by Agis Paikos
As published in In Focus, Vol. 9, No. 4, Dec. 2012
CARROLL BAKER AND THE TEMPLE OF SIN
It is still a beautiful building. It exudes an air of architectural finesse reminiscent of other eras, less unstable, at least on the surface.
Sunday noon; the poster behind the glass promises orgies for three or four, something like that. There are no photos; only red letters against a sun-faded yellow background.
I step inside and walk to the counter. The cashier, from Sri Lanka no doubt, does not look at me as he hands me the –pricier than expected– ticket.
I find it strange that he had left from a country devastated by civil war to end up in a semi-occupied island that lies between prosperity and insecurity – on all levels.
I carry on to the foyer. On the walls around me, cheap, lousy print posters of European soft core movies with theoretically promising titles sloppily rendered into Greek. All the heroines have names like “Ursula”, “Erika” or “Rosanna,” and their capacities range from “the queen of sin” to “the mistress of perversion”.
The actresses playing them seem miserable. What is more, they are objectively speaking completely unknown – not even in the same league as Sylvia Kristel or Linda Lovelace.
And then I see her. Above the door that leads to the screening room, a framed, black and white photo of Caroll Baker probably lying there since before this cinema had been degenerated into a porn movie joint.
To this same movie theatre I used to come with my parents, at least one quarter of a century ago, when it was still advertised as a “family cinema”.
I remember other framed pictures of actors in the hallway. Of all of them I imagine that the current owner thought that only Caroll was slutty enough to coexist with the rest of them.
But this is not entirely true. I look carefully at the picture: it is a classic Hollywood portrait dated in all likelihood to the mid 1960s, a bit before or a bit after “Harlow”, one of Carroll’s greatest box office hits after “Baby Doll,” which had been filmed ten years earlier.
I decide that I have to help her escape from this ungraceful environment and, to this end, I make an attempt at reconnaissance.
I go up the gallery. On the big video screen a plumb German woman uses a multitude of elongated objects in all sorts of imaginative ways.
There are but a few spectators literally hidden in the darkness – probably in guilt too.
I return to the foyer. The cashier disappears on the second floor for unknown reasons.
The moment is almost perfect. It’s now or never. I stand on my tiptoes and take the picture off the peg – it’s rather big and not too light either. It is also covered with dust.
I cough a little as I make my way to the exit. At this moment I am in breach of the law, the Constitution, one of the ten amendments or all the above. But my motives are Christian: I want to rescue this picture which had fallen away in manifold sins depicting a Hollywood actress whose career had long ago hit rock bottom. I step outside holding the picture underarm, my head up high and self-confident, certain of the genuineness of my deeper motives.
The picture of Carroll Baker now sits in my living room. I have replaced the glass and the frame; and when I look at her I am sure that Caroll smiles at me with gratefulness since at last someone had broken the dirty glass behind which she had been sentenced to live.
REMEMBRANCES OF AN AFTERNOON
As I walked inside, I was met with decay and decadence. Some things had been moved. The old, wooden floor still creaked eerily, and my steps made a loud, reverberating sound.
The old lady with the noble face sat beside the stove next to an elderly gentleman. I was their only customer. I asked if they had books on movies and the old lady rose from her chair and asserted: “Indeed, I believe we do,” and she led me to a different corner of the bookshop.
They still had books on movies at the same exact spot I remembered them, but they looked old and dusty, their glossy covers faded from the sun. I recognized a few of them from back then.
The old lady said “I’m sorry but we’ve stopped renewing our stock… You see, our son used to take the orders and look for the right books but last year… I’m afraid… we lost him”.
I brought to mind the gentleman with the small round glasses and the thick mustache. I used to see him with her at the bookshop all the time. For some strange reason I never thought he could be her son.
“I’m very sorry”, I whispered.
Embarrassed, I picked a children’s book and a birthday card for my niece and walked to the counter.
“How fares the movie business these days?” the elderly gentleman inquired.
“Not too good!” I replied. I imagined he had thought I owned a movie theater or something like that, or perhaps he was just trying to be polite by initiating casual conversation.
