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Tonight was an interesting experience. It involved seeing an old film (something I don’t do often enough) from 1937 at an aged independent theatre in Vancouver. This theatre, “The Hollywood” is potentially undergoing drastic renovations, the sort that involve removing the movie screen and replacing it with tread-mills and expensive gym memberships. As part of an action to save the theatre, the powers that remain are featuring three old Hollywood movies in a series called “A Hollywood Goodbye” along with encouraging ticket-buyers as they go into the theatre to sign a petition saving the space. “Save the Hollywood” is the name of the movement that hopes to have the City of Vancouver name not just the outside of the theatre but also the very important inside, a heritage site.
The film I saw tonight was Frank Capra’s adaptation of “You Can’t Take it With You” from the original Pultizer-winning play. It starred a pantheon of 1930s Hollywood stars: James Stewart, Jean Arthur and Lionel Barrymore (great play/film about his brother John called “Barrymore”) had hilarious, highly moral, emotionally penetrating and (most importantly) extremely relateable roles. The story is that of bank mogul Anthony Kirby who tries to buy up 12 blocks of land for a new munitions factory in New York. Kirby has bought all the land he needs save one property belonging to the eccentric and hippy-like Martin Vanderhof and his family. Vanderhof won’t sell because he simply doesn’t want to (he also refuses to pay income tax because he “doesn’t believe in it”) while meanwhile his granddaughter is getting ready to marry, who else, Kirby’s son Tony. Hilarity and embarrassing dinner parties with Russian dancers ensue.
The movie was as spectacular as a Shakespearian comedy: laughter, tragedy, misunderstandings, class-clashes and of course ending in a marriage. There was a bright and chirpy courtroom scene which was the more angelic version of Shylock’s trial in the Merchant of Venice, and a beautiful scene with Kirby, preoccupied with a harmonica, as he mulls over his decision to seize Vanderhof’s house.
The reason for choosing this film in light of the potential future of the theatre was obvious. The Hollywood isVanderhof’s house and family and Kirby’s obsession with accumulating money and wealth at the cost of a community is the proposed fitness centre. When my friend asked me what I thought the role of independent theatres should be, my instant response was “To do things like this!”.
I have a philosophy that is related to my theatre-performance work that embodies the idea that a play, new or published, should possess some kind of immediate social, political or cultural relevance to the context of the audience. Unfortunately, as great as Shakespeare is, there is not always a time, a place or a reason to put on a play about a Jew demanding pounds of flesh or fairies turning people into donkeys. Shakespeare has a way of always being relevant somehow, but my point is that the older a published work gets, the harder it is to find a good reason to do it. There should be a reason for producing art that is separate from the artist’s own desire or attachment to the work. Brecht saw theatre as having social value, a usefulness to the people that watched it along side the entertainment factor.
It was extremely exciting being in a movie theatre, watching a story about a community potentially destroyed by greed, when the exact same situation was happening around me. It was immersing. It was relevant. That is the role that independent theatres have–to show movies, new or old, that have some close connection the community they are in.
The Hollywood will be closed down twice at this point, once in 2011 when it was shut down as exclusively a movie theatre and started renting its space out. It will be closed down again in a few days until its future can be decided. After the first close in 2011, a church group started renting it. Another theatrical space that was turned into a church was the Westside Church in downtown Vancouver, having recently been the Centre of Performing Arts. It is no surprise that artistic institutions are so easily converted into religious centres. Film theatres and performance theatres are, in their own way, secular churches. People go for absolution, escape, good stories, contemplation, meditation and to worship something bigger than themselves. In a province where 31% of the population are self-declared atheists or agnostics, religious churches face challenges in gathering whole communities. In the small village of Elbow, Saskatchewan where I would visit my grandmother every summer, going to church every Sunday was less a religious experience than it was to chat and socialize with the community. That is the purpose a theatre like the Hollywood has today. It’s a secular church, a community builder, a place for people to go and watch something that is relevant to their lives, the times we live in, the struggles and pains we endure, and the hope and happy endings we pray to receive. We wish our lives could be like movies sometimes. Not the Tom-Cruise-explosion-first-sex-scene after movies that you go watch at Scotia BANK theatre downtown. Movies that are featured on the bottom floor of a BANK are set in a certain context that is a completely different cup of tea than the community theatre the Hollywood has provided these decades.
These independents are important. They have the power to bring stories we might not otherwise find on Netflicks to an accessible and local space. What a marvellous job it would be to sit on the committee or in the group that selects the films to be played there. What do the people of Kitsilano want to see? What do they NEED to see? What do the people want? It’s no surprise Capra was chosen given his films’ reverence and respect for the “common” movie-goer. The people.
I wish the very best to the people at the Hollywood. It seems not just the performance arts are losing theatres and companies in this city, but the apparently “more profitable” centres for films are also under the knife. Both serve an extremely important purpose in society, both are extremely gratifying art forms in extremely unique ways. If theatre has survived this long, I think it bodes well for the survival of theatres like the Hollywood.
For more information about the movement “Save the Hollywood”, here are a few links: