From domed to doomed
After almost 50 years in operation, the Century Theaters on Ethan Way finally closed last night, with the partially dome-shaped building set to be demolished shortly to make way for a newer, less distinctive multiplex theater. A separate building housing two screens in a single dome had recently been removed. When the similar domed theaters at Greenback Lane were replaced, the new construction occurred while the existing building remained open. I asked about this approach and was told by one of the current staff at the Ethan Way location that too many of the utilities under the present structure need to be rerouted or upgraded and so the existing building needed to be removed first. This leaves Sacramento short of two Century complexes, with the Downtown location also under renovation.
My own history with the building is shorter. I moved to Sacramento in the summer of 1997, but I’ve lived in that area of town since then and the domes were my “go to” theater for most films that played there. I spent entire Friday afternoons soaking up every new opening for several years and, along with many subsequent years of press screenings, I estimate my total film count at that location over 19 years is probably 1,000 or more. I had favorite seats in each auditorium and a favorite parking space. I’ve experienced multiple generations of young employees dutifully giving me directions around a building I have probably spent more time in than them. And I enjoyed having a local theater with adequate parking it didn’t share with neighboring retail spaces, especially during the holidays when several other theaters were simply hard to get into.
However, sadly, over time, the old buildings have become outmoded and represent a business model that no longer exists. The film distribution business has changed in multiple ways, and no doubt will again, and large auditoriums are becoming the way of the past. Movies are no longer distributed on actual film stock and when you can fileshare a downloaded digital movie around a theater building into as many rooms as you would like, there’s no great need for extra large auditoriums to host the latest and the greatest from Hollywood. Movies and rooms can be shuffled and adjusted in response to audience demand, without the logistics or cost of film prints. Smaller auditoriums are easier to rent for private events and a building full of rectangular boxes is easier to convert to other uses, should the theater industry decline to the point that it’s no longer profitable to screen films.
One also has to assume that the domed structures were not the easiest to maintain, or to heat and cool. From my own experience, it seemed that the vast curved surfaces of the domes themselves were vulnerable to the loss of shingles in high winds, with multiple patched areas or roof.
I had mixed feelings about the theater closing and being replaced. I know many people wanted Century Cinemark to restore and maintain them, and on an emotional level I would have liked that also. I drive past them twice a day and they’re a part of my Sacramento landscape, aside from the thousands of hours spent inside them. But it’s also hard to expect a company to maintain an outmoded building and business model. I haven’t heard any local voices offering to pay more for tickets to accommodate the operating expenses, and last night’s closing evening was largely deserted.
So, on a pragmatic level, I’m happy that we’ll continue to have a theater in that location (due to open in the fall) albeit competing for parking with newly built stores. Replacing the building now, while the theater industry still has legs, brings us a new venue whereas in a few years the math on new theaters might no longer have penciled out. Will the experience be the same, watching the next generation of movies in boxes of 150 people rather than domes and movie palaces of 1,000? No, of course it won’t. But just as the old buildings are being replaced so are the old viewers, and today’s kids and teenagers are watching more content on phones and other small screens or windows and so, I hope, the theatrical experience will still seem big and special by comparison. I watched one of the final screenings last night (The Forest – don’t ask) and I’ll probably be there for one of the first in the new building. Sitting in dark rooms watching films is my bliss and, ultimately, I’ll go wherever the dark rooms are.
Over the last few weeks, this column has been on an unexpected and extended hiatus due to travel, holidays, and ill health. With that said and my apologies, here are a few brief thoughts on some of the more noteworthy films of late that weren’t covered.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest starring role in “The Revenant” is garnering all kinds of award attention and he’s a front runner for an Academy Award. Unfortunately, the film itself wasn’t that much fun to watch. It’s essentially an extended revenge yarn set in a somewhat generic North American location (it’s hard to tell if it’s a Northern state or Canada) during the period of heavy beaver trapping and fur trade. He’s an expert outdoorsman, along on a trapping expedition as consultant and guide, who suffers a devastating bear attack, leaving him vulnerable to both his wounds and those around him. It’s an epic production set in beautiful scenery but it’s a bleak and empty story, with a plot one could write on a napkin. And the camerawork was distracting as, too many times, the lens comes between us and the subject – with condensation, water, blood, etc. visible on the glass. It’s a technique that seems to work better in high tech or sci-fi contexts than in a setting that is so natural that being reminded of the technology filming it seems like an unwelcome intrusion.
