'Going Attractions': Film Review

Courtesy of Going Places
Informative and pleasing, if not quite as definitive as it intends to be.
1/3/2020

April Wright's film-history doc recalls the opulent movie theaters of yesteryear.

Celebrating a bygone age in which cinema was not merely a communal activity but one that could dazzle the senses even before the show began, April Wright's Going Attractions sets out to be "The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace." Like her similarly named 2013 film about drive-ins, it is useful in part simply for explaining to younger viewers what moviegoing could be like before the advent of multiplexes. Though its focus could be tighter and its production values sometimes betray Wright's limited means (she really should have used still photos as they were, instead of trying to 3D-ify them), the documentary is uncompromised in its shots of spectacular movie houses that have escaped the wrecking ball. One can imagine it being a big draw in such venues, as special-event programming designed to help raise funds for restoration or operating expenses; elsewhere, film lovers will find home viewing perfectly adequate.

Introductory interview clips deliver variations on a familiar sentiment: Movies mean more when you don't watch them alone in your living room, and don't get us started on you philistines who watch them on your phones on the subway. For those who groan at such talk, the accompanying photography should be sufficient distraction: scenes of stunningly ornate interiors in a variety of architectural styles. Some viewers may have a hard time believing such theaters still exist; many will find it hard to believe they were constructed not as plutocrats' homes or halls of government, but for the mundane purpose of showing movies to regular people.

Wright and her interviewees zip through the early history of film exhibition, which was often anything but mundane. We get just enough background on early film technology to explain how closely linked pioneer filmmakers were with the entrepreneurs who brought their work to the paying public. Within a few years of the hand-cranked inventions that brought short films to one viewer at a time, storefront cinemas were herding large audiences into rooms to watch shorts; as these were paired with live vaudeville acts, the movies entered performance venues that could rival those devoted to legit theater or operas.

Leonard Maltin (the film's MVP) recounts the early development of the feature-length movie, while others — several interviewees are the current owners of theaters, or work with groups advocating for them — describe the theaters that were soon designed specifically to show movies. We hear of some trailblazing showmen, though, sadly, colorful anecdotes are in short supply. There was Samuel "Roxy" Rothafel, for instance, who gave his nickname to a Times Square theater and later helped develop Radio City Music Hall; or Balaban & Katz, who built massive movie palaces in Chicago. (Chicago, New York and Los Angeles get most of the doc's attention, but Wright and company point out how many small cities had impressive cinemas of their own.)

Discussion of the intertwining of movie studios and theater ownership — which led to the transformative 1940s consent decrees, currently being dismantled by an administration that doesn't seem terribly concerned about the concentration of ownership in media — is interesting and important enough that one wishes the film gave it more attention. Instead, Wright blazes through to get to the many other factors that helped kill the movie palaces. After the Depression, television and an exodus to suburbia dealt big blows to theaters. Exhibitors fought back with 3D, William Castle-like gimmicks, and new formats like CinemaScope; but theaters designed to resemble Versailles or Moorish palaces seemed less and less relevant to these efforts, and many were left to rot or simply knocked down.

Going Attractions observes what happened to the rest: Some became 24-hour grindhouses where the homeless urinated on the carpet; some were crudely retrofitted for office or retail space; some, praise God, were taken over by churches that maintained their splendor.

Elsewhere, some lucky communities never let their palaces die. Austin's Paramount Theater, though not opulent enough to be featured here, was adopted by new owners in the '70s and soon transformed into a non-profit. Thanks to its now decades-old film program (which runs in between moneymaking live-music and stage productions), generations of college kids reared on VHS were able to see David Lean epics, The Godfather and classic screwball comedies in a magnificent setting. They learned first-hand what a film like this can only suggest: Great art can be elevated by the environment in which we encounter it; and in the right setting, even a run-of-the-mill movie may become a memorable night out. A century ago, some showmen knew that a sufficiently dazzling building could sell tickets regardless of the movies being shown inside. Today's struggling theater owners, currently engaged in a reclining-armchair arms race, might learn something from their ambition.

Production company: Passion River Films
Director-screenwriter: April Wright
Producers-editors: Rachael Ponn, April Wright
Director of photography: Dustin Pearlman
Composer: Chris Wormer

83 minutes