I walk along the intersection of Harvard Avenue and Beacon Street, but make a left turn before I reach the famous, art-deco inspired marquee of the Coolidge Corner Theatre. I enter a door I didn’t think I had the authority to open, walk up two flights of stairs, and turn into an office. Kurosawa, DeNiro, and Netflix posters live side by side in a colorful office. The walls are adorned with pamphlets featuring some of the most notable images from the last half-decade of film: Daniel Kaluuya’s terrified, tear-filled eyes from Get Out, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones’ jovial dance from The Theory of Everything, and Mahershala Ali’s tender swimming lesson from Moonlight.
I’m meeting with Katherine Tallman, CEO of the Coolidge Corner Foundation. Before I can get a word in, she compliments me on my sneakers. The interview spans topics ranging from the history of the Coolidge, to the #MeToo movement, to the future of cinema in the age of streaming. But through the entire conversation, one recurring theme stands out: cinema is a reflection of our collective anxiety, and as a communal experience it relieves us of our deepest disquietudes.
But to understand the value of a place like the Coolidge, we need to start at the beginning.
The neon marquee is the most notable part of the theatre. It forces you back to a different time, when going to the movies demanded the same formality as any other black-tie event. Gowns dragged across the patterned carpet and crystal glasses full of champagne clinked as Brookline locals discussed Roosevelt’s New Deal and its implications on the economy.
It’s worth remembering that the movie theatre used to be more than a source of entertainment. It was also where newsreels would be shown to the public. In talking about the importance and impact of sharing experiences with an audience, Tallman relayed a story that the chief usher in 1941, a high schooler at the time, told at the Coolidge's 75th anniversary celebration. He said one of his most difficult life experiences was telling a Coolidge audience on Dec. 7, 1941 that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. He dutifully offered refunds to anyone wanting to leave, but not a single member of the audience chose to do so.
Through the thick and the thin, the Brookline community has always rallied around the Coolidge. In 1989, the theater wasn’t looking so great. If you were waiting for a movie outside, you’d be greeted by the sight of torn-up cushions on the sidewalk, and when you tried to find a seat for the movie, you’d realize where those cushions used to be. The bank was ready to foreclose on this valuable piece of property, and for a while it looked like the arrival of Regal and AMC cinemas meant the death of the arthouse theater. But it was a group of people known now as the 89ers who pooled enough money among themselves to negotiate leasing terms with the bank.
The Coolidge was learning to walk again, but it needed intense physical therapy. It went through a number of directors before being renovated and revived as the Coolidge Corner Theater we know and love. As a result of a booming independent movie industry and a relentless dedication to bring together the community through film, the Coolidge was now in a place prosperous enough to plan an expansion.
But the Coolidge isn’t safe from traditional cinema’s biggest boogeyman, Netflix. Tallman recounts a visit from Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. When asked for his thoughts on watching movies on small screens, Coolidge Awardee Vittorio Storaro said that he came across one of his films on an airplane screen and “didn't recognize it as his own work."
The tragedy goes beyond the fact that we are watching spectacularly shot films on smaller and smaller screens. It’s the isolation inherent to the experience that is most detrimental to our culture. Going to a movie theatre is more than a good time; it’s a Durkheimian ritual, one that we need to bring us out of our own individualistic isolation. You know how you when you watch a comedy on Netflix in your bedroom through your headphones, it will elicit a chuckle at best? And how when you watch a far less funny movie in a room full of strangers, you’ll feel your abdominal muscles cramp from the laughter? It’s because we can always achieve more together than we can alone, because there is no substitute for the comfort of community.
When asked why she would bother going to the cinema, Kelsey Kelter, MCAS ’21 says, "Being surrounded by a crowd of individuals who want the same interaction with the film makes me enjoy the overall environment exponentially. Prices have always deterred me from frequently going to the movies, but quality films always make it worth the money.” And the Coolidge is not lacking in quality films.
Though the doomsayers may bemoan the “end of cinema” as a result of blockbuster franchises and inaccessible intertextuality, the film industry has never been stronger. Tallman, having just returned from the Toronto International Film Festival, seemed happy at the dilemma of having to choose from a pool of great upcoming films to screen at the Coolidge.
But what of the everlasting dichotomy between film-as-art and film-as-mindless-superhero-computer-generated-entertainment? Think of the short-lived “Best Popular Movie” category for the Oscars. An attempt to garner more ratings, sure, but also an honest admittance by the academy that the Oscars have stopped reflecting the true zeitgeist of American culture. Or have they?
Whether we like it or not, every piece of cinematic art is a reflection of our current zeitgeist. The easiest way to gauge this is to look at the same character throughout different cinematic eras. Take Superman, the quintessential embodiment of American exceptionalism. The late 70s and early 80s saw the blaring brass-section glory of Christopher Reeve, an optimism that fits right into the economic boom of Reaganism and a newfound sense of superiority over the USSR. Look at 2013’s Man of Steel, however, and you begin to see themes of xenophobia—Superman is an illegal alien, after all—and a hesitant attitude towards the use of weapons of mass destruction. So believe it or not, even the image of Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon pummeling each other through skyscrapers holds immense cultural value.
But the Coolidge knows what it is and what it is not. The Coolidge screened eight out of the nine 2017 Best Picture nominees, all of which are well-made films. Tallman noted that the Coolidge programs primarily independent films, and focuses on quality, which cuts across demographics. Indeed, many of the Best Picture nominees and winners have been 'indie' films. Still though, the Lord of the Rings trilogy won awards back-to-back in the early aughts, so maybe the issue shouldn’t be with “film snobs,” but rather with a complacent film industry, happily churning out sequels and reboots.
Which is why the Coolidge holds another dimension of importance in the Brookline community. It stands out as one of the last of its kind: an arthouse movie theatre focused on bringing quality, lesser-known films to a devoted community with which it has an understanding of mutual respect. But this old dog can learn new tricks.
A common rhetoric in this day and age is that of “needing dialogue.” Many of those tired of political and cultural polarization wax rhapsodic on the importance of reaching over the isle without any clear idea on how to do so. The Coolidge understands film as a cultural heartbeat, and its post-film discussion series such as Science on Screen and Wide Lens aim to foster mutual understanding. It’s hard to always be sympathetic, but the least we can do is listen, and at the Coolidge, respectful discussion is always welcome.
The Coolidge’s unique duty to its surrounding community is one that it doesn’t take lightly. As a result of this symbiotic relationship, the Coolidge has maintained its significant role as both a member and promoter of dialogue and education.
My conversation with Ms. Tallman went on for almost an hour. Of all the things we talked about, most prominent was the undercurrent of modern anxiety. There is so much we fear today, and it is easy to get caught up and forget that we have people and experiences to look towards for comfort.