This week the Music Box Theatre is celebrating its 90th anniversary with a number of celebratory screenings and events. (Tonight you can check out a double feature of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida and Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea, two features released by Music Box Films.) These festivities serve as reminders of the Music Box’s key position in Chicago’s filmgoing community. The last old-school movie house still in regular operation in our city, the theater evokes a sense of excitement for experiencing cinema regardless of what’s onscreen. At this point I’ve seen more movies at the Music Box than I can remember, but I’m always happy to go there, whether it’s for a silent film, a repertory title from a generation ago, or a new art-house feature. I hope the place lasts at least another 90 years.
Movies that celebrate moviegoing are nothing new, though it’s worth noting that more recent films set in movie theaters tend to carry a twinge of nostalgia and loss, most likely because moviegoing is no longer as central a part of public life as it once was. (An exception to this trend is Jacques Nolot’s 2002 feature Porn Theater, which suggests that moviegoing will always be as important to life as sex.) In any case, movies tend to treat movie theaters romantically, as filmmakers recognize the crucial role that cinemas can play in fostering a love of film. Below are five capsule reviews from the Reader archives of movies in which movie theaters serve as central locations.
Sherlock Jr. This 1924 comedy finds Buster Keaton anticipating most of the American avant-garde of the 70s: he plays a projectionist who falls asleep during the showing of a detective thriller and projects himself into the action. Keaton’s appreciation of the formal paradoxes of the medium is astounding; his observations on the relationship between film and the subconscious are groundbreaking and profound. And it’s a laugh riot too. —Dave Kehr
Cinema Paradiso Giuseppe Tornatore directed this simplistic, nostalgic 1989 Italian film about a small-town movie theater in Sicily as experienced by a little boy (Salvatore Cascio) who hangs out with the projectionist (Philippe Noiret) and collects footage cut out of movies by the local censor. Eventually the boy takes over as projectionist and grows up to become a filmmaker (Jacques Perrin). Originally a two-part, three-hour film, this treacle has been reduced by almost a third, though it still seems to run on forever—a bit like life but less interesting. The film is rife with outrageous continuity errors and unexplained anomalies, but people who want to have a good cry probably won’t mind—there’s more than enough bathos to drown in, or to win an Oscar for. With Marco Leonardi and Agnese Nano. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Matinee John Goodman stars as shlockmeister Lawrence Woolsey (affectionately based on William Castle), who turns up in Key West in 1962 to present a preview of his latest horror B movie. This highly enjoyable and provocative teenage comedy (1993), set during the Cuban missile crisis, was directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins) and written by Dante regular Charlie Haas and Jerico, who all have a lot of fun with all the period absurdities, especially those provoked by war fever. They’re also adroit in implicitly suggesting some related absurdities of the early 1990s. With Cathy Moriarty, Simon Fenton (an English teenager who does an astonishing job of sounding American), Omri Katz, Kellie Martin, Lisa Jakub, and a number of enjoyable character actors including Jesse White, John Sayles, and Dick Miller. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Goodbye Dragon Inn For all its minimalism, Tsai Ming-liang’s 2003 masterpiece manages to be many things at once: a Taiwanese Last Picture Show, a failed heterosexual love story, a gay cruising saga, a melancholy tone poem, a mordant comedy, a creepy ghost tale. A cavernous Taipei movie palace on its last legs is (improbably) showing King Hu’s groundbreaking 1966 hit Dragon Inn to a sparse audience (which includes a couple of that film’s stars) while a rainstorm rages outside. As the martial-arts classic unfolds on the screen, so do various elliptical intrigues in the theater—the limping cashier, for instance, pines after the projectionist, even though she never sees him. Tsai has a flair for skewed compositions and imparts commanding presence to seemingly empty pockets of space and time. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Serbis Raunchy and profane, this Filipino drama by Brillante Mendoza chronicles one turbulent day at a ramshackle movie palace that screens adult films. Gina Pareña plays the matriarch of the family that inhabits and operates the place, alternately tenacious and vulnerable as she awaits the verdict of a bigamy suit she’s brought against her ex-husband. A handheld camera tracks family members, employees, and patrons along the labyrinthine hallways and staircases of the gargantuan theater, which seems more like a village than a building. With understated humor, Mendoza reveals the family’s winking acknowledgment of what really drives their business: male prostitutes who ply their trade in the darkness of the theater. —Joshua Katzman v