Saving the movie theaters that illuminate North Country towns

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam (Source: Wikipedia)

One of the most powerful moments in Plato’s dialogues comes when Socrates lays out his allegory of the cave.

In Plato’s recounting, the great philosopher posits the notion that men are like captives forced to watch shadows flickering on the wall of a cave.

In time, he supposes, they might come to think the shadows are the reality.

“To them,” Scorates imagines, “the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.”

This effort to grapple with the way that humans perceive reality is provocative, thorny and also a surprisingly compelling read, at least when compared with much of the philosophical hieroglyphics that came after.

But I think Plato had it kind of wrong.

It turns out, in my experience, that people are fairly skillful at distinguishing stories from reality.  They can hold a “make-believe” in their heads at the same time that they perceive “the truth” of the world around them, more or less accurately.

The two things — story and world — coexist in fruitful ways.  We watch the shadows on the wall, and use those figments to illuminate our understanding of life.

I came to this meditation on light flickering on a cave wall after listening to Chris Morris’s story this morning about movie theaters in small North Country towns.

At least ten of our cinemas might go dark if they don’t make the conversion soon to expensive, new digital technology.

Listening to his report (itself a kind of shadow on a wall, right?) I started thinking about my own experience growing up in a tiny rural town, going to movie theaters to catch glimpses of flickering images of a wider world.

I can still remember the visceral, wondrous transport of seeing London for the first time, or New York City, or the moons of Jupiter, or the inside of a person’s mind — all cast in images of light and color on a silver screen.

I experienced those journeys with other people, sitting in the dark, sharing a sense of awe, a sense of being taken to other places, other times, and into the visionary worlds of great actors, writers and directors.

Maybe it’s old fashioned in this age of smart phones and Ipads, but I worry about that lost moment of shared imagination, of shared story.  These days, we’re all mostly in our own little caves, looking at our own flickering images.

I think the effort to save these movie theaters — the passion shown by activists who want these cinemas to survive — reflects a yearning for that experience.

It’s a healthy instinct, I think.  Yes, of course, we know that those flickering images aren’t real.

But powerful stories, especially when shared, expand our understanding of the real.  Especially for small town kids like me, they push back the horizon, giving a sense of other possibilities, other realities.

Check out the North Country’s Go Digital campaign here and chime in below with your cinematic memories.

What was the first movie that rocked your world?  Do you still go to the movie theater, or are you catching films these days on your digital device?

11 Comments on “Saving the movie theaters that illuminate North Country towns”

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  1. Chris Morris says:

    My earliest memory of going to the movies was in 1990. I saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with my father at the Palace Theater in Lake Placid. It was a moment of pure joy for me.

    The most powerful theater-going moment of my life, however, came in 1994, when I saw Forrest Gump with my mother at the old Berkeley Theatre in Saranac Lake (which closed, sadly, in 2000).

    I think I was too young to fully appreciate the film, but that’s not why this memory stands out. I spent more time staring, in awe, at my mother, who went through an incredible range of emotions. It may have been the first time I saw her cry; the story touched a nerve with her, since she lived through everything that was documented in it.

    She wasn’t the only one, either: I remember looking around and seeing men and women wiping away tears, laughing – it was incredible. I’ll never forget that.

  2. wakeup says:

    It is my understanding that theaters knew this change was coming for a long, long time, like maybe five or more years. I’m not blaming them but perhaps some better long term planning should had been implemented instead of this last minute cry for money.

  3. Dale says:

    Wakeup says:
    “…perhaps some better long term planning should had been implemented instead of this last minute cry for money”

    Upgrade costs about $75,000 per screen. Pretty big chunk of change for a small outfit, even with good planning. For small non-profts, the last recourse of many small town theaters, it can take all their fundraising mojo just to keep the roof, the heat and the lights on. Dale Hobson, NCPR

  4. Joseph Andriano says:

    One interesting response to this problem is Randolph, Vermont’s Playhouse Cooperative. The Playhouse is Vermont’s oldest movie theater, and was going to shut down due to a need to go digital. The community banded together, and the theater was converted from a standard company to a consumer cooperative. For $100, a person can buy one share in the cooperative. By purchasing a share, not only do residents help retain the theater, but they can serve on a committee to plan the non-first run programming, attend “Owners Only” special events, get patronage-based dividends, and run for the Board of Directors.

    I think that ANAC and the Adirondack Film Society’s approach is an excellent one, but this consumer cooperative approach may be another one for theaters that are struggling.

