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May 1, 2008

Scouring the depths of suburban cinema

The theater is tucked into the corner of a strip mall like coins lost inside the cushions of your couch; locating it is reminiscent of the scene in Swingers where Jon Favreau tells Ron Livingston that finding the bars in L.A. is "kinda like a speakeasy kind of thing...you tell a chick you've been some place, it's like bragging that you know how to find it." With ownership recently having changed hands, the sign posted reads "Valley View Cinema Grill 10" rather than the current, more generic name of "Chandler Cinemas" (the theater is located in Chandler, Arizona). There's no external box office, only a countertop (as seen in the left-hand side of the picture below) with two bored employees standing by, waiting for another customer. In the lobby are a few beat down pool tables, in addition to the standard array of video games. At the moment of our arrival, there's not another customer in sight.

It's 9:00 pm on a Sunday night in suburbia