As we grope for comfort and meaning in a cruel and baffling world, we grasp for even the slightest hint of assurance that our cherished social values remain intact. Oh, for those simpler times when clean-cut heroes in crisp white hats dodged a thousand bullets to vanquish a grubby bad guy with a single decisive blow (after a temporizing sermon, of course). Nowadays, the moral signposts seem more elusive. Yet, while others searched far and wide for telling symbols, in the past year Washington movie buffs found four clear signs that the social order thrives and that honor indeed shall prevail.
Year after year, far worthier theatres arose and vanished, yet somehow the Janus endured, striving mightily throughout two generations to thwart the artistry and invention of the international creative community with unconscionably shoddy exhibition. At long last, the Janus abused its last patron and finally shuttered its sullied doors. The construction site that replaced it is surely one of the most striking neighborhood improvements Dupont Circle has seen in decades. The demise of the Janus was a slender sign, perhaps, but long-overdue and welcome proof that evil ultimately must perish.
But why dwell on the dark side of justice? More important, virtue was amply rewarded through the resurrection of one beloved old theatre and the dawn of two fine new ones.
Last Spring, the Friendship Heights, Tenleytown and Chevy Chase communities were devastated by the sudden and seemingly meaningless closing of their beloved Avalon. After serving as a proud local fixture and cultural magnet for seven decades, the Avalon was most recently operated by Loews as part of its Cineplex Odeon group and then gratuitously slain. In the apt words of Jen Chaney of the Washington Post, it was “abandoned, stripped and left for dead” by its former owners, who “removed the chairs, projectors, screen and practically every other piece of equipment in sight,” leaving the remains seemingly destined for the same fate that had turned the late MacArthur and Biograph into drugstores. But instead, in an improbable but heartwarming last-minute rescue worthy of the most action-packed serial, it's been fully restored by the Friends of the Avalon, a local coalition of committed citizens. In May, its gilded canopy and gracious staff welcomed patrons back inside to settle into new, comfy dark red seats (many bearing plaques honoring contributors) and to revel once again in its vibrant images and sound.
Fundamental design flaws remain – the wide central aisle still wastes the best viewing positions and the stratospheric projection booth keystones the image, its geometric distortion worsened by exaggerated curvature of the screen. The first show I saw suffered from further problems inflicted by an inattentive projectionist – no sound at the outset and over a minute to focus the picture. But somehow that hardly mattered in an atmosphere that was downright euphoric, and with good reason. Waiting for the show to begin, a lady in the next seat broke through the usual wall of silence among audience strangers to ask if I had been to the Avalon before, and then ventured that she and her husband had been coming since the 1950s and were thrilled to be doing so again. Overhearing, the woman on my other side related similarly joyous memories – potent reminders that the Avalon isn't just some place to see movies but a vital part of its neighborhood, briefly but intensely missed and now bounding forward toward further service as a wondrous social adhesive (and hopefully free of the corporate bean-counting that nearly killed it).
The resurgent Avalon richly deserves success and so far it's off to a fine start – lines often stretch down the block and many shows are sold out. Perhaps it was only my imagination, but as the lights began to fade and I looked up at that droll Sistine-ceiling mural of God handing Adam a reel of film, their faces seemed to glow with smiles of benevolent relief. Indeed the restored Avalon once again breathes a strong and revitalizing breath of life into the eager lungs of the upper Northwest.
When the Foundry closed last year, and with the Biograph and Key but distant memories, it appeared as if Georgetown had seen its last picture show for quite a while. But recompense soon arrived, as Loews couldn't resist the upscale demographics and opened a splendid new multiplex. While the forerunners had their peculiar charms, the replacement of their cramped quarters, iffy projection and obstructed sightlines with 14 spacious stadium auditoria deserves celebration. Of course, space commands a steep premium in the heart of Georgetown, and so the site for a venture of this scale shifted south to K Street in the old incinerator building, its entrance tucked under the Whitehurst across from a riverfront park and its smokestack, once a symbol of waste, now transformed into a beacon of culture. Yet, any dismay over the locale quickly cedes to delight upon entering the vibrant, soaring, sky-lit lobby and proceeding to the classy auditoria, tastefully outfitted in dark gray with subdued accents and boasting technically impeccable presentation, from which the only distraction was slightly tinny sound that was painfully loud during the gamut of pre-feature promos.
