Part of reviewing documentaries is working out what matters to you. You have what the documentary is about, the method by which it is told, who it is for, and your personal context and how it can matter to you.
What Only in Theaters is about is the prestige Laemmle Theater Company, a family run repertory theater company specializing in classic and international cinema with several locations in California. What it is really about is the industry’s balancing act between streaming, theaters, and you, and how theaters can continue to exist in a world of instant access and what the last two years of COVID-19 have done to an already struggling enterprise on a larger scale. The Laemmle family, who once fled Germany as emigrees and created a proud tradition of showing movies stateside, now must decide if it will remain a family business, if it’s finally time to sell the theaters out piecemeal, or have the whole chain go with them.
The method for telling the story is also straightforward and what it sounds like it would be: talking head interviews and loving shots of theater interiors and movies being enjoyed in them. It is a love letter to cinematic spaces, of course, and of both the early and international cinema and the people who made it, but also the modern independent fare, and the ability for these works to be in conversation with one another in a public venue. The documentary spends a good deal of time talking about whether watching movies on your iPhone is an authentic experience and comes to obvious conclusions. The funny thing it then does is that given the nature of the pandemic, it uses computers to show the interview subjects. It puts the computer on a stool in front of the empty theater chairs as a kind of internal irony. Here is the technology that has routed this theater to its seeming final phase of existence, living inside the very space it has usurped, the computer all proud of its new station in life with Ava DuVernay’s face on it. The necessary evils of technology imprint themselves even upon the old way of doing things that they come to replace. Part of sticking around is finding ways to innovate and to keep up and that’s clearly a tall order when you’re dealing in the past and filmographies of other markets and not the broadly watched blockbusters of the day.
So, the documentary is not for the standard modern audience. It is clearly for the family who made it, a historical document of their great immigrant story and their pride and rich culture for movies. It’s also for the patrons of the theater, the workers impacted by long pandemic delays in getting back to working at the movies, and it’s for the people who have their own local Laemmle in need of support. Now, it’s also regionally specific. It is, very much, a documentary about a Californian chain of theaters. The problem here is that while a documentary usually calls for awareness or an action, only locals and tourists can support this industry. With the globalization of all culture, the locals-only products continue to diminish in their overall utility, for an out-of-the-neighborhood audience but withhold the utmost value for people within that very community.
I watched Only in Theaters on my computer. I watched this whole movie about why I should patronize the cinema for the first in-person festival in my region in several years, and I watched a preview screening on my computer. Ain’t that just the issue? Accessibility once again wins over tradition and cultural value. Then, there is another thing. This is a festival in the Pacific Northwest and a movie about a theater in California. The theater is run as a family business and son Greg Laemmle seems to call most of the shots. As the pandemic winds down and options to sell are broached, he moves to rainy Seattle, Washington. Then he simply comments about the weather, that he has never seen winter before and doesn’t know how so much darkness will change his mood. The good news about Seattle is that the movie market, up till a few years ago, seems to be expanding with the shift of monied business owners and tech workers making up most of the population. Our weather may be gloomy but there is a bright light in the projection booths of our own cinema. If the documentary doesn’t create one, here is our call to action: support SIFF and your local festivals. They usually take place at the theaters that desperately need your support. They are the best way to actionably support the history of cinema and its preservation. Keep the cinemas alive because they are necessary to our understanding of culture and for the influence they can have on the future of cinema.