Bombast: Queens, City of Cinema (Part Two)
Read part one of “Queens, City of Cinema” here.
I’ve been periodically visiting the Cinemart for years—it was a 20-minute drive from my former home in fashionable Williamsburg, and I (very belatedly) saw The Social Network there in the winter of 2010, on a slightly worse-for-the-wear 35mm print. Yes, the prospect of livid-green emulsion scratches, prancing dust mites, and encroaching tendrils of detritus are the principal allure of this Forest Hills house which, bravely waiting for this digital fad to blow over, has yet to switch brands to digital.
Architecturally, the building is nothing to write home about. The façade has been repeatedly altered to the point where the original character has been entirely lost. Though there was a rumor at one time that the ceiling panels in the lobby were going to be removed to reveal the coffered majesty underneath, today the lobby remains a more or less intact specimen of 1989 multiplex décor, which never fails to send me on a Proustian journey to the late Showcase Cinemas Tri-County in Cincinnati, Ohio. When the present-day Cinemart first opened its doors on March 10, 1927 as the 1,300-seat Metropolis Theatre, however, the scene described by the Forest Hills-Kew Gardens Post was quite a bit more impressive:
“It is modern in every detail and nothing has been omitted that will contribute to the comfort and convenience of its patrons. The decorations are carried out in French gray, old rose and gold. A huge crystal dome has been installed in the center of the house. All of the seats are on one floor. On the second floor there are luxurious lounging rooms for the use of the theatre’s patrons. A $30,000 Wurlitzer organ has been installed, which will alternate with an eight-piece orchestra in furnishing music during the running of the pictures . . . The opening day [March 10] program includes Blonde or Brunette, starring Adolphe Menjou, and a Hal Roach comedy, Why Girls Say No.”
As it happens, this was a little too much luxury for Forest Hills on the cusp of the Depression, and the Metropolis would fold in short order. After lying fallow for a couple of years, the building reopened in March 1931, wired with Western Electric sound equipment, as the Inwood Theatre. This in turn closed its doors on August 31, 1953, and sometime afterwards was reborn as the Inwood Art Cinema, whose programming seems to have been a mixture of rep revival and foreign fare, today unfathomable though not at all uncommon in the years immediately following the crumbling of the American studio system. In 1959, for example, we find a double feature of The Red Inn and Caroline Cherie, two films by the French comic actor Fernandel, at the Inwood Art. This is the same year that a print of Modern Times, apparently not authorized for exhibition, was seized from the projection booth by Federal marshals.
The theater remained a single screen through the Seventies, even as it gained the new sobriquet CinemaArt (later shortened to the present “Cinemart”), and started booking slightly seedier stuff. In 1972 the Inwood played host to Barnard L. Sackett’s Eroticon, while the Long Island Press of January 12, 1973 lists a double bill of Oh! Calcutta and Fritz the Cat at the theater—the same double bill that was then playing at the Fair. (This trajectory is, again, typical, as the racy foreign import gave way to domestic titillation and then, frequently, outright smut.) The Cinemart was finally twinned in 1982, when most of New York’s single screens were being partitioned, and right around the time that it began playing tonier new releases—apparently A Room with a View held on there for 56 straight weeks. Today it has five screens, and is operated by longtime independent Nicolas Nicolaou, who also owns Cinema Village in Manhattan and the Alpine in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, which could be a column unto itself.
Movie: Transformers: Age of Extinction
My companion and I arrived at the ticket window a few minutes before the listed 8:00 start time for Transformers: Age of Extinction, only to discover that there was no 8:00 Transformers: Age of Extinction being advertised at the window. “What happened to the 8:00 Transformers: Age of Extinction?” I, a 33-year-old adult man, sweating profusely, lips stained with red wine, asked the teenager in the booth. “There was a problem with the print,” she responded. Viva 35mm!
The only other showtime nearing was an 8:15 X-Man: Days of Future Past, which I would rather eat a bowl of scabs than watch, but we weren’t going to go home after having come this far without a dose of Tinseltown magic, so off we went to…
The palace-to-plex story should be familiar by now. In the beginning was the Main Street Playhouse, designed by architect Joseph Unger and unveiled sometime in 1940—a “Grand Opening” ad shows a double bill of Mervyn LeRoy’s Escape and the Wallace Beery Western Wyoming. The Main Street Playhouse begat the Main Street Twin when, in order to keep up with the times, the Playhouse was twinned in 1985. This wholly failed to solve the Main Street Cinema’s financial problems, but after being closed for a time, the theater rose from the ashes as a six-plex: the old balcony became screens #5 and #6, the loge level was made into #3 and #4, and the front of the theater was made into #1 and #2.
