Article by Brenna Goodwin-McCabe
“Only In Theatres “
I recently attended a screening at the Dunbar movie theatre, a true pinnacle of the Dunbar-
Southlands neighborhood, and noticed a fun detail in each of the trailers preceding the movie. There, in small writing under the production company, was the note:
Each trailer featured this detail in some form, and it was either easy to miss, tucked by the release date, or appeared in all caps with a loud announcer. It left a clear message, one that felt rather off-putting and ironic, considering I was currently at a theatre.
The note emphasizes that big screen movies are back and won’t be found in your living room anytime soon. That incidentally implies that things have gone back to ‘normal’, and that movie theatres are a place to forget what is happening and immerse yourself in something else, something your home cannot provide.
And yet, I believe movies should be seen in theatres, so why does this little note bother me? I think it boils to why we attend movies in theatres, especially those like the Dunbar, something which this detail neglects.
Why Visit a Theatre?
Certain films need to be seen on a big screen. Films which were specifically designed to be
viewed in a movie theatre, either because they were created long before home distribution or because their designs are vast. A film like Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal (1982) was never meant for a laptop or phone screen, in fact, if you see it in theatres, you’ll notice more puppets, more background details, as though the projector is frantically adding to the celluloid.
Intention is such a contested thing, though, and it is appealing to just reject that authority completely when it comes to ‘serious’ films. There is something funny about modern cinema which demand to be seen in theatres, particularly films like Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020), Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021), and Matt Reeves’ The Batman (2022), which were released mid-pandemic, but whose advertising repeatedly implied that the film was worth the risk.
I think it’s fair to be uneasy about that suggestion, and it ties to the constant impulse to reject whatever is popular and praised and just veer towards a more chaotic film or viewing experience.
Take this image of Dune being screened on a Shrek tv set, ‘as was intended’. I have noticed a steady trend in recent film discussion, often led by women like myself, who are dissatisfied with current adoration politics.
What do I mean by that? There is a growing refusal to adore certain well-established films and viewing spaces, particularly those which were cultified by largely male audiences and creators. That includes films like The Godfather (1972), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Pulp Fiction (1994).
These are incredible films, no denying, but their reception is taken so seriously, often through extreme gatekeeping, that it’s almost worth pretending that you’ve never heard of them just to avoid certain mansplaining conversations. This resistance either pokes fun at these standards, like the Shrek tv set above, or is lengthy and critical about re-examining what is celebrated and how, both then and now. Simply put, it’s a reaction to being told what is ‘cinema’ and what isn’t, along with how to properly experience ‘cinema’. It can be a bit childish, but that is part of it, because it’s rejecting something established along with fandoms which have often dismissed other types of films, particularly those by female and non-binary creators, simply because they don’t replicate the style they deem cinematic.
The Collective Theatre Experience
I believe films should be seen in cinemas and I also believe theatres should be held as both a bizarre and necessary space where one enters and something profoundly weird occurs. Not just something poetic and moving. Something weird. Like that moment when you laugh so loudly, assuming everyone else is going to laugh, but it’s just you and you’re left all self-conscious.
Or when you can feel tears tracing down your face during a drama, so you hope that it’s too dark for others to see and judge or hope that everyone else is crying too. You only grabbed one napkin from concession, and so you’ve just balled it up with tears, snot, and popcorn butter, and are desperately hoping no one notices how flushed you are when the lights go up.
Or maybe you’re their neighbour, and you’re so distracted by a trail of pop that has made its way from the back of the theatre to you, leaving your feet all sticky and leaving the film with a fresh uncomfortable feeling. You can watch a movie at home, but a theatre and its audience bring something into that movie, both good and memorable.
Take a film like Alfred Hitchcock Psycho (1960), where audiences were allegedly so stunned by the film’s twist, that there was widespread pandemonium in the theatre.
Or even The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and other curious cult films, which should be seen half asleep at a midnight screening, so everything is extra loud and confusing.
Movie theatres are a collective experience, where you can enjoy seeing tiny details on screen, but also the room itself, one which changes with every screening depending on who is in the room. That room stays with you.
Pandemic Closures at the Theatres
My family has been going to the Dunbar movie theatre long before I was born. Both my parents grew up in the area, and it was the best place to see a film, still is. It’s where they saw Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) for the first time, along with countless other movies. It’s a single theatre, just one screen, and the best popcorn you will ever have. I say that having tried popcorn across the Lower Mainland; the Dunbar has the best, hands down, and with a whole table of different toppings. But the Dunbar is more than just a movie theatre, it’s a community staple for blockbusters and independent works.
