Cinema is like box of chocolates

  • 2005-11-02
  • By Sven Becker
VILNIUS - A few students enter the green doors of Skalvijos Kino Centras and buy tickets for the upcoming performance. Roughly two-dozen people will watch "Prostaya smert" ("Simple Death"), a dark Russian drama from 1985. The film is as old as Teresa Juickiene's ticket-selling carrier, and she remembers those days with nostalgia.

Since it has been a rather smooth afternoon, Juickiene has some time to chat. When asked what has changed since she started her job at the theater, Juickiene smiles.

"A lot," she says. "Twenty years ago, this cinema was still called Planeta and nearly every performance was sold out. Many people ordered tickets in advance. Some got really upset when they couldn't get a ticket after hours of waiting in a long queue outside."

Since then, ticket sales have died, not only at Skalvijos Kino Centras, but at small-house theaters across the country. Juickiene has an explanation for the enormous popularity of cinemas a few decades ago.

"Performances were cheap, and there were not so many places to enjoy yourself in Soviet times. So, everybody went out to the cinemas. Our visitors had no popcorn, so they ate sunflower seeds instead," she remembers.

In 1992, the name of the cinema was changed to Skalvijos Kino Centras - or Skalvija - in honor of a tribe that lived in the borderland between Lithuania and Prussia a few hundred years ago.

Skalvija has never tried to catch up with the emerging big cinemas, which boast 10 or more halls. Instead, it has maintained a uniqueness and coziness - something that its small, but true, group of followers appreciates. After the recent shutdown of the independent cinema Lietuvos, Skalvija is the last regular-working theater that existed in Soviet times.

When passing Juickiene's ticket booth, attentive visitors might notice traces of the lobby's former function as a library in the '50s and '60s. In a bookshelf at the end of the room, 40-year-old books have collected dust behind the ancient lending bar. Eight small wooden tables, each outfitted with one red-covered chair, were used as carrels. Young photographers now exhibit their artwork on the wall.

Inside the cinema, there is room for 140 visitors. To this day, the wooden, rather uncomfortable seats are not numbered. Visitors sit wherever they want and never have to worry about being pushed over. Those who feel a draft can pick up one of the theater's warm cotton-blankets.

"Our guests like the special atmosphere in Skalvija. But the best atmosphere would not be sufficient to keep this cinema alive. Thus, we prepare a program that consists of classics, European productions and films of high artistic value," explains Greta Zabukaite, the director of Skalvija.

Zabukaite and her creative team mull over cinematic themes for several weeks, and then order adequate movies from distributors. They also offer special performances for children and workshops for teenagers. Lithuanian directors have even helped the young students produce their own short films. Film festivals and premieres take place in Skalvija regularly.

This week, movies that deal with the theme of death are showing. Johnny Depp in "Dead Man," Nicole Kidman in "The Hours" and Jean Reno in "Leon" attract mainly students and other young people. As the theater doesn't share the goliath budget of commercial cinemas, the film projector sometimes stops. Some visitors snicker, but no one is truly upset. "I don't mind if this happens. I enjoy the atmosphere in here. Plus it is quite cheap," says a 22-year-old student, who came to buy tickets for Skalvija's silent film festival in November.

His friend agrees: "We don't like anonymous, purely commercial cinemas that just offer the latest Hollywood strips. Skalvija is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you will get."

The entrance of the projection-room is located at the rear exit of Skalvija. Inside, tools and old film reels lie around everywhere. A pair of old dirty shoes was even forgotten on the flue. The two working projectors were made in former Czechoslovakia. On both machines, yellow stickers give an ominous warning: "Be cautious, this machine might explode." During the performances, an attendant needs to play both projectors alternately, which sometimes causes the small breaks.

Tonight, Ludmila Prigodskaja is on duty. She has been working as a mechanic in cinemas for 30 years. The nice old lady knows every screw in "her" projectors. The tough work has even left some scars on her dirty hands. Nonetheless, Prigodskaja enjoys her job.

"I can watch all the movies for free, and I love funny comedies," she says happily.

When she has to play dramas or action films, Prigodskaja completes some accrued repairs or takes a seat in her small lounge next to the projection-room where she watches TV. Since a drama is scheduled today, the scratchy old television is running.

In one year, Skalvija will be forced to move. The municipality, who basically fund the cinema, have other plans for the premises.

"One day, they will realize that it was a wrong decision. This place is full of history, but in present times, that simply doesn't count," says director Zabukaite.

She stresses, however, that Skalvija will continue to work somewhere else.

After the drama is over, Juickiene escorts the few guests to the exit and closes the door. Whether she will continue to sell tickets at the theater's new location, is not certain.

"I work in cinemas because I like to have people around me and I like to feel needed. If my position falls into disuse, I will have to look for another job," she says pondering.

Most likely, Juickiene knows there are no cinemas like Skalvija left in Vilnius.