This is going to be a long one – in fact, it turns out, has required splitting into two parts – so bear with me (or not, if you get bored).
Usual disclaimers: I am not a journalist and recorded nothing except a blurry photo, so this is all memory, bad research and my opinion. ‘Quotes’ are not verbatim. If I get something wrong (not my opinion, mind, but an actual fact/quote) then please tell me.
Regular readers will have heard me mention the Prince Charles Cinema before (here, for example). I have a lot of love for the place and the films it shows and the friendliness and welcoming attitude of the people who work there. Handily, I also have a membership card. I’m not sure I’ve ever really explained what kind of cinema it is though. The PCC is – and bear in mind that this is my description, not theirs – a part-repertory, part-second run and sometimes-first run (it was the only place I found showing Waltz with Bashir when it came out. Also Beasts of the Southern Wild – which I was hankering for after months of reading on the internet. The PCC showed it pre-Oscar nomination. The chain cinemas jumped on the bandwagon for that film months late) small two-screen cinema in the West End. When I first came to London, the people I was moving in with listed it in the first few things they told me I should check out (they also mentioned the Roxy in Borough, the Peckham Plex and a few other places, but truly, The PCC is my most-beloved indie cinema). And I did, a couple of times, shyly and on my own, and never felt unwelcome. I’ve been going there more and more as years pass and gathering friends to go with. I associate different parts of the building with different films and events. Like I sort of assume, at this point, that any film I see in the upstairs screen is going to make me cry, having come out of there utterly destroyed by the aforementioned Waltz with Bashir and Southern Wilds. It’s also where I caught the Sofia Coppola doublebill. Downstairs by the bar tends to be the fun stuff for me – the action/comedy double bills, time with friends, events with directors. Right before the screening I’m going to talk about below – and this is very relevant – I saw that the PCC is hosting another of their pyjama parties in July, on a weekend when my baby sister is visiting, and that they had picked all the films from my youth that I love and have strong memories for. I was and am so, so excited (as is my sister). Tickets have been bought and friends talked into coming. I had the same excitement when I discovered the Edward Scissorhands/Batman double-bill a few months back. This cinema taps into a rich vein of nostalgia and geekiness for me and many other people, and we all get to be young geeks together. That’s what a rep cinema does. It’s a magical place, and I don’t say that lightly.
So a month or so ago, when I saw they were planning to screen a film called The Rep – a documentary about a year in the life of running a repertory cinema – I leapt on it and (assuming it would sell out) booked tickets for me and Coffee Monster. I did this because I had no idea how the magic at these cinemas is created; I don’t know who puts things together or how or the amount of work involved – I only ever enjoy the end result. I thought this would be a nice little film about behind the scenes in a rep cinema. Sort of like High Fidelity was to record stores (which the fellas I knew who worked at the late-lamented Cob Records in Bangor assured me was actually fairly accurate).
As it is I came out of that tail-end of that movie utterly fucking heartbroken. And inspired, amused, angry, impressed. But mostly heartbroken. Because, although I’m not as hard core as some folks, I love film, I love old films, I love cinema and the community at the small cinemas, and this was a film about the death of them.
Now I’m unsure how much detail to give about the film itself because spoilers and whatnot. But it’s not on wide release. Director Morgan White took NO box office for the showing at the PCC – he just wanted it seen. Oddly, other small cinemas have refused to show it (more on that later, in Part 2 of this subject once I’ve finished it). During the panel talk after the film, Paul – the programmer for the PCC – actually said they were happily surprised at the number of people who showed up for it, especially given the hot weather and it being early evening on a Tuesday. Maybe it will make it on to Netflix in the future which, given the subject matter, would be a kick in the teeth, really.
So, The Rep. Not a funny film with a few tragic moments about running a repertory theatre in Toronto, but a fairly tragic film with a few funny moments about trying to open and keep running a repertory theatre in Toronto. Three friends who met through film one way or another decide, having no jobs but plenty of inspiration, to reopen an old cinema in the basement of a condo in Toronto – The Toronto Underground Cinema.
They have never started or run a business before. Hell, one of them has never even had a job before. They enter into the project with much gusto but very little know how. There’s highs and lows, but mostly lows. You watch the clashes between the three partners – and then are impressed at how well their friendship survives them; see the cinema owner being quietly supportive about, well, everything; meet the audience member who became a roommate, his life having been saved by having a little cinema to go to where he felt at home. When a screening goes well and sells out after much stress (Adam West!) you cheer for them; when they hit rock bottom with debts and having to play a DVD that skips instead of a reel, the audience is plunged into despair right there with them. Back to happy again as they survive until their first-year anniversary and things seem to be on the up. And then, at the end, the kicker. After shot after shot of closed indie cinemas… The Toronto Underground Cinema is also, now, closed.
The cultural background to all of this is given using interviews with other rep and indie cinema programmers and owners. As the film goes on the audience realise that, with the advent of Netflix and co, that this is a species of entertainment that is very much under threat (as well as starting to understand the pressure and love that goes into running a place like this). Showing old films doesn’t cut it anymore, and people need a hook to come out and watch. Cinemas all over the States and Canada are being closed and knocked down – particularly memorable and poignant are is the interview with Sam Sharkey, on the closing night of the Red Vic in San Francisco, a cinema that had been running as a collective for 31 years. Old films are being lost to group audiences forever. As one interviewee says – and I can’t remember everyone’s names, sorry – this is the filmic equivalent of museums being closed down, only the art, which is the shared viewing experience of the old films isn’t being moved or protected. It just vanishes.
The panel discussion after the film went into more detail about the rights and finding the films and so forth – with the exception of money troubles, the film itself sort of skimmed over that side of things, except to show us the warehouse full of 35mm reels owned by one projectionist (“I stopped buying DVDs after I started collecting these.”) – but the message is clear. Independent cinemas, not just reps, are being pushed out.
This is a film that needs to be seen, really. I know that the number of people who love to watch old movies in cinemas is probably lower than I’d like, but it was an eye-opener as to what’s being lost if we, as an audience don’t fight for it. Unfortunately, because small cinemas are closing down all over the place, the people that need to see it probably never will.
Part two – The panel discussion will be available soon