Arts and Culture

Where Can You Go for a Real Movie Experience Anymore?

Real as its popcorn butter, Vancouver's Rio Theatre is a classic worth defending.

By Dorothy Woodend 27 Jan 2012 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other Friday for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

The Rio Theatre, at the intersection of Commercial and Broadway in Vancouver, is the last single screen cinema in East Vancouver. It is a member of a dying, near extinct breed.

Vancouver movie theatres continue to close in quick succession. Oakridge Cinema shut its doors a few weeks ago, to be replaced by a Crate & Barrel or some such infernal thing. The Hollywood Theatre is long gone. The Granville 7 is looking a little iffy. If it turns off the lights and closes out the till, it will join a long line of vanished cinemas that haunt the city like the flickering ghosts of movies palaces past.

When I first moved to Vancouver in the mid '80s, the city was still chock-a-block with movie theatres. In downtown Vancouver, three different cineplexes lined Granville Street. The Vancouver Centre theatre perched atop the corner of Granville and Georgia Street, where London Drugs is now. The good old Capital Six held court on Robson and Granville. Just across the street, the Granville 7 was a Johnny-Come-Lately to the scene. In the catacombs of Royal Centre Mall, there were 11 different small theatres that showed all manner of films. With that many screens to fill, there was always something to see. I had some of the most seminal of my film-going experiences in those tiny theatres, such as the moment I thought I was about to throw up in the middle of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. It's been such a long time since a film moved me to genuine nausea that I feel a little misty just thinking about it.

In addition to the first run theatres, rep houses dotted the entire city. The East Van Cinema on Commercial Drive showed some of the most epic double bills I have ever had the pleasure of sitting for four hours through. The Fine Arts Cinema showed The Gods Must be Crazy for approximately 500 years, give or take a two. The Starlight on Denman was as charming and sweet as can be. I even remember seeing films at the Stanley Theatre on South Granville, when it was still an actual movie theatre. Even the most cursory glance at Vancouver history, will reveal an astounding number of movie houses that have come and gone in the city, mostly gone. From the long lost Pantages to the Coronet, to the Lux, the list goes on and on. In light of such endless attrition, what is interesting is the Rio Theatre is still here.

But perhaps not for long...

Cinema sacred

The Rio has a long history in Vancouver. The theatre was built in 1938, and has weathered storms and squalls before. This time, it is the B.C. government and the liquor board that have shut the red curtains and stilled the projector. MLA Jenny Kwan held a press conference at the Rio this week to address the very real threat that the theatre will shut its doors permanently as a cinema. Members of the Vancouver arts community who use the theatre attended the event to speak about the importance of the place to their respective organizations. Whether it's Movies for Mommies, The Celluloid Social Club, or in my case, DOXA Documentary Film Festival, the theatre accommodates a number of different communities.

A priest who uses the Rio on Sunday to hold church services spoke eloquently about the theatre as a safe space for marginalized people. His words struck me, since the cinema has always had the quality of a sacred space. The perversion of adding a constant barrage of cell phone commercials and Hollywood trivia quizzes always struck me as one of the very worst things that ever happened to the cinema-going experience. The quiet twilight time in the theatre before the film started used to be one of my things. It provided time and setting for stillness and pause. And, like a church, it was a place of reflection.

So, let's take a quiet moment to think about what happens when there aren't these small pockets where itchy, scratchy humanity in all its ragged glory assembles to put on a burlesque show, perform spoken word poetry, nurse a newborn baby, or eat too much popcorn and fall asleep in the third reel of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Whether the liquor board will repeal its decision and the theatre will be allowed to screen films hangs in the balance. But in the meantime, the show must go on. The theatre is offering a live performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, redubbed The Rocky Horror Pictureless Show, in light of the current ban on projected images.

It is a fitting tribute, since there was a time when The Rocky Horror Picture Show played every weekend in Vancouver. Did people go to movies differently back then? What changed? Was it the city or its people?

Weird Vancouver bygones

Vancouver has always seemed like a city with an odd relationship with the past. Maybe because there is so little of it left. What remains is collected in isolated pockets, mostly off Kingsway. The Fred Herzog version of Vancouver lingers in faded signs and ragged storefronts. Things are torn down, other things replace them, but the places that were there originally remain, imperfectly written in the memories of the people who were also there for a time.

I remember stumbling upon Guy Bennett's Guy's Guide to the Flip Side in the late '80s, and getting a glimpse of the city that existed not long before I had arrived. The book is currently out of print, I believe, which is fitting somehow, but if you can manage to lay hands on a copy you're in for a treat. It is a picaresque through the rough and tumble dives of Vancouver. Or as William Gibson describes it, "Guy's Guide To The Flipside, that's the old weird Vancouver. Virtually all of that is gone, now, in the Regooding. I know this, increasingly, as an old weird Vancouverite."

I sometimes wonder what would happen were the most excellent Mr. Bennett to revisit the city that he captured so well in all its shabby wonder. What would he write about?

The city has changed, certainly, but people still go to the movie theatres. Apparently the Scotiabank Theatre in downtown Vancouver does more business than the rest of the downtown theatres combined. I find this fact alternately astounding and depressing. But big doesn't actually mean all that much. I had the curious experience of sitting in the Centre a few months ago, surrounded by approximately 1,800 snowboarders watching The Art of Flight. The Art of Flight does not actually deserve the title of film. It is more like an extended product placement opportunity, with some pretty pictures and pop songs attached. The audience, high on Red Bull and vodka, brayed their approval, but the limpness of what was on offer eventually quelled even their drunken enthusiasm. I don't quite know what to make of this except that it is another indication that you can market anything if you have sufficient money and resources. But it doesn't stick. And ultimately it doesn't matter. All the sound and fury in the world has no power if it isn't attached to genuine feeling.

Real as the butter

Patterns and habits and tastes change on both a big and small scale. But people still go to the movies. Humans being the social creatures they are, their need to be with others of the species isn't likely to change anytime soon. Cineplexes with their multiple screens and multiple choices, be it Yogen Früz or Burger King, or Tom Cruise, I suppose I understand. Although every time I go to the Scotiabank Theatre I feel vaguely sick. It might be the combination of burgers and frozen yogurt, and edible oil product (that means you Mr. Cruise), but I think it might also have something to do with the fact that the place is as soulless and vapid as a Kardashian. It does not feel human. One of the most wonderful things about the Rio is that it is staffed by genuine humans, not plastic facsimiles.

The theatre, programmed by curious, fallible and engaged people, shows an assemblage of new and old films. Midnight movies, family fare, the Friends of Dorothy Film Series, which I like simply because any friend of Dorothy is a friend of mine, there is something for just about everyone. Like the Pacific Cinémathèque and the Vancity Theatre that also offer up a rich tapestry of ideas and experiences every single night of the week, a community has grown up around the Rio. If it closes its doors and is replaced by a condominium development or a furniture store, something lovely will die.

The last time I was at the Rio to see a film, the folks running the concession were irascible and roguish and charming as all hell. This may seem like a minor point, but it is a telling indicator that the place is real. A theatre that puts real butter on the popcorn is a place you can call home.

[Tags: Film.]  [Tyee]

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