FIGS OF STEEL: 24 Hours in La Mancha 22

Having satisfied my pang for a few impassioned verses on the gray wall of a house, I told our tour group we could continue. Once at the summit, we paused again before moving on. The church loomed to our left; it was an impressive spiritual fortress, but delivering our souls to spiritual exercise was not what we had in mind at that moment, so we veered right and moved on down the typical quiet Manchego streets, so characteristic of these towns. These are places full of opportunities to discover local charm. This one was fairly narrow, so we ambled down the middle. Here, the sidewalks were mere slivers, symbolic tributes to the pedestrian. A mount for cars to pull their wheels up on, more like it.

The doors to the homes are covered with curtains of all different types. Designed to keep the flies out but allow the air to pass through at the same time. They are trademarks of Spanish towns. You can find them all over the country and they come in all material, shapes and patterns. Some are made of colorful cloth like Mexican serapes, some are strings of beads like the entrance to a hippy hashish den, and others are just plain strips of plastic. Each flimsy barrier possibly saying something about their owner, like the faces of dogs. Hardly an entryway goes without one. 

We continued our stroll to nearly the highest part of Cebolla, where we approached a corner brick building with unquestionably characteristic signs of decay. There was a gated and shut down coffee shop with muddied windows, old signs hanging perilously on just one hinge, forgotten odds and ends strewn on the floor. I rubbed a hole in the grimy pane and peered in. Chairs were arranged haphazardly around the room, tables still harbored used napkins and forsaken dishes. It was as if some impending catastrophe had triggered the patrons to bolt with whatever belongings they had on them or face being vaporized. Next to shop was a small ticket window all boarded up, and to its left, dusty glass encasements with old posters still inside, toasted and faded by the daily exposure to sunlight.  

“There used to be a…” began Fernando.

“Don’t tell me,” I stopped him in mid-sentence with a half tearful voice. “Not another one! Don’t tell me it’s another one!”

“Yeap,” said Fernando unmoved. “That’s it, my friend. This is one of the saddest places in the world. The end of all civilization. Nostradamus predicted this would happen. Revelations, too. As did my seventh-grade teacher after we broke his full-size skeleton in Biology. Damian from The Omen, which I happened to see here for the first time. Another movie theater bites the dust. The world is now a much more dangerous place.”

“You’re telling me! I loved these places. They’re magical. They’re dropping like flies. I saw one in Pedro Naharro last year. All that was left was this beautiful old movie projector. It was surrounded by rubble. Looked like a goddamn bomb went off. It would have given Marie Kondo a stroke.”

“It’s a shame, isn’t it? All the memories. My first R-rated film. My first naked scene. Throwing popcorn at the lovers behind us and diving for cover. And the dates. Heck, I felt up my first girl in this one!”

“I felt up my first girl in a movie theater too.”

“Of course! That’s what they were built for!”

“I felt up my first guy in a movie theater!” confessed Laura.

That I hadn’t expected. “Ok. You win.”

The movie theater, a building which had brought so much joy and memories to generations of Spaniards was now on the verge of extinction in most small towns. The Italian classic, Cine Paradiso, brought this reality home to us in 1988, and companies like Netflix and HBO have pretty much done the rest of the damage since then. 

And the cities weren’t doing much better. Not long ago, each neighborhood in Madrid had its own local theater. You used to be able to find one every couple of blocks. Didn’t matter where it was. You could step outside and be in line just a stone’s throw from home. Have a drink afterwards and discuss the pros and cons of the movie and be back in your living room in no time. 

These were often local family-run businesses. Mom is sliding the tickets over to you; dad tears them in two and welcomes you as if you are entering his front hall; the kids serve the refreshments because they know how to use the new-fangled electronic cash register. Worn-velvet seats, fresh popcorn blooming inside an old machine, walls that rattled in battle scenes. They were wonderful. But time goes by and who wants to pick up the business? The place needs a facelift, maybe they should reconvert into a three-screen venue. Who has the money? Or the patience? And who is going to get those people in on a Tuesday nights? 

Now the barrios have been all but stripped of the local cinema. The trend has shifted towards multiplexes on one hand and downsizing the number of locales on the other. Little by little the theaters have been boarded up and turned into electric stores, sportswear boxes, low-cost fashion outlets and food courts. 

The total number of movie theaters in Spain has dropped by over 10% in the past decade and there is no relief in sight, with small town theaters taking the brunt of the downspin. Some village cinemas rear their heads from the grave every August in the form of a “cine de verano”. They liven up the evenings and give parents a chance to send their kids to the movies so that they can take a break from the summertime monotony. But most are in no shape to be used anymore. Now open spaces of any kind, like the main square or a community center, serve as an inferior but practical substitute. For the most part the real theaters are gone. Really gone. Those days are gone.

The three of us were treated to a sneak peek at what Cebolla’s used to look like. The building had been chopped in half, or maybe it had just collapsed on its own. You could never tell with these things. It looked like one of those surreal World War I pictures where the family still lived in the living room and dined at a table even though the building had been blown open. In the summertime, the films were projected on the wall of a patio lot around the back. You can still hear the voices of the excited youngsters as the credits roll, and the tapping and scraping of the plastic and wooden folding chairs as they fidget with restlessness. You can still pick up the chorus of reactions to the Seventh Art: the bursts of laughter; the gasps of wonder; the shrieks of fear; the sobs of pain and sadness. 

The locale doubled as a dance hall, and after the film, music would kick in and people of all ages would be up on their feet and moving to the lively rhythm. Girls in short dresses and young men sporting dapper attire glided on the floor, while townspeople sat around tables, drank beer or soft drinks and looked on. Even uniformed guardia civil officers would join the celebration for a little while and take a break from their humdrum beat. The bar was on the far end of the lot and above everyone was the starry summer night sky. It must have been magical.

At one point the owners must have tried to diversify their offer by installing a DVD rental vending machine and making it available to the public 24 hours a day, but the decision must have come a little too late. And it would not have mattered anyhow. Streaming killed off what little hope there was even for movie rentals. It was a brilliant business idea that barely lasted thirty years before succumbing to utter obsoleteness.

Sadly, though, when the movie theaters close, the town is left with little more than a few bars and a main square. Beer, balls and pigeons. 

“Well that was pretty depressing,” I concluded.  “What else do you have to show me? ‘Cause I’m about to slit my wrists.”

“Hold off on the knife,” said Fernando. “You haven’t seen the worst yet.”

“Thanks. You’re a real sweetheart. I tell you.”

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