Friday, May 8, 2009

Save The Senator, Save Ourselves

In Baltimore, a mini-drama has been playing out for several years over the fate of the city's last single screen movie house, The Senator Theater. Built in 1939, it is a designated historic landmark, managed by the same family since. With costs rising, stepped-up competition for first-run features and attendance splattered throughout the suburban multi-plexes, current owner Tom Kiefaber has struggled to pay the bills to keep operating the 900-seat theater.


There's a lot written about The Senator Theater at its website, so I won't repeat it. It's enough to note that with its incredible sound, a ginormous screen and really comfortable non-stadium seating, it is the venue to fully appreciate films like Lawrence of Arabia or Star Wars or the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series. Independence Day looked amazing at The Senator. And I celebrated my 45th birthday watching Titanic in the theater's upstairs party suite and balcony.  


Movie lovers, and community activists as well, are fighting to preserve The Senator for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it has been a wonderful citizen of its Govans community. And It has been the  showcase for dozens and dozens of Baltimore premieres, at which filmmakers and their films have been celebrated and often memorialized in cement on the theater's sidewalk.


But for me, the best reason to save The Senator is because it provides the last opportunity for a whole generation, and those that follow them, to see movies in a place designed to bring out the best in both the films and the film-goers. As picture palaces go, The Senator is no Roxy, nor was it every the most glamorous of Baltimore's movie houses. It is, though, one of USA Today's Top 10 theaters at which to see a film, which probably says as much about how these magnificent theaters are biting the dust as it does about The Senator itself.


For someone who remembers dressing up to go downtown to see a road show screening at which an usher showed you to a ticketed seat, I worry that for the younger generation, access to film--rather than the joyful experience of going to the  movies--is what is most important. Images on demand, cell phones, computer, TV, multiplex screens … it’s all the same. In each case, picture and sound are compromised—there’s no joy watching the courtroom scene in The Reader while listening to the bombast of Transformers seeping into your little band-box of a theater from the little band-box of a theater right next to you. Cinema anywhere—and any way—really reduces the art to it’s most fundamental elements: plot and performance. That’s OK, but what get's lost or minimized is an awareness and appreciation of the aesthetics: color, shape, tone, framing, sound, etc. I cannot imagine watching Antonioni's Blow Up on an iPhone (no matter how technologically cool it is). You miss the subtle and haunting sound of the wind blowing through the park trees as Thomas (David Hemmings) struggles to understand what is real and what is a reproduction. Or if you can get a reasonable sense of it, it's not going to be as visceral or as aesthetically pleasing as watching it on a huge screen, with booming sound.


Movies are magic. They are our dreams and fears and escape and vessel to other worlds. They are not TV (even HBO). They are not YouTube. Look, the world moves on, and nothing lasts forever. But the loss of The Senator is more than just the loss of a landmark, a remnant of another time that could not navigate the vagaries of the 21st Century marketplace. It is the loss of a graceful and elegant way to greet our dreams, relive our memories and actually enjoy the experience of going out to see a movie.


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