Julie Lindow’s unique story about Greek outdoor cinemas comes at the perfect time, as the Bay Area’s outdoor movie screenings have become very popular. The San Francisco Neighborhood Theatre Foundation hosts the biggest of them, starting their summer season this weekend with Pixar’s Toy Story in Union Square on Saturday night, August 22.
For information about the series and more showings go here. -ed.Before I begin to tell you about Athens’s magical outdoor cinemas, I must give you a very brief description of the current socioeconomic political situation there.
Imagine Plato’s cave with citizens looking at shadows on a wall and believing them to be reality. Recently the European Union propaganda machine cast shadows on the walls to scare Greek citizens into voting for an austerity-based economic bailout package. Scaring them to vote for a deal that would, according to many economists and the most recent International Monetary Fund report, keep Greece enslaved to its creditors with no economic growth ad infinitum. Courageously, enough Greek citizens came out into the sunlight and voted “No,” in Greek, “Oxi.” The Greeks invented democracy and Western philosophy, and now, for all of Europe, they have stood up for democracy and philosophical justice directly in the face of the European Union, which tends mostly to serve the interests of the elite corporate financial sector at the expense of the working and middle classes. Greeks are criticized for not following the rules, but if the rules do not work for the betterment of the people, then someone needs to be brave enough to defy the rules. (Socrates did not follow laws when they were unjust.) The German ministers’ moralistic and punitive stance against Greece has only reopened WWII wounds rather than helped to solve the crisis. It is extremely disheartening to see Greek people portrayed as irresponsible when the great majority of Greek people want to reform the corrupt and broken aspects of their governmental systems; they want their government and country to function sustainably and in order to do so, they need their economy to grow. They need hope.
Instead of offering such a plan, and despite the Greek vote, the EU forced Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras to sign an agreement that is now widely recognized as non-viable by the majority of economists, many leaders, and the IMF. It bars the Greek government from voting on anything related to the agreement without the consent of the Troika, effectively making the Greek government a puppet of the EU. But if Tsipras did not sign, the Greek banks would not reopen. The European Central Bank has finally offered to provide more fluidity for the Greek banks. The questions being debated now are: Why is the EU so insistent, so unyielding (especially when 50% of German debt was forgiven in 1953)? Why insist on financial and governmental reforms that have not and will not work? Doesn’t it make more sense to help a bankrupt business to grow so that it will then have profit with which to pay back its debt? Not to mention that imposing more austerity will increase the humanitarian crisis in Greece (lack of medical and police services, hunger, high suicide rates) and create political instability in a country poised in a strategic geopolitical position between the Middle East and Europe. What changes does the EU need to make in order to become more functional and sustainable, to promote democracy rather than create EU puppet governments, and to avoid similar crisis in the future?
In the context of this Greek tragedy, Greeks fearlessly step out of Plato’s cave, turn away from the wall of shadows and toward perhaps not the blinding sun, but maybe better yet, the stars, the moon, the illuminated sacred Acropolis, and the outdoor movie screens of Athens!
Attending Athens’s cinemas, sparks from the past ignite like the moths that fly into the projector’s beam of light. The community created around the cinemas is resistant to capitalist forces that pit people against each other or distance people from each other via home viewing or mega-cinemas. The Greek people practice freedom and bypass the tele-technics of main stream corporate media by gathering in cinemas and cafes, by talking incessantly and passionately about films and politics.
In the 1960s, six hundred outdoor movie theaters would pop up in the spring and summer in between buildings in open lots, on hillside pathways, in streets blocked off to traffic. Flowering plants in pots were used instead of walls; mismatched seats were gathered from neighbors or local cafes; some lucky people could watch from their balconies for free. Usually Hollywood classics were shown. We caught a glimpse of this tradition from our balcony when the cafe downstairs projected classic cartoons on the abandoned building across the road. The outdoor cinemas were at the heart of each neighborhood.
Today only about ninety outdoor cinemas pop up in between May-September. Greece’s weather, nine months of sunshine, and its siesta time-structure make outdoor movie cinemas ideal. In Greece from June-September it is usually too hot from 2-5 p.m. to go outside, so the streets grow quiet as shops close and people go home for a family meal and a siesta. Around 5 p.m. the city wakes again, as if to make one day into two. Slowly, you hear steel shop doors clatter up, and people crying, “Yassas!” to each other in greeting. From 5-9 p.m. approximately, shops stay open, people work. Dinner begins at 9 p.m., as do films, with another showing usually at about 11 p.m. People stay up eating in outdoor restaurants and cafes until midnight or later, entire families, groups of older women, young lovers, old men throwing komboloi (worry beads) in their hands.
