Sunday, June 19, 2016

Evolving Taste in Cinema

I've been plotting a post for my other blog, but every time I try to compose it, I get bogged down in a kind of preface, talking about going to the movies when I was younger. I decided to take that discussion here, instead, so as not to distract too much from my intended point about live theater. And it has musical accompaniment, if you like:


Something more than twenty years ago, my girlfriend (now my wife) and I realized that both of us enjoy going to live theater much, much more than we like going to the movies. So we cut way back on going to the cinema (though we still would rent videos), to the point that we probably only go once or twice a year anymore, and that only for either a family outing (e.g., "Inside Out") or a blockbuster that needs a big screen (e.g., a "Star Trek" movie, a James Bond, or something of that ilk). We go to a lot of live theater, however.

But there was a time, back when we were in high school, where going to the movies was a critical part of any weekend. Indeed, during our high school and college years, it was pretty rare that a weekend didn't include at least one trip to a movie, and often more.

Some of that is just being a teenager. You want to get out with your friends on Friday or Saturday night, and you need to go someplace. The movie theater is a convenient place to go with a group, so it doesn't have to be a date or anything formal. You get out of the house, away from those pesky adults, and can be yourselves.

The Limiting Factor

The problem is, there just aren't that many good movies to go to. We were pretty lucky, living so close to Berkeley and Oakland, that there were lots of first-run theaters around, and a fair number of second-run theaters that would get the big films after they had gone out of favor and couldn't fill the big houses anymore. So if a movie was relatively recently released, it was playing somewhere nearby. But the truth is, we didn't want to see everything (and for a time, we weren't all old enough to see everything), and eventually movies get expensive. What to do?

The saving grace for us was the next tier of movie theaters: the repertory movie theaters. This, to me, was a true wonder. Before there were video stores (and indeed, before their were home video systems), we had our choice of several theaters that played non-current movies. Some of them were popular films from a few years back, but they'd also play classics.

The Big Cheese

The undisputed king of these repertory cinemas was the UC Theater on University Avenue in Berkeley. Although it had been in earlier years a big, first-run movie house, by the 70s it was a bit run down and unable to attract the big films. So the owner decided to show a different movie (and usually two or three) almost every night. And they were all over the map: art films, classics, popular films, name it. And they became known for clever pairings. Some were obvious, such as a movie and its sequel. Sometimes it was a movie and a parody of it, or some other derivative work (such as "Casablanca" and "Play It Again, Sam"). Often it was two works by the same director, or featuring the same actor. But nearly every night it was something different.

The impact of the UC Theater on the local scene was obvious: one feature of just about every home in the area was the UC's calendar, either on the wall or stuck to the refrigerator. It was colorful, showing each night's movies for a couple of months. On the back it had descriptions of all the movies. Heck, it was a movie education just reading the schedule. I know lots of things about movies I've never seen, just from reading those.

But here's the thing: It was cheap. I can't recall exactly how much, but it definitely cost less than the first-run theaters. And everyone was there. Kids, teens, college students,  and also adults: parents and professors. It was nostalgic for some, a chance to see something missed for others, and just a safe, reliable place to hang out for many. It was most definitely a community institution. I had friends for whom it was almost a second home.

My Other Favorite

Somewhat closer to my home when I was in high school, and definitely smaller, was the Rialto Theater, in a converted warehouse on Gilman Street in north Berkeley. They had two small theaters, one of which probably seated twenty, the other more like fifty. Like the UC, they showed lots of movies, often old classics, but they usually ran for several days. I have vivid memories of seeing lots of old films there for the first time, such as Alec Guinness in "Kind Hearts and Coronets" and my first tastes of the Marx Brothers. It was a much more intimate experience, and the screens were small, but the movies were great.

This was probably the closest thing at the time to watching home video or Netflix, though at least the films were projected instead of being on a TV screen.

The Others

There were at least two other little, relatively short-lived cinemas that did similar things: the Telegraph (on Telegraph Avenue, just below Dwight Way) and the Northside, which was on Durant Avenue, in the courtyard next to LaVal's pizza. I think the space is now a Mexican restaurant. I don't have many specific memories of those, but I definitely recall going there.

The Learning

What I realize, looking back, is that my taste evolved over time from seeing the big films in the big theaters to preferring older films in a more intimate environment, surrounded by people who were more interested in the film than in the flash and glitz. In those dumpy little theaters, we really got a taste of what movies can be, the range of experiences. And even before the rest of the world had their choice of movies at their fingertips, we had a lot of options and a lot of movies.

And ultimately, I think this is what informed my later preference for live theater, in venues large and small. There is nothing like going to a little performance space and experiencing real people doing real stuff, right in your face (or in your lap, sometimes!). And it turns out, there are lots and lots of choices available there, too.

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