The Main Street Cinema is under the same management as the Sunnyside Center Cinema (see part one of the survey), another already smallish cinema subdivided into roughly living-room-sized theaters, and they have the same ticket prices and the same house publication, the Movie Facts pamphlet (“Your Guide to the Movies Since 1972!”) The theater we sat in (#4) had a couple of torch-shaped sconces on the wall, which apparently have been retained from days of yore—a regular attendee from the early Sixties remembers them on Cinema Treasures, where most recollections from this period speak of a bill heavy on kaiju and Famous Monsters of Filmland fare. Perhaps most thrilling of all: Fran Drescher, television’s The Nanny and a native of Kew Gardens Hills, once worked at the candy counter.
Like the Sunnyside, the Main Street has been converted to digital in recent years—an expense that they could probably ill afford. One of the old Simplex X-L 35mm projectors, manufactured in Bloomfield, New Jersey, now stands in the lobby, serving a purely decorative function. Nearby is a stairwell which leads to a disarmingly spacious waiting area, which I found empty save for a Rigid Air Mover floor dryer and a discarded insert from a lady’s shoe, and the bathrooms beyond. I popped down before the feature, bladder full to bursting from an extended layover at Parson’s Ale House (79-08 Fresh Meadows Blvd—10 bucks buys you a Wild Turkey and Guinness!), and stumbled into a cluster of tweens pirouetting about madly. From whence came all of this energy, all of this passion to DANCE? Well, as it transpired, they’d just come out of the movie we were on our way into…
Movie: Step Up: All In
This, the fifth film in the Step Up franchise, was my second outing with the series. Step Up: All In carries over several characters from Step Up Revolution, including protagonist Sean Asa, played by MMA-fighter-turned-dancer Ryan Guzman. This installment picks up a few months after the conclusion of Revolution, in which Sean and his Miami-based crew, “The MOB,” were about to live virally ever after, having parlayed their vaguely anti–Wall Street (or anti-guys-in-suits) street theater into a commercial contract with Nike.
I saw Step Up Revolution in 2012, and reviewed it for The Village Voice. Revisiting that “Tracking Shot”—one of innumerable 200-worders that I was then grinding out for an amount that I frequently earn for 4,000 words these days—I find it acceptably well written, but condescending and failing entirely to convey the film’s sense of giddiness, which I refer to in passing. It seems to me the product of a critic entirely unhappy with his position and, because of this, insensate to unexpected pleasures—perhaps because I happen to know that both things were, at this particular point, true. More than once, I stoop to mockingly quoting dialogue from the film for word-count filler, as though anyone on the planet would watch a Step Up movie for the Noel Coward–esque epigrams, and note that the film is “ideologically incomprehensible,” comparing it to The Dark Knight. This is, in fact, true, though I’m not at all sure that it’s a liability worth noting.*
Step Up: All In is, like its predecessor, “ideologically incomprehensible.” It’s larded with dreadful dialogue and cliché situations. And I couldn’t possibly have enjoyed it more. As the film opens, The MOB are in disarray, having been lured from Miami to Los Angeles by the Nike shoot and then staying on for what has turned out to be the illusory promise of more riches. Doubts about Sean’s leadership enter crisis mode when he pushes The MOB, unprepared, into an impromptu dance-off with the top-dog local crew, The Grim Knights, who humiliate them so thoroughly that they take the next flight back to Miami.
Sean, still clinging to the L.A. dream, sticks around, sleeping in a closet at the ballroom dance studio operated by the ambiguously European grandparents of his friend “Moose” (series regular Adam G. Sevani), who now works in a laboratory/factory of some kind. (It’s the sort of child’s conception of a grown-up job that Antoine Doinel used to land.) Sean gets word of an America’s Best Dance Crew-like televised competition that’s to be hosted in Las Vegas by one Alexxa Brava—the grand prize is a regular casino gig—and sees this as his last best shot. With a pause for a reprisal of the “You’re eating cooked testicles” gag from Chevy Chase’s Funny Farm at Moose’s grandparent’s dinner table, Sean and Moose set about assembling a new crew that includes Moose’s friend, Andie (Sevani’s Step Up 2: The Streets co-star Briana Evigan.) They use Moose’s workplace to create a Frankenstein-inspired mad scientist number, and enter the contest under a name that I have entered on my notepad as an impenetrable scribble that’s something like LIMNWXYRKP. (They pronounce it “Elementrix.”)
The audition piece is good enough to write XTRMNTRs ticket to Vegas, where Sean’s competition includes not only The Grim Knights and their taunting leader Jasper (Stephen Jones), but his old crew, The MOB, now mortal enemies. Having arrived in this city of dreams, Sean and Andie, who’ve shed their love interests from their respective Step Ups, try to come to terms with a burgeoning attraction, which nearly gets hot-and-heavy during a late-night visit to the Neon Museum, when they turn a New York-themed teacup ride with taxicab spinners into the staging ground for a slinky duet to “old school Bobby Brown.” (This carnival version of the ’hood is as near as All In gets to the stink of the streets, while both performers would’ve been in diapers during the heyday of New Jack Swing.)
