Photo: Serious Eats

A week ago, I went to see Coco at my local mall. It was the first time I went to the movies since September, and despite the overall emptiness of the place, with a food court where fast food employees lean on the counter and check their phones, I found a decent crowd lining in front of the theater.

Not everyone went in, though; the fee went up 50% in two weeks, and a hundred times more expensive than when I saw Dunkirk last August. The chilling sound of stukas over the French coast has got nothing on the tension of checking prices among what’s on its way to become the world’s largest hyperinflation ever recorded.

As any self-respecting film buff, I like to collect movie tickets. Going all the way back to 2004, it provides quite a view how of hard have we fallen.

You wouldn’t think this is such a big deal. After all, entertainment is a luxury. But arts are a human need, entertainment is a human need; and not having the space to just tune out in a place like Venezuela is a matter of mental health.

With plazas and streets turning progressively hostile (entire areas of Caracas are ruled by armed groups), the few leisure activities we still have stand as a beacon in this wasteland of the soul.

And a quick look reveals that people still go to the movies despite hyperinflation, blackouts and falling infrastructure. Families, couples and friends, all paying less than half a dollar — and half of that on Mondays! — attend the movies to forget, luckily, what life in Venezuela has become.

Numbers, though, are telling. In 2017, the monthly average of moviegoers was around 1,743,000, a small drop from 1,785,000 in 2016. But between 2015 and 2016, movie attendance fell almost 60%.

To survive, movie theaters rely on sure hits and productions with broad appeal, screened in several rooms for a long time. Less commercial films tend to be limited or never arrive at all.

With plazas and streets turning progressively hostile, the few leisure activities we still have stand as a beacon in this wasteland of the soul.

How these measures hold up on the long run is a matter of speculation, particularly when dealing with international distributors. For instance, recent Oscar winner The Shape of Water wasn’t released in Venezuela because 20th Century Fox gave up dealing with the country last year.

According to José Pisano, CEO of movie distribution company Blancica, it’s easy to see why: “those with rights for Latin America negotiate in dollars. If there’s any agreement, it’s paid in bolivars and the companies see what they do with that currency.”

In other words, they know they won’t get their money back from smaller releases but they can’t allow themselves to leave that room unoccupied. Seeing how the projector bulb costs around $1,500, it seems like it’s just a matter of time before the industry suffers an inevitable collapse.
And it’s not just about the movie, it’s about the experience. People come for the promise of not just watching a movie but of “going to the cinema.” And like a film reel and a clapperboard, another of its symbols is the popcorn.

Most people in that Coco screening with me had the popcorn-and-soda combo the cinema sells, to my surprise, in one size only, even if it costs four times more than the movie ticket, eight times on a Monday.

Those with rights for Latin America negotiate in dollars. If there’s any agreement, it’s paid in bolivars and the companies see what they do with that currency.

Others were eating corn chips, from a cheap brand which I later noticed people bought from the pharmacy downstairs, around the same price as the movie ticket. In a country where hunger is rampant, there’s something obscene in the gesture of having snacks, it’s both a tradition and trying to recapture a misplaced sense of normalcy.

After all, those of us in the audience are here to enjoy and not think of all the issues affecting one of the few affordable spaces we have left. That’s for faceless entrepreneurs who, despite the effort, probably won’t get the recognition they deserve.

Instead, we’re enthralled within a fantastical world inspired by Latin American culture were families overcome distances by the power of love and memory, and boisterous murderous villains are plainly revealed as frauds to everyone. There are tears and laughter and a catchy tune that lingers with you well after you left.

The movie ends, the lights turned on, the ushers come out with a garbage container and the spell breaks. You check your phone, probably seeing the latest news, and you walk a corridor leading you back to the real world.

You were in a dark room with dozens of strangers, mesmerized, feeling another life not only seems possible, but real, even for a flicker of a second. The make-believe filters out the scarcity and the lines and the devastation, but who knows for how long those illusions will last, leaving only our everyday nightmare to remain.

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Freelance journalist, speculative fiction writer, college professor, political junkie, lover of books and movies and, semi-professional dilettante. José has written for NPR's Latino USA, Americas Quarterly, Into and ViceVersa Magazine.

37 COMMENTS

  1. Agree with Maria, above, I appreciate some of the daily life articles. As someone who has literally gone to the movies twice in the last twenty years, this reminded me of the experience I have “missed”. Nice job José.

