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The blossoming and downfall of the Greek grindhouse movie theaters September 28, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Books Life Greek, Movies Life Greek.
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Athens Film Festival highlights a genre that carved its own path in the country’s capital > The Star cinema, on Aghiou Constantinou Street, was designed by Zach Mose. Were it not for its pornographic films, it could be one of the most charming movie theaters. The Athinaikon, behind Athens City Hall, was a purpose-built theater.

Early on in the history of cinema, there were trends and schools of thought that were not always aimed at the same group of people. Just like today, a large chunk of cinematic output is destined for mass urban consumption, while artistically oriented films are doomed to be shown at just a limited number of theaters.

The Premiere Nights Athens International Film Festival, which ends on Sunday, addresses this issue with a tribute to grindhouse. The term does not describe a particular genre of film, but a very specific category of movie theaters that mushroomed throughout the United States in the 1960s and well into the 80s. Nestled in the seedy neighborhoods of America’s cities, grindhouse theaters reflected the faded, filthy death of the glamorous theaters of the 30s and 40s.

The repertory at America’s grindhouse theaters was surprisingly broad: shocking pseudo-documentaries and wannabe snuff movies, topless starlets and hardcore porn, exotic cannibalistic banquets, rioting women’s prisons and Nazi S&M orgies, zombies and bloodsucking beauties, spaghetti westerns and angry nuns. All day and night, prostitutes, junkies, pimps, homeless people, voyeurs or just lonely Joes with a bent for the weird would pay the meager fee and choose these repugnant theaters as shelter to conduct shady deals or as a refuge from demanding spouses and nosy neighbors.

In the Greek equivalent of grindhouse theaters the selection was somewhat more limited: westerns, war movies, thrillers, martial arts adventures and adult movies. The customers, however, were the same, according to Giorgos Lazaridis in his book “Flash Back: A Life of Cinema” (Livanis Publications), who describes Greek grindhouse theaters as “hangouts for bums, professional idlers, improvised shelter for homeless passers-by, schools for thugs, an easy hideaway for truants from every high school in Athens.”

One big difference between Greek and American theaters is that pornographic movies did not make their way into Greek theaters until the early 70s, according to Dimitris Fyssas, who wrote “X-Rated: Programs of Athenian Sex Cinemas” (Delfini Publications). He describes how in the early years, projectionists would simply splice in a few scenes of pornography during the screening of a regular movie, with the audience below knowing very well, and anticipating, what was to come.

Rising property values in downtown areas, the widespread introduction of television and later video players into people’s homes drove most of these movie house owners to despair. In an effort to secure their financial survival, those two three-minute clips became increasingly longer. But the audiences wanted more sex, and mainstream fare was gradually supplanted by a strictly pornographic program.

Grindhouse, or to use the Greek term “laika” or popular, theaters are a thing of the past in Athens, but Fyssas disagrees: “The multiplex, as far as I’m concerned, is a modern version of grindhouse. That’s where you find movies to help you pass the time of day, movies the entire family can enjoy. These are not necessarily my choice of preference, but I have to give them credit for reviving a feeling that was almost lost.”

The natural heirs of laika theaters are those that play X-rated fare only. From 35 theaters in the 1980s, their numbers have now dwindled to five and this is not so paltry if one considers how easy it is to watch these movies at home nowadays. According to a theater owner, the clientele falls into three categories: immigrants, older men and people hoping for more intimate encounters under the cover of darkness.

The Star, on Aghiou Constantinou Street, is the king of its flock. And if it didn’t play pornographic films it would also probably be one of the most popular and charming cinemas in downtown Athens. Designed by Zach Mose, it began as a family theater with an interesting art deco facade, but the decline of the areas in and around Omonia Square in the 1970s left the owner with little choice. At first they played westerns, martial arts adventures and erotic films.

There are another four such cinemas. The Averof on Lykourgou Street is a historical cinema built in the late 1950s. Hard as it may be to imagine today, it used to be a lot like the grand Attikon cinema of Stadiou Street in its heyday, with elegant balconies and boxes. The clientele was exclusively families who knew that the owner always had his eye out for entertaining Greek movies. The Averof’s decline went hand-in-hand with the decline of commercial Greek cinema.

The Cosmopolite, built in the interwar years near Omonia Square, has retained its architectural charm. Paradoxically, the crisis of the 1980s gave birth to two more theaters. The Athinaikon, behind Athens City Hall, was a purpose-built theater, named after another theater with the same name further down that closed. The Orfeo, in Attikis Square, the only cinema of this type that is not in downtown Athens, opened in 2003 in the place of a small manufacturing business.

Related Links > http://www.aiff.gr

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