Why the Brattle Theater Matters

By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/04/05 00:24:25

It was 1998, I think. The company I was working for had shipped me down to Cambridge from Portland, Maine, for a Visual Basic seminar at the Sheraton Commander. Wandering around Harvard Square after supper, I stumbled upon the Brattle Theater quite by accident, spotting a poster for "Six-String Samurai", which I'd seen raves for on Ain't It Cool but figured I'd never have a chance to see. But it was playing that night, so I plunked down my $6.50 to see it and grabbed a schedule to read while waiting for the show to start, and was amazed - ALL SORTS of movies played at this theater, often just for a night or two, and often as part of single admission double features. There was nothing like it in Portland, and I was hooked, taking the bus down a month later for the sole purpose of seeing the Terry Jones version of "The Wind in the Willows".

The next year, when I relocated to Boston in search of a new job, one of the criteria for choosing my apartment was to be within walking distance of the theater. The biggest program on the July/August 1999 calendar was "The Hitchcock Centennial", featuring double features of the Master of Suspense's films every weekend. I wished I was being paid so that I could get to more than half of the shows. For Christmas that year, my father got me a membership, entitling me to a discounted ticket price and a subscription to the schedule - though I would still check outside the theater daily as the end of the current one approached. That membership has been renewed five times, and will soon be renewed again.

Or at least, I hope it will. The Brattle Theater ( is run by a non-profit foundation, but even so, it's feeling a financial squeeze; an October press release announced that the Brattle Film Foundation needed to raise half a million dollars - $100,000 in 2006, and a daunting $400,000 by the end of 2005. Otherwise, the theater could close for good, and this would be a shame, not just because it happens to be my favorite theater.

Often, when one hears calls for the preservation of a beloved cinema, the place is a palace fallen into disrepair. That is not the case with the Brattle; it is much the same as it was when it started showing films fifty-odd years ago: A little smaller, but with more comfortable seats and better sound. It's still an auditorium that became a theater by adding a rear-projection system behind the stage, and only recently upgraded to stereo sound. This theater's importance is not due to the environment, but the films it shows and has shown.

For instance, the current Brattle schedule features a week of samurai films, a week dedicated to the films of French auteur Jacques Doillon, the documentary Darwin's Nightmare, a week of Bogart films, It's a Wonderful Life for the Christmas season, and other things, from Serenity to In The Mood for Love. Some movies will run for a week; many will play for just one day, and that as part of a double feature with a related film. One of the theater's nicknames is "Boston's Unofficial Film School", and each week is an opportunity to learn about a different type of film.

Sure, you might say, but I can put a bunch of samurai movies in my NetFlix queue and do the same thing in my own living room, on my own schedule at my own pace. Doesn't that make the Brattle (and other repertory theaters) obsolete? I'd argue it does not - these films were designed to be seen in a theater on film, with the viewer surrounded by an audience with them as part of the experience. And all of you about to whine that said experience includes people with cell phones and screaming babies and sticky floors, I suggest both that you will find fewer of those problems at a repertory theater, and that retreating to ones living room is ceding the theaters to the problem audiences and the manufactured films which attract them.

And that's just today. When the Brattle first opened in 1953, foreign films rarely played in the United States at all outside of the occasional screening room on a college campus; Brattle founders Bryant Halliday and Cyrus Harvey, Jr also started Janus Films in order to import works by the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Jean-Luc Godard. Halliday and Harvey would later sell the Brattle and Janus, but Janus would remain an important force in foreign, independent, and repertory film; the new owners would later start the Criterion Collection, a respected laserdisc (and later DVD) label that spotlights important films. This isn't to say that foreign films would never have become even a niche presence without the Brattle Theater - if not Halliday and Harvey, someone would have filled the void in some way - but simply to illustrate that this small theater has played an important role in American film history, and even folks who have never been anywhere near Boston have benefited from this theater and its progeny.

In a better world, every city would have a Brattle. Even though home video has made classic and foreign films more available and boutique multiplexes like Landmark have increased access to independent cinema, there are real benefits to having a local repertory house. Classic films were never meant to be seen by a small group (often a group of one) in front of a television - many of the films predate that delivery system - but with an audience not just reacting to the film, but to each other's reactions. And though a theater like the Brattle may not have the state-of-the-art projection system that the big multiplexes do, a quality 35mm print is leaps and bounds ahead of even the best DVDs.

Nearly as important as having a place where one can see these movies is having it be programmed well. Those following Halliday and Harvey (Ned Hinkle currently serves as the Brattle's creative director) have continued the theater's tradition of giving the community an introduction to films and filmmakers we might never hear about otherwise. Yes, there are regular servings of Humphrey Bogart, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa and the French New Wave, and being able to see many of these movies on the big screen for the first time is fantastic, but the Brattle is also where I learned about Takashi Miike, Guy Maddin, Harold Lloyd, Jacques Tati, Alex de la Iglesia and others.

If the Brattle can't survive in Boston, with fifty years of tradition just steps away from the Harvard campus, what hope is there for repertory cinema anywhere? I wish I had a good answer. For now, all we can try to do is save this one, and hope that with its debts paid off and more money available for promotion, it can once again serve as a model for other theaters going forward. It won't be easy, but it's not impossible, either. The Brattle's website has all the information you need on the Preserve the Brattle Legacy Campaign.

I don't expect everyone to go out and give the Brattle a couple hundred dollars after reading this. But if you live in the Boston area, hop the T to Harvard Square and see some samurai movies this week; Monday's (Three Outlaw Samurai) isn't available on video. Pick up a schedule and see if anything else catches your fancy. And if you don't live near Boston, find out if you've got a Brattle-like place in town, and catch something you won't find at the multiplex.

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