Wednesday, December 5, 2012

In the realm of the magic lantern

In the land of churches, my most religious experience was in a three-storey building unremarkable in shape and size from its neighbours. Girona's Museu del Cinema has a giant reel of film above the door and its walls are covered with posters. Next to its door is a small shop window, where Tintin shares space with Tony Montana and other equally unlikely compadres. Beyond this little window is a collection of DVDs and books, under the care of a friendly buff who looks like he'd fit right in with the Bell Labs class of the 70's. And all this is just the start of the yellow brick road.

But the store, I kept for the last. I had just two hours before closing time - and that is way too short a time for a shrine to cinema. I began at an auditorium that screened a short paean to the imagination - so poetically narrated that it was hard to resist a tear. It was on to the exhibits from there: beginning with shadow play in ancient India and China, to the camera obscura, to the magic lantern, to several homages to the Lumières. There are cameras and photographic tools of infinite varieties. There are reproductions of movie sets. There are games for children to play. Posters of Rita Hayworth, Charlie Chaplin and Marlene Dietrich hang on the walls, as do the very first movie poster by the Lumières.

In a country with so many magnificent monuments to a God who preaches that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, I find it entirely appropriate that I was most moved by this rather ordinary building. After all, a tribute to cinema does not need spires rising skywards to tantalise us with the idea of a heaven above. Nor does it need grim, humourless walls to threaten us with a hell below. It does not need high ceilings and imposing altars to cow us into submission. Unlike God and Country, the best stories do not so much tell us things as cajole our imagination into taking flight. Cinema does not seek to control us or to reduce us into the unthinking mob. It seeks to set us free. And it does so by by reminding us every now and then that every thought is there for the exploring, that there are no forbidden fruits in the infinite space of our craniums. 


Girona was on my itinerary only for the cinema museum. In part, it was atonement for not making time for Calanda, the birthplace of Luis Buñuel. Calanda is close enough to Valencia, where I did go, but it involves a bus ride to Teruel and then another from there to Calanda, all of which seemed a little too much work (and, more importantly, time) for a town that, in the opinion of Lonely Planet, had only one reason to be visited - the Buñuel museum. So, Girona it was, with its museum to cinema that is much praised as one of the finest in Europe.

Girona has the added advantage of being very close to Barcelona. So close, in fact, that some unscrupulous airlines refer to the airport there as the Barcelona airport. Most passengers simply whinge for a bit and then take the nearest taxi to the Catalan capital, but Girona deserves more than that. I enjoyed my stay there much more than I did Barcelona. If you were to offer me a house in any Spanish city, I would have a hard time picking between Granada and Girona.

The hotel I stayed in was about a kilometre or two from Girona's old town and its Jewish quarter, the Call. On this walk is a bridge across a river that could've been included in a brochure for a resort, but I saw no one in its waters nor by the trees on its banks. ("We have much better spots up in the mountains there, half an hour away; why would we want to play in this measly stream?") Another river (I think) winds on through the heart of the town, too, and has several bridges across it, one built by Gustave Eiffel.

Girona's old town gave me the most enjoyable evening walks in all my trip. It has far fewer people than all the other more famous tourist cities and every bit as much atmosphere. Beautiful, centuries-old stone houses, impossibly narrow streets, and a laid-back air of mystery that invites you to get lost among the bends and the cobblestones. And while not overcrowded with shops, you are never more than a turn away from a tastefully decorated bakery - a comforting reminder to the more material tourists like me that civilisation (meaning, a good coffee) is never very far away. There were also the Catalan independentist flags everywhere - much more than in Barcelona - and a recurring theme through my week in Catalonia.

What I wouldn't give to own a house there! There was this particular building that much took the fancy of Francesc and me. We wandered about inside its inner courtyard, admired the furniture and the windows, inspected a well and generally walked about as though we owned the place. An Italian couple did much the same, except that they put altogether the wrong construction on the sofas placed in the adjoining patio. They asked for the menu. Only to be told, very politely, that it was a private residence.


Neha said...

dreamy! but why nail in the religion bit in an otherwise quasi-travel, quasi-cinematic piece?

Rohan said...

A fair point. I think I was just tired of seeing churches everywhere. After a childhood of early Sunday mornings spent in being dragged out of bed and into churches, my reaction to one now is not too dissimilar to young Damien's towards the end of The Omen.