When Americans talk about excitement at the movies, they usually mean on the screen. For moviegoers in Third World countries, however, theatrics are likely to be all around them - and as memorable as any performance on the Academy Awards list. In a village in the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan, say, or on a South Pacific outer island, or in a town at the edge of the Shara, the showing of any film is so dramatic as to surpass the limits of the screen.
Song Kwah, Thailand, for example, is 20 minutes by a bad dirt road from Fa'ang. Song Kwah gets the same movies Fa'ang does - and the same print of the same movies. And the same night.
The show starts at 7 in Fahang and at 8 in Song Kwah, so they just shuttle the film out one reel at a time. That might be a relatively simple matter, except for the water buffalo. They meet in the road every night for supper and seem to know that wolfing food is bad for the digestion.
On a night the buffalo are out in force it may be some time back in the cinema in Song Kwah between the moment the ape in "2001" throws the thigh bone that comes down, seconds later, as a spaceship. Not as long as it took man perhaps, but certainly longer than Stanley Kubrick intended. It all depends on the mood of the water buffalo.
Americans may complain if a movie theater has its air conditioning up too high, but in Upper Volta the problem is keeping the camels from wandering in front of the sheet that serves as a screen. Am, entities in Third World cinema, in fact, are seriously lacking. If dubbing that 20 seconds late annoys you find 30-minute cuts jolting or you're picky about the order in which the reels are shown, then don't go to the movies in a developing country. It's one of the things they're still working on.
On the other hand, a ticket is usually 50 or 75 cents, and even if you don't enjoy the film, you'll love the show. Seat selection often matters. In North Africa the balcony is usually fairly calm, but the orchestra tends to be a small scale version of what's going on up on the screen, minus the horses: fights, games of catch, shouting, pistachio nuts whipping past. Remember how as a kid you couldn't wait to get home and play what you'd just seen at the movies? In North Arica they don't wait.
Love scenes, too, have a remarkable effects. Something there is about a man and woman meeting in embrace, their lips melting together, his hands wandering slowly down her hips - something there is to make the movie audience erupt, hooting, whistling, cat-calling, back-slapping, foot-stomping. The men in the audience - and it's all men - go crazy.
That smell, by the way, is jasmine, coming from the sprigs theater-goers have tucked behind their ears to ward off the scent of a week's work that the weekly bath has yet to wash away. The jasmine seller out in front of the box office does a land-office business.
At the Meria Cinema in the South Pacific Island of Btio, part of the Gilbert chain, a recent nigh went like this according to a report in the Atoll Pioneer:
"A fantastic Kung Fu film was screened on Saturday at the Meria Cinema, Betio. So active were the actors that they aroused a tremendous applause from the audience. At the end of the first reel a cut was made and another Kung Fu film, a completely different on entitled 'Women's Fist' was partly shown. A few minutes later there came a cry from the projection room, 'That is for our Sunday show.' And the continuation of the original film was resumed."
Triple bills are common in Third World cimema houses. A recent one in Truk, part of Micronesia, was typical. It started out with Jim Brown's "I Escaped from Devil's Island," moved on to the obligatory Kung Fu interlude, something like "fist of Righteousness," and finished off with "Dr. No." Ingmar Bergman, in other words, isn't big.
On the other side of the globe, in French-speaking Africa, the fare is likely to run Gallic policiers and Clint Eastwood shoot-em-ups, what you might call lasagna Westerns - spaghetti Westerns, only bloodier. Old favorites like "outlaws of Kansas" and "Kill Them All And Come Back Alone," the king of film where the print's in color and the marality in black and white.
Images of America invitably derive from these films. I once spent a sleeplesas night in seedy hotel in a border town near the foot of the Middle Atlas mountains in Morocco, a night punctuated with the sounds of fights and glass shattering and women shouting. The next morning down in the cafe the propietor was sweeping the glass and beer off the floor. I asked him about all the nosie. "I've never seen anything like it," he said, shaking his head. "it was just like Texas."
A rose among these thorns, and a stunning one, is Indian film. Famous throughout the developing world, the Indian film runs on the principle of something for everyone. High comedy, high tragedy, farce, mime, dancing, and always, for some reason, underwater sequences. Tone is not an Indian film's long suit, but try to get a seat where one's playing.
As for the theaters themselves: some, in capital cities, are opulent, fittingly named the Royal, the Palace or the Imperial. In the smaller towns, however, the theaters are little more than tales waiting to be told. "It was like a barn," said a man about a theaters in Samoa. "In fact it was a narn.
Moen, one of the Eastern Caroline Islands in the North Pacific, one theater adjoins the copra plant and cineastes set their feet down gingetrly lest they interrupt the rat trafic on its way to and from the coconuts.
Cutting and dubbing are two other hurdles a film must clear before limping into a Third World screen. With dubbing the suspense is never if the sound will be in sync with the action, but how much it will miss by.
Will the hero run the evil lord thrugh and then say somewhat gratuitously, "I'm going to have to kill you," or will the sound be early and catch the hero thus addressing his horse at the end of the preceding frame? And even when the dubbing is timely it can still be disconcerting to see a sentimental favortite in a foreign tongue, as anyone who's seen "Gone With The Wind in Arabic or "bambi" in Thai can attest.
Cutting probably isn't the right world. Slaching comes closer. The problem in a lot of countries is to fit two two-hour features plus intermission and a newsreel into a little over three hours. The solution is the cut. I was once certain, knowing the film well, that an entire reel had been left out of "Becket," and I immediately took up the mistake with the projectionist. He said I was right about the cut, wrong about there being a mistake.
Another time, in Morocco, I broke the golden rule of Third World movie going - never go to an old favorite - and went to see "Camelot." I wasn't too worried though, because I was going mainly for the music. But I'd underestimated. Every single song had been cut. It was like seeing "Jaws" without the shark attacks.
Sex scenes, needless to say, don't fare well in many developing countries. There' s little hope for Linda Lovelace or Gloria Leonard fans in the converative Middle East. So I was taken aback once in a Moslem country to see a poster for s awedish sex film, the documentary type whose cover is sex therapy, complete with doctor in white jacket and stethoscope.
The mystery was cleared up when it soon became apparent all the couplings had ended up on the cutting room floor, leaving the citizenz in at least much-daunted pornography, the scourge of the West, was evidently nothing more than scenes of nicely dressed young couples in a doctor's office spliced with shots of aroused dogs and horses.
In Saipan, however, they're not so prudish. A big yellow banner flies over the theater whenever there's a prono film on, patrons arrive by the truckload. CAPTION: Picture 1, In Bangkok; movies are big business and the theaters crowed. upI; Picture 2, Thailand artist working on a movie billboard.