Surroundings / Comedy of Errors

The new wing of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque is marred by minor, annoying, and even amusing flaws - along with one very major one.

The recently-opened new wing of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque evokes a combination of the settlement architecture of the Gilo neighborhood in east Jerusalem, and an old postcard of the Pompidou Center in Paris. Of course the roots of the old Cinematheque building also bear the stamp of settlement architecture, having been designed by architect Salo Hershman.

The new wing is not a model of what is considered good taste, and it may yet become camp or cult. There is no reason to sharply assail it. It shouldn't warrant more than a shrug of the shoulders. When it comes to the details of the building and the work on the new wing, silence is golden.

The new wing of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque - Moti Milrod
Moti Milrod

The final product does not stray too far from the familiar Israeli environment. Despite its red flashes and the scary white sphere hanging precariously in front of the entrance, the wing, as it appears to passersby, does not threaten any existing order, if there is such a thing, and does not break expectations, which didn't exist in the first place. The sphere, by the way, is made of some kind of plastic and only pretends to be some kind of silvery, metallic high-tech element, so everyone can relax.

It took some long and exhausting years to build the wing and the saga of its construction could have been used as verification of Murphy's laws. Anything that could possibly have gone wrong did go wrong. But many of the mishaps are not irreversible and there is room for a round of improvements. This is undoubtedly the great moment for the wonderful Israeli improvisational skills to come up with ad hoc solutions for the problems that surfaced.

A Chelm-inspired solution

For example, in the first days it became clear that there were problems found with the height of the steps of the staircase in the large auditorium, a problem that is more complicated than it sounds and, based on personal experience, may lead to an unpleasant fall. But there is no cause for worry. In the absence of a genuine solution for fixing this oversight without causing total chaos, the Cinematheque was quick to adopt an idea that at first sounds as though it was taken straight out of the pages of the humorous tales of Chelm: they have positioned a special "staircase usher" at the problematic spot.

If the mirrored wall opposite the entrance causes dizziness, there is always the possibility of covering it with some endearing improvisation, like a film poster exhibition, thereby easily transforming it from a shortcoming to an asset. The sun beats down from the early morning on the glass wall at the entrance? Even Ikea has shade solutions that will somehow manage to filter the light.

Even prior to opening, the Cinematheque already has an impressive record of improvising.The shiny tin walls of the auditoriums, for examples, were totally covered over with absorbent carpets, a solution not devised on the drafting table, but certainly one that is enough to save the day. Even the handling of the many leaks appears to have been successful. Although the matter has not been fully resolved and it is doubtful that it will ever go away completely (see box ), the fix was found that will nevertheless make it possible for the new wing to open, even if it happens after considerable delay and at a substantial cost to the taxpayer.

An irreversible error

All of these things are just minor problems. The really major problems are the irreversible ones that defy any improvised solution. No magic trick will manage to fix the unfortunate decision to bury the movie halls underground, a decision that has a miserable impact on the entire Cinematheque experience.

That experience is tense and hasty, not to mention, damp. The whole wing has been turned into a corridor and escape route following a film screening - and not a place you want to linger. This includes a narrow staircase that raise concerns of being trapped in a crowd or even a fire hazard; elevators that cannot and were not meant to handle the crowds; metal doors ominously marked "emergency exit" much like in a military bunker; and maze-like, winding corridors.

The Cinematheque is not just auditoriums and screening equipment, sophisticated as they may be. The Cinematheque is the last place where it is still possible to have a different kind of cinema experience. It might not be the Cinema Paradiso, but it is also not Cinema City or like watching a movie on your cell phone. What did this place really need to have? An inviting auditorium where you could get away from the isolating passive viewing experience, a suitable place for idle talk with acquaintances from earlier films, an opportunity to rub shoulders with people in the film industry, a table that you could gather around for no reason without being bound to order to something at the restaurant that won the franchise to use the space. None of these are excesses for a cinematheque but actually their raison d'etre, and for that you do not need even a single mirror or any designs on the floor tiles. Who would want to sit and chat while seated between an emergency door and an escape route? Even the library, which is located on the entrance level, is unwelcoming. What a waste of a place.

The Cinematheque is located near the hottest real estate complexes and urban renewal projects that could have provided material for a number of protest movements: the Sarona complex and the Wholesale Market complex that are being marketed as the biggest luxury projects in Israel and Givon Square, which is threatening to develop into a downtown version of the Tel Aviv Port. Given this backdrop, one can only fantasize about a different kind of Cinematheque which should have been built in a southern Tel Aviv neighborhood, far from the hot real estate projects, and would welcome less obvious clienteles.

The way things are now the only thing left to do is wait and see if something good comes out of the renovations of the existing Cinematheque building, which now has nothing appealing about it, and out of the planned linking of the two wings. One may also hope that the renovated plaza will be an improvement over the old and bad plaza, which no one should pine for. And, despite all this, we should continue to remain faithful to the good old Cinematheque, no matter what happens.