by Vince Eckert
Recently I’ve been going to the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles a lot. A LOT. In fact, I’ve been to one of each of the screenings so far in October. Why am I doing this? If you’re not around LA you may not have heard: Quentin Tarantino is doing the programming there for the whole month of October. Everything being shown is on film – actual film, the analog media on which movies were made until recently.
If you’re a filmhead and a longtime fan of his work like me, that’s some pretty exciting stuff. I decided I would take the whole thing in and write a experiential-academic essay about it (gonzo academia, weird twitter, that stuff is me after all). This is not that essay – that is going to be a longform piece about the movies themselves and my relationship to them, this one is about what’s going on there behind-the-scenes right now. This piece is my opinion, not an attempt at unbiased journalism.
So what’s happened? Well, there have been some bumps in the road to QT’s takeover of the theater and lots of people are talking about them.
The New Beverly was started by Sherman Torgan in 1978 at the present site at Beverly / La Brea and run more or less continuously ever since. In recent years, it’s fallen on hard times with the rise of the small screen as a thing, so Tarantino stepped in and started subsidizing it. The details are somewhat murky about when this started happening and how much money was exchanged, but the point on which everyone seems to agree is that QT propped it up and kept it from closing down. Eventually he came to own it. After Sherman’s death, his son took over the business for a while. Some people liked the way he did things, some people didn’t. In either case, Tarantino decided that he wanted to try his hand at running it. This is where the first controversy starts.
Did Tarantino do all that out of a love for the venue? Or for the medium of film? Or was he plotting to take it over all along? I think he loves that theater and wants what’s best for it. To him that probably means taking a personal hand in the business. I doubt very much that he cares about the money he could make off of it or the prestige of owning it, it seems like he’s a New Beverly fanboy writ large. That’s great, in fact that’s perfect, right? Somebody who is in love with the theater and the medium should be the perfect person to steward it! I sort of think that way too, but like anything in life it’s never that easy.
The New Bev has a loyal fanbase that has gone there for years. There’s a certain culture there – a sort of down-to-earth, casual, anything goes vibe. This is your weird neighborhood theater to hang out in, the kind that would do midnight rocky horror screenings for all the misfits zipheads and dweeboids. Before and after screenings, and during intermissions, people generally stand outside and have opinions on films. Big opinions. People are understandably very protective of this tradition. There are also several longtime employees there too that many in this scene are familiar with and basically consider extended family. Recently, one of them, Julia Marchese, was let go after she refused to sign an NDA under the new arrangement. I don’t need to speak for her, you should just read the blog post she wrote about her experience there. She also recently made a documentary film about the place that she links to in that post, which I watched and thought was quite good.
This is where the second controversy comes in. Is the above mentioned kerfluffle a sign that Tarantino is trying to hollywoodize the place, jazz it up and steal all its character? Or is it just the kind of growing pains any business taking a new direction has to go through? My gut feeling as somebody who has been going to all these screenings lately is the latter. Why?
For four of the screenings I’ve gone to so far, Quentin Tarantino was actually present. And not just present, but in many ways treating the place like he was a restaurateur and this was his new flagship restaurant. Saying hi to people, making the rounds to talk, answering every question people asked him about the films being shown, if they were brave enough to walk up and ask him. It was really fucking cool and one of the least Hollywood things I’ve seen while I’ve been in Los Angeles.
I doubt very much that he’s always going to have time to do that, given he’s still actively making films, but the fact that he would do that at all says a lot to me about his intentions because, ideally, that’s what the programmer should do. Not just decide what’s being shown – but be present sometimes for the screenings, stimulating the conversations people are already having about the films, not just being some draw to get butts in the seats but an active part of the conversation. I hope that’s what continues to happen.
I don’t know what things used to be like before he took over, but if that’s what it was like when other people were programming then god bless him for maintaining the tradition. If that’s something he’s just doing on his own, that’s a really positive change. Of course, the caveat is that he’s still a big star, so as was inevitable a sign went up saying that he won’t be posing for photos or signing autographs if he’s in attendance, but come on, that’s understandable. As long as that doesn’t stop him from going into film-professor-mode when he’s there and stimulating the discourse, who cares.
I really hope whoever does the programming next does that too. I think the New Beverly can go a long towards bringing back film culture if it does. And I definitely don’t think it’s going to turn into a multiplex.
Just to let you know where I stand in regard to all this: I am not friends with Quentin Tarantino and the only interactions we’ve had were in the context of the New Beverly. I am not friends with Julia Marchese either, although I interacted with her at the New Bev as well. They were both super nice to me. I have never met the Torgans. I’m not on anybody’s payroll and I’m also not going to accept any compensation for this piece, because I’m doing this for film, not as a way to line my pockets. I have declined Feedbuzz’s normal commission of half a pack of open starbursts.
I also haven’t asked anyone to comment. If either Julia or Quentin wishes to write a rebuttal after reading this, however, I would be happy to post it at the end of this piece.
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