What’s it like when you understand the world as… CINEMA? When everyone around you – in this so-called “reality” – seem like terrible actors stuck in ‘the worst of all possible worlds’? Some might think the Schopenhauerian aphorism being applied to this context as exaggerated. SURE, of course, if we were to accept that the only thing left here was to be ‘sensible’ and make peace with that which ‘exists for real’. However, anyone who has truly come to know the magic of cinemas and their dark, the magic of its prime ‘resident’ (film), cannot see reality as ‘real’. Overly dramatic? Sure, but for the author of these lines, such a viewpoint remains the only possibility, along with the ‘transcendental power of imagination’, which is related to the topic I am taking up here.
Last year was the year of a fated reckoning with a venue in Zagreb (but also in my mind). Sometime at the end of May, Cinema EUROPA ceased all screening activities. The space that had stood as the central bastion of resistance against the ruralisation of Croatia’s capital for many years now became but an unsightly junkyard wrapped in dirty scaffold tarp. True, I had my initial qualms about the cinema at Varšavska Street—which was probably due to my Benjamin-like melancholy nature—when it underwent a name change; once known by the title of the first single of the Yugoslav new wave rock band AZRA (Balkan; ‘One day I am gone… never to arrive’), there was it, the dawn of a new geo-political reality upon us, Cinema EUROPA. Still, I accepted it as my own. (Must be because of my my own limitations regarding Eurocentric thought I personally ascribed to!) For, one might say, this CINEMA, in the very heart of Zagreb, marked a rite of passage of sorts for my mind workings.
When I grew out of my early teen years and moved out of my old neighbourhood, when I outgrew visits to cinemas such as Otokar Keršovani (a cinema in Švarcova Street which predominantly screened children films on weekends), followed by Partizan, Studio and Mosor, my ‘weekend matinees’ were now being religiously spent at the Student Centre (SC)… But, truly, there was no other art house cinema better, more intimate or thought-provoking than the magic dark of Cinema Balkan. (Fuck it! Greece is, after all, the cradle of Western civilization!) The films that first come to mind when I think about it are masterpieces such as John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1980) and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1983), and then also films I’d return to many times, Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa (1986) and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986); these all were brought to me from the cinematic depths of Varšavska Street.
And that’s all but a brief glimpse into its ancient history. Inspired by the film theory classes I attended at university, held by our seminal film scholar Ante Peterlić, I came to discover the wonders of KINOTEKA at Kordunska Street, and MM Centre at the Student Centre later on, where artist Ivan Ladislav Galeta and musician Dragan Pajić Pajo programmed my initiation into the world of experimental cinema. And still, following the national upset, now in a sovereign and independent Croatia, even when the said name change occurred—as a consequence of the authentic desire for emancipation of the ethnic group which I (barely) belong to by birth–the centre of my cinematic universe remained the same. Why was it just Cinema EUROPA that came to be the confluence of my cinephilic predilections? Truth be told, I don’t really know what was truly behind it… But at some point in my life, with the cinematheque moved to the less central Tuškanac, the Varšavska venue stood strong as the site of RESISTANCE against the CLOUT of CineStar, Cineplexx, and all other multiplexes that kept popping all over the country, standing witnesses to the provenance of ‘the society of the spectacle’. Here I refer to Godard’s thesis claiming that all of us who think, read and write about cinema stand as part of a resistance against such a ‘world’.
So, after I again started writing about film to a greater extent, it was this space where I would come and spend my dear time not only to familiarise myself with many chapters from the history of cinema, but also experience what contemporary cinema ‘had to offer’, right here and right now. (Hence my reference above to Kant’s Einbildungskraft, in the sense of all transgression of pure forms of sensorial maturity, i.e. space as well as time!) For all of us who were eager to find out more about non-Hollywood cinema, EUROPA was the Mecca that appealed to us. (With Cinema Tuškanac being Medina!)
And so at last, I come to the crucial detail about the cinema that disappeared from the face of Zagreb in 2019, namely an inscription that stood on the cinema: “THINK WHAT YOU SEE”. In a world that ‘claims/purports (?)’ to be real, THINKING seems out of style. (That said, thinking wasn’t a popular activity with many people even in ancient Greece, whose laws once sentenced the best amongst them to a death by hemlock!) YES, YES… I come from the planet of philosophy as an intruder in the world of writing about cinema. Everything I touch (upon) with my ink (even when it’s digital) ‘reeks’ of philosophia. When I go to the cinema and when I watch films, my approach is very subjective in nature (after all, is anything else even possible!?) as I attempt to extract but perhaps, more often than not, PROJECT an IDEA onto it. For sure, some originary film critics might find it annoying but there is no way of escaping oneself. Throughout my writing, I proclaim the thesis CINEMA = AUTEUR CINEMA as my heirloom, i.e. I view FILM AS A THINKING FORM. Although there are occasional deviations from it, entertainment and show business is a domain I very rarely engage with thanks to my, well, ‘quaint’ personality. Anything different… alter and art… new wave and punk… all of these are what tickles my fancy, both in humanities as such and in film watching. And for the last ten or so years, EUROPA was where I got the best of both worlds.
The cinema at Varšavska Street was a slice of cosmos that I myself longed to be part of. Therefore, one might say the cinema meant THE WORLD. A world hardly worst of all possible worlds (Schopenhauer). Rather, a world MOST REAL among all existing and truly parallel ‘worlds of the worlds’, though composed of not much more than celluloid illusion and metaphysical magic. It’s something like when Nietzsche says, “We have ART (lie?!) lest we perish from the ‘TRUTH’”. And that ‘truth’ is telling us that the future is here and now, a certainty of sorts… a catastrophe (W. Benjamin, Thesis IX, On the Concept of History).
On a final note, regardless of my melancholy and nostalgic longing for the scorned, I want to believe that Cinema EUROPA has not perished for all eternity. That there still remains ‘the principle of hope’ (Bloch) which would breathe life into the urban reality of the capital. That I will see people congregating in front of the old (and not some new!) building at Varšavska Street – and not only as cast members in the film that I keep ‘playing on and on in my head’. I want to believe that subverting the existing world doesn’t remain just the title of a bygone festival, at a bygone movie theatre, in that (bygone) home town of mine.
I, a Eurocentric, can still hear the vocals of that Balkan band describing ‘Zagreb coming out of a slumber’ (as heard in Azra’s 041). And I hope… to hear again, in my own CINEMA CROATIA, the words of Azra, ‘be strong and never yield’, as well as – THINK WHAT YOU SEE.