Family (and cinema) Matters Most in "Only in Theaters”
Through thick and thin, it's all for moviegoing.
Welcome to Moviegoing with Bill - a newsletter blog of movie reviews "that care forgot.” I’m Bill Arceneaux, independent film critic.
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As shown in the wonderfully sentimental and devastatingly real documentary Only In Theaters, the marquees that adorn the outside of any venue can be used for more than just promotion, but also creative outlets. I found that even at the lowest point in this film for The Laemmle Family - owners and operators of the Los Angeles area arthouse cinema business Laemmle Theatres - their sense of humor would work as small kindly things for them to hang on to - especially as their worlds fell apart.
One side of a marquee would read “Now Playing: Mask,” directly referencing the facial covering mandates, while the other side would be mostly blank, as the theatres were closed. A piece of heart and soul rips away reading these signs as the days turn to weeks turn to months in the pandemic, and more so because the filmmakers would keep in touch over Zoom with Greg Laemmle, the President of the exhibition company and now gatekeeper to the family legacy, capturing his clearly stressed and weathered facial expressions and body language as he tried to work himself up with a hopeful message. He’d chuckle sadly, he’d smirk instead of cry. Sometimes, it’s just enough to smile and get someone else to do the same.
Movie theaters aren’t places to have kids babysat for a few hours, nor are they restaurants. At their best, theaters are collective exhibitions for memory and artistic interpretation, no matter if it’s a blockbuster on-screen or a foreign film playing. Laemmle Theatres in Los Angeles are beacons for such movies, from international pictures to independents to classics, and for generations had been bucking the whims of the more mainstream outfits, from Edison to AMC. Through storm after storm, from influenza to WWII to the Kennedy assassination to 9/11, they would have something on their screens, and someplace to escape to. There’s strength to the Laemmle name.
Only In Theaters greatly does justice to the cause of selling the moviegoing experience in the modern world, especially as Covid anxiety continues and streaming options rise. More than that though, the film is head and shoulders above the pack in the widening genre of theater documentaries, as it’s an American tragedy, an endless fable, and a Hollywood compromise. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for movies about movie theaters (like The Dying of the Light and Abel Ferrera’s The Projectionist - both of which stand above the rest too), but Only In Theaters is really one of the best films released in 2023.
Perhaps there are one too many uber-romantic moments, like when famous filmmakers - some shown talking over Zoom on a laptop in an empty theater - wax on about how going out to the cinema changed their lives. Indeed, this documentary has those aplenty. Hell, everyone has their own moviegoing story to tell. Everyone has their own Covid-19 story or 9/11 story, and so on. What makes Only In Theaters a great film isn’t in its thesis of movie theaters being important to the human condition but in its commitment to telling this one story about this one family, put through the wringer, who happen to have been showing movies to people for over a century.
An ending is only happy depending on where you finish your tale. Only In Theaters doesn’t pretend or presume to know what the future will be like for this family, but it does know where its own resolution is. In the projection booth. With Greg Laemmle and his wife. Embracing.
No matter what’s happening anywhere on the planet, it’s warm in California and a movie is playing somewhere. This might as well be a tagline for Only In Theaters because it’s somewhat true, even if the meaning and manner change a little over time. Climate change and video streaming are ever-present realities, after all. What would make for a good marquee response to that? 5/5
Only In Theaters is currently showing in limited theatrical release and on-demand streaming.