On the afternoon of December 7, 1941, the matinee audience at the Coolidge Corner Theatre was settling into their seats as the newsreel began. Today, the pre-movie routine involves little more than wrapping up a text chat, but back in 1941 newsreels were a rare and moving look at the world of the day and were given full attention. That afternoon the newsreel cut short and the house lights went up. An usher climbed on stage, visibly nervous, and stammered out the news that the U.S. had just been attacked at Pearl Harbor.
“If anybody would like to leave” he told the crowd, “the theater will provide you with a full refund for your ticket.” To the usher’s amazement not a single member of the audience stood to return home. Instead, they chose to face the reality of an impending world war in one of the places where they felt the most comfortable and connected with their community: the movie theater.
Today, the silver screen is often reduced to a living room TV, or a softly glowing laptop. When we do go to the theater, it’s usually at a standard-issue multiplex dealing efficiently in superhero sequels and wildly over-priced soda. Gone, it seems, are the golden days of the great American movie-going experience: the dust trapped in projector beams over a hushed crowd; the crackle of the speakers and the imperfections the film-projected image. Seeing a movie was a true spectacle, for until it turned up on TV months—even years—down the line it could only be seen then and there, in magnificent big-screen technicolor.
The very notion that the theater itself was a place where people came together to see and hear the same thing, and let common emotions swirl in the air between them for a few hours, seems to have lost currency. But, while some say that the DVD, HBO on demand and Netflix streaming have all but killed this classic cinema experience, there are several movie theaters in Boston that think quite the opposite.
The Somerville, Brattle, and Coolidge Corner theaters, are three independent cinemas dedicated to not only preserving film culture, but enabling it to grow into something greater than before. “People have been predicting the death of movie theaters since the days of the talkies,” says Kathy Tallman, the executive director of the Coolidge Corner Theatre. “When you go too see a movie at Coolidge Corner you’ll see that they couldn’t be more wrong.” It’s Tallman who shares the Pearl Harbor story, and who understands the unbreakable bonds that can develop between cinema and community.
These theaters show everything: new and old, silent films, blockbusters, documentaries, cult classics, films you’ve never heard of. “We try to find the movies that fall between the cracks, but we’ll show literally anything,” says Ned Hinkle, the creative director at Brattle Theatre. It goes beyond simply showing old and obscure movies— there are often themed showings that may focus on a specific director or actor, or will delve into something broader like Brattle’s recent series screening the films that inspired the TV hit “Stranger Things.”
“I see it this way,” says Hinkle. “You can’t truly see a painting when you look at it in a book. You need to go to the museum and see the artist’s brush strokes, the texture of the paint on the canvas. It’s the same with movies.” By showing movies in their original format, and by thematically arranging and presenting them, these independent theaters are trying to show viewers the brush strokes of cinema.
Movies, first and foremost, are entertainment, but there is an undeniable communal power in cinema that goes way beyond amusing the masses. By throwing after-parties, inviting special guests and holding Q&As, these theaters—which all serve craft beer and wine, by the way—”try to do something more, to be a jumping-off point for discussion,” says Tallman.
These Boston institutions are using cinema to preserve and strengthen community bonds. The mission of the Coolidge Corner Theatre says it best: “To entertain, inform, and engage—building a vital community through film culture.”