Where we go when we go to the movies

When an arthouse dies, an access point to culture dies.

Roles from arthouse, independent, and foreign pictures

Everyone is entitled to at least one place of refuge in this world. I chose arthouses.

I occupy those dark and often half-empty spaces, specifically in the back row, more than once a week — and lying to my parents about my whereabouts out of the fear of their slippery slope logic became the norm.

This year, on one day in May, I lied again. I drove to The Landmark Pico theater in Los Angeles for a screening of “Petite Maman,” “Vortex,” and “The Northman” — a triple feature from hell. I never bothered to question their discounted tickets that evening. As someone who worked a minimum wage retail job at the time, discounted tickets were the least of my problems.

The Pico closed its doors a week later after failing to reach the required terms to extend its lease.

It went quietly that week, according to L.A. Times reporter Greg Braxton. The only hints of the theater indefinitely shutting its doors, Braxton noted, were the cleanup crew thanking patrons as they exited and a lonely tip jar dismally labeled “we really appreciate it.”

I felt what I can only describe as hearing news of a sudden loss: “That’s impossible, I was just there. I just spoke to them.”

Bewildered was an understatement given that Landmark Theatres screens everything under the sun, whether or not we consider those movies to be “high art.”

This is nothing new. Instead, there’s always something new to carry the burden of blame.

Earlier this year, Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf told Variety that arthouse cinema is dying because of video streaming. He posed the question, “You can eat your food in your room, but why do you go to a restaurant to eat with others? You can see the film in your mobile phone alone, but you go to the cinema to see film with others.”

Once, in a drunken haze, I snuck into Little Tokyo’s Downtown Independent in 2017 to watch a documentary in a room that was clearly violating occupancy laws. That one-screen joint was also forced to close in 2020 in the wake of a mishandled pandemic.

In 1996, L.A. Times reporter Katie Folmar said that the two-screen Westlake Village Theater closed because “it would be unable to compete with the new Mann’s eight-screen theater that opened this week a few blocks away.”

Decades before I was born, in the 1950s, theaters across the country were forced to close with the advent of television.

We can still fall back on the Mezzanine and American Cinematheque affiliates, and wealthy revivalists like Quentin Tarantino — a few people and places championing honest expression with fewer monetary conditions and dedicating their time to a losing game by serving their communities.

It’s the gradual erasure of these arthouses, bastions of culture, that challenges my faith in what we value as a society built upon challenging the status quo. If we don’t cherish institutions that preserve culture and the immersive and insulated communal experience, what will that mean for the most social species on Earth?

Highbrow connotations like “arthouse,” “independent,” or “foreign” make it easier for us to sideline these cinemas as niche enterprises, and forget that movies — full stop — inform the human condition.

In appraisal of French New Wave maverick Jean-Luc Godard, The New York Times film critic Manhola Dargis said that the commodification of movies by Hollywood made them easier for us. But Godard’s movies reminded us that “[w]e were the ones impoverished for not seeing that cinema can be more than laughter and tears, dollars and awards.”

This is how conversations about the cultures that surround us can continue in L.A.

I once had the privilege of interviewing Charles Burnett, an indie film legend and pioneer of the L.A. Rebellion — an independent filmmaking movement spearheaded by Black UCLA film students between the late 60s and late 80s. Naturally nervous as hell, I listened over the phone as he told me about the time a film festival in Hawaii screened his film “To Sleep With Anger.”

Afterwards, an audience member told Burnett that she didn’t know Black people had washing machines.

“It’s like, ‘Yeah, what’s wrong with her?’” Burnett said. “But before that, that’s all the images she’d gotten, these images produced by Hollywood.”

Following what was considered a quiet death in L.A., Landmark Theatres signed a lease agreement with a floundering Laemmle Playhouse 7 — tucked away in the picturesque suburbs of Pasadena — earlier this year.

The Playhouse, like The Pico, was generous in mirroring the pleasures of my own company when I needed it the most, coupled with an exhaustive list of emotions and revelations. In my heedless last moments of the latter, I crossed out just about everything.

And believe me when I say, I’m weary, too.