The theater of my childhood was the Princess, on Main Street in Urbana, Ill., where every Saturday we gathered to sit through a gargantuan display of two features, five cartoons, a chapter of a serial, a newsreel, the coming attractions, and the ads for the Urbana Pure Milk Company. The Princess has since been cut into two theaters and given a prosaic name — the Cinema, how original — but I remember it as the place where I first saw Hopalong Cassidy, first enjoyed Henry Fonda, first sat through an entire film wondering if an eighth-grade girl would let me hold her hand.
If I learned about the movies at the Princess, I learned about the art of film at another theater, across town in Urbana’s twin city of Champaign. This was a small independent house that was once known as the Park and that showed movies about volleyball games at nudist camps — until one day in the mid-1950s, when it was renamed the Art theater and began to book foreign and art films. The first time I went there it was to see Citizen Kane — that would have been in 1956, I think — and then I went back again and again, all through high school and college, to see the new films from Italy, France, Sweden, and Britain.
The atmosphere of the Art reflected the new beatnik culture of the ’50s, and to walk through the doors was like breathing the air of freedom. There wasn’t any popcorn for sale, but the coffee was free, black, and strong, and at the age of 16, sitting in the dark wired on caffeine and trying to puzzle through Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, I felt I was on the brink of amazing discoveries about the world, life, and myself.
Some of the movies I saw were creating a new American cinema-movies like John Cassavetes’ Shadows and Frank Perry’s David and Lisa. It was at the Art that I fell in love with the gritty socialism of Britain’s Angry Young Men, in films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, with Albert Finney as the rebellious factory worker with a wild streak, or The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, with Tom Courtenay as a reform-school boy who defeats the sadistic warden the only way he knows how.
There were the British comedies, too: Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers, Peter Sellers in I’m All Right, Jack, and Terry-Thomas and Ian Carmichael in that underrated study of one-upmanship, School for Scoundrels.
The British films were accessible — so easy to understand they slapped you in the face. But I was also a fan of movies I understood only imperfectly, like Bergman’s metaphysical allegories, or Antonioni’s mysterious L’Avventura, or Fellini’s La Dolce Vita — the portrait of decadence that seems wise to me now, but at the time seemed seductive and exciting. When the Japanese film Woman in the Dunes opened, I went to see it three times, as excited by its photography as by its ideas.
Theaters like the Art were part of the old Art Theater Guild, which once operated houses in 40 or 50 college towns of the Midwest and Southwest. The Art is still in business, but the Guild is not. The audiences seem to have disappeared with the theaters. Campus film societies are drying up, the victims of home video. Independently booked theaters have been swallowed up by the giant national chains, and now 2,000 screens at a time are booked by one guy in Los Angeles with a computer. There’s no longer the sense that you can discover exciting films for yourself: They arrive heralded by big ad campaigns and trumpeted on the talk shows, but too often they’re rehashes of cop-buddy formulas, ending in crashes and shoot-outs.
I remember those movies at the Art so vividly. The posters outside, with their stark surrealistic images and bizarre typography. The earnest bohemians in the lobby, sipping their coffee and talking like the captions on New Yorker cartoons. The notion that in a movie you had never heard of you could discover truths you had never dreamed.
— (Roger Ebert is the Pulitzer Prize-winning film columnist of Chicago Sun-Times.)