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Cairo Time: Walking (like an Egyptian) into a Hollywood blockbuster

September 1, 2010 | 10:15 am


There may be, as Robert Louis Stevenson said, no foreign lands, only travelers who are foreign. A nice thought, but it does little to smooth the adjustment for someone entering a Cairo structure to perform the ultimate  in Middle Eastern travel rituals: watch "Inception."

In a theater adjacent to a place with the delightfully East-meets-West-- or is it Cecil B. DeMille-meets-the hotel industry? -- name of the Ramses Hilton, the Christopher Nolan film is playing, and I, on vacation in the Middle East, decide I must go. The pyramids? Fine. The sphinx? Yeah, OK. A Kubrickian masterpiece with heart? It has to be seen to be believed.

As it turned out, the impulse was simpler than the act. To get to the theater is to undertake one of the most dangerous of Cairo activities: crossing the street, a process akin to walking across hot coals while playing Frogger, only with real-life trucks. Things don't get much smoother on arrival. To enter the shopping center where the theater is housed, one must pass through multiple metal detectors and security checkpoints, an inconvenience eased slightly by the fact that a giant lamp bearing a campy Ali Baba theme greets you upon your entrance. What foreign cultures take away with one hand, they give with the other.

Farther inside, in the building's icily air-conditioned hallways, a post-Ramadan late-night crowd is swelling the food courts, the shops and, upstairs, the movie theaters. Or, more specifically, the movie theaters showing films such as "Sameer, Shaheer & Baheer," a puerile-looking Arabic-language comedy whose poster offers definitive proof that Adam Sandler is more influential than any of us had feared. But while the crowds lined up for a number of local movies, inside the theater where "Inception" was playing sit only about a dozen people, most of them looking rather well-heeled. This is a young, educated crowd, and even includes some solo film-goers, especially anomalous given the group mentality found elsewhere around the city.

As the movie begins, an intense reverent silence (of the kind not found in mall theaters no matter the hemisphere) takes hold, breaking only for laughter at the subtle moment when Joseph Gordon Levitt's character kisses Ellen Page's character as a "test." It begin to dawn on me that while, in the U.S., "Inception" was the ultimate in mainstream hits, with millions of people across every age and educational range turning out to see it, in other countries, or at least this one, it's something else. Despite the buzz and the international stars and the big-budget effects, "Inception" in Cairo something that Hollywood, in its export-minded glee, would probably not have expected: an art-house film.

Like pretty much all other movies, "Inception" also plays differently to an audience that speaks a language different from the characters -- only, somehow in this case of this film, those differences are even more pronounced. Paragraph-long chunks of Nolan's dialogue are shortened, given subtitle space constraints, into just a few Arabic words. It is, perhaps, a study in the nuances lost in foreign-language film-going. Or maybe it's just a Thoreau-ian argument for simplicity. You could spend 500 words explaining how, in collective dreams, subconscious projections of the subject can turn on the dreamer as he nears a conscious state. Or you can just say people sleep, and then they wake up.

Hollywood is supposed to shorten distances, the uniformity of its exports making us seem a little more alike. When the lights go down, we're all watching he same thing. (Literally, given global tent-pole culture.) But the experience of watching a blockbuster in a place like this only makes those differences more apparent.

As if on cue, Just as the film's well-known taxi chase starts to unfold, an intermission for the purpose of a reel change is called, an occasion the projectionist marks by abruptly casting an image of a box of exploding popcorn on the screen, something that has not, to my knowledge, happened at any theater in the U.S., despite our long tradition of anthropomorphic snack foods on the big screen.

Then the house lights come up and an Akon song comes on, and I think "Maybe Stevenson was right after all."

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: The pyramids at Giza, in a sense the world's first multiplex. Credit: Getty Images


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