The theme of theater preservation is the top priority of the indie documentary, “Preserve Me a Seat.” A loving, mournful look back at the era of movie palaces, and those unwilling to let them go, “Seat” is a must for any fan of cinema and for those geeks who deeply miss the theaters of their youth.
While Hollywood aficionados scream about film preservation, an equally important cause is often left in the dust: theater preservation. Across America, movie palaces are dying; killed off by old age, owner neglect, and that most evil of sins, greed.
The documentary “Preserve Me a Seat” details the fights to save these old dream factories, starting with the saga to protect the Indian Hills Cinerama Theater, located in Omaha, Nebraska, and chronicling similar struggles in Detroit (The Michigan Theater), Illinois (The DuPage Theater), Boston (The Gaiety Auditorium), and Salt Lake City (Villa Cinerama), where glorious architecture was about to meet the stinging kiss of a wrecking ball.
Director Jim Fields draws a very clear line on where moviegoing is headed with this film. A valentine to the days when taking in a motion picture meant a night on the town and a lasting, golden memory, Fields includes a brief history of the decaying industry to remind us all what’s being lost. Once upon a time, reliable presentation and a little stardust was all that was needed to make movies special, but soon the death of these luminescent theaters gave rise to the multiplex, and eventual decline into the cattle mentality and consumer disgust that permeates the industry today. To best illustrate the dissension, Fields includes interviews with proud home theater owners and footage of today’s multiplex at work; numbingly going through the motions to pack as many people into as many theaters as they can build. The sad truth is, as the years go by, fewer people are showing up for this absurd treatment.
That’s what makes “Preserve” such a pearl. Not only is this a chilling reminder of how history is so willingly steamrolled over to make room for homogeny, but it also takes the viewer on a trip back in time to observe long dormant footage of movie palaces in their prime. It’s amazing just how far the quality of exhibition has fallen.
The Indian Hills story is a compelling one of loss and misguided goodwill, and perfect for Fields to hang his film on. The most glorious of all the Cinerama theaters that sprung up in the 1950s and 1960s (its sister complexes included Minnesota’s Cooper Theater, a cherished and frequently missed stomping ground of mine as a child that was bulldozed in 1991), “Preserve” records the fight to turn it into a parking lot by Nebraska Methodist Health Systems, and the grass-roots campaign by the ragtag Indian Hills Preservation Society to stop them. It’s David versus Goliath, but in this story, Goliath had some excellent lawyers, and the Indian Hills met its fate in 2001.
Fields encapsulates the clammy fury of the theater’s vocal fans vividly. They staged demonstrations, encouraged Hollywood stars such a Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston to write the city government asking them to stop the demolition, and eventually persuaded the powers that be to classify the Indian Hills as a historical landmark (a major focus of the third act). Of course, in America, this means absolutely nothing, further driving home the point that these theaters have no shot of surviving in a society that doesn’t consider these churches of the celluloid to be places of historical significance. For the children of cinema, it’s a horrible situation that’s difficult to change.
“Preserve Me a Seat” may not have blockbuster production values (it has a calming PBS feel to it), the “good guys” tend to act unreasonably melodramatic for the camera, and, well, there’s not a happy ending to cheer for. But any movie fan worth their buttered popcorn needs to make time to view it; to remind themselves that the enchantment of movies wasn’t always found in the product, but sometimes it was the venue that brought out the best of what cinema had to offer.Rating: A-