perched on top of bamboo sticks, used fans and chopsticks as deadly weapons, and where people mouthed dialogues like "you must be tired of living" in sing-song fashion.

Up until I was in College, the main sources of entertainment and relaxation were the movies. Back then, movie houses were the preferred venues for couples going on dates. Movie houses were grandiose structures – the ones in Avenida and Recto in Manila, for example, had astounding facades that were undoubtedly great works of architecture. Some of them have been declared national heritage sites, in fact.

Watching movies then was a real physical experience as one ascended imposing and winding staircases or promenaded through a spacious lobby that featured astounding art deco pieces. Movie houses, not just movies, were a large part of our culture.

While in Davao over the weekend, I met up with my childhood friend - the one whose family owned movie houses – and while reminiscing upon the proverbial good old days, we hit upon a tragic realization. Most of the old movie houses in this country are gone and the few who are left standing are in decrepit and pitiful state they serve no other practical purpose other than as food for termites. Many movie houses in Davao have been transformed into warehouses, or worse, bars that display entertainment of the ribald variety. Of the three movie houses my friend’s family used to own, only one remains standing although it had been padlocked for a number of years already, unable to compete with the more modern movie houses inside malls or with pirated DVDs and VCDs.

And in a rather strange twist of fate, a number of these old movie houses have been transformed into… of all possible options, places of worship! They are not being torn down to give rise to the construction of new edifices or churches, they are simply renovated and in some cases simply re-outfitted with new lighting fixtures and presto, a place of worship! The trend is not only widespread in Metro Manila – such as those in Cubao and in the North Avenue area in Quezon City. I have been to cities outside the metro where I have seen theatre marquees proclaiming not the titles of movies, but fellowship or worship sessions for various religious fundamentalist groups.

Let me state for the record that I have nothing against these religious groups per se, or at the way they have appropriated these movie houses for their use. At its barest essence, a movie house is after all an auditorium and presumably ideal for any activity where someone wearing atrocious clothes flails on stage and threatens everyone with mayhem unless they converted to their group. I just find a number of seemingly incongruous issues around it. For example, does it mean that the kind of worship that takes place inside a movie house is also, how shall I say this, make believe or illusory? If the movie house in question had a reputation for sleaze and all kinds of lubricous behaviors, do they conduct exorcism inside the movie houses to neutralize it first?

Today, movie houses are mostly found inside malls where people are forced to cough off a fortune just to be able to watch movies the traditional and communal way – in a large imposing silver screen, in the company of hundreds of kindred spirit. One has to pay parking fees, eat, shop, and do a thousand other unnecessary things and make a thousand other unessential purchases along the way.

The movie houses are getting smaller and more intimate. And horrors, the cost of admission have risen in reverse proportion. The smaller movie houses have become, the more expensive the prices of tickets. In the meantime, the old magnificent structures stand forlorn, neglected and decaying.The main reason, of course, why our old movie houses have been reduced to such a dismal and pitiful state is because they have become obsolete and consequently, nonviable business enterprises. Very few people watch movies inside these places anymore because people’s tastes and preferences have changed drastically. It didn’t help that many of these movie houses failed to keep up with advances in audio-visual technology or improved the general safety and convenience of movie watching.

Just the same, something must be said about the social and cultural implications of the way our society has simply moved on with development without any concern for history and heritage. Many of our old movie houses are real and authentic national landmarks. It is really such a waste that we have been unable to protect them, not only from going bankrupt, but also from general decay and decomposition. I guess this is just another tragic consequence of our utter lack of lack of foresight and sense of history.

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In my travels out of Manila for the last three weeks, I have made it a point to visit public markets and the places where NFA rice is being sold. I checked out Bacolod the other weekend, and Davao City over the weekend. Guess what, there are indeed long lines of people in places where NFA rice is available, but the situation is not anywhere near media wants us to believe.

If we are to believe media reports of the rice crisis, people are angry and restless and have turned into mobs in certain places and the country seems on the brink of a civil war. This is farthest from the truth, particularly outside Metro Manila. This brings us to the realization that so much of what we see in the news is really sensationalized and blown out of proportion.

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