(Editor’s note: This piece is about moviegoing in a European capital that most of our readers probably haven’t been to, but the nostalgia and cinephilia on display are universally relatable.)
The sound of the dinosaurs made the room tremble. It also shook slightly whenever they walked, especially the T. Rex and especially when it roared. It was 1993 and my family was there because an older friend of my brother’s had told him this theater had the best sound system in all of Lisbon, which made the whole cinema vibrate, just like the water cup in the movie. That was how Jurassic Park became the first movie I remember watching on Monumental’s biggest screen, in a room that seats 378 people.
That memory came to mind earlier this year when I learned that the theater was closing. It’s only been open on weekends for a few months now, with no word on when it will shutter completely. Three of the multiplex’s four screens shut down first and some of the staff was fired. Needless to say, it was no longer a state-of-the-art cinema. It hasn’t been in years, but it’s still in pretty good condition.
I’ve spent countless hours there, more than any theater. It’s a place that used to show an eclectic selection of movies, from European arty fare to bad blockbusters, from Oscar-bait to Portuguese films, both good and bad. From 2006 to 2017 I paid for a card that let you watch all movies showing there — provided you only saw two a day.
But even before it became the place where I saw almost all new movies, it was the place where I came of age as a moviegoer. It was, for a long time, a central part of my existence, integral to my romantic relationships and the way I organized my time. I also fell asleep there quite a few times, as one sometimes does.
There are a lot of memories not related to Jurassic Park or dinosaurs. At a film festival, watching Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in one of the smaller screens, Wes Anderson was sitting a few rows ahead. Later he introduced Vittorio De Sica’s The Gold of Naples. Abel Ferrara was in the audience.
Several years before, one of Portugal’s biggest fado singers asked to change seats during the opening night of the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men — or was it Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will be Blood? He thanked me profusely.
There was once a very silly event where Robert Pattinson introduced Cosmopolis to a room packed with screaming teenagers who were very clearly not the target audience for David Cronenberg’s Don DeLillo adaptation.
Even further back in time to 2002, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour. Two people a few rows ahead started laughing when “a Spike Lee joint” came up at the beginning. I scoffed at them in my head, pretending to be over it at age 15, when really I hadn’t noticed Lee’s unique credit before.
Even Monumental’s long-closed sister theater, Saldanha Residence, is filled with memories. Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, for instance. A now-deceased Portuguese politician sat in the same row as me. I looked at him during the screening and we locked eyes as if to say “I can’t believe how bad this is.”
In 2002, three friends going to Mulholland Drive with me turned into only one when one of them had a panic attack and another went home with him. I’d gone straight to the movies from my grandmother’s funeral — it’s no coincidence that that’s what I chose to do. When it got to the section of the movie at the nightclub, the part where they say “No hay banda,” the woman started singing and just as she reached the high notes the sound went out. It was a David Lynch movie, so no one batted an eye until the subtitles came in again and still nothing came through the speakers. We all banged on the floor and finally they turned the sound back on.
This place closed and briefly reopened under new management about five years ago. It’s now gone, turned into a gym, which is a bit painful to see on the rare occasions I pass by.
There are only two independent single-screen theaters still operating in Lisbon. I’ve seen many theaters close down during my lifetime: Quarteto, which became a church and will now turn into a co-working space; Ávila, now a stationery store; King, the first multiplex in Lisbon, now closed; Fonte Nova, now a gym (inside a mall); Londres, which became a variety store; Cine-Estúdio 222 and Mundial, both still closed. The list goes on. Some of these were run by Medeia, the same independent exhibitor that owns Monumental and Nimas, one of the aforementioned single-screen cinemas.
Things used to be quite different. There was a documentary on television the other night that featured old newspaper clippings with movie showtimes for the Lisbon area many decades ago. There seemed to be so many options back then, certainly more than when I grew up in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I have always felt like I came in at the end of the glory days. I feel nostalgic for this era I never got to live in, when, in my mind, prices were lower and the selection was much wider.
Maybe this never happened. Until 1974, there was censorship in the country, and there are more screens now than ever before. And in the decades before I was born, many international art-house movies never got to be shown here.
Even Monumental used to be a much different beast. When it first opened in 1951, it had a cinema that seated 2,170 people, a live theater venue for 1,182, and a restaurant. Twenty years later it also got a smaller screen. All of this was torn down in the early 1980s. It was in that same spot that the new four-screen Monumental, now a shopping mall with offices on top of it, was built. It was a rarity: a multiplex where people weren’t allowed to eat or drink.
This is the place that is now mostly closed. It was originally announced that the cinema would reopen under new management, but it’s looking more and more likely that movies will cease being shown altogether in that place. Rumor has it it’ll turn into a hotel. So the idea of it always being there, at any time, with movies to see, endless possibilities and the opportunity for trying new things, is probably gone forever. Everything changes, I know. All across the world, even in the U.S., it’s getting harder to find certain movies in theaters. It still hurts.
As these places disappear, I also find myself thinking of all the films I made plans to watch but never got around to seeing when they were playing. All the buses I missed, as public transportation in Lisbon is not very good, and all the times I thought I’d catch them later. Increasingly, the chances to see those types of films later in a theater will be much less. Maybe if I’d gone more often some of these places would still be open, is a lie I masochistically tell myself.
Maybe the key to fight all of this is simple: Just keep going to the movies. I’m trying to do my part and create new memories. I have reactivated my Medeia card, which gives access to weekend screenings at Monumental and daily showings at Nimas. These have featured premieres, overlooked recent films, older movies (both DCPs and old prints), mini-retrospectives, repertory screenings, one-offs, and all sorts of things that are usually too small for a room that seats 378 people. Vincente Minnelli’s Home from the Hill played there, and the print was great, but I saw something like five of the ten people in the audience on their phones. Diamantino, Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s bonkers Portuguese comedy, had its public premiere there, and paparazzi were trying to snap photos of a Eurovision winner who was just trying to watch a movie in peace. I saw two Rohmers and two Langs there recently.
What’s next? Signs point to the experience of sitting in a darkened room with strangers watching images projected onto the screen dying out. Some people I know no longer or rarely go to the movies. Prices have gone up, life and work gets in the way — that happens to me too. There are still options to watch movies for the foreseeable future here in Lisbon, but it seems as if regular and frequent commercial sessions for smaller movies are doomed. It also seems that movies are less and less respected, both by those showing them and those seeing them.
But not everything is that bad. Prices may have gone up, but they’re still better in Lisbon than in many big cities, even though wages are much lower. Attendance numbers have been going down in general, but at the same time, there have never been more film festivals, and I see more and more young people at the Lisbon Cinematheque. Many of them are on their phones, but they are still there. The Saturday double bills have been more and more successful this year, so much so that if you don’t get in line half an hour early, chances are you’ll get in late.
I went to see David Lowery’s The Old Man and the Gun before the Oscars this year. Not only was the room full, the A Star is Born screening at the same time was completely sold out. It happens from time to time and I hope, maybe lying to myself, that it will start happening much more. With all the talk about Roma being a Netflix film that wasn’t shown in theaters, it was surprising to see it playing for months on end here in Portugal.
This is sheer misguided optimism, I know. Truth is, I know that being able to experience something new in a theater whenever I want to, not having to rely on single unmissable screenings, will be gone someday, just like the dinosaurs. The big ones may still roar, but the smaller ones will become rarer and rarer. Knowing what it is that killed them and this whole way of life — streaming, TV, reliance on mega-blockbusters, lower attention spans, or me not going to see them enough — isn’t important. They will be gone. I’m sad to see them go.