Blooming romance is stymied by the face that Sean’s bullheaded will to win blinds him to the needs and feelings of everyone around him, including Andie. The strain reaches breaking point when LMFAO learn that the outcome of the final round is fixed. At this point Sean, still no great shakes as a leader of men, decides he wants to throw in the towel, because after all this was only about “All our hard work paying off so we can have some actual stability.” Now Andie, lent particular moral authority by Evigan’s glass-gargler delivery, establishes her moral authority: “It’s far more than that for me.”
I don’t mind telling you that I was genuinely moved here. I had begun to self-identify quite strongly with Sean, who had lost sight of his priorities in pursuit of the phantom of stability, whom I fancied had the same difficult relationship to his profession that I had around the time that I was reviewing Step Up Revolution—“Got the spirit, lose the feeling,” in the words of Ian Curtis. And it’s at this point that Step Up: All In, like Revolution, begins tossing aside its convictions with such blithe indifference that it seems not to notice that it’s doing so at all. Though Sean briefly flirts with cynicism after discovering the fix (“It’s reality TV, nothing’s real,” he spits), it turns out that the system does work, and that talent will out in the end—Sean’s crew are so overwhelmingly the favorite after the big dance-off that they get the Vegas contract and the regular paychecks that go with it. It’s not whether you win or lose, but better to win all the same, n’est-ce pas? As in Revolution, you can’t go two scenes in All In without tripping over a product placement—Nike, Starbucks, Gordon Ramsay, Google, VH1—but this time this backdrop only seemed to underscore the film’s clear theme. In the logo-plastered, everything-bought-and-paid-for dystopia which is contemporary America, the only possessions that you indisputably own are your integrity, your ecstasy, and your own body—much the same thematic territory explored in Step Up alum Channing Tatum’s Magic Mike.
In filming those bodies in glorious motion, All In director Trish Sie, a choreographer-cum-filmmaker, favors proscenium wide shots which keep all the moving parts of the big, full-crew numbers visible at once. Show-stoppers include a Newsies-chic number with Sean and company channeling a Forties boxing picture, climaxing with dancers being “knocked” out of the ring and then spewed back onstage; the Grim Knights as a gang of aggro Roman Centurions; and, finally, XLR8R and The MOB joining forces for a steampunk megaproduction, capped by Sean sending Andie soaring clear onto the ceiling of the theater… Yes, I should mention that the movie was projected in the 1.85 aspect ratio, though the screen had been masked into a 2.35 slit, meaning that the image spilled over the top and bottom. At one point I went out to explain the problem to a 17-year-old with a managerial air, and he slipped into the projection booth as though to do something, at which point I returned to the theater, where the masking stayed resolutely in place for the rest of the picture. Try getting that experience in your living room!
The Main Street Cinema is hardly the last of Queens County’s rich moviegoing offerings! I have yet to visit the Fresh Meadows 7 or the nearby Bombay Theatre, which has apparently picked up the Bollywood business from the Jackson Heights Cinema on 82nd Street, nor have I seen the Loew’s Valencia in Jamaica, one of five “Wonder Theaters” opened in greater New York in the late Twenties, along with the Loew’s Jersey, now in clear-and-present danger of becoming only secondarily a venue for showing films.
Here I should note again that “endangered” is the rule rather than the exception when it comes to New York City moviehouses, regardless of borough. With this in mind, I’d like to pour a little out for the screens that aren’t with us any more. For the Olympia and Loew’s Triboro on Steinway in Astoria, the Trylon, the Earle, the Mayfair in Flushing, the Ditmars (which showed Greek movies), the Polk in Jackson Heights, the Ridgewood, the Deluxe in Woodside, and the Hobart, which 50 years ago would’ve been my local, situated a crosswalk away from my front door at 31st Ave and 51st St. and specializing, per a January 1963 item in Boxoffice, in “playing art and foreign films.” The Cinema Treasures comment sections are particularly priceless here. One reads “Not being from Queens I never visited the theatre. But my cousin did all the time and that is where he contracted ringworm.” Another: “Hobart Theater’s summertime motto [was] ‘Beat the heat in a Hobart seat’ because it was one of the first to have air-conditioning. We tough kids used to parody the motto as, ‘Beat your meat in a Hobart seat.’” Who says film history isn’t a gas?
“Hollywood movies are usually strategically ambiguous about politics. You can read them in a lot of different ways, and that ambivalence is more or less deliberate. A Hollywood film tends to pose sharp moral polarities and then fuzz or fudge or rush past settling them . . . [F]ilmmakers pluck out bits of cultural flotsam opportunistically, stirring it all together and offering it up to see if we like the taste.”
This certainly holds true for Marvel Studios products like The Winter Soldier or Guardians, slated for release years in advance but equipped with narrative hooks that the topical issue of the day can be conveniently hung on. The Kree as Hamas? The Kree as the IDF? Do I smell a thinkpiece!?