Lamenting the Vanishing Art House

Greg Laemmle

Only in Theaters 

Directed by Raphael Sbarge

You back through the swinging doors because your arms are full: popcorn, candy, drinks. The echoey, muffled sounds become clearer. The show has started. The room is big and dark. You shuffle down the aisle toward the glowing image, get to the row you like, maneuver over knees ("excuse me, sorry, excuse me"), and claim your seat. Dead center. You sense others in the dark, a community of strangers come to laugh, cry, cheer, and gasp. To watch the same thing in the same place at the same time, an experience like no other. You balance your treats, settle in, and surrender.

Moviegoing -- the act of going to a theater to watch a movie -- is, to many of us, a seminal experience. So it's hard not to like the new documentary Only in Theaters. It's so obviously a labor of love, and is pure in its intent. The title promises a lot. It evokes the reason why many of us fell in love with the movies in the first place.

Director Raphael Sbarge set out to make a movie about the Laemmle Theatres in Los Angeles, which specialize in independent, foreign and documentary film. The cinemas are legendary for championing New Hollywood, pre-blockbuster era films (Easy RiderBonnie and Clyde), foreign films in general, and in particular the French New Wave. The theaters were, in other words, a haven for artists and art lovers in a company town that prioritizes commerce above all.

Mr. Sbarge is well qualified to tell this story, having grown up with a similar film legacy. He himself is an actor, his father a filmmaker, and his mother a Broadway costume designer.

The Laemmle family (pronounced Lum-lee) is steeped in film history, and was there at the beginning. Carl Laemmle emigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1884, opened a string of nickelodeon theaters but was blocked from making his own films by Thomas Edison's stranglehold on the industry. Carl sued, went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and broke Edison's monopoly, redirecting the course of film production in America. He went on to found Universal Pictures. His cousins Max and Kurt Laemmle came to the U.S. during Hitler's rise and founded Laemmle Theatres, which would become the preeminent art house cinemas in Hollywood.

Mr. Sbarge began shooting his film in 2019 not knowing where it would lead. Surviving members of the Laemmle family opened their lives to him, current company president Greg Laemmle giving him fly-on-the-wall access to his business dealings and private life. Sbarge's project was two years in the making, and he couldn't have anticipated the profound changes the film world (and the world at large) would go through during that time. Streaming would change moviegoing as TV changed it in the 1950s. The Laemmle Theatre chain would be put up for sale and be eyed by conglomerates, which would be the death knell for the brand. The pandemic would change moviegoing and life as we knew it.

What emerges in Only in Theaters is a portrait of a dedicated multigenerational family that holds itself to the highest professional standards. As film critic Leonard Maltin puts it, he admires the Laemmles because "business is business, but sometimes it isn't just business. There's a personal layer." The family provides that layer.

Only in Theater lays out historical context through family photos and home movies. It uses animations, anecdotes, and tributes effectively (a montage of pioneering films projected on theater screens is particularly effective). The access to the family's day-to-day home and business life is invaluable. We're with Greg and his retired father Bob as they negotiate deals on the phone. We're with Greg and his wife Tish chatting in their family kitchen or on evening walks ("It's the only time I get to talk to him," Tish says), which are charming interludes. Some revelations spark further discussion, like Bob's appraisal of the role of pornography in the rise of independent cinema (there's a whole movie in that). An impressive list of talking heads -- including film directors Cameron Crowe, Ava DuVernay, James Ivory, and Allison Anders, and critics Maltin and Kenneth Turan -- sing the praises of the Laemmle Theatres as a refuge for cinema arts, sharing personal recollections of these "sacred spaces" that inspired them to the artistic heights for which they’re known. Mr. Sbarge himself narrates intermittently, filling in gaps, adding personal observations. The film moves briskly in its 90-minute runtime, propelled by a score that adds portent. All is moving at a fine clip.

And yet…

Midway through the film one realizes we’re not hearing about Laemmle Theaters as much as the art of filmmaking and storytelling. Only in Theater is one of a subgenre of documentaries that's emerged in the past decade, films about those providers who deliver art to us. All Things Must Pass (2015) about Tower Records and Muscle Shoals (2016) come to mind. And while those forms, whether it be film or popular music, were the providers' raison d'etre, their involvement is somewhat beside the point. As in Only in Theaters: the film drifts off into reveries about the making of art that unfortunately has less and less to do with the commerce with which the company is involved.

And that, sadly, works as a disadvantage. Only in Theater was either completed prematurely, before essential issues like the impact of streaming are resolved, or left to stand simply as a chronicle of a lost, lamented era. It seems to suggest a call to action, but for what? Greg Laemmle, the current company president, was present at the screening this reviewer attended, and he was asked that very question. Greg is affable and open, but he conceded that the fate of Laemmle Theaters remains in the balance. And there's little the average filmgoer can do about it. Streaming and the pandemic have changed movie-viewing habits forever. The only action to take is to fill the seats in Los Angeles with patrons.

Ironically, streaming platforms may provide the best presentation for Only in Theaters by dashing expectations of a feature length runtime. A 45-minute cut shown on, say, Netflix, could be sharper, more to the point, and not have to fill the mandates of a theatrical exhibition.

Many of us fell in love with movies in movie theaters. The place defined the experience, made it special: only in a movie theater, only watched reverently. Sadly, Mr Sbarge's film, while a diligent and heartfelt tribute to a pioneering family, can only approximate the visceral thrill of being in a packed movie theater, sharing the air and the emotions. It's like looking out over Niagara Falls after seeing photos of it. They don't do justice to the actual experience.

You have to have been there.

Mr. Kozlowski teaches literature and film at The City College of New York. His short stories are collected in a volume titled Home at Last.

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