Sunday, February 15, 2009


I miss the film repertory houses that I spent so much time in during my formative movie-going years. It was my film school, and the curriculum was created very much haphazardly. I was pretty much on my own to see what I chose.

It's not just the films, which for the most part are now available through Netflix or online (although a healthy percent are still MIA). That is part of it - getting them at the exact (or near) moment you find out about them isn't the same as going to a repertory theatre, where what they program may be something you know about or have an idea of what to expect, but can't entirely be sure of. You had a change to find out once a year, if you were lucky.

You were at the mercy of the programmers and the program, and if it was on that calendar (issued 9 times a year - or less) there was probably a reason. It was up to you to make the trip if you dared.

The setting was just as important. They were usually dingy single-screens on their last legs, made obsolete by television in the '60s, and now playing old artistic or foreign fare for the college 2 miles down whose cinema department still supported the theatre. The first runs were all in malls now (3 theatres, under one roof!). These old prints sitting in the exchanges were more than happy to rotate out the films that television generally weren't interested in; the foreign, the racy, the difficult or the academic. Repertory would get them at reduced or flat rental rates, an early example of an attempt to generate income down the long tail.

They'd show Fellini double bills, and early Altman. Woody Allen and science fiction. Bergman one night, Ed Wood the next. Most of the films you'd never heard of, and you'd only plan on seeing a couple. But after reading about "Deep End" or "Solaris," you started to wonder. What are those films like? Was I missing something? When "King of Hearts" kept showing up once every 3 months, it was a powerful motivator. You couldn't look it up on IMDB back then. Film magazines were so much more important then. To study, keep, and pour over. I would fall in love with stills, right out of "Day For Night." My love affair with Nathalie Baye started with a still.

The calendars were the primers on what had been culturally important in previous decades. Quotes from dinosaurs named Crowther and Gilliatt, Reed or Williamson. Everyone has stories of the brilliant double bills and magical discoveries they made on accident at the local movie house. I saw "Nashville" years late and was underwhelmed, while "Rancho Deluxe," the second feature I knew nothing about, changed my life. (I still think the link had to do with Rip Torn, who's in neither film. I'm sticking with that story. And what book are you going to read that in?)

There was a seemingly endless catalog of unknown and vaguely familiar gems. There must be some arcane and invisible art to creating such a wide selection for such a limited audience. The programmers for these theatres would create clever or playful double bills, using the familiar matched with the unknown or transgressive to generate conflict, curiosity and a sense of elitist purpose and rebellion. The right program, or the unexpected choice, would create an urgency to see (and try to deduce why it was there). (I grew up in Southern California, so the nascent Landmark theatre chain was an important part of this, but there was also the Academy, the Capri, and the Fine Arts. All demolished now.).

A rep house was where I finally saw Stacy Keach in "The Travelling Executioner," a t.v. movie that still isn't available anywhere. John Byrum's "Inserts" was worth it alone for seeing Jessica Harper in one of her few post "Phantom of the Paradise" appearances (and I wouldn't recommend it except to Harper, Byrum, or Dreyfuss completists - and you know who you are). It was doubled with "The Day of the Locust," which is enough to cure anyone of wanting to be in show business.

I learned about Truffaut's oeuvre from the calendars as well, although ironically I never went to see any of them. I went to "Slaughterhouse-Five" for Valerie Perrine and left a fan of Vonnegut. An evocative image from Makavejev's "WR- The Mysteries of the Organism" stayed in my mind for 20 years before I finally caught up with that one. OMG. That was worth the wait.

But people's habits were hard to predict. They'd show up for "In A Lonely Place" but leave 5 minutes into "Casablanca". They'd sit through "200 Motels" but leave from "Casino Royale" (the first one, but why?). The age of TNT, Bravo, and TMC was upon us, where most of it was ending up, until DVD exploded and completely sated the appetite for old classics and new, rendering the repertory theatres obsolete. The last gasp of money seemed to be made on the Asian martial arts films, coming into vogue in the early '90s and still not quite widely available through mainstream channels.

Things like Schroeder's "The Valley," Perry's "Diary of a Mad Housewife," and Haines' "Steppenwolf," all from in the heady age of the '70s were revived, if only for a night, in the '80s; now they've all come to DVD in the 21st century. The bigger hits with the bigger stars always seem to be available, but when I happen to notice that one of these more obscure films have been released, I realize - I've actually heard of it. I remember them because they were at the rep houses, listed with a small inch-by-inch image and a 100-word write-up.

Those repertory house may not have generated much income for the films that showed (less than 100 people a night, at only $6.00 apiece paying back maybe 60%?), but they helped save the films from oblivion. By being in circulation and on that calender, they remained in the canon. I was directed, unintentionally, to so many more films I could never discover on Netflix, never even consider if I saw in a video store, and would probably not drive the half-mile to see down at the 8-plex.

I often think the infinite availability of stuff on the Internet isn't doing us any favors.

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