Preserve Me a Seat

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/31/06 21:56:20

"Let's all go to the lobby to get ourselves a treat!"
3 stars (Just Average)

We - and by “we,” I mean “us hardcore movie nuts” - all have our favorite movie theater that’s now just a memory. A two-screener from my childhood is now a motorcycle dealership; another movie house is now a church; yet another has been a vacant nothing for years, which I suppose is better than the fate of yet another still, which was to be torn down, gone for all time.

And these were the boxy early multiplexes tossed up in the 1970s, places that provided memories of movies and youth but not of the buildings themselves, which were as anonymous as possible in their architecture. Imagine the heartache the accompanies the loss of genuine movie palaces, single-screen temples of celluloid, with massive screens, auditoriums that hold thousands, and all that fancy décor on the walls.

Such loss is captured in “Preserve Me a Seat,” a documentary from Omaha-based filmmaker Jim Fields that chronicles efforts across the nation to rescue old time movie palaces from demolition. The film began when Fields, armed only with a camera and a few friends, followed the Indian Hills Preservation Society, a group in Omaha desperately fighting a local hospital who wanted to tear down the Indian Hills - the last standing original Cinerama theater in the world - and, as the song goes, put up a parking lot. Fields’ short film was put on hiatus due to some legal entanglements; once those were untangled, it was decided to expand the movie by studying not only the Indian Hills, but other important movie houses nationwide, including Boston’s Gaiety Theater (whose lavish interiors hid behind a torn-away storefront) and Detroit’s Michigan Theater (which now stands as a parking garage, cars sitting where the auditorium used to be, although the decorated roof remains intact).

For the most part, Fields spends his time preaching to the choir - little effort is made to present opposing side viewpoints until late in the film, with almost every scene acting as a public service announcement in support of the old theaters - which makes the narration asides a bit of a mistake. Fields lets the events tell the story, with title cards supplying key information at times, but (perhaps) to pad the running time, Fields tosses in a light history of movie theaters. Considering the audience, there’s nothing here we don’t already know: movie palaces took over for vaudeville as a more economical entertainment in the early part of the 20th century; movies went big and wide following the rise of television; the rise of in-theater advertising, ticket prices, and the ever-obnoxious cell phone usage has created a drop-off in multiplex attendance in recent years. All of this takes us off the track, even if such information is somehow new to you. (There’s an interview with a home theater enthusiast that offers nothing to the movie’s main point about movie houses.)

As a chronicle of these fights for theater survival, the film is just too dry. One scene, late in the movie, records an important vote regarding the Indian Hills’ potential status as a city landmark. Fields captures the scene on a single camera, with few cuts, and for a while, it feels like we’re watching public access.

The film’s lack of objectivity also gets in the way. Not in the sense that Fields is too biased in his reporting; after all, that’s the point of the whole film, and besides, he does remember to toss in some comments from folks who seem a bit more grounded in reality than the Indian Hills’ supporters (one gentleman goes so far as to say theater preservation is simply not feasible in this era, and he’s a supporter of theater preservation). No, the problem is that Fields is just too friendly with the Indian Hills gang, and he doesn’t seem aware that quite often, the IHPS membership can get mighty loony. He fails to ask the tough questions of this group. (Do they really think their lofty, poorly designed preservation plan is doable? That’s a question rarely asked of any of these preservation leaders: they want to preserve, but then what?) And late in the film, when these people really turn up the goofy meter, Fields remains on tiptoes, possibly afraid to paint them as crazies. (At one point, one of them begins yelling at the unseen security guard he’s convinced is lurking inside the theater, spying on them.) Oh, what a documentarian with a keen eye for the weirdness in people might have done with such a group.

But whenever the film seems to be headed in all the wrong directions, something comes along to salvage things. There’s a lengthy discussion midway through the movie in which the Indian Hills’ architect and a few admirers discuss what makes the theater so special, why it worked not only as a great theater, but as great architecture. This is where the film goes absolutely right. Here, it’s a celebration of movie palaces as palaces. Why couldn’t the whole film be more of this?

Yes, but Fields remains too close to his subjects, and what could have been a thoroughly involving study of what made classic theaters so memorable, we simply get a problematic, if enjoyable, look at the life and death of a few very wonderful memories.

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