Pleasant Street Theater Closes

Death of a Theater

I needed a little time before writing this and, even now, the sadness lingers. Last weekend I attended the final screening at the Pleasant Street Theater in Northampton, Massachusetts. Its closing came on the heels of two other shockers, the demise of Pleasant Street Video, and the decision to discontinue nightly movies at the Academy of Music. For the first time in over 100 years, there is no movie house in Northampton.

Intellectually I understand that tastes and technologies change. Spiritually I grasp the reality that life itself is transitory. The Buddhists call it anicca, the notion that nothing is permanent. I tried my damndest to immerse myself in the tributes and memories shared by former owners and patrons of “P Street,” as we locals dub it. Despite my best efforts, the celebration felt more like a wake.

Americans like to take solace in two ideas: that change is desirable, and that we live in a world in which the march of history is a constant uphill trudge from primitive to positive progress. We take solace, but I doubt we really believe either of these things as much as we say we do. I’m no Luddite-–How could a Luddite even write a blog?–but I just don’t see the age of the iPad, video-on-demand, and Netflix as an improvement over places like P Street. Spin it as you wish, but in my mind the closing of the Pleasant Street Theater is nothing less than a tumble down Progress Hill and an impoverishment of art, community, and the spirit.

I concede that P Street had issues–it needs new projectors, it’s not handicapped accessible, and the downstairs space­–optimistically dubbed the Little Theater–had a tiny screen, poor sight lines, and so many uncomfortable seats that a lot of folks preferred their widescreen TVs to sitting down there. I know that it would take more to improve P Street than the cost of knocking it down and starting anew. I also confess to being a romantic who is a bit out of touch with modern preferences. In Generica (my term), most viewers like those standardized mall boxes, not P Street’s funky brick-walled ambience. They like blast-the-eardrums wrap-around sound, not quirky equipment that needs tweaking; they want seats that tilt, not wobble.

For all of that, I still think that film ought to be a public event shared with friends and family and discussed at cafes after the screening, not discrete experiences viewed in private living rooms or soul-sucking malls. Art is, above all, a shared heritage, not an act of solitary cultural masturbation. The death of small theaters correlates with the impoverishment of art. One of the things that Generica does is narrow our scope, options, and vision. P Street’s final film was, appropriately, a screening of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 masterpiece “The Last Picture Show.” I saw it right after watching Fellini’s “Roma.” I saw the latter on DVD, so I guess that makes me a bit of a hypocrite, but the larger point is that without venues such as Pleasant Street it’s unlikely I would ever heard of either film. Each is everything Generica is not–experimental, offbeat, and provocative. Each elevated art over commercialism. “The Last Picture Show” is even in black and white, for heaven’s sake, and don’t get me started on the ways in which Fellini films would never pass TV muster. (The nudity alone would kibosh them.)

Why should we care? Check out the bland fare offered at your local mall and you have your answer. Is that level of flabbiness and mindlessness all that we want from that once-robust and diverse entity we call American culture? In theory, of course, one can get anything on video, as I did with “Roma.” Ah, but this where theory meets reality. We all know the adage “Out of sight, out of mind.” We repeat it because it’s true. One could request any of a number of films, but how does one learn of their existence? Reviews? How often do you read a review of something not appearing in your area?

Small venues like the Pleasant Street Theater expanded our horizons by exposing us to filmmakers who waded outside of the mainstream. They challenged us, made us think, and opened doors we would have otherwise never approached. They didn’t show “movies;” they showed “films” and, yes Virginia, there is a difference–a world of difference. Here in Northampton, our world just grew smaller and less interesting. --Rob Weir

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