Opportunities to see great movies abound in Los Angeles, but they won't find you. Like a lot else here, they more often come as the result of careful planning and active participation in a small but vocal minority. Three veterans of the local cineaste scene — advertising copywriter Lori Ellison, who lives on the Westside; Jason Overbeck, a 32-year-old from the Valley; and Nate Bell, a grad student in his late 20s, who commutes all the way from Orange — agreed to speak with me about their experiences on the front line.
The three are united in their feelings of enthusiasm and obligation toward such bastions of L.A. cinephilia as the Laemmle, Nuart and New Beverly; they visit other venues, like the Echo Park Film Center and Seal Beach's Bay Theater, less often, but nonetheless highly regard them.
"I feel a responsibility to support theaters that are making the effort to showcase art-house and classic films," explains the 40-something Ellison, who's well known in online circles as @nictate. "Even though L.A. is a huge market, there's no guarantee that any given film will play here — even something that won an award at an international festival like Cannes."
She's right: L.A. moviegoers can count themselves lucky when something like Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love opens here the same week as it does in New York, which happened last week. More often, as in the case of Oscar-nominated The Gatekeepers, they arrive weeks or even months later. Some — like It's the Earth Not the Moon, a three-hour documentary attempting to catalog every single aspect of a tiny island — never make it here at all.
While the first-run market occasionally lags, our repertory scene remains a bright spot. Cinefamily, probably the most happily outré revival house around, was singled out by Overbeck and Ellison for its vibrant community and out-there programming. Bell is a bit more traditional: "I pay my dues to the American Cinematheque," he says of his preference for the Aero and Egyptian theaters, whose schedule tends to consist of more classic fare. Though he says Cinefamily's programming is too eccentric to secure his dime, he "would show up for Sátántangó," Béla Tarr's engrossing (and seven-hour-long) depiction of a miserable group of villagers in his native Hungary.
Ellison, who ranks a double feature of Blow-Up and Blow Out at the Aero among her 2012 repertory highlights, echoes Bell's affinity for the Cinematheque.
Bell also considers a good meal to be a vital element of the moviegoing experience, explaining, "Each theater is yoked together with a corresponding eatery for after-movie discussion: Canter's or Du-par's for the New Beverly, Izzy's for the Aero."
Ellison concurs, and is quick to quote Patricia Arquette's character from True Romance by way of explanation: "It's just, after I see a movie, I like to go get a piece of pie and talk about it."
Despite the riches offered by L.A.-area rep houses, Overbeck finds that creating his own opportunities can only help. "In December, I went to two double features that I made for myself by visiting two different rep houses," he explains via email. "I went to Cinefamily for Boy Meets Girl, which I coordinated with a few L.A. film friends on Twitter, and then went over to New Beverly for The Devil, Probably with two friends who also made the journey. Then the next day, I went back to Cinefamily for Mauvais Sang and shot over to New Beverly for Le Pont du Nord."
Such ventures are emblematic of the Los Angeles experience insofar as they tend to entail sitting in traffic, paying for parking and waiting in line. It's also expensive, with the cost of tickets, DVDs and Blu-rays, gas and Netflix subscriptions easily running into the hundreds — if not thousands — of dollars per year. There is a lot of downtime involved, and it's made better with friends: Everyone I spoke to mentioned the shared experience of all this and, like Overbeck, Ellison has used Twitter to coordinate on more than one occasion. (She even attributes the very creation of her group of like-minded friends to the 140-character musings that introduced them to one another.)
Bell, who says he watched some 400 movies both at home and in theaters last year, was again more traditional in his approach. "I used to collect and collate the screening schedules for all the major retrospective theaters and then winnow down the list, prioritizing according to rarity and print quality," he says.
Asked to explain this meticulous technique, he reminds me, "I've always lived outside the city proper, and with gas prices what they are, I need to make sure the trip is worth it."
In the case of Lawrence of Arabia's 4K digital restoration and the Outback-set horror film Wake in Fright, it seems they were.
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For Overbeck, who has worked as an apprentice editor and post-production assistant on a number of films, any reluctance to trek from the Valley to L.A.-area theaters has to do with the decline in celluloid as the default mode of presentation. "I'm less enthusiastic about going to the theater to see a digital print of something that's not essential," he explains. "I'm much more likely to go out of my way to see a 35mm or 70mm print."
He cites the Nuart, New Beverly ("still the best value in town") and ArcLight Hollywood as his favorite venues, though he does wish ArcLight "would try to get more 35mm prints. They seem to be moving away from their boutique quality into a slightly escalated multiplex, but they still pay a good amount of attention to the quality of their presentation."
For Ellison, seeing Killing Them Softly at the ArcLight one night after watching Leos Carax's Mauvais Sang at Cinefamily stuck out to her as emblematic of "the life of an L.A. cinephile in a snapshot: There I was watching a Megan Ellison–financed, Brad Pitt movie on a Monday night in ArcLight's plush stadium seating, while only 24 hours before I'd been taking in a 1986 French film in one of Cinefamily's character-building wooden seats." (Those seats, which a successful Kickstarter campaign aims to correct by the end of the year, weren't enough to stop Overbeck from showing up for Jean Eustache's four-hour The Mother and the Whore.)
Ellison also fondly recalls seeing Sean Baker's Starlet at the Sundance Sunset 5 last November. As the credits rolled, she was surprised to find that only one other attendee was staying for the postfilm Q&A. Expecting the discussion to be canceled due to lack of participants, Ellison was elated to find that Baker and three others from the cast and crew were more than willing to spend a full 30 minutes answering questions from the two of them. "That's the kind of thing that restores my faith in humankind and keeps me championing deserving cinematic underdogs."