“…There used to be a movie theater… at the corner, down the road, you know, where the antique shop now stands…” he remarked, and it seemed like an effort. “…There was someone playing the piano accompanying films… People from all walks of life used to come and watch the show in those days. Craftsmen, ladies, doctors… On occasion, if something urgent came up, someone would walk into the screening room and call for a doctor… and the doctor would get up and go examine whoever was sick… It used to happen so often,” he added with a faint smile.
“What he’s recounting must have happened sixty years ago” suggested the woman, slightly bothered from the man’s soliloquy. Perhaps she felt he was boring me.
“Things have changed” I said to the man with a forced smile. Sorrow was weighing down on me for things unspecified. “I’m very sorry for your son,” I said softly as I made to pay.
“Did you know him?” he asked, politely.
“No! Not personally” I replied. “But I do remember him. Years ago, I used to come here a lot and browse through the books…”
“Oh, I see,” she said with a polite smile. I took the book and the card.
Christmas had already gone two months ago, but she had put them in a lovely Christmas-themed paper bag showing families skiing on ice, small, cute houses with beautiful red roofs and children looking happy whilst engaged in their snowball game.
“That’s life,” I proposed clumsily and felt my eyes burn. “Goodbye,” I said hurriedly and opened the door.
“Goodbye, dear,” I heard the old lady saying before adding:
“Come back and see us again”.
They were set to tear down the open air cinema.
He stepped inside, climbing over the fence.
He walked amidst the dusty, half-broken plastic seats.
He sat somewhere and looked at the screen – in truth, a rectangular piece of whitewashed wall. A piece of whitewashed wall which, for so many years, had accommodated so many stories of love, passion and hatred running for more or less two hours, and which was now on the verge of crumbling down, irreparably, waiting for the coup de grace, as if a proud bull in the arena.
“Apollo Open Air Cinema” would be torn down to make room for yet another parking lot. Traffic jams in that central area of the city had to be settled one way or another. He climbed up the wrought iron spinning staircase that led to the screening room.
The door made a slight creaking sound as he pushed it. An old, rusty projector was still there at the center of the room, the semblance of a precious shipwreck relic; a silent witness of a past era.
Spread across the floor, trash, cigarette buds, half-torn newspapers, soda cans, an old shoe, a broken bottle, a few flyers.
No sooner had he seen her than he recognized her smile.
He leaned down and picked up the small black and white poster from the floor.
He remembered the photo from various covers of the time. She was lying on a settee, her naked body covered with a white fur coat. Her photograph had been used to promote her comeback to the movies.
“This film will bring you laughter, merriment and joy,” promised the tagline on the photo.
“Two hours of unprecedented happiness with Aliki’s* first movie in seven years”.
Seven years of absence from the big screen; from “Maria of Silence” in ’73.
In the meantime, the junta had fallen, democracy had been restored in Greece, a coup d’ etat and a Turkish invasion had divided Cyprus in two, the TV had by then replaced the cinema, the “most popular movie couple” had divorced, cynically, just like any other couple in a row over their assets, Finos had died and the golden age of the good old commercial cinema was forever gone. The fairytale had reached its ending; so had the dream. Still, the queen was back seven years later. But back to what? Which kingdom?
The movie never made it. Her triumphant comeback had failed. The preferences of the new audience were different. As for her old audience, they had grown up with her. Some of them still liked her, others not anymore; or perhaps not so much.
He looked at the screen through the tiny window the magical rays emitted from the projector pass through before playfully being thrown on the screen to create “live, moving pictures”.
The cracks on the whitewashed wall across the room were far too pronounced, akin to slashes. The screen was no longer what it used to be.
A quarter of a century ago, he would sit in this very cinema with his “nuclear family” somewhere along the first rows.
They were watching one of her films, and this particular scene had been so strongly embedded in his six-year old boy’s mind: she was sitting on a balcony. She had long blond hair that made her look like a fairy from a tale in line with the film’s title. She was playing on a Cretan lyre singing a melancholic ballad.
The boy felt like crying, so beautiful yet so sad she was!
Beneath her balcony the sea and, in the sea, boats carrying young couples who sang along with her.
Yet another failed comeback; his, in this case. Probably for different reasons.
On the way back he wondered why each time he attempted to revisit the past he was hurt by the hindsight that the past was forever gone.