    Colombia beat France yesterday and I saw most of the second half, so I have that going for me, even if it was a friendly.

  2. “The chilling sound of stukas over the French coast has got nothing on the tension of checking prices among what’s on its way to become the world’s largest hyperinflation ever recorded.”

    Hah!

    The best sentence to ever appear in the pages of CC!

    I too totally enjoyed this piece.

    • Los amigos de José González Vargas, por favor, modérense con las alabanzas o se notará demasiado y no las podrá apreciar.

        • I just used irony to say that expressions like “the best sentence ever” don’t make sense to me. CC has better writers than him but none of them wrote either any “best sentence ever”.

          • I think you’re pretty mistaken:

            I absolutely assure you that one of the CC contributors wrote the best sentence ever to appear on CC.

            Do I have to explain it in a simpler way, or draw a diagram?

  3. Nice piece. Reminded me of movies too. (Tostones, man, not popcorn! What has happened to the culture?!)

    The interesting thing about life and movies and books and vacations and imagination and politics and governments and bad times and messes is that one has a great deal of control over all of it, if he allows himself that control. The man himself is the one who generates his emotions and thoughts, not someone else.

    So he goes to a movie, and does an amazing thing as he walks down the dimly lit or dark aisle (I usually got there a bit late, while the newsreels were running), the man begins to prepare himself to enter another world unknown to him. He sheds the “real” world at least to some degree, sits down, gets comfortable, and gets ready to go on a trip, or a vacation. He absorbs and is happy or sad or afraid – of a fiction, a movie. And that is real life. He leaves the theater at the “FIN” sign, and prepares to reenter the now strange world he left behind.

    There was a guy Antonin Artaud associated with theater and the surrealists. Apparently he was a little nuts, but to him the real world outside the theater was more unreal than the world within the theater. The thing is there is nothing at all weird or bizarre or abstract or surreal about the reality that a man has a great deal of control over his thoughts, emotions, experiences, and life. There’s nothing surreal about it at all.

    And men have sought after what some refer to now as mastering the chi, or others refer to as enlightenment – it is all a question of degrees of, the same as Math 3a is more advanced that Math1a – and a lot of people make fun of it, and scoff at it, but it’s there – certainly as much as James Bond is (and we all get wrapped up in that one, don’t we, with the Aston Martin and tuxes and pretty girls in bikinis?). But to many, James Bond is more real, because mastering the chi and all that involves a lot of concentration and focus and that horrible thing called “w-o-r-k”.

    One only loses control of one’s life to the degree that one surrenders that control – not that we do not do that. We do, all of us, regularly surrender control. We let Monday mornings control us. And we let movies and news affect the way we feel and act, just as we let friends do the same. I know one guy here whose wife has a lot do do with how he behaves (El Guapo – by his own admission). Venezuelan women can be pretty fierce.

    Isn’t it one of the goals of martial arts to be so strong one has no need to fear and obey anyone (but is that force or inner peace)? Isn’t the goal of being “rich” to be able to do as one wants (but can happiness be bought)? Isn’t the goal of owning one’s own business to not take orders (expect those of customers)? I should say “one of the goals” – there are obviously many other goals in all of these (one may wish to be ric to influence the business environment, one may wish to launch a new product in one’s own business, or hire people on better terms and work conditions).

    But movies … yeah … all the pictures and characters are painted for you, so it’s better than a book, where you have to imagine all of it for yourself! It was the misguided imaginings of some weak men that brought an entire country to its knees.

      • For what? I don’t get one word things. The old cine La Castellana is no longer there, apparently. We went to see Goldfinger and someone let a bat loose. Cool. Alma Caraquena. An auditioning bat. It was circling the entire theater, parked on the screen once. Wanted to be in the movies. We only let chicharas loose (once) – that was our limit. But I miss the tostones. Don’t know if the Cine Lido is still there. There was another good one just off plaza Venezuela – forgot the name.

          • Ah. I get it. Thank you for clarifying. I don’t have any on-the-ground in Venezuela, haven’t set foot in the country for decades, so I can’t write an article that wouldn’t be “gringo”.

