Cinema is one of those things you can always enjoy. There’s the stale-in-the-mouth popcorn that you wish you’d never bought, the seat with three or four pieces of chewing gum glued to the underside – reluctantly discovered by an overcurious hand, the floors imbibed with sodas spilled through the decades that you can peel your feet from playfully during the down parts of every film. These things are universal and immutable.
In my time here, I’ve made three trips to the cinema. They were big, blockbuster type films: Spectre, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two and The Revenant. Nothing particularly special about any of them – just keeping myself in the Hollywood loop. And yet, in spite of those ubiquitous qualities cinemas have, Jordan still manages to retain some of its foibles.
Spectre was a good laugh, as a Bond film should be. In the build-up to its release, many of my Jordanian friends spoke to me about it with excitement, comparing their favourite Bonds and their respective films – much like you’d get in England. Upon seeing it, however, I had a feeling not all was as the director intended. It was not jarringly obvious – there were no black bars hovering across some object deemed immoral, no obnoxious beep over a profanity – but it was there. Usually our hero would be about to seduce some female affiliate of his quarry. Their heads would move closer together, their lips would be about to make contact… and then Bond would be doing up his tie again and fastening his top button, the woman sprawled across the bed in some post-Bond awe. He would have a new destination, his aims suddenly clearer – a plot point developed mid-coitus and subsequently axed leaving the Jordanian audiences to catch up. This is not all too uncommon in the Hashemite kingdom. Whilst the state is known for a degree of liberalism, every film must still receive approval from a censorship board headed by the Under-Secretary of State, including a member of the Ministry of Interior and the police.
Their heads would move closer together, their lips would be about to make contact… and then Bond would be doing up his tie again and fastening his top button. . . .
My second trip was less likely to incur censorship. The finale to the Hunger Games saga is known for conquests of a different nature. Beyond the odd quick and heated haggle for a chest of drawers over the phone by some apathetic Arab man, the film went without hitch until the final few minutes. Here, Katniss returns to her home and must confront every emotion she has bottled up throughout the hardships of the civil war. It is, I suppose, the ultimate cathartic climax of the series. Lawrence throws everything into the scene – spit and mucus dribbling, hands wringing, hair all screwed-up and torn out. In response to what was surely the intended to be the most heart-breaking of scenes, wherein a girl has lost everything to a fight not strictly her own, our Jordanian audience could only react in one way: they roared with laughter. A knee-pounding, teeth-bared and heads-thrown-back sort of laughter. And I couldn’t help but join them. Through the Arab eye, for some strange reason, the scene became lost in cultural translation and could only be viewed with a strange sense of hilarious bafflement. Jordan is full of immigrants from Palestine, Iraq and Syria. They are familiar with loss. It may be Hollywood over-egged it for them. The spit on Lawrence’s cheek was worth more attention for them than some hackneyed jab at war.
Finally there was The Revenant. This was a film everyone could get behind. A series of unfortunate events befall a man who manages to struggle through it all. And Leonardo DiCaprio’s wild, pain-ridden eyes made sure no laughter could be eked from Jordanian throats. Like Mockingjay, the experience went fairly uninterrupted until, once again, the climax of the film. The characters come together for one final, grisly, combat. All hangs in the balance for DiCaprio, his hatchet in hand. Suddenly, the film switches off, and the audience is left to sit in the dark. A look to the left, down the row, a look to the right, down the row. Everyone is fairly nonplussed. After about five minutes, a harassed looking usher tells us he will find out what the problem is. A half hour later, we are allowed to listen to the end of the film – the screen is still dead. We shuffle out afterwards, a little let-down.
Suddenly, the film switches off, and the audience is left to sit in the dark.
I would like to say my most recent experience was one of frustration only. I don’t like to admit to what could be simply paranoia borne from leftover Orientalist sensibilities, but I will admit that in those five minutes where we sat quietly in the dark, a quick flick-book of recent terrorist attacks did run through my mind. Images of gunmen running through shopping malls and universities and hotels firing indiscriminately floated to the fore. A shootout at an Oscar-nominated Hollywood film, in a cinema based in the most western styled shopping mall in Amman did not sound all too unlikely. I might explain we all of us receive regular updates from the American Embassy, forwarded to us by our institute, of the various concrete threats that have been quashed in Amman, pleading vigilance and reminding us of the heightened security concerns. I have no belief that here, in Amman, we are any more vulnerable than in any city in Europe from any kind of orchestrated attack. Yet even in the most commonplace of events (it turned out to be a blackout), the mind jumps to the worst of conclusions. I guess it just makes you think.