  5. Pete Klein says:

    As I look at the movie landscape, I see a dying business as it relates to theaters.
    If you look at what is happening with TV, especially the cable channels, you see more and more quality and more and more movie actors going that route.
    It is getting to the point where the only trump card the movies currently have is 3D. But 3D only works for movies that are constantly blowing up things.
    3D, after all is said and done, is little more than a gimmick.

  6. The Original Larry says:

    People do not seem to realize that the demise of North Country “downtowns” has been concurrent with the building and expansion of malls, “superstores”, multiplex theaters, etc. Combined with an improved highway system, that expansion produced an irresistable combination: easy access to a wide variety of goods and services. That has its advantages, but you can’t have a vibrant, viable “downtown” in a small, rural village when the mall or the Wal-Mart is just a short ride away. The movie theater business is just one example of this equation. People will soon be crying about the lack of local grocery stores if projects like the Exit 23 Price-Chopper plaza are allowed to proceed. Progress is great but it always has a cost.

  7. LJR says:

    I love movie theaters and hope they manage to survive.

    And I very much appreciate Brian’s juxtaposing this discussion with Plato’s cave allegory. But I have to question this claim: “People are fairly skillful at distinguishing stories from reality.”

    Yes, when people know that the stories are fiction, maybe, to some extent. But what about when the stories are “news stories”? People are tempted to assume that news stories tell the truth — yet this is not always so. And, even in the case of fiction, there are “truths” that people take from fictional stories that may not be true. For example, American movies portray a lot of violence and misogyny, leading many to think that violence is more widespread, decisive, and heroic than it actually is, and leading many men and women alike to adopt very problematic attitudes about women.

    I think this concern is what Plato was getting at. People seldom truly think for themselves — they parrot the representations of reality that they hear from the people around them.

    One example: people post fewer and fewer authentic “status updates” on Facebook, more and more “sharing” others’ representations of reality instead. We’ve been brainwashed into making fun of those who share authentically from their lives on Facebook, regarding such sharing either as boring or as “showing off.” Instead of treasuring our friends and their real lives, we have been trained to admire and “share” the clever, flashy “memes” that anonymous others have produced, and whose sharp cutting edges are more and more dividing us as a nation.

    Plato’s cave allegory is definitely still relevant for us today.

  8. Pete Klein says:

    To Original Larry,
    I agree and will predict the Warrensburg/Lake George Price Chopper will kill any chance of Indian Lake getting a supermarket and could force the shut down of the Grand Union in North Creek and Warrensburg.

  9. Peter says:

    I’m of two minds on this topic. Theater owners were told a decade ago of the industry’s intention to “go digital”, so in theory they’ve had ten years to prepare. But I’m human, and as likely to procrastinate as anybody, so can’t blame them for that. I’m also a small businessperson, and I know how hard it is to put big bucks aside for such a change, when immediate expenses cry out for payment. I know some theaters are bigger money makers than others (I have a feeling the Palace in Lake Placid cuts a tidier profit than the State in Tupper Lake), but there are plenty of local movie houses that have made the investments and the changes in advance of the 11th hour.
    I actually spoke to one theater owner just two years ago, who, when I brought up the digital future actually said “oh, I’m not convinced that’s actually going to happen…” I winced when I heard that.
    There’s nothing like a crisis atmosphere to boost the funding, though.
    That being said, I do support the cause, and hope the local theaters do get some help to soften (but not completely absorb) the blow.

  10. Bob Falesch says:

    I agree that “it’s a healthy instinct” to experience those journeys with other people, sharing a sense of awe, collectively. More than a couple times I’ve walked out of the theater in silence, speechless, as if under a spell. The waves of others heading home were speechless as well. For those moments, there seems a sense of connectedness, of sharing, of a common wavelength. Strangers all, but not for those precious few minutes.

    “Dr. Zhivago” was certainly one of the first flicks that knocked the wind out of me. It was during the early stages of my first real romance, and that combined with the hotness up on the silver screen did quite the number. We returned to see it twice more in the span of a year :–)

    Nowadays I do films on my magic digital devices. My 2.1 and my 5.1 sound is so much better than what can be experienced at the theater (as if that’s a real excuse, although it is true!).

  11. Paul says:

    As I understand it the movie “Up in Smoke” was set to premier a few days after the Pontiac Theater in Saranac Lake burned down!! Weird. To kind of date myself I was not yet a teenager as I watched them fight that fire.

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