A few weeks after returning from Lisbon I’m still in thrall to the memory of my visit to the ‘Cinemateca Portuguesa – Museu do Cinema’. It took us a while to find. We originally thought that it might be the building on the majestic Avenida de Libertadores that is also part of the Museum and that was then holding Saturday screenings of children’s films as part of a festival of children’s cinema taking place throughout the city.
The Cinemateca itself is housed in a grand building just off the grand boulevard, on Rua Barata Salgueiro. When we went in the afternoon to buy the tickets – I was eager to see Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night on celluloid — the ticket-seller apologised for the price, €5 instead of the normal €3. It was more expensive because it was considered a special event: the great Bernard Eisenschitz, surely one of the world’s foremost authorities on the work of the great American director, was giving nightly introductions to a series of less celebrated Ray films: On Dangeous Ground (1952), Bitter Victory (1957), Wind Across the Everglades (1958) and We Can’t Go Home Again (1971-1980).
We would be missing Víctor Erice, the celebrated director of El espíritu de la colmena/ The Spirit of the Beehive – in my view one of the all-time masterpieces of world cinema – who would be arriving the following week to introduce and discuss Ray’s Party Girl (1957). The reason for Erice’s visit was not accidental. As José Manuel Costa, Director of the Cinemateca Portuguesa – Museu do Cinema noted in his introduction of Eisenchitz, Erice had been the programmer of the Cinemateca’s previous retrospective of Ray’s films in the 80s, around the time he wrote his full-length study of Nicholas Ray’s work with Jos Oliver, Nicholas Ray y su tiempo/ Nicholas Ray and his times (Madrid, 1986).
It was a thrill to listen to Eisenchitz on They Live by Night later that evening. He wore his learning lightly, spoke with humour, without notes and whilst looking directly at audience in the sold-out screening. He was very illuminating on the credit sequence, the film’s ending and the meaning and affect of the film, particularly as they relate to the presentation of Farley Granger. I felt lucky to be there.
But to say all of the above is merely to say that the Cinemateca is doing an excellent job at what it was set up to do. It has a superb programme, with distinguished guests sharing their knowledge of cinema with a local audience. It has an archive, a library, a publication arm that’s clearly as cutting edge as any (a two volume collection on Queer cinema caught my eye), a superb if slightly expensive bookshop, permanent and temporary exhibits on some aspect of cinema.
The Cinemateca Portuguesa has all you’d expect of a great film institute and something I’d never much thought of, took it for granted really, until it was lost: The Cinemateca offers a public space in which cinephiles can meet, study, exchange ideas, work on projects. It has a cheap but pretty café where people were hypnotised by their laptops alone, working on projects with others, just waiting for the film to start; all without the pressure that the table might be needed by someone who could spend more. It made me conscious of the encroachment on public spaces by private interests that we suffer from in England and elsewhere. That public spaces are no longer public, that in film institutes they at best have to pay for themselves; at worst generate profit to help fund the institute; and in having to do so, they lose an important reason they were originally set up for: as places were ideas could be nurtured, exchanged, circulated.
That the building itself was also beautiful, with a grand Art Deco-ish double stairway leading from the cinema up to the café bookshop and through various exhibits, was a bonus. The programme, the events, the space to think and discuss, the possibility of pursuing art and knowledge — and all in such a beautiful setting – it felt ennobling.