Two problems, though. First, the parking. OK, living in Bethesda, I've no right to carp – few who drive to our Bethesda Row theatres forgive the frustration of finding a parking spot or dare to repeat the attempt. Yet, our screens are a short walk from Metro. Decades ago, the sage elders of Georgetown quivered in fear of polluting the gentility of their serene neighborhood with an invasion of loutish commuters and successfully fended off a subway stop. As a result, unless you're a rugged hiker or exceedingly lucky, you'll need to use the theater garage – $7 with validation! That's right – your car's space will cost more than your matinee seat – and it won't even get to bask in that nifty lobby!
Money, indeed sheer greed, is at the root of my other complaint – forcing captive paying audiences to endure a profusion of pre-feature advertising that even the tackiest cable channels wouldn't dare to impose on their viewers. It's not just a question of clutter, daunting though it is - the eight commercials shown at the Georgetown before even starting the gamut of coming attraction trailers is eight more than any sensitive soul would ever want to see in a theatre. Rather, it's a violation of form. Perhaps if the ads were even slightly inspired, or with decent production values, they'd be a less severe intrusion into the cinematic experience. But the vast majority of theatre commercials are deadly dull and look appalling, with strident sound, hideous focus, garish color and grain the size of volleyballs, as if copied with a toy minicam from a videophone. I understand and even reluctantly have come to accept the incessant and rampant commercialization of culture – I admit to being one of those sad creatures who enjoy the ads more than the Superbowls - but this barrage of junk would impel any self-respecting TV viewer to dive for the channel-change button. When you invest the considerable effort and resources to go out to a movie nowadays, you're owed a suitable level of creative vision and technical distinction that should transcend the conventional irritations available free in your living room.
Speaking of class, Washingtonians for decades have constantly turned to the American Film Institute as a paradigm of wide-ranging programming and technological excellence. This Spring, like so many cultural icons and patrons before it, AFI forsook its city roots for the 'burbs, in this case trading its original home in the Kennedy Center for Silver Spring, where its brand new Cultural Center not only is intended to kindle the long hoped-for renaissance of that community but serves to recall a by-gone era when film-going was a genuine event paced in no small part by the quality of the theatre itself.
The new AFI has an intimate screening room and a medium-sized auditorium (at least by current standards), but the star of its show is the main hall, a spectacular restoration of the old Silver Theatre that replicates the original interior décor in its full art-deco glory. But times have changed and there are plenty of enhancements, all for the better. Most notably, the original alignment had standard seating for a thousand, but the same luxuriant space now accommodates only 400, the dozen rows of wood-backed, grey velour seats spaced so generously that you can stretch your legs without touching the one in front (and avoid getting trampled or groped by latecomers). The first few neck-twisting rows are gone and the seats extend between two wide side aisles, resulting in fine views of the ample screen from every spot. As would be expected from its mission, the reliable top quality of AFI's Kennedy Center exhibitions carries on here with a brilliant picture and sound reinforced with 28 surround speakers. No trailers or ads, of course - not even promos or shlocky tunes but rather a live host who introduces the feature, briefly notes upcoming events and sticks around to answer audience questions. The foyers are even graced with vases of flowers! When was the last time you saw any of that in a movie theatre?
While the Avalon, Georgetown and Silver each has a distinctive personality, they share one overriding and crucial trait. The attitude of the Janus toward its patrons was one of sheer contempt that devalued any picture shown there. Each of the new theatres impressively succeeds in restoring the splendor and nobility of the movie experience. Becoming immersed in the richly detailed textures of a restored 70mm print of Lawrence of Arabia at the gorgeous AFI Silver was an awesome reminder that movies at their best aren't just a passing amusement akin to videos and computer games, but rather were – and are – significant cultural events that demand a suitable atmosphere for deeply focused attention and only then can repay rich rewards, an opportunity fostered in significant part by the venues in which they are presented. Washington's new theatres tempt future generations to become captivated by movie magic.
And what of that future? The coming year promises to extend the signs of hope downtown. Prompted by their spectacular success with Bethesda Row (reportedly their most profitable site in the entire country), the Landmark chain projects (so to speak) completion of its new eight-screen E Street Cinemas at Lincoln Square by the holiday season. The Washington Post also reports that Regal is planning its own multiplex at Gallery Place. May these and yet other new ventures proudly follow in the distinguished footsteps of the Avalon, Georgetown and Silver!
Copyright 2003 by Peter Gutmann
copyright © 1998-2003 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.