My favorite outdoor cinema in Athens is Thision, or ΘΗΣΕΙΟΝ. It is not on a street. You can find it by walking the wide cobblestoned promenade, the Dionysiou Areopagitou, that wraps around the base of the sacred rock of the Acropolis. In the evenings sometimes it seems as if all of Athens has come out to walk this procession, waving at neighbors and friends, making their way to dinner or a cafe or the cinema. Along the walkway there are vendors with jewelry and other crafts made before you with their own hands, puppeteers in both traditional styles and modern (surrounded by children), and music ranging from ancient Greek island goat-bladder bagpipes to African drumming by recent refugees. As citizens walk the conversations are lively and loud. On the south western side in the neighborhood of Thision, one will find the Thision cinema, the green neon sign a beacon in the dark night. Comprised of four walls and no roof, the front of the cinema is art deco in design and features several glass cases with classic film posters of Cary Grant or Joan Crawford but delightfully, with Greek titles. There are also some wonderful stencils of Humphrey Bogart and other famous Hollywood icons along the front doorway. The ticket booth is traditional with the window and hole to speak and slip money and tickets through.
Once inside, the concession stand is to the right of the screen. The floor is sloped, offering a better view of the screen than some other cinemas in the city, and the chairs are comfortable red lawn chairs, with cushions and blankets available if needed. The tables between the chairs have beautifully rendered photographic images of famous Hollywood stars. I particularly like the one of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly smoking her cigarette from a long holder with a real ashtray on the table. Once sitting, one can see the majestic illuminated Acropolis to the left of the screen.
One of my most memorable experiences at Thision was when a summer storm suddenly crashed down rain and lightning upon us but no one left the theater. Instead, umbrellas popped up and people huddled together, some ran to the awing in the back of the house, and others enjoyed the thrill of getting wet after a day of heat.
We were fortunate this June to have the chance to speak with Thision’s owner Mr. Thomas Maniakis. He and his family run the theater, taking care of everything from cleaning, to selling tickets, projecting the films, popping the corn and making their famous sour cherry drink.
He explained that in addition to people watching movies at home more often, Hollywood was producing mostly violent action films that do not lend themselves to a neighborhood outdoor cinema with mixed-age audiences of families who are not necessarily interested in seeing such films. Also, outdoor cinemas are not designed for the full-force high-volume explosions of sound and visual bombardment. However, Thision, forever loyal to film, did just recently cave in and install a state-of-the-art digital projector and Dolby Surround Sound system, which made for a very high quality viewing experience. Thision’s repertoire is comprised of Hollywood classics and primarily European-produced films. Mr. Maniakis explained that Hitchcock’s North By Northwest had an extremely long run recently at the cinema. Indeed this fact made me adore Athenians even more.
Another wonderful cinema is Cine Paris. It is in the heart of Plaka, a lovely area at the base of the Acropolis, though touristy, there are still many worthwhile restaurants, shops, and gorgeous architecture. The cinema was built in the 1920s by a Greek hairdresser who had lived in Paris, hence the theater’s name.
The ground floor houses a wonderful shop with movie posters for sale, mostly Hollywood classics posters with Greek titles. Leading up to the roof theater are spiral sets of stairs on each side lined with photographs of Hollywood and European stars, including of course, Melina Mercouri of Never on Sunday. On the roof, the concession stand, more of a bar really, is in the back of the house opposite the screen. The screen is flanked by Stella Artois beer banners on each side. A sad reminder that all cinemas are facing stiff competition with online movie watching and have to accept some advertising to stay in business. The seats are fittingly director’s chairs with a small side table between every four or so seats to provide a rather civilized space to set down one’s glass of wine. We drank white wine from real glass stemware and though I don’t condone smoking, there is nothing so lovely as smoke swirling in the projector beam like ancient ghosts. But the best part was being able to see the Acropolis all light up at night to our left, while we watched the screen straight ahead. I could see a burnt out cave in the side of the rock mount of the Acropolis and that made me feel like an ancient Athenian, worshiping at some small minor goddesses shrine. Cats cried in sexual embrace, moths flickered about, and lovers kissed at the back of the house in a little balcony for two. If one keeps climbing the stairs, above the concession stand there is a balcony that seats about twenty.
