The Arthouse Experience: From Art Theater to Virginia: Arts: Smile Politely
Last week I went to the Virginia Theater to see a screening of The artist, one of my favorite movies of all time. The artist was presented as part of the new “Arthouse experienceseries hosted by local film buff Sanford Hess who also presented the film and then hosted a post-screening talk. To say I’m glad I went would be a huge understatement.
I have a Blu Ray disc from The artist, I have my own screening room at home, and I’ve probably seen the movie 4 or 5 times already. So why should I drive to a movie theater in downtown Champaign, find parking, and buy a ticket instead of just enjoying the movie at home with a glass of wine? The answer is that seeing a movie at the Virginia Theater is a completely different experience. But seeing The artist at Virginia was a once-in-a-lifetime out-of-body experience, like being in a dream sequence of a movie within a movie.
For those of you who haven’t seen the movie well, let me explain. The artist is set in the Hollywood glory days of the 1920s and the opening scene is a grand movie premiere in a beautiful movie palace, just like the one I was sitting in. We see the audience thoroughly enjoying the film within the film, and when the film ends, the curtains close, and then… silence. Where’s the applause? Did the film explode? Is there a technical problem in the projection booth? The film then cuts to a standing ovation with the audience at the film’s premiere wildly applauding. But there is still no sound? Well, duh, we’re watching a silent movie. It’s 1927 and movies with sound haven’t been invented yet.
The Virginia Theater was built in 1921 and for its first decade or so it screened silent films. So here I am sitting in this beautifully restored movie palace watching a glorious black-and-white silent film, just as audiences did 100 years ago. For the rest of the screening, I felt like I was transported to another time, a more innocent time when moving pictures were still a new invention and flickering images on the big screen were magical. After the post-screening chat, I had a quick chat with Sanford Hess and we agreed to do an email interview to smile politely to help promote this series.
Smile politely: Where did the idea for a series of “arthouse experience” films come from?
Sanford Hess: Credit Virginia’s leadership, especially Steven Bentz, who saw a need in the community once the Art closed in 2019. In 2020, Steven offered me the opportunity to host the series because I ‘ve operated the art theater for three years, ending in 2012. , including film selection. He agreed with my suggestion, and using the example of Ebertfest, that the show should be more than the movie – it’s the whole experience of going to Virginia with other people who love movies.
SP: What is your personal definition of an “arthouse” film?
Hesse: He’s the one I really struggled with for this series. At Art, the definition was “any movie we could book” – so even movies like Hobo with a shotgun would be included, not that I would recommend this movie in any way. I used a similar definition for this series: “films that we would have reserved for Art”, that is to say those that had a limited release and opened on less than 600 screens. But there are many genres in this range, and I don’t limit the type of movies further than that.
PS: Screening The artist at Virginia, it was genius. I understand that you want to present the “Arthouse Experience” series with this film. Why?
Hesse: Thinking back to when I ran the Art Theatre, I remembered the incredible public reaction to The artist, even though it is a black and white silent film by a little-known French filmmaker. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share one of my favorite movies – a film about 1920s Hollywood – in a beautiful historic 1920s movie palace like the Virginia.
SP: Do you like presenting films?
Hesse: Yes. It’s something I did at Art initially to advertise upcoming shows, but I’ve learned that people appreciate you pausing before the movie and focusing their attention on what’s going on happen, as long as you don’t spoil the plot in any way. .
SP: When you presented the Artist, you talked about aspect ratio and masking that most moviegoers never really think about. Why is this important?
Hesse: With the Artist, what’s remarkable is that the film is shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio that we associate with old movies. Since its release in 2011, when most movies hit the big screen, it was a conscious choice by the director to emulate the 1920s films he celebrates. At Virginia, it’s done well: movable curtains are used to “hide” the empty space on the sides of the screen. This contrasts with multiplexes, which have eliminated curtains on their screens to cut costs. So you’ll end up with dead space on the sides or top and bottom of the screen. It’s those little film exposure details that make the difference.
SP: Television screens are getting bigger and bigger. Is there really a difference between watching a movie on the big screen rather than at home?
Hesse: It’s true, especially during the pandemic, we’ve watched so much entertainment at home. Television size is one of them, but so is the availability of almost any movie through streaming services. The challenge is how to overcome this inertia of “I’m just going to stay home and watch this.” One difference is the Virginia Theater itself – a fully restored masterpiece of a theater right here in our city. Seeing a film there is not simply going to a multiplex! The other differences are things we do to highlight the content of the films: intros and post-screening discussions.
Photo by Elizabeth Hess.
SP: The Virginia Theater has over 1,400 seats. What is the best place in the house?
Hesse: At Virginia, I have three, depending on the show. In general, you should target a seat two-thirds of the way back in the bottom center section, as this is where the sound mix is optimal. When there’s a live event, I like to sit up front and see the people. So when the Alloy Orchestra plays at Ebertfest, I sit in the front right to watch them as much as I watch the film. Lastly, I love the front row balcony in the middle, where no one is blocking your view.
SP: I watch at least one movie a day, how about you?
Hesse: I wish! It’s about one or two a week for me, let alone now that the Chicago Bulls are having a good season. At the height of the pandemic, like so many others, I was watching movies at a high tempo, now I’m happy to see less if it means seeing them in a theater.
SP: So, what is the next film on the program?
Hesse: Adaptation is scheduled for Wednesday, February 23 at 7 p.m. Thinking of films from the Ebertfest past, I was inspired by the audience’s love for Charlie Kaufman. Synecdoche, New York– and I always thought Adaptation was one of his underrated films. Although Kaufman didn’t direct it, his screenplay for the film opened up new creative horizons and gave Nicholas Cage one of the most memorable roles.
SP: What other films are you looking forward to seeing on the big screen?
Hesse: All! But for a big-screen experience The Royal Tenenbaums will be amazing for the music and the way Wes Anderson fills the whole frame with visuals. Given how popular Wes Anderson is now, there might be some fans who haven’t seen The Royal Tenenbaums– or at least not in a theater. But please circle this date on your diary: May 25 for Bo Burnham’s film Eigth year. It’s a touching and thoughtful exploration of that age – and for a feature debut (with an unknown lead) the quality is amazing. The full list of upcoming movies is available on the right here.
SP: What titles do you have in mind for the second part of the series?
Hesse: I wish I could share the list, but we’re still finding out which ones are available. The industry has changed and companies with streaming platforms do not allow exposure of their catalog films. Additionally, movies produced by streaming services like Netflix are often unavailable as well. We hope to have next year’s schedule announced by the summer.
SP: The Virginia Theater is such a special place and we’re so lucky that it’s thriving in our community. I love seeing movies on their giant 52ft screen and I’m a little jealous that you can schedule this series.
Hesse: Clearly, nothing in my day-to-day work as an IT director has prepared me for this! My past experience in operating the art theater has, however, taught me how to select films. The key strategy I’ve learned is to choose movies for the audience, not for my own tastes. Champaign Park District has done a great job restoring this theater and Steven Bentz and his team are such professionals when it comes to a good movie exhibit. The Virginia is a great place to see movies. They have an amazing sound system and are so well equipped to handle any format whether digital or film, 35mm or 70mm. It’s rare these days and you’re right, we’re really very lucky.
When he’s not watching a movie a day, Paul Young likes to travel the world in search of good things to eat. So far, he has traveled through 22 countries and enjoys sharing his culinary discoveries with Cooking class.