the diary thing 
A WEEK AGO, THEY PUBLICLY ANNOUNCED THE CLOSING OF THE YORK. "They" are the Cineplex Odeon Corporation, and the York is the York Cinemas, a thirty-two-year old movie theatre in midtown Toronto. The last movie shown in the larger of the cinema's two theatres would be Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence is one of my favorite films, ever, so I made a point of going, if only to see a decent print, shown the way movies should be seen.

At nearly midnight, as Maurice Jarre's soundtrack continued playing after the credits had rolled, staff dismanted the concession stands while customers looted what they could. In the lobby, a small crowd, what looked like a family, grandmother and all, scooped the dregs out of a large, clear lucite bulk candy display, scraping dusty jujubes, jellybeans and smarties into paper bags, their wrists tightly wedged into the plastic bins. In the upstairs lobby, a young man sat on a bench under one of the empty display cases where movie posters had been displayed, slowly peeling the "Coming Soon" sticker from the empty frame. 

Two hours before, during the film's intermission, there were still posters in the frames, advertising the fall's upcoming releases. While we watched Peter O'Toole scream "No prisoners!" before the awful but exhilarating massacre of the retreating Turkish army, employees had unlocked the shallow cases to unpin and roll up the posters, still officially the property of the movie studios who make and distribute the films. They might, out of a sense of neatness, have re-locked the cases, but they didn't, leaving them empty and ajar, an unmistakable and intentional image of decrepitude.

I took something, too. I'm not proud of it -- in fact, I've probably broken some kind of law -- but I couldn't resist. As I stood by the ticket booth, ignored by the redundant staff emptying the concession stand, and the patrons scanning the lobby for souvenirs, I saw a clipboard, sitting on the tall box with the slot on top where ticket stubs come to rest, mere feet from where they're issued. The clipboard was labelled "York Ops Checklist" and sitting on top  of it, free of the metal clamp, was a letter to a York employee, informing them of their imminent unemployment.

Later, checking my Perly's city map, I saw that the employee lived only a short drive -- or a healthy walk -- from the York. The letter, dated twelve days earlier, was written in an impeccable corporate tone, remarkable if nothing else for its vague hints of guilt, regret, and mea culpa, issued through the gritted teeth of formal business jargon.

This letter will confirm the announcement today that the York Cinemas will close on August 26th, 2001. This letter will serve as written notice that there will no longer be a need for your services effective August 26th, 2001. This notice period meets any obligation on the Company's part under your province's Employment Standards Act of any other applicable legislation.

There's no indication from the letter what the recipient did, and I can't help but wonder why he or she left the letter out there, on top of the "Ops Checklist", except as a kind of small, subtle, theatrical gesture. Before the film began, a young man turned on a microphone at the front of the theatre and introduced himself as Chris, "at the moment, the manager of the York Cinemas." He got a big laugh and a round of applause from the crowd, which barely filled the theatre to a third of capacity. 

He made a little speech about the York, which opened on Christmas Eve, 1969, and pointed out that rooms like the York One were built specifically for films like Lawrence: wide and deep, with long, sloping aisles and the remnants of a theatre's proscenium arch and stage apron. Chris explained that the soundtrack would begin playing an overture before the film itself began, that there would be a fifteen-minute intermission, and that music would play again to announce the film's second half. There was a reverence in his voice, as if he was describing the rituals of some long-gone civilization, one whose worldview could accomodate such careful formality, where time passed in solemnly respected intervals.

As we announced on February 15, 2001, in order to complete a strategic restructuring of the finances and business operations of Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corporation, Cineplex Odeon Corporation and other Canadian subsidiaries have sought and obtained an Order under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

The York is not the first cinema that the Cineplex Odeon Corporation has had to close in Toronto, and it won't be the last. First to go was the Cineplex flagship facility, the Eaton Centre multiplex that opened in the late Seventies; the first ever built, more than a dozen shoebox-sized theatres in the city's newest supermall, which had quickly turned into a tawdry grind house full of teen comedies, slasher flicks, and months-old summer and Christmas blockbusters that still drew modest crowds. No one seemed sad when it closed, but it provided a too-neat indication of grim portents for Cineplex Odeon, and the industry at large.

Over the past year, more of the chain's older theatres and multiplexes all over the city's core were closed: Market Square, the Hyland, and Canada Square, the last only three blocks from the York. Time is apparently running out for the Carlton Cineplex, the chain's art house multiplex, only a block from Church Street, the heart of Toronto's gay ghetto. An AMC megaplex was supposed to go up within sight of the Eaton Centre cineplex, and was actually cited as a reason to close the old complex, even before AMC had broken ground. To date, the site still sits empty behind its hoardings, as AMC seems to be angling quietly out of the project after a brutal sea-change in movie exhibitors' business climate.

