From the Wire: Bad Theaters, Good Memories

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by Matt Singer
June 28, 2012 2:26 PM
2 Comments
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"Taxi Driver."
I have a hard time envisioning a situation where I would ever be nostalgic for The Worst Movie Theater Ever. If -- or more likely when -- my garbage dump of a neighborhood multiplex closes I expect I will feel a mixture of emotions. Relief, certainly. Curiosity, perhaps, for who might next occupy that prime piece of real estate. But sadness? No effing way.

Yet here is an essay by Ben Sachs in the Chicago Reader, one that mourns the loss of a theater, The Pipers Alley, he freely (and almost proudly) declares was the worst in Chicago. Sachs gives a few rational reasons why a cinephile might miss a theater like Pipers Alley -- becoming such a hopelessly lost cause in its final years gave it license to experiment with its programming in ways that a reputable theater couldn't  -- and also a few that are "harder to quantify":

"Jonathan Rosenbaum liked to assert in his writings for the Reader that movies were part of life; unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer theaters that encourage this way of thinking. Multiplexes that offer deluxe experiences with 3-D projection and surround sound and repertory houses that treat each old movie as an art exhibit to be savored feel like two sides of the same coin. In each case, the moviegoing experience is a self-contained affair, giving the viewer everything he could want in a single viewing before sending him home."

Screenings at Pipers Alley, Sachs says, were a celebration of movies at their most quotidian. A nice way of looking at a theater with busted seats and bad projection, although the thought of someone using this same argument to defend talking and texting during movies sends a chill up my spine. Personally, I prefer to think of a trip to the theater as an escape from the everyday.

To some degree, though, I understand Sachs' feelings of loss perfectly. His piece reminds me of something I wrote for IFC last year called "The Dead-Rat Covered Truth About Movie Nostalgia." Random web surfing had brought me to Cinema Treasures, a site devoted to the quixotic task of cataloguing the entire history of the American movie theater. Almost every theater that's ever existed has a page, complete with a comments section where readers can contribute their own recollections. Browsing through Cinema Treasures I was struck by the gulf between my rose-colored memories of my favorite childhood movie theaters and the clear-eyed anecdotes provided by their former employees. In my mind, East Brunswick's Movie City 5 still looks like a glorious film palace. To the commenters at Cinema Treasures, it was a crumbling mess with a rat problem.

Human beings have an incredible capacity for irrational nostalgia. My wife and I occasionally talk about our wistful memories of our first apartment together, despite the fact that the place was, in every conceivable way, a dump. The ad I'd found on Craigslist called it a one bedroom; a two closet might have been more accurate. The ceiling caved in repeatedly, mice were a constant issue, and the super was certifiably insane (did you know he cured cancer? Because he did. You didn't hear about it? Well that's because of the United Nations conspiracy). None of that mattered; it was the first place we shared, and we got engaged there, and we'll always look back on it fondly. It was a dump, but it was our dump.

Which is to say that nostalgia is less about the what than the how -- the location is meaningless but for the memories that we have there. I remember Movie City 5 because the movies they screened left an indelible impression on me that no amount of dead rats could wash away. I might not miss The Worst Theater Ever when it's gone, but I'm an old, cynical man now. If I'd grown up in Brooklyn, I might have a very different opinion.

Read more "I Miss Chicago's Worst Theater."

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2 Comments

  • Mike McGranaghan | June 28, 2012 8:18 PMReply

    Great piece! It really struck a chord with me. Last year, I wrote an ode to my favorite crummy theater that is no more - the Southgate Theater (formerly in Chambersburg, PA). I saw my very first movie there as a child in the '70s, when it was a vintage single-screener. By the '80s, they built a wall down the middle, turning it into a two-plex. The result was long, skinny theaters with tiny screens way up front. You needed binoculars if you sat in the rear. By the early '90s, they'd added an addition to the side, now making it a four-plex. The area of town it was in went downhill, and had a higher incidence of crime. Since all the popular movies played at the newer, fancier, safer mall cinemas, the Southgate either got total junk ("Dr. Giggles" was a typical flick) or cool stuff that was really outside the mainstream (I saw Alan Rudolph's "Mortal Thoughts" there). The crowd could be rough, too; I was once accosted by a teen gang after a showing of "Menace II Society." Even though it was beset with projection and sound problems, the Southgate always had character to me. The place was crappy, but I sometimes get nostalgic for the "you never know what's going to happen" vibe it had. I think we remember such crappy theaters through rose-colored glasses because they gave us honest-to-goodness experiences - ones that, as movie fans, we love regaling others with. Incidentally, a CVS pharmacy now stands on the site of the Southgate.

  • Jordan Hoffman | June 28, 2012 3:13 PMReply

    OHMYGOD MOVIE CITY 5!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Remember the rainbow strip queues that lined the entire parking lot. Seriously, that was the coolest thing ever. I haven't thought about that in years.

    Now, you wanna know about the Loews Freehold 6? Where I worked though Junior & Senior year of HS (and a little bit of college.) Cause I've got some stories. The things that went on in that projection room. .. .

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