I think I may have disliked Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” even more than “The Revenant.” Tarantino has a “go big or go home” approach to filmmaking and at times he’d be better off going small. The hype around “The Hateful Eight” centered largely on his use of 70mm film and the “Roadshow” screenings that projected the film from that same format. This involved the installation of special equipment at many locations, including Sacramento’s own Tower Theatre. 70mm can and does look wonderful in certain applications but much of “The Hateful Eight” didn’t really seem to either capitalize on or benefit from it. And at approximately three hours (depending on which version of the film you see) it feels like it’s running almost an hour too long. That’s not a complaint against long movies but a complaint against movies that run longer than their content seems to justify. Essentially a grindhouse style Western, it’s set in a stagecoach and a remote lodge, with various characters all wrapped up the fate of a woman being taken to her expected hanging. But it includes an extensive flashback chapter that breaks the flow of the film and adds very little to the narrative that a couple of sentences of dialog couldn’t have achieved. However, to his credit and to the benefit of his most ardent fans, he’s making the films he wants to make, the way he wants to make them, essentially always bringing what might otherwise be an extended “director’s cut” to the big screen. I’m also a fan of the stories he tells, just not always of the way he tells them.
Perhaps my favorite film of the season, or the year, is Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” with a wonderful ensemble cast (including Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Steve Carell) retelling the Wall Street side of the housing crisis. If that sounds like an unlikely film for a comedy approach from McKay, better known for assorted Will Ferrell romps, it is. And that’s what’s so impressive about it – it manages to combine this awful period in the financial world, full of even more industry-specific technical knowledge than “The Martian” (mortgage backed securities, credit default swaps, etc.), into an absolutely extraordinary comedy of the absurd. This is a film that frequently breaks the fourth wall with various non-characters who appear for no other reason than to explain one of these ridiculous concepts, these financial vehicles that were created for no other reason than to make profit off of otherwise unprofitable investments. It’s a style that seems odd at first blush but which almost instantly takes hold and makes sense – it’s as if the more ridiculous the story, in this case a true one, the more ridiculous the telling of it can be. This would be my personal pick if I was handing out awards.
“Youth” is another film that made it to the top of some reviewer’s lists. It’s set in an Alpine health spa and stars Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel as two elderly men, and old friends, who have cause to reflect on long and successful careers. Caine plays a composer who has retired from public performances (he prefers to conduct remembered pieces to the cows in nearby fields) who has been asked to conduct some of his work for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, an honor that holds little appeal for him. Keitel plays a director who’s trying to pull together his latest project, surrounded by a team of less wrinkled staff, until an encounter with one of his equally aged stars (Jane Fonda) grounds him. It’s a beautiful fil full of fine performances and a wonderful essay on life, aging, meaning and accomplishment.
“Carol” is a romantic drama about two women who fall in love , having fallen at least “in interest” at first sight. Carol (Cate Blanchett) is a married woman of some means and Therese (Rooney Mara) works in a department store where Carol is shopping for her daughter’s Christmas gift. That brief encounter leads to more and before long the couple is embarking on an ill-fated affair. It’s a rich looking film shot (and this is interesting in contrast to Tarantino’s use of 70mm) on 16mm stock, with the grain often evident onscreen. I enjoyed “Carol” but never felt very engaged in the story – it seemed somewhat clinical and distant in a slightly “standoffish” way.
I had a similar reaction to “The Danish Girl” – a film that I had expected to have me reaching for endless tissues. This beautiful and sad film tells the true story of the artists Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alica Vikander who has had an exceptional year) as circumstances cause Einar to re-experience earlier questions about gender identity and transition into Lili Elbe. However, in the period of the film (the 1920’s give or take a few years as the story unfolds) both the condition and the cure were highly controversial and experimental. Both performances are wonderful and it’s a role I had a chance to discuss briefly with Redmayne when I interviewed him about “The Theory of Everything” and I genuinely expected to be blown away by this film. Sadly, I wasn’t, although I thoroughly enjoyed the film and was fascinated by the subject matter, especially given the era. It’s remarkable to think that the real Lili Elbe managed through legal proceedings to change her name and receive a new passport when, almost a century later, the same battles are still being fought.
In “Concussion,” Will Smith plays the real life doctor who discovered the condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which affects those who have had repeated blows to the head, as he discovered in several retired football players who had begun to exhibit strange behaviors. It’s another film that plays in a somewhat distant manner, feeling somewhat like a story that might better have been told via a documentary but told instead in narrative form for a wider audience. It was odd, or possibly ironic, to watch this compelling story about a sole doctor taking on both his colleagues and the National Football League in such a mainstream and populist venue as a movie multiplex when Dr. Bennet Omalu, in the film, is depicted as the kind of person who likely would never have watched such a film. In one scene he explains to his tenant (and future wife) that he owns a television he doesn’t actually watch, because American homes have televisions in them. Having said that, he watched this film with an audience in Sacramento, several weeks ago, and appeared to be far warmer and more welcoming in person than the man depicted on screen during an earlier and more difficult period of his life, standing and taking pictures with the entire audience. A great man perhaps but not such a great film.
Column image is a montage of a satellite image excerpted from Google Maps and a clip from fandango’s movie listings for January 19th, 2016.