By Dennis Soron
For many people of my generation, the arrival of The Film House as a fixture in downtown St. Catharines evokes fond memories of a time when most cities boasted at least one independent cinema serving up an array of otherwise inaccessible cult movies, Hollywood classics, foreign films, and low-distribution new releases. While pleasant to indulge in, such nostalgia should not distract us from the fact that we now live in a very different era. The development of this new facility pushes up against many historical trends that have radically changed the ways in which we experience films.
At a time of dwindling film attendance among the general public, when corporate multiplex chains dominate the established movie market, and when technological advances have enabled people to instantly access, an unprecedented quantity of video content at home and on the go, does the traditional film house still fill an important niche or play a potentially valuable community role?
The answer to this question is more heartening than one might initially think, and is hinted at by parallel developments elsewhere. In the past several years, we’ve witnessed a resurgence in the popularity of cultural goods that had previously appeared to be consigned to obsolescence. Not so long ago, for instance, the news media was awash with stories about how the rise of digital publishing foretold the impending “end of print” and “death of the book.” Roughly nine years after the first appearance of the Amazon Kindle, however, public demand for ebooks and e-readers has flatlined, while the market for old-fashioned physical books has rebounded.
While the same pattern holds for other seemingly outdated ‘low-tech’ items such as Polaroid cameras, typewriters, cassette tapes and fountain pens, perhaps the most dramatic example of this trend has been the so-called ‘vinyl revival.’ Once threatened with extinction, vinyl records have recently become the fastest-growing segment of the music industry, winning the affection of a new generation of music lovers, and spurring the re-emergence of independent record stores in many cities throughout North America (including St. Catharines).
Although such forms of “revivalism” can often be dismissed as sentimental or faddish, they — at least in part — reflect an underlying sense of ambivalence toward the types of cultural change that “progress” often forces upon us. Easy access to abundant “content” through ever-more sleek, cunning and portable gadgetry cannot, it seems, resolve our lingering attachment to subtle yet highly meaningful dimensions of our cultural experience — the heft, texture, and smell of a book, for instance — that economic and technological change often threatens to displace.
This holds true for our experience of film in particular – a fact well understood by the The Film House’s programming team, a crack collective assembled by the Niagara Artists Centre (NAC). In spite of the valiant efforts of the Brock University Film Series (BUFS), local film culture has been singularly ill-served by the forward march of “progress” in recent decades. While downtown St. Catharines alone once boasted no fewer than five independent movie theatres, the venues available to local film goers gradually shrank to a single multiplex at the Pen Centre. In St. Catharines and beyond, high prices and uninspiring content have undercut the appeal of movie-going, accelerating the trend toward more privatized forms of film consumption facilitated by digital technology.
While such trends are transforming the way we experience film, the NAC’s Steve Remus suggests, The Film House holds fast to the belief that “the cinema experience is still superlative in all the ways that matter, especially for those of us who want an experience that’s as full and rich as possible.” While streaming and downloading have granted people access to an unprecedented quantity of filmic experiences across a variety of settings, the quality of those experiences can often be diluted. However convenient, watching a film on your phone, on your living room TV, or in bed on a tablet or laptop, simply cannot compare with the immersive and ritualized experience of watching one in the aural and visual isolation of a sealed and darkened movie theatre. When you watch a film amidst the distractions of a familiar everyday environment, James Zborowski argues, “a film meets you on your terms; when you go to the cinema, you meet the film on its terms. There is no pausing, rewinding, or changing channels….The greater restrictions upon conduct in public than private in fact liberate you to forget, or at least suppress, your private needs, all the better to immerse yourself in the public screen.”
In this regard, The Film House offers us the opportunity to have an immersive and shared experience of a much wider, more stimulating and responsive range of films than is provided at corporate chains. As Remus states, “NAC’s board and staff have researched the best of the independent film houses in Canada and the US to develop a program that brings outstanding films, but that also reflects the interests of people who live here.” Far from over-indulging in the highbrow and ponderous, The Film House has thus far played host to an admirably balanced and diverse selection of repertory classics, new releases, documentaries, musicals, quirky b-movies, family films, genre movies, and special event screenings. While more varied than the fare at the “cinemall”, the curated roster of films on offer also steers clear of the “tyranny of choice” imposed by the horizonless expanse of the digital universe. Faced with unlimited choice, our cultural preferences often tend to narrow, as we stay within the safe confines of our current tastes, or rely on the tailored suggestions provided by Netflix algorithms and other funnelling mechanisms. To this degree, Zborowski argues, taking choice partly out of your own hands is paradoxically “a good way of exposing yourself to a wider array of cultural goods.”
As counterintuitive as their persistence may seem in today’s climate, small local cinemas such as The Film House are valuable community assets that do a great deal not only to reinvigorate local film culture and enhance general film literacy, but to bring people together culturally in meaningful and often unexpected ways. This was on full display at the late April screening of Phobe, the low-budget 90’s-era cult science fiction film that was for years a staple of local cable access TV. After years of distractedly encountering this clunky and absurd yet ultimately endearing film on television screens in their own homes, the assembled audience felt the exhilaration of encountering it projected on a much grander scale, and laughing and cheering alongside the cast, crew and others in their community who shared a common history with it. It was a moment that was in many ways completely unique to St. Catharines, and yet reflective more generally of the kind of transcendent bridge that cinematic experiences can create between the public and the private, the present and the past, the spectacular and the mundane.