Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Hope for historic cinemas

The Nation
Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

Admirers of Apex's iconic Scala and Lido theatres are breathing easier today, following Chulalongkorn University's announcement that controversial plans to demolish the two movie halls have been postponed.

From the outset, the plans to replace the two 40-plus year-old landmarks with a series of shopping malls raised considerable objection from a broad spectrum of Thai society. All the commotion has apparently succeeded, at least temporarily, in changing Chula's tune. But until details of the redevelopment plan are formally worked out, erring on the side of caution might benefit advocates of the Apex Two.

With that in mind, lets embark on a possible projection of the future.

The year is 2069. Thailand's economy, along with those of its neighbours, has levelled off after more than 40 years of sustained growth. It's a mature economy now, a middle-class society, with an age demographic tilted toward elderly. The once-trendy shopping malls along the northern edge of Rama I Road, all but devoid of consumers, are being dismantled, the land repurposed into a tropical city park.

On December 31, 2069, Chulalongkorn University - now the envy of Harvard - is honouring the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Scala Theatre by hosting a movie marathon there: "150 Years of Thai Cinema," is the theme. Prints of old Thai movies, carefully preserved by the Thai Film Archive, have been selected for this cultural heritage film fest. For the first month of 2070, only vintage cinema is being screened there.

Thanks to the foresight of Chula administrators, the century-old Scala has become a national showcase and symbol of prestige for the university. Images of its luscious lobby have been used as a selling point for the university to attract international students, especially architecture majors, who view it with a mix of exotic curiosity and academic awe - impressed by the school's commitment to continuity.

In 2069, not a soul in the country would even entertain the thought of destroying the Scala, or its somewhat less alluring older sibling, the Lido. Not for any reason whatsoever.

Admittedly, this rendering of the future is a bit on the utopian side. But what I hope to convey, short of a utopia, is its plausibility. Try, for a minute, to imagine your reaction to seeing the Scala for the first time, 20, 40 or 60 years down the road. Conceivably, that far into the future, much of Bangkok's less-extravagant mid-20th Thai architecture will have already been demolished to make way for the new. As a rare survivor, the Scala would be a beautiful representative of a largely forgotten past, while serving an invaluable contemporary role to the country's film community. Put bluntly, it would be a spectacle in and of itself (though many would argue that it already is).

This, of course, is the long view of the issue, and not always a convincing one given all the unknown variables. For its part, Chula is also thinking ahead - albeit not very far - which is why it seeks to maximise the profitability of its land. With Thailand's exports lagging due to weak economies in Europe and the US, producers and financiers are betting on strong domestic consumption to keep them in the black. Hence the view that shopping malls should replace the existing structures at Siam Square.

But once this boom is over, then what? Chula could be presiding over an empire of underperforming behemoths that will be expensive to maintain and have no redeeming social value in and of themselves. Remember, there are already over half a dozen shopping malls along this stretch of road. Between them, there is no shortage of purchasing options whether one is looking for a pair of socks or a high-end sports car.

As for stand-alone movie theatres that screen high-end films, there are only two in the entire country.

The Scala and Lido are authentically irreplaceable. Once they are gone, they will never come back.

Chulalongkorn University will be doing a service to itself and to Bangkok by taking the long view of these landmarks.

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