            Sorry for lengthy, but I thought maybe it would clarify for individuals that they can do something, as individuals, to set the country on a better track, just by establishing control over their own thoughts and emotions, recognizing that a lot of those are the result of influences from others, and differentiating those. The same applies here in the U.S.. (E.g. socialists thinking they have their own thoughts when actually they’re just cloning versions of Karl Marx, their daddy.) If I knew more precisely, I could maybe get it shorter – wish I could, wish I had that! (I’m working on it. I sense it’s just a few hundred thousand words away ….)

    • Like arepas, I just can’t get into tostones at all, and my wife makes them all the time.

      Different story for ripe plantains. Freaking love ’em.

      By the way, you know nata, that spread? I love that too, but can’t find anything in the states that comes close to what I enjoyed in VZ.

      • Ira – You must have it better than I. I never even heard of nata. Guasacaca, yes. I like the ripe plantains, too, with sugar. Easier. I won’t mess with trying to get tiny little slices for tostones. The best I am willing to do is platano verde plachado (squashed – you cook it a bit then squash it with anything that works, in the pan, and cook some more). I cut a green one in half, then slice lengthwise in about quarter of an inch slices, and cook those in corn oil. They’re OK. You like potato chips? Corn chips? Hard to believe that someone would not like tostones. Love ’em.

        • Tostones are too salty for me.

          Guasacaca, I loved. But I don’t know if it’s the nostalgia and memories that make every one I’ve tried imported from other countries into the states, or home-made ex-pats from other countries…just isn’t the same. It’s steak garnish with different names.

          Nafta is like a butter.

        • Thanks. La Googled it. De alguna manera me recordo del Tetero en las Navidades. Nice pink cream mix (hic!), so good we have it up here, too – eggnog (hic!), but I like the Venezuelan version better.

    • There’s a good exhibit on at the Museo Rufino Tamayo right now on Artaud’s experience in Mexico. Otherwise, you’ve completely lost me.

  4. I stopped eating at cinemas a long time ago, the last 5-6 times I went to watch a movie the most I bought was a soda, which costed about the same amount than the movie ticket.

    I usually save the taxi expense by going to the movies during the earliest projections, which take place at the beginning of the afternoon.

    • Don’t like the damn things, and I’m not eating the snack crap out of a bag either. She makes ’em fresh and uses that press thingy

      But one must always remember, as I’ve posted here many times, my wife is a HORRIBLE cook.

      I do love her cachapas though.

  5. I stopped going to movies of vilains who apologize for communists.

    And theaters tend to be disgusting to walk into. But, I am not a germaphobe and frequent bars just as often as I did years ago.

    As was already stated, popcorn and soda at a theater is where you will easily spend many time the price if admission. The popcorn is not worth the uplift.

    But go for the experience and to escape. If that is not possible, spend your money else where.

  6. @ Mitchell….you are absolutely correct. Every time you go to an American produced movie you are putting money in the pockets of leftist Hollywood crowd. The same crowd that praises and defends the “revolution” in Venezuela/ Cuba. The concession stand where the snacks and drinks are sold are a huge ripoff no matter what country you might be in. Typically you can buy a sit down meal at a restaurant for the price they charge for a large popcorn and a soft drink. Big Rip off!

  7. Popcorn is a luxury here. Haven’t had it for months.

    When I spent more time in Maturin I would take my woman to a movie once or twice a week, pizza with a beer first and then the movie. People taking on their damned cell phones during the flick drove me insane.

    Since I moved to the sticks, problem solved. No theater, no beer, no pizza.

    Oh, and no popcorn.

  8. @ MRubio….I think the time will soon come when you will be glad you are living in the sticks instead of in a city.

  9. Dr_mack @yahoo. com was the email i contacted when my Lover left me. After spell casting my Lover came back quickly. Keep up the good work
    London, UK

  10. What just happened to the comment section here? Yesterday we have some “guy” claiming Naky is an arbitrage expert and now people claiming that I can recover the “love” I had in junior high

  11. What just happened to the comment section here? Yesterday we have some “guy” claiming Naky is an arbitrage expert and now people claiming that I can recover the “love” I had in junior high

  12. I haven’t been to the movies in 10, 15 years. With today’s home options, I don’t get the point. And I can certainly wait 3 to 6 months to see the few I I really want to see.

    For example, I was dying to see Darkest Hour, but waited to rent the disc last week.

    It totally sucked, so I was right again. If I paid money to see this in a theater instead of a buck fifty out of the Red Box, I would have been really pissed.

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