What Tel Aviv Would Look Like Without Movie Theaters

Closing of historic Tel Aviv movie theater sparks remembrances of cinemas past.

Aviad Herman

When I was young, Tel Aviv had nearly 20 cinemas at any given time, offering you a choice of what to see on a Saturday night (indeed, on any evening, except for Friday). Every movie theater had one hall, and many of them also had balcony seating. When the Gat Cinema that closed recently opened in 1957 without a balcony, it was considered a relatively small theater compared to the larger ones like the Mugrabi or Migdalor.

In recent years it was the only movie house in Tel Aviv that looked like the cinemas of old, and that’s why I loved to go there, to sit in its sole hall facing a relatively large screen. But even during these years, when the public began to stream to the mall multiplexes out of town, the Gat began looking more and more like a dead whale that had swept up on some metaphorical shore on the corner of Ibn Gabirol and Tzeitlin streets, facing Rabin Square. I can’t remember the last time I went to see a film at the Gat when there was more than a handful of people in the audience, all of whom, it seemed, came from the neighborhood surrounding the cinema, and all of whom looked to be around my age.

Until the 1980s, the movie theater was part of my cinematic experience, and from those years I can still recall which film I saw in which cinema. So it is with the Gat as well. The fire alarm that I experienced during “Marie-Octobre” was not the most intense cinematic experience afforded me by that movie house, which is now fading into the memory of Tel Aviv cinemas that were and are no more. I am now digging up from memory some names that come up randomly; in the Gat I saw “The 400 Blows,” by Francois Truffaut for the first time, and “Letter From an Unknown Woman,” by Max Ophuls (from 1948; once upon a time in Israel they used to bring back classic films and screen them), along with “Short Cuts” by Robert Altman and “Age of Innocence” by Martin Scorsese.

What’s left in Tel Aviv for a film buff who wants to experience cinema in his city? Not much. There are plenty of screening halls, but they are concentrated in only five locations, and that includes the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and the cinema at the Tel Aviv Museum. Tel Aviv may be a city that never sleeps, but what kind of metropolis has no movie theaters on its main streets, the way this city used to have?

It isn’t just nostalgia that’s motivating these words; after all, Simone Signoret, in the title of her autobiography, declared that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. I am also determined not to claim that once things were better; change and innovation don’t faze me. On the contrary, they fascinate me. But I also believe that the character of a city as a vibrant metropolis is evident not just in the number of restaurants, cafés and pubs that fill it, but also by the trappings of culture that adorn it, and cinemas were once among the cultural symbols of Tel Aviv.

My work often forces me to go to one of the malls outside Tel Aviv to see a film, and every time I have to do this I regard it as a chore I must put up with. Perhaps the quality of the screenings is actually better at many of these mall cinemas than it was at the Gat, but the hubbub all around, the pulsing noise at those places, the smell of the food from the restaurants and cafés – all these and more give me the feeling that something from the film-watching experience I once knew has been lost.