The Eclipse of Seattle’s Neptune and the Best Film Corner in America

The Eclipse of Seattle’s Neptune and the Best Film Corner in America   (photo)

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There’s been enough heartbreak over the past few days without learning that the Neptune Theatre in Seattle will be shut down as a first-run theater for films in February, which like the similarly historic (and single-screen) Clay in San Francisco has been abandoned by the Landmark Theater chain, which operated the theater since 1981. By then, it was already 60 years into its lease, with the high ceilings, stained glass and all the other movie palace opulence one would expect.

Unfortunately for me, I would only have the opportunity to go to the Neptune during this year’s Seattle Film Festival, but I strongly concur with everything Film Essent‘s Kim Voynar says in her eulogy for the theater and what it might mean for the area’s film scene as a whole; it’s the rare city where many of the theaters offer a true experience beyond the film you’re seeing. Over the course of the weekend I was in Seattle, I ran up the wave-shaped ramp that led to the film’s balcony four times — true to its name, the theater has a maritime theme.

11302010_ScarecrowVideo.jpgThis is a particularly jarring development since I came away from the Northwest believing I had found America’s closest thing to a mecca for movie lovers in Seattle’s University District, an area that included the Neptune and the unassuming street corner of 50th Street and Roosevelt Way just a few blocks away.

Sure, there are grand old theaters and certain streets that are destinations for passionate filmgoers: Hollywood Boulevard is one such obvious place, where the street isn’t just named after the dream factory, but still can claim hallowed halls like the Chinese, the El Capitan and the Egyptian as tenants, as well as the exhaustive Larry Edmunds Bookshop, with the Walk of Fame as its sidewalk; Houston Street in New York is home to arthouse landmarks, Film Forum and the Angelika, not to mention the still-relatively new kid on the block, the Sunshine; and of course in Austin, you will not only be able to snack on some queso while watching something at the Alamo Drafthouse, but they’ll also be able to clothe you in proper film geek attire at their adjoining Mondo Tees. Yet within 500 feet of each other, Scarecrow Video, the Seven Gables Theater and Cinema Books exist in perfect harmony, balancing out each other as a place to rent movies, see them on the big screen and read about them.

If there was a heavy in this relationship, it would have to be Scarecrow, a legendary video store that houses over 100,000 tapes and DVDs under its roof and is the biggest such store I’ve ever seen in the U.S., if not the world. (In nearby Portland, the equally incredible Movie Madness Video has a mere 70,000-strong collection, but compensates with an indoor gallery of props and costumes from classic movies like Norman Bates’ knife from “Psycho.”)

Of course, these are troubled times for brick-and-mortar stores, but I suspect Seattle is a weaker spot for Netflix than other places in the country. Here, it’s superfluous when the selection isn’t only bigger than the online giant, but more specific — the foreign categories aren’t limited to the usual superpowers such as Italy and China, but Kyrgyzstan, Nicaragua and Slovakia, and demarcations well beyond genre constraints. Want “Bullitt”? Head to the “Vroom! Section,” comprised entirely of biker and car-chase-heavy flicks. And if a film was picked by Roger Ebert as one of the best films of the ’90s, its box will bear that distinction and an excerpt from his review. (Mostly, the well-heeled staff will offer their own – example: “Goodfellas” – “Should have won for best picture…cause it’s the best picture. OK?”)

11302010_SevenGables.jpgAcross the intersection from Scarecrow, Cinema Books sits underneath the Seven Gables Theatre, along with an Italian restaurant (Mamma Melina’s) that posts the theater’s times in its windows, so people can ensure they won’t miss their movie after the lasagna. Incidentally, the new book section at the front of Cinema Books resembled a pastrami sandwich stacked high. When I was there, Seattle native Vern’s “Yippie Ki-Yay Moviegoer” shared space with a book of Atom Egoyan interviews and Shawn Levy’s biography of Paul Newman, while a carousel of birthday cards featuring Cary Grant and a collection of film magazines from around the world stood off to the side. Unlike Scarecrow, all this was inside a store not much bigger than a shoebox, but it was nonetheless impressive.

Still, it might not have been as impressive as the Seven Gables upstairs, a place every bit as homey, literally, as the Neptune feels grand. Like the Harvard Exit on the other side of town, the Seven Gables was actually built in 1925 as a meeting hall that was converted into a theater, with the resulting theater feeling like you’ve walked into the private screening room of Hearst Castle. As one walks in from the street, it’s not entirely obvious where the actual auditorium is since there’s a huge living room off to the left filled with plush chairs and reading material, though the shaggy lobby belies a theater full of art deco touches, including boxy chandeliers that ascend into the ceiling when the curtain rises.

With the curtain falling on the Neptune – at least as a film venue since word is it’ll become a live performance venue – it’s an acknowledgment that even in places where there are enough passionate cinephiles to sustain gargantuan video stores and cinema bookstores, there’s still been an erosion of the film experience as a whole, where fewer people appreciate their theaters having as much character as what they see onscreen. I don’t live in Seattle, so I’m certainly not as qualified to talk as native Northwesterners, but this news should hit home for film fans the world over.

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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