Athenian cinemas were a dream come true for me, a girl who grew up going to drive-in movies where you had the beauty of the summer night and sky, but everyone was sadly alone in their cars. In the middle of Athens’s central park or the Zappeion Gardens, which is an incredibly green place to walk and breathe during the summer, there is a cinema. It is behind a large and rather posh cafe, the Aegli Cafe. Stopping there first, we ordered mastiha ice cream and a cappuccino. (Mastiha is the resin from a small evergreen tree. It is very refreshing on hot days and is most often served as a liquor after meals, usually as a little cold shot on the house.)
The songs of nightingales signaled darkness and time to walk the ten feet to the Cine Aegli. The cinema is on ground level and once again the concession stand/bar was at the back of the house opposite the proscenium and screen. Above the walls dark green trees, jasmine and bougainvillea crept over like a jungle just outside our safe haven. That familiar pop pop pop triggered excitement, as the smell of hot buttery salted popcorn wafted. Citizens lined up for medium-sized bags, stemware glasses of white wine, glass bottles of Stella beer, little packets of nuts or spanakopitas.
Again there were comfortable lawn chairs, and little tables with ashtrays. The film was in French with Greek subtitles, which meant that I could understand about fifty-percent of the conversation and my husband could understand about fifty-percent of the Greek. We sat in the last row so that we could cobble the story together with whispers and not disturb our neighbors.
As the audience trickled in, they would look around, quickly throw a sweater on a seat to save it and run up to the front to hug a neighbor, friend etc. Almost no one was looking at a phone, instead they were talking to each other. The volume of conversation before the film started was louder than I have ever heard in a theater. There was much dashing back and forth hugging and greeting each other, quickly catching up on the latest news. But as soon as the film started, the crowd went respectfully silent and watched with intent. I do not recall seeing even one cell phone out during any of the films we saw. That was refreshing. The cinemas are still Athenians’ living rooms. Despite the horrible economy, the house was full.
We also visited Cine Dexameni, which is on the hill, LaCybetto, opposite the Acropolis. It is named after Hadrian’s aqueduct and sits within a hillside garden pathway. There is no view from inside the walls of the outdoor cinema, but the views from the neighboring walkways and cafes are outstanding and one can sit at the cafe nearby to admire the view and enjoy an ouzo after the film.
I am already looking forward to another trip to Greece. In June it was inspiring to see Athenians resist by coming together, watching films under the stars and the moon, and staying up until 4 a.m. in cafes over ouzo, conversing about movies, economics, politics, governmental reforms, and the dysfunction of the European Union. I have sent some emails to cinema owners to ask how their businesses have been faring over the past month but have not heard back, which is understandable given the seriousness of the crisis. I asked them whether people are still filling the cinemas when their daily funds are limited by capital controls that only allow them to take out 60 euros a day. Katherine Petrin, a San Francisco-based architectural historian, reported that when on the island of Hydra recently, the outdoor cinema was a riotous full house the free evening, but the next night the tickets were eight euros, and only one other person sat in the audience with her. I imagine that the cinemas will be financially damaged by this crisis. We can help by coming out of our caves and visiting Greece this year. Greece is one of the most culturally interesting and geographically gorgeous places on earth, and supporting their economy and the outdoor cinemas with our tourist dollars helps them enormously.
More information about Athenian cinemas:
The Fifth Athens Open Air Film Festival is free and runs through September. (You can use Google translate to read about it in English.)
Cine Vox in Exarcheia Square is on a rooftop, and they are very fond of Hitchcock films.
Cine Zefyros is in the student quarter of Petralona. It is an arthouse and home to many a cultural debate. I love the red velvet curtains that nod to historic movie palaces.
Cine Psiri is in the neighborhood of Psiri, near Monasteraki and Exarcheia. They show old Hollywood classics and European releases in a warehouse in the winter and in the parking lot in the summer.
Cine Palas is a more high-end experience, even though it is in the more working-class neighborhood of Pangrati. It includes an art deco indoor theater with red velvet chairs as well as a rooftop theater. And the best part is that instead of a double-bill, you get a triple bill for only 10 Euro!
Cine Riviera is in the Exarcheia neighborhood, a politically progressive artistic area. There is a water fountain below the screen and many restaurants or tavernas nearby.Julie Maravelis Lindow (aka Jules Lind) is currently working on a series of detective novels set in 1940s San Francisco. Living in and creating a continuum from past to present makes for many a foggy evening walking through time, up and down hills, from libraries, to downtown, to the grand Pacific Ocean. As editor of Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theatres, she wishes she were spending more time in San Francisco’s historic movie houses, what is left of them, but there has been a lot of work to do lately.