There was nothing I loved more as a kid than driving five minutes up the road to an AMC theater with my mom, waiting in line at the massive concession bar and finishing my extra-large popcorn with extra butter during the previews. Sometimes we’d treat ourselves and drive 15 whole minutes to a Regal with the nice reclining, leather seats. So why, if I love going to the movies so much, had I never been to Cornell Cinema?
Last week I sauntered into the basement of Willard Straight to talk with Cornell Cinema manager Doug McLaren. I didn’t lie to him — I’d never ventured below the Ivy Room, so he graciously showed me around.
There’s no massive concession bar. No reclining, leather seats. There’s a lone self-serve Keurig coffee machine in a corner of the small lobby area for those who fancy a hot drink with their feature. The popcorn machine occupies a good chunk of the small snack counter set just across from the old, wooden door into the Cinema’s single theater.
The theater itself was built in 1927 and that age shows in some places. “Dilapidated” would be far too harsh a word, but it’s not hard to imagine some uppity person turning up their nose and timidly calling it “homey.” The seats aren’t uncomfortable, but resemble things you’d find in a lecture hall more than what you might expect from a movie theater. The Cinema seats 304 people, with 40 of those seats on the second floor balcony.
While Cornell Cinema doesn’t have the cookie cutter “luxury” of the AMCs and Regals of the world, what it does have is a whole lot of heart.
The instant I stumbled into McLaren’s cluttered office, I could tell he eats, sleeps and breathes cinema. Boxes of posters are scattered around the floor. Fliers, lists and photos cover almost everything else.
As he and I got into our conversation, any apprehensions about the quality of the production he and his staff of twenty-some students are putting on in that basement were quickly put to rest.
I’ve often had trouble with places that show arthouse-type flicks. I always left the one in my town feeling like I wasn’t up to snuff. That’s why I’ve always stuck to more mainstream films (pretty sure I’ve already called dibs on reviewing Fast & Furious 12). However, McLaren and company are actively trying to dispel that “holier-than-thou” vibe some theaters can give off.
McLaren described seeing a movie at Cornell Cinema as “like going to a friend’s apartment,” and it’s easy to see why. Some of Cornell Cinema’s offerings are about as niche as you’ll find anywhere but there’s never the expectation that you the viewer will know anything about the film, or anything about film in general.
And that’s right there is the special thing about Cornell Cinema. No one working there will ever foist their mastery of cinematic jargon over you. When asked about why he does what he does, McLaren simply answered: “to foster an appreciation for film.” Like all of his employees, McLaren’s got an honest-to-goodness love of film in his bones.
Every film the Cinema plays is meticulously chosen, not for profit but because their student advisory board hopes that someone, somewhere at Cornell might appreciate it. A good portion of the movies they’ll be showing this year come with some kind of introduction so that everyone who walks through the theater’s doors can jump right in.
And they’ve just about everything a movie goer could want this fall. If it’s big-name blockbuster you want, they’ve got you covered with Wonder Woman (this weekend), Spiderman: Homecoming (Oct. 13 and 14) and Dunkirk (Nov. 10 and 11). They’ve got special series on heists (from Le Cercle Rouge to Baby Driver), ghosts (A Ghost Story) and a showcase of their new 3-D film capabilities (with flicks like Dial M for Murder and Gravity, which is breathtaking in 3-D). They’ve got a plethora of filmmakers coming to the theater throughout the semester to offer introduction and answer questions about their films. They’ve even got a couple of delightful Halloween themed movie events!
But when I asked McLaren what he was most excited about, he answered with a word I’d never heard before: “Koyaanisqatsi.” The 1982 non-verbal art film was directed by Godfrey Reggio with music from Philip Glass, who also composed the scores of The Truman Show (starring Jim Carrey) and The Hours (with Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman). On Friday, November 3, Glass is coming to Bailey Hall with the Philip Glass Ensemble to perform Koyaanisqatsi’s soundtrack live alongside a screaming of the film in Koyaanisqatsi Live!
Just the breadth of what Cornell Cinema is putting on this semester is staggering, not to mention cheap! The Cinema typically screams films Wednesday through Sunday night and tickets are typically only $5.50. It’s also about as close to home as you can get.
So, Cornell Cinema might not be the biggest or the nicest theater you can find, but it’s packed to the doors with soul and it’s got a little something for everyone, regardless of prior cinematic knowledge. And yeah, that snob from earlier might still call it “homey,” but I’m sure Mr. McLaren would take that as a compliment.
Nick Smith is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org