A few weeks ago, on a junket through Vancouver, I was revisiting a bunch of memory lanes, courtesy of the BC Transit bus system, and happened to pass by the old Hollywood Theatre on West Broadway, on my way out to my old alma mater, UBC.
As the well-remembered marquee passed by me, I noticed there were no movie titles on it, just a message saying goodbye and thanks; the cinema was closing its doors after 75 years of continuous operation under the same family ownership.
I had other things on my mind, at that moment, but I still had time to feel a small pang of nostalgia, and even, oddly, a little pin-prick of guilt, as that marquee flashed by.
The nostalgic reaction was easily explicable: as a much younger man, 20 years ago and more, I passed any number of rainy weekend evenings in the Hollywood, which specialized in second-run movies, two for the price of one admission, if you were willing to stick around for the second one.
Even in the mid-‘70s, it was a slightly funky and run-down, but homey and clean little cinema, with good popcorn and hot dogs; the seats were uncomfortable, especially come the second sitting, but the screen was of respectable size, and the sound system perfectly good – though not at all high tech, even for the time.
It was at the Hollywood Theatre, probably in the winter of 1972, as a callow, hippy-dippy freshman, that I saw my first certifiable “art film”- Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (The Mole), a semi-psychedelic Spanish-language Western about a bad-ass gunslinger who morphs into a kind of Jesus figure to a bunch of subterranean mutants and dwarfs. He ends up getting all his followers killed as they leave the cave, so he kills all the people who killed his people, and then sets himself on fire. At the same moment of his self-immolation, his son gets born, and rides away with his mother, all dressed up in a scaled-down version of his dad’s black gunslinger outfit.
Pretty heady stuff, for a still-teenage Yukon yokel, and nothing I would have been able to see at any of the more mainstream, franchised movie houses downtown.
I have now reached the age where nostalgic shocks become commonplace, as places of major or minor importance in your life go the way of mortality before you do; the one I felt in the BC Hydro bus that day was just another instance of a familiar sensation.
It was guilt reaction that gave me food for thought as I rode on to the university, and why that moment stuck in my mind enough to warrant it becoming the subject of a column here.
Not having been resident in Vancouver for any significant amount of time for more than 20 years, now, I of course have nothing to do with the failing fortunes of the Fairleigh family, who have owned and operated their business since 1935.
Business realities are hard realities, and all businesses – and even most industries – will sooner or later lose their market and their reason for existence.
The English-speaking world is full of people called Cooper and Cartwright and Shoemaker, but there are not a whole lot of barrel- cart- or shoe-making shops around, anymore.
The neighbourhood cinema operator is going through the same process of evolutionary de-selection; and that is at once an inevitable thing, a good thing, and a sad thing – and a thing for which I, like most of us, am at least indirectly responsible.
As someone who has never been much of a fan of the predictable Hollywood blockbuster, I in the past was very much dependant on niche-market establishments like the Hollywood Theatre (and the now-demolished Varsity cinema, near UBC) my cinematic fare.
With the advent of the VHS and DVD home movie systems, though – and even more with the advent of internet video streaming – I, like most people, have been finding and watching most of that kind of content at home.
That process has been in action since the advent of the first home videotape players, and is now reaching what appears to be its technological apogee with high-quality home video and sound systems.
This new home video technology is a fairly minor threat to the big cinema chains, who can still rake in mega-dollars on even quite lousy big-budget or big-name film offerings, often profiteering in the first few weeks of a release that the public quickly discovers is a despicable dud.
But the small cinema dedicated to foreign, small-market, or second-run films has no such cash cow. It counts on the proven quality of its fare and the loyalty of its clientele – both of which are now depleting resources, as small-budge and foreign films find it more and more difficult to get into commercial distribution, and as the audience for those films starts looking on the internet for that kind of content, where it is easier and cheaper to find.
So I, though I was not around town to be part of the Hollywood Theatre’s specific market problem, my personal movie viewing tastes and habits are part of the changed environment that is slowly extincting their species of cultural enterprise.
Hence my twinge of guilt, though was only a twinge.
It is not the end of the world if we eventually lose all these small, local theatres, and certainly not the end of art films or alternative culture; it is just the end of a cinematic environment that, though perishable, was a sweet place to live in, when it was around.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.