"A man used to vicissitudes is not easily dejected."
- Samuel Johnson

A purloined letter. It's about a movie theatre, but it's also about the slow decline of, well, everything, I guess.

My buddy Dennis' novel has just been published. You should buy it. For Canadians, click here. For American readers, click here. Note the different covers.
These actions are intended to address the severe liquidity contraints that have affected our company as well as many other companies in the exhibition industry over the past year. These financial pressures are due mainly to last summer's decline in theatre attendance and the industry-wide oversupply of theatre screens resulting from aggressive building of new megaplexes coupled with difficulties in closing older, obsolete theatres.

To address this challenge, we intend to eliminate under-performing theatres from our portfolio.

I go to fewer films now than I did, even five or six years ago, despite the fact that I work as a movie reviewer. Certainly, an evening out at the movies is almost never one of my first choices when making plans with K. or friends. A movie these days involves a trip to a corporate screening room, or a seat in a near-empty megaplex theatre early one weekday morning, after signing in, coffee in hand, and picking up my press kit. I know I'm hardly in the majority, but I can certainly understand "last summer's decline in theatre attendance": most movies, these days, stink.

I can only imagine, in the light of godawful cheese like Pearl Harbor, or the technically stunning but simplistic, childishly reverent films that Steven Spielberg makes when he's trying to be an artist, how Lawrence would have turned out, had it been made today. I've seen Lawrence many times, over two decades, and with each viewing I'm more impressed with O'Toole's twitchy, neurotic portrayal of T. E. Lawrence, with David Lean's intention to make a heroic epic about the cynical and compromised process of making a hero out of a masochist and occasional psychotic. As I get older, the film rings truer, based on what I know about ambition, about popular mythology, about politics and history and the need for people to worship and believe. 

We seem to have reverted to a Saturday afternoon serial version of movie morality, with bland heroes and inevitable love stories, every troublesome or unpleasant personality trait invested in villains whose will to evil is satanic in its motivelessness. In any case, the megaplexes built for these movies are perfect facilities, taking their design cues from video games, bad science fiction, and cartoons. The Silver City megaplex, three blocks away, is just this kind of facility, all neon and blacklight and cheap set-dressing. It's implicity understood that the Silver City killed Canada Square and the York.

Regretfully, we have determined that it is necessary to close the theatre at which you are currently employed. We know that this is a very painful development for you and your family. Please be assured that we have explored all alternatives and have concluded that we have no choice but to proceed this way.

It's hard to be too sentimental about the York, as a building. It was in every way unremarkable, a featureless box, built in the ornament-free style of vernacular, low-budget modernism, its only flourish the broad spiral staircase leading up to cinema one. If it was the Eglinton -- a lovely art-deco cinema a few blocks west of the York -- that was being shuttered, there would have been articles, editorials, a citizen's group and earnest, indignant press releases. 

I was much sadder, angry even, many years ago, when they closed the University, a grand space-age post-war theatre which would have premiered a film like Lawrence. It sat empty for awhile before its auditorium was sheared away, leaving a grand entranceway to a parking lot, the condo/office project that prompted the University's destruction having evaporated in the wake of the early-Nineties recession. The facade, a sweeping curve of concrete and tile, finally went down last year, as a new condo/retail complex began construction.

We appreciate your assistance during the period you were employed by Cineplex Odeon and wish you luck in future endeavors.

No one will probably shed a tear for the York except, perhaps, for the employees, most of whom can look forward to little more than a sideways move to another sector of the service industry. As I walked to the subway after Lawrence, I tried to recall a single fond memory of the York, and discovered one, as I walked along the sidewalk where patrons lined up for shows, and remembered standing here, twenty years ago, waiting to see a re-release of Casablanca

I was with a high school friend and his pretty younger sister, with whom I was nursing a gnawing, doomed crush. I had never seen Casablanca before. It was just before the explosion of VCRs and rental stores like Blockbuster, when movie studios could earn a buck in fallow seasons by striking a few new prints of their back-catalogue classics and sending them out again with a bit of a publicity push. A schoolmate named Paul -- a recent newcomer at school, later my best friend at college and, still, today -- walked past us as he left the earlier screening and pointed to me, making a joke. "Hey, Rick's Cafe American!" he said, and changed his voice to a mediocre impression of Humphrey Bogart: "I stick my neck out for nobody!" I didn't get it, of course, wouldn't for about an hour or so. 

Paul has a film premiering at this year's film festival, a gangster movie, his first as a director. He's never really forgiven Toronto for demolishing the University, constantly complains about the miserable quality of movie projection, and lives most of the year with his family in London, where you can get a drink in a movie theatre. I still watch Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia whenever I can, and plan on getting a DVD player, maybe by Christmas. I have already bought the DVD of Lawrence and yes, you can blame people like me whenever they close a theatre like the York.

writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
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