Thursday, February 16, 2012

Kinematic Constructs: the Sites of Cinema

A few weeks ago some friends and I were having dinner and a few pints at a popular downtown restaurant. We got talking about some films that were coming to town, in particular David Cronenberg’s new one. I suddenly remembered that the restaurant we were eating in used to be the Elgin Theatre, and twenty years ago, circa January or February 1992, I sat in the balcony – still intact as an upper tier of dining tables - and watched Naked Lunch.

Since that night I have been thinking about movies I have seen in theatres great and small, here in Ottawa and in other places I have lived and visited. I learned that many of those theatres no longer exist. Although the reasons for this are not hard to understand, some of us will lament the day when there are no longer places to go and watch a film, whether celluloid or digital. Perhaps it won’t be long before the idea of watching a movie anywhere else but on your smart phone will no longer be an option.

There is something about the experience of viewing a film in a space that is designed specifically for such a purpose, whether it is a palatial movie house or a strip mall multiplex. However nebulous that “something” may be (beyond the obvious audio/visual enhancements), and despite the convenience of streaming movies directly through a phalanx of personal interfaces, it’s a shame to see those spaces go.

Following my eye surgery a week ago, I have been restricted from exercising little else than my troublingly flabby memory, but I’ve tried to piece together some of the more memorable experiences – for better or worse - I’ve had going to the cinema: where it was, who I was with and other contingencies that combined to leave a retrievable trace. Some dates are approximations, while others were easier to pin down due to contextual circumstances.

To begin with, some prefatory remarks on the prehistory of my movie going. When you’re a little kid, it’s hard to exercise much agency in determining your cinematic itinerary (a dreary reality that repeats itself when your girlfriend or wife drags you to movies you really don’t want to see). I remember the time my Dad packed the whole family into the brown Mercury Marquis to go see Coal Miner’s Daughter, but the Ur-story dates back even earlier to the summer of 1977, when my father first decided that we all deserved to go see a movie. It was a double bill at The Garry Theatre in Alexandria, Ontario, a decrepit old movie house that opened in 1945 and closed in 1980. Like any 7-year-old kid, I wanted to see Star Wars. The opening feature was Moving Violation, a cheap Smokey and the Bandit/Dukes of Hazzard rip. But I took no small pleasure in the liberal sprinklings of f-bombs and nudity, all of it seemingly under the consensual umbrella of paternal wisdom. I remember a similar experience in the spring of 1982. At my request, my parents drove me into Ottawa to see Quest for Fire. I can remember seeing the words Le Droit on the side of a nearby building, so in trying to reconstruct the event, I felt it must have been at the old Rideau Theatre, but the Internet tells me it closed on January 20 1982. The film wasn’t released in Canada until March 1982, so it must have been the Nelson (renamed the Bytowne in 1988). Being a little older and more self-aware at that point, the Paleolithic sex scene between Everett McGill’s Noah and Rae Dawn Chong’s Ika was a little awkward. But I really pissed the old man off later that year. I convinced him to take me to the Brookdale Mall in Cornwall to see Conan the Barbarian. Maybe he thought I had misled him about the R rating – after we were turned away I had to sit through On Golden Pond.

Some other memorable experiences and venues other the years:

The Hollywood Theatre (W. Broadway, Vancouver) – a family owned independent theatre that was built during the Depression and only closed last May. The best second-run cinema in Vancouver during its day, I saw many films behind those double red doors. The Hollywood was a refuge for me during a dismal final year in Vancouver. Self-exiled to the southeast corner of town, I made regular pilgrimages to the more familiar environs of Point Grey and Kitsilano, where my good friend Whitey and I would take in the affordable double bills at the Hollywood. The Bourne Supremacy was a surprising highlight in 2004, as was Sexy Beast on one of those rare nights your girlfriend agrees to see a film you actually want to see.

The Ridge (16th/Arbutus, Vancouver) – opened in 1950, The Ridge is another favourite, and it would be difficult to single out one film. David Lynch’s Lost Highway in the summer of 1997 was memorable, but probably not the best choice for a first date. I finally caught Wings of Desire on its huge screen a few years later – a few months before that, I had agreed to go with my girlfriend to see the wretched American studio remake with N. Cage/Meg Ryan on the condition that I could show her the Wim Wenders original. As usual, I wasn’t encouraged. I also remember watching Underground (circa 1997?) with the Cravat, my guide to all things Balkan.

The Paramount (rue Ste. Catherine’s, Montreal) – in October 1999, after getting my paper over with, I ditched the banquet at an 18th-century studies conference to go out on the town by myself. After dinner at a fine trattoria, I came across the newly opened Paramount, a cinematic skyscraper with 6 floors and 13 screens. I had liked all of David Fincher’s previous movies, so I bought a ticket for Fight Club. Seeing that movie for the first time was quite an experience, and following the movie I enjoyed some of the best of Montreal by night. What a shame I missed that banquet, though.

