Forty years ago, the Brattle Theatre held "Casablanca" festivals during Harvard's reading period. The "Bogie Cult" following was better than that of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Students would crowd the place, sing "La Marseillaise" with the actors and emerge from the theatre, ready to take on their exams, if not the Germans too.
Now, many Harvard students do not even know where on Brattle Street the theatre is, let alone seek it out to watch movies. Many do not know it is the only theatre in the Harvard Square area to show classics, reissues and art films. They eschew Barbara Stanwyck and Jimmy Stewart for Demi Moore and Jim Carrey--and most don't even know what they're missing.
But the Brattle Theatre misses them. In a letter and questionnaire sent out to the 1,700 members of its mailing list last weekend, co-directors Marianne Lampke and Connie White explained that costs are rising and that, "to be frank, keeping the Brattle going as we know it now has gone beyond our resources as small business owners." The Brattle is solvent now, but "if we continue the way we're going, we could close in a few years," White told the Boston Globe last week.
Harvard students cannot afford to let that happen.
According to Lampke, many Harvard faculty and staff members are regular patrons of the Brattle. "We'd like to get more students," she told The Crimson this week. "We're not getting as many as the Brattle has [traditionally] gotten in its history."
What has changed to make the Brattle less popular among Harvard students? Maybe they haven't seen the inside of the Brattle. It's as different from the shoebox theaters of Copley Square as you can imagine. The screen is huge, covered by a velvety curtain, and encircled by a balcony for those who want to be on top of it all.
Maybe they don't know what kinds of movies the Brattle shows or don't realize that you can see a double feature there almost every day of the week. On the current calendar alone, there are weekly series ranging from "Cary Grant: The King of Romantic Comedy" to "Recent Raves" and "Neo-Noir."
Maybe the time for these movies has passed. Maybe the classics are for an older generation, raised on big bands, Ed Sullivan and Frank Sinatra. Maybe the antics of Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in their screwball comedies (see "Bringing Up Baby" or "The Awful Truth" this Sunday) or the brooding faces of Bette Davis don't captivate college students as much as they used to.
Or maybe--most likely--many Harvard students simply haven't been exposed to these movies. Foreign films, classics and art films all too often are shoved in video store corners or given short shrift on popular movie house screens.
Yet never to know these classic movies is to miss out on a part of American culture--and fun--that is just as important as learning about economics or literature in the Core. These movies come from an America long past, where highballs were hip, ciggies were cheap and theaters were palaces. It was a more innocent time, where sex was taboo, but sexy was allowed and glamour ruled the day.
Once you've been to the theatre, the Brattle inspires devotion. When I picked up a schedule yesterday afternoon, a thirtyish woman also took a schedule from the box, glanced at Cary Grant on the cover and let out an "Ah!" of happiness. "Without the Brattle," she said to me, "it would be hard to survive."
So this weekend, take a break from writing that paper or doing that problem set. If you're planning on seeing a movie in one of the blockbuster cinermas, think twice. On Friday afternoon, walk down those steps just beyond the neon glare of HMV, pick up a Brattle Theatre schedule, post it on your wall and refer to it often. Buy a gift subscription for a friend Go see "It's a Wonderful Life" on the big screen before you go home for the holidays--it's an experience no one should be without. We're running the risk of losing a Harvard Square institution without ever having enjoyed what it has to offer.
Sarah J. Schaffer's column appears on alternate Fridays.
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