Years ago, they did a screening of Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) with star Ted Neeley, who played Jesus, and he got up on stage and did a whole Q&A with the crowd. Unlike the Rio Theatre on Commercial, the Dunbar doesn’t often do events like these, but that changed during the pandemic.
Everything came to a standstill in March 2020, and that included movie theatres. Even when they were permitted to reopen safely, the only new films available had simultaneously been released on certain streaming sites, which added further pressure to local small theatres. There is relief in new films being released “only in theatres”, as the tagline states, but it came too late for countless independent theatres across Canada. There was little support in that unprecedented time. Numbers where limited, rightfully, but movies too, and staff had to work extra diligently to ensure that these places remained safe and stayed open. The Dunbar, like other community theatres, began selling concession for takeaway, a service they still offer for home movie night.
In May of 2020, however, I learned that they were also offering theatre rentals to anyone who
wanted to host a movie with a small group. Local filmmakers were booking the place to show
their families what they had been proudly working on. Families were booking to show their
young kids how special going to the movies could be, often with films that had left huge
impressions when they were growing up. It became a reasonably priced respite from an
otherwise terrifying plague era.
“Oh, What a Lovely Day!”
I rented the Dunbar back in June of 2020, having just finished my graduate degree, which had arrived without ceremony in the mail. It was my birthday, and I wanted to share the film I had dedicated my thesis to: Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). I first saw del Toro’s film when I was about eleven, the same age as the protagonist, and it was the most moving story I had ever seen.
I cried so much that my startled mother had to remind me to breathe. Being able to return to this film in a theatre setting meant so much, because I could share it with people I care
about, but also return to the very circumstances that had inspired me to write about it. It was equally special because I hadn’t been inside a theatre since March, and then wouldn’t again until the following June 2021 when I rented again, this time for Mad Max Fury Road (2015).
If you have never had the pleasure of seeing George Miller’s classic on the big screen, might I
recommend watching it at 11am after a year of no cinema. It’s something you cannot forget,
honestly, because it’s so extreme that it feels like you’ve seared your frontal cortex. I chose these films because I loved seeing them in theatres when they were first released and because they were they kind of films I wanted to be surrounded by, not just rewatch at home. At the same time, the Dunbar gave me the opportunity to see family and friends who I hadn’t been able to see in months, because we could safely distance inside the giant theatre. And we weren’t the only ones taking advantage of that.
Locals had been coming in repeatedly to support the business and meet with family, with all the protocol, that way they could just relax and enjoy the film. Not spend the entire time wondering if they were making the right decision by attending the movies, which we are only returning to now in regular capacity. The theatre is also air conditioned, making it a dark retreat during last summer’s unprecedented heat wave.
I am never going to forget walking into the Dunbar’s small lobby and down the red carpeted
aisle to my seat, and then peaking behind to see my family glowing from the projector rays. I am told the theatre hasn’t changed much since my parents’ day, other than a few updates, and that is rare.
My favourite kinds of theatres are the ones which reflect on what they are, they don’t just
pretend to be some high-end restaurant. It leaves room for originality, because although a theatre like the Dunbar or White Rock’s Caprice might screen the same films, they do so through entirely different designs, and that changes your experience with these films. It’s also one of the few neighborhood theatres left in Vancouver.
Take the destruction of the Ridge Theatre as an example. They demolished the Ridge back in 2013 and developed it into a four-story building, notably without a movie theatre. They kept the sign though, in some sad ironic nod to its prior importance. It was significant and nostalgic enough to keep the sign but not the space I suppose.
Legend has it that the original Ridge sign was ‘accidentally’ destroyed along with the building
and its iconic stained-glass window, but that the company was forced to reproduce it as they originally proposed to the city. That is just a rumor though, possibly strung by angry fans. You can see the sign today, just gesturing to what was there, and cannot be recreated, not matter how fancy the sign.
The Dunbar survives, and it’s one of the few longstanding theatres in Vancouver, what with its iconic red sign and balcony section that is so rare in cooperate cinemas. If you are interested in reading more about its history, I highly recommend this piece by Heritage Vancouver.
Where Do We Go from Here?
I realized during that first screening in June 2020 that I would never be able to take cinemas for granted again, as I once did in pre-Covid era. The Dunbar brought my family together, just as it has done for generations.
I encourage every reader to attend a Dunbar screening, especially now that they are operating in full capacity and with all the latest summer epics. It’s been open since roughly 1935, making it a significant historic site, and its quality has never wavered. It is an old theatre, but they still offer 3D, and I know from personal experience that they go out of their way to create an incredible visit. And, once again, they make the best popcorn you will ever have- trust me, you have to try it. You remember places like the Dunbar just as much as you remember what they screen, so go visit today.