The Rialto Theatre is located on the corner of rue Bernard and avenue du Parc, in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood. It was built in 1924 and was one of thousands of ornate movie theatres built in North America at the turn of the century, at a time when films were first entering the mainstream.
These theatres were called movie palaces — a fitting title as they were defined by an over-the-top ornamental aesthetic that evoked old world grandeur. Think limestone balustrades, wrought iron railings, gold molding and red velvet curtains. Most of the movie palaces in the 1920s were built to pay homage to architectural monuments in Europe. The Rialto itself was styled after the Paris Opera House by Montreal architect Joseph Raoul Gariepy. It has been designated as a heritage site by all three levels of government and is considered by its residents to be as much a part of the fabric of Mile End as its bagel shops, cafes and madcap personalities.
The Rialto has stood mostly vacant for the past few years, while its owner, Elias Kalogeras, looked for buyers. Kalogeras had owned the theatre since 1983. During this time it underwent a number of transformations. He purchased the Rialto with hopes of turning it into a mini-Eaton Centre, but the Ministry of Culture intervened and his plans never materialized. Since then it has been a nightclub, a concert venue, a repertory theatre, and a steakhouse. Kalogeras was confronted with many of the problems owners of defunct movie palaces faced: the difficulty of successfully filling such a cavernous space while maintaining the charm of a historic building and keeping it updated to the needs of contemporary society.
GlobalPost’s Nick Miroff brings us this nice audio slideshow of Havana’s old cinemas — gorgeous Art Deco and Streamline Moderne relics that were once, as he reports, living rooms for the entire city. Some have been converted to other uses, but many still show movies, albeit in a kind of quiet decrepitude, with ticket prices frozen at the same rate as decades past.
“In Cuba, the creative destruction of capitalism isn’t there, so the past never really goes away, it just remains in the present, like the city’s old American automobiles. Cuban socialist aspirations have always been haunted by reminders of a more prosperous time.”
Hong Kong is a city where the creativity of capitalism has been given free reign (unlike creativity of other kinds, which have traditionally been looked down upon). Nearly all of the city’s free-standing theatres and cinemas have been destroyed, though the Yaumatei Theatre, a hybrid neoclassical/Art Deco building that is Hong Kong’s only surviving prewar cinema, is now being restored.
Where has Hong Kong gone? Once a world filmmaking capital, it has nearly vanished from the silver screen. Each year, far fewer feature films are made here than in cities such as Vancouver, Seoul and Tehran. What’s more, many recent Hong Kong movies, geared towards the lucrative mainland market, lack the local flavour that once made them so distinctive.
That’s something one of Hong Kong’s newest and most energetic film festivals hopes to change. After a one-year hiatus, I Shot Hong Kong is back, with a programme of 26 proudly local short films, music videos and documentaries.
“Hong Kong has lost its status as a premier filmmaking centre,” laments Craig Leeson, who helped found the festival in 2005. “In the late 1980s and early 90s, we were making 300 films a year here. From the start of 2001 until now, we’ve been making less than 50 a year. I think one of the reasons for that is that there’s no support for independent filmmakers or new talent. We’re not propagating filmmakers at the grass-roots level.”
The Cinéma Beaubien, which is, along with the Parc, one of the few remaining arthouses in Montreal. Photo by Antoine Rouleau
On October 27th, like a zombie in a George Romero flick, the Cinéma du Parc will rise from the dead. The Parc closed early last August after seven years as Montreal’s premiere English arthouse, its last remaining repertory cinema and the epicentre of the local cult film scene. Now, its new owner, an old hand in the arthouse biz, has said that he will focus on first-run arthouse and foreign films instead of repertory fare. “If I play Clockwork Orange, it will be part of a retrospective of the films of Stanley Kubrick,” he told the Montreal Gazette last week. “There is no place for repertory cinema with DVDs.”
That’s a shame. Although the list of theatres that have closed over the years is many times longer than the list of those currently operating, Montreal remains a good city to catch a new foreign or independent film. But there is no longer any cinema that offers regular and extensive repertory programming, aside from the government-funded Cinémathèque, despite a clear a demand for eccentric programming. After the Parc closed, a few people formed the Film Club, a weekly gathering at a bar on the Main where people can take in a free flick with cheap beer and popcorn. Cinema Politica, weekly screenings of politically-conscious films at Concordia University and the Université du Québec à Montréal, has proven popular since its launch a couple of years ago.
But these are not replacements for good cinemas; they only speak to the demand for film screenings that are a community event. Cinemas such as the Parc offer this on a permanent basis, although the effect is diluted if the programming becomes less adventurous. Even that, the survival of the new, reborn Parc isn’t certain. The life-death-ressurection cycle is common to arthouse cinemas everywhere, but lately, the combination of mainstream mega-cinemas and DVDs seem to be making their struggle to succeed much more difficult. Without them, what then will happen to the cinema-as-social-space, the cinema-as-neighbourhood-landmark?