Viggo Mortensen on watching widescreen epics in 1960s Buenos Aires

For our My Dream Palaces campaign, Viggo Mortensen fondly recalls childhood trips to luxurious Argentinian cinemas and champions the importance of movie-going through the long winter of the pandemic.

Calle Lavalle, Buenos Aires, 1945Manuel Gómez

▶︎ Viggo Mortensen’s Falling is scheduled for UK release on 4 December 2020. 

The movie houses that my mother would have taken me to in Buenos Aires in the early 1960s were big and old-fashioned. Nineteen-thirties-style, red-carpeted, ornate, with really big screens. When you saw a movie there, you were seeing it at its best.

The street where most of the big movie theatres in the centre of town were was Lavalle. There were many cinemas on that strip – some 15 or 20, I think; it was a glorious lane for movie lovers. The Ambassador was a big, beautiful cinema we would have gone to. The Cine Monumental as well, right in the centre of the city, with a capacity of nearly 2,000 at the time. Also, not far from the big, emblematic Obelisc on Avenida 9 de Julio was the Cine Metro, the most luxurious movie house in Buenos Aires. It had a capacity of 2,500 spectators and a tremendously wide screen.

My mother was fascinated with Omar Sharif when we saw Lawrence of Arabia in the Cine Metro in 1963. She was smitten by Sharif, and would further develop her interest in him when we saw Doctor Zhivago, but I was primarily fascinated by his camel, and wondered how one rode such a creature. I was already comfortable riding horses at the time, but the camel looked like a big challenge to me at the age of four.

Cine Metro, Buenos Aires, 1956

What springs to mind is my mother’s attitude toward movies as a spectator. Right from the start, what she talked about was story. That has a lot to do with how I’ve always looked at movies. She always spoke to me about what was going on, what was shown and what was not shown, what was said and what was not said. In Lawrence of Arabia there was an intermission: we’d go out in the lobby and get something to drink and we’d have a conversation about the story.

I don’t like being told what to think or what to feel by the camera, the actors, the screenwriters or the composer. If I’m interested enough in what you’re doing as a filmmaker then don’t worry, I will participate and I will make the story my own. I will take part in your storytelling and I will fill in what’s not there and take pleasure in doing so. I got that from my mother.

Fifteen years after seeing Lawrence of Arabia I remember taking my mother and saying “let’s go to the movies” – usually it started with her saying that – and we went to see The Deer Hunter, and it was the same kind of conversation. I wasn’t yet an actor so I didn’t know the technical aspects but I knew what I liked in terms of story, and we had great conversations, like “What the hell was Christopher Walken’s character up to in Saigon? What was his daily life like and did he have friends there?” These were things that we talked about. It would almost be like a screenwriters meeting, talking about story, reflecting on it. It would almost be like a Q&A with a cinephile audience. The conversations I had with my mother were always like that.

I’ve been to the cinema repeatedly since the start of the pandemic [in Madrid]. With a mask on, observing social distancing guidelines, I’ve seen most of the movies available. I’ve felt as I do in my own home. Safer, in fact, than walking down the street, and much safer than in any other public place. I love going to the movies and will keep doing so.

I think it will be a long winter everywhere, and that going to the movies is going to be one of the only safe and positive physical and mental ways to escape a pandemic-related stay-at-home existence for many people. Independent stories like Falling [Mortensen’s debut film as director] are getting a chance to be seen by live audiences and stay in movie theatres longer than usual. As difficult as the overall situation is for movie storytellers, one has to look on the bright side and be grateful for the renewed attention being given to original, independent movie stories.

Viggo Mortensen was talking to Thomas Flew.