In Pulp Fiction (1994), hitman Vincent Vega returns from exile in Amsterdam and remarks on the small differences between America and Europe. Most memorably, he asks his partner, Jules, “Do you know what they call a quarter-pounder with cheese in Paris?” and comments that at movie theaters, “You can get a bottle of beer.”
When I first went to Europe in 1977 and visited a London movie theater near Piccadilly Circus, I noticed some other differences in the moviegoing experience. First, the theater was on the fifth floor of the building. I took an elevator, got off and walked down the corridor, and entered the third double doors on my left. Going down the corridor, I wasn’t sure whether I was on the right floor or if a movie theater was even nearby.
I peeked through the doors. The place had about 100 seats. Twenty people were already there; half of them were smoking—something allowed in every European theater I’d seen, but which I had not experienced in the United States.
I had gone to see Fellini’s Casanova (1976), starring Donald Sutherland as the great tourist of female flesh in what may have been the apex in his career as a leading man.
You may have noticed the director’s name affixed to the title. Another European thing. “Fellini” is also attached to his Satyricon (1969), Amarcord (1973), and Roma (1972). Casanova was made in English, and Fellini was accused of selling out to American audiences. He was also criticized for the American-sized budget, as this was his most expensive film.
The lights dimmed. I expected previews but got five advertisements. Coca-Cola, Schweppes Bitter Lemon, a perfume, hot chocolate, and a liquor. Then the lights returned. Five minutes passed. A few people left, maybe to buy a beer; however, I hadn’t seen a concession stand when I made my way to the theater. The lights dimmed again. Two more advertisements. Then the movie started. Casanova was two-and-a-half hours long, plus an intermission, which included two more advertisements. The intermission seemed to induce all the smokers, including myself, to light up.
Back in 1977, I felt that the advertisements violated the spirit of attending movies at the theater. Movie trailers could be viewed as glorified ads for future films, but these were things an audience anticipated eagerly. The absence of commercials was one of the superior qualities movie watching has over television watching. One would have thought that the thoroughly commercialized American society would have started this years before.
Yet, I had an inkling of a new era starting. A sense that I was seeing the future and it wouldn’t be long before American theaters would have commercials. When that happened, at least there was the video cassette that was free from ads—for a time. And now we have, basically, movie television before theatrical movies and movie previews start, adding 15 to 20 minutes of blaring movie screen-sized television content. My London experience seems quaint compared to this onslaught.
In 1993, I attended another film in London, taking two students to Scent of a Women (1992). This theater was not hidden and had nearly 500 people attending. There were commercials, only more of them and more sophisticated. There was also an intermission, which made our exit from the theater close to midnight. But there was no smoking. I don’t remember whether alcohol was being served, as I was more concerned keeping an eye on the students.
As it turned out, the greatest excitement of the evening occurred on the Underground as we went back to our hotel. On an inexplicably crowded train car, one of the girls had her wallet with $400 in it lifted by a pickpocket.
Two years later, I lived in Florence for six months and, eventually, found two theaters that played good movies. The first was the Universale, a large old movie house with over 500 seats, the kind of theater that was disappearing in the United States at this time. It changed movies daily, most of them from the 1960s and 70s. I saw 10‑15 films, all dubbed in Italian, if they weren’t already in Italian. I knew some Italian—hardly enough to follow the dialogue—but it didn’t seem to matter greatly.
One was The Professionals (1966) with Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, and Jack Palance, in which I had no trouble following the plot. Marvin was in charge.
Each “professional” had a specialty, like using explosives or training horses. Palance, the Mexican bandit, turned out to have not been so bad: he hadn’t kidnapped Ralph Bellamy’s wife, she had run off with him. The Professionals eventually make their stand against the true desperado, Bellamy, the man with the money.
Another, I had seen before: A Clockwork Orange (1971). Usually, the theater had twenty to thirty people but on this night the place was packed. The Italian adolescents reveled in the ultraviolence of Alex and his droogs. One aspect of the film, the youth language (Nadsat), didn’t translate smoothly into Italian. The film’s title in Italian was Arancia meccanica.
In my correspondence, I used to quiz my friends in the States with the Italian titles, to see whether they could recognize the film. One was Cane di paglia (Straw Dogs). Another, Annie e Io (Annie Hall). Another Best Picture winner, Il Cacciatore (The Deer Hunter). A crowd favorite, although I had seen it in Paris the year before, Incontri ravvicinati del terzo tipo (Close Encounters of the Third Kind). One might note that the Italian titles are not capitalized throughout.
For the Florentines, the Universale was the closest thing to a drive-in theater, especially when the building was only a quarter-capacity. All around, one saw couples locked in French kisses, sometimes the girl and boy in the same seat. The same passionate audience often expressed its displeasure with the movies themselves. The large screen had several discernable crinkles, which I assumed to be the result of objects thrown at it.
Another theater in central Florence – the Universale was on the other, less populous side of the Arno River – was the only English-speaking cinema in the city. Its fare was contemporary and films stayed there for a week or two. I reversed my previous viewing of Arancia meccanica and saw it in English with Italian subtitles.
Several years later, I had my most bizarre experience at a movie in Europe. I went to a building not labeled a "cinema" and went to a small room, like a lecture hall, with ten rows of seats ascending on a slight incline, about half the size of the London theater where I had seen Casanova. A Fellini festival was in progress; the two features this night were Satyricon and The Temptation of Mr. Antony (1962). The latter was originally made for Boccaccio ‘70, one of four films, and represents the 1/4 of Fellini’s 8 ½ .
Mr. Antony lasted 30 to 35 minutes, the amusing fantasy of a government censor who dreamt about a giant Anita Ekberg after he had seen her billboard advertisement for milk. Throughout the movie, we hear children singing the jingle, “Beve piû latté, beve piû latté.” Drink more milk! Mr. Antony is pursued and captured by the buxom Swedish star in a deserted Rome. At one point, his umbrella falls between her breasts.
By the time Satyricon started, the room was thick with smoke, There was little ventilation and my eyes were stinging. I thought that the smoke and hurting eyes were the reason I couldn’t see the movie clearly. Another problem then cropped up after twenty minutes when the bottom two feet of the picture appeared at the top of the screen.
Several minutes passed. The patrons started jeering and shouting. Who would’ve thought this could happen at a festival honoring Italy’s greatest director? More, how could the audience have let it progressed this far? They elevated their abuse and shouted Avanti! and Basta! Let’s go. Come on. Where the hell was the projectionist? Several people left the theater and only then was the picture adjusted.
But this magnified the original problem at the film's beginning. The image on the screen remained slightly unclear. Maybe my glasses were dirty. The movie continued another twenty minutes. Perhaps we were so overjoyed at getting the other problem fixed that anything was tolerable or acceptable. But time wore away our passivity. Shouting and abuse started again. I was concentrating so hard to understand the film, its fragmented structure not easy to follow, that I acquired a raging headache.
The smoke, the poor focus, the orgies on the screen, not to mention freaks and monsters made freakier and more decadent in this atmosphere. More people walked out. Now people were yelling “focus”. Several patrons in the seats closest to the screen knocked over several folding chairs. Higher cries of "silenzio” came from those oblivious to the focus problem.
It was as if Fellini himself were conducting the screening. Form overlapped the content. My mind swirled from the Roman depravities and violence to the unruliness of the Florentines.
A full riot was prevented by the arrival of a competent projectionist. He turned off the movie. The room remained dark. Thirty seconds later Satyricon resumed on a clear screen, a perfect picture. But there was no applause. If anything, we would’ve wanted the movie to start again.