Scenes from a movie-going town

Jerusalem's cinemas - the good, the bad and the ugly.

cinematheque 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
cinematheque 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jerusalemites love movies, but lately we prefer to watch them in our homes. Is it the convenience of downloading movies and renting DVDs that we can watch anytime? Partly, but there's more to it than that. The truth is that, with a few sparkling exceptions, movie-going in the holy city has become a thoroughly unpleasant business. As a movie critic, I go to more movies than most people, and I regret that there are fewer theaters today than ever, as each and every theater in the downtown area has closed. Remember the Edison? The Eden? The Ron and Or-Gil off Rehov Hillel? The Kfir? Those and so many others are just a distant memory. It's a worldwide trend these days: Downtowns are dying all over the place as consumers shop in malls, where the multiplexes tend to get only the biggest budget, mainstream films. In this respect, Jerusalem is no different, although here the trend may be exacerbated by the fact that approximately two-thirds of the population do not go to movies at all as a rule. Of course, there are some Arabs and haredim who do enjoy movies, but the bulk of theatergoers in the capital are secular and modern Orthodox Israelis. There is a haredi film industry, but it exists only to serve the DVD market, and in east Jerusalem there are are currently no first-run theaters (although there cultural centers that do show films from time to time). But the silent non-haredi majority here still enjoys movies, as evidenced from the turnouts at the theaters of which we can be proud: the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the Lev Smadar and Binyenei Ha'uma. The Jerusalem Cinematheque on Derech Hebron, of course, is a cultural institution in its own right, with its 200-plus film festival in July, over 30,000 films in its archives and regular visits from luminaries of the international movie world. It's much more than a theater. But simply as a theater, it is the best in the capital. Following last year's major renovation, the Cinematheque has added two new auditoriums, for a total of four (although one is only for videos). All four boast extremely comfortable seats and excellent sound systems. There is also a restaurant/café with a beautiful view of the Old City walls. If you simply want to see a movie in a clean and attractive setting, this is the best place. And if you're interested in films from outside the Hollywood mainstream, it's one of the only places. Another good choice is Lev Smadar, the only single-screen theater left in the city. Part of the Lev Cinemas chain which took over the original Smadar theater several years ago, the venue has retained its indie credibility. Fronted by a pleasant café, it shows foreign and independent films, from both Israel and abroad. Its auditorium is clean and well-maintained although it can occasionally be a little chilly, no matter what the season. But with a devoted staff of movie-lovers and a host of restaurants and cafes within strolling distance, it's always popular with Jerusalemites. Another plus: The Lev movie chain attempts, whenever possible, to show films with English titles as well as Hebrew. Not so wonderful is that a construction project has closed the parking lot on Rehov Zvi Graetz, where many Smadar viewers used to park. The Binyenei Ha'uma theaters are another good option and show movies outside the mainstream. The auditoriums are comfortable and well-maintained and there is also a café. Parking in the lot is free and rarely crowded. For some Jerusalemites, the location may be inconvenient, but this theater is an excellent option for people who live outside the city. BUT WHAT if you really want to see Batman 7 or Spiderman 9? You have to go to Rav Chen in Talpiot or the Globus Cinema at Malha mall. Each has its own set of disadvantages and they are formidable. Let's start with Globus. First, you'll have to wait in long lines for the security check to park, then wade through the huge crowds that frequent the mall at almost all hours, but particularly on Thursday and Saturday nights. There are rarely more than two ticket-sellers on duty, so the lines get huge. If you arrive five minutes before a show, you will be lucky to see the beginning of the movie (in spite of the 10 or so minutes of ads and trailers before each film). The theaters get filthy very quickly, but don't blame the management. If the entire IDF were deployed solely to clean up after this theater's patrons, it couldn't handle the job. A huge percentage of the audience, at any time of day, consists of teens, and we know teens will be teens, but both older and younger audiences have been driven out. A friend of mine left recently when a fist fight broke out in the row in front of him. Another friend reports that a boy dumped a full cup of cola over her young son's head during a movie. If you go to this theater, you undoubtedly have your own stories. No one turns off their cell phones, of course, so you often have to strain to hear. And if you choose to see the last show of the night, when the film ends, you will find most of the mall's doors locked and no staff on duty to direct you to the one or two exits that are still open. The exits that are open may not be anywhere near where you parked, so you may find yourself wandering through the parking lots, an especially nerve-wracking situation for women alone at night, and one that could easily be remedied by the management of the mall. Rav Chen is a similarly unappealing setting to see a movie. It's only temporary, but construction on the site obscures the entrance. The parking facilities are nightmarishly inadequate and the cars rolling out after a movie are a threat to pedestrians, who are forced to squash themselves against a wall to avoid being run over. As in Malha, ticket lines are extremely long and slow-moving, particularly if you compare them to much better-staffed theaters in the US. Once you're inside, it's marginally more pleasant than Malha, with larger auditoriums. The problem here is really when the movie is over. You are herded out through a maze of poorly marked staircases and passages that lead you to the lobby. The idea is crowd control and that makes sense - when there are crowds. It has happened more than once that I was shooed out this deserted back way when I was the only one in an auditorium and there were no crowds waiting to go in. This long way around, which involves many stairs, is a nightmare for the disabled or the elderly, who may not realize how long a trek they have to get out and may not know to ask to use the entrance they came in by, which offers access to an escalator. In any case, Jerusalemites are no dopes and have largely stopped going to these theaters. They only fill up during school holidays or on Thursday or Saturday nights. It's true that I tend to go at off hours, but I can't tell you how often I have been the only one in a theater, or one of fewer than five movie-goers at Rav Chen and Globus. While I'm not complaining about the quiet in the theater when I'm alone, I wonder how long these theaters can stay in business when they are so sparsely attended. A few years ago, the Globus chain closed the theater at Harel Mall in Mevaseret Zion, the only theater in this town. If the management of these chains don't invest a little in their Jerusalem theaters, movie-going in the capital will be a distant memory, except for the Jerusalem Cinematheque, Lev Smadar and Binyenei Ha'uma arthouses. Older viewers may reminisce about the days when there were half a dozen theaters in the city center, but younger Jerusalemites may forget that this was ever a movie-going town.