Somerset (Bank/Somerset, Ottawa) – this grand old space was around from 1937 to 2000, when it was annexed by the big grocery store we all love to hate to make room for more parking. Its art deco interior provided the perfect environment for my first viewing of Barton Fink in the fall of 1991. It’s been my favourite movie ever since.

Pacific Cinematheque (Howe St, Vancouver) – opened in the late 90’s, it is the closest thing to a Lincoln Center that I’ve seen anywhere in Canada. Around June 2005, during an Ingmar Bergman retrospective, I saw Cries and Whispers with, appropriately enough, a blonde-haired Swedish girl whose name, very disturbingly, I can’t remember.

The Bytowne (Rideau St., Ottawa) – the Bytowne (formerly the Nelson) has already appeared in the prehistory noted above. In the spring of 1995, I finally got to see The Wild Bunch, long a VHS favourite, in its restored magnificence. Lauzzy was, as always, a good sport when he joined me for that one (most Peckinpah films provoke a bi-polar response – you love them or hate them). Another long time TV/VHS favourite was The Exorcist. Lauzzy and I ran that one through my old Panasonic toploader a few times. I saw it on the big screen for the first time in the fall of 2000 in a downtown Toronto theatre with Booby Brown. However, it’s a Bytowne doublebill on Halloween night in 2007 that really stands out in my mind. As I walked down to The Bytowne to meet the X-man for an Exorcist/The Shining double feature, I began to feel the initial symptoms of the Interruptum with an alarming intensity. And while the print of The Shining may have sucked, it was a pleasure to introduce the X-Man to a couple of horror classics.

5th Avenue (Burrard St./5th Av, Vancouver) - opened in 1996 as a purveyor of so-called art films, it sat (and presumably still does) across the street from a Mercedes Benz dealership. In the fall of 1999, I watched one of the finest films of the decade with the Cravat and Bobby Brown. Prior to The Limey, Paul Schrader’s adaptation of Russell Banks’ novel Affliction made a profound impact on me.

West Windsor, New Jersey – on a December night in 1999, somewhere in a deserted outlet mall off the Brunswick Pike, my girlfriend and I and maybe 3 other people watched Magnolia. Nobody in the theatre said a word or made a sound until the lights went up. All I could mumble was something about a masterpiece.

The Vogue (Granville St., Vancouver) – opened in 1941 and restored in 1998, the Vogue Theatre is the primary venue for the Vancouver International Film Festival. In 2004, I met up with the Cravat for a festival screening of Michael Haneke’s Le temps du loup. Not one of his best, but still the only film of his that I have seen on a big screen. The Vogue is without a doubt the most impressive cinema I’ve ever sat in.

Capitol Square 3 (Queen St., Ottawa) – two years before it shut down in 1999, Lauzzy and I saw Cop Land. We had differing opinions of the film, but smoothed those over at another establishment just a few doors down the street. Lauzzy has been a film companion for too many films to remember. Some of the salient ones, beyond those already noted, are the World Exchange Plaza triptych of Seven, Heat, and Fargo during the 1995/96 season. Another memorable Coen movie we saw together was O Brother, Where Art Thou? in the spring of 2001 at an Egyptian-themed mallplex somewhere on the beltway between Washington and Baltimore.

Granville 7 (Granville St., Vancouver) – I remember a couple of things about this place. You had to ride three different escalators to get up there, and the central screen was the largest I’ve ever seen. Memorable films include Boogie Nights and The Big Lebowski with Bobby Brown and either Bobbi Socks or Bobbi Pinz.

Finally, perhaps the most memorable experience I’ve ever had watching a film wasn’t in a cinema at all, but in a plane. As highly unlikely as this may be, given the usual pap that airlines are mandated to play, David Lynch’s The Straight Story completely overwhelmed me during a long flight from Vancouver to Newark via Chicago. You won’t find many titles in the David Lynch filmography that are produced by the Disney Co., but it resonated with me for so many reasons: Richard Farnsworth’s terminal cancer during filming; his suicide (by shotgun) less than a year later; John Deere, me, and my Dad; and a magisterial final scene between Farnsworth and Harry Dean Stanton. It doesn’t really stand up to repeated viewings, which is just as well, as the first one punched me square in the forehead.


  1. This is quite a list. I would say that your memory is working optimally. There's a couple mentioned here I have yet to view - we should take care of this.

  2. FEL, I am always enjoying readings about these trips down the lanes in your memories. I'm impressed that you somehow managed to convince me to see all those awful films in the theater, given that I hate going to the movies almost as much as I hate going to a play or to live music performances. Just a few more movie memorials: 1) It was the Cinemark Egyptian 24 in Hanover MD (near the T.J. Max where the jackets were all too dear for my interview); 2) I owe you a deere toque; and 3) dear Jackie Brown downtown in Vancouver after (or was it before) a memorable but not very tasty felafel sandwich - oh, if only it had come doused in country gravy or at least with a side of it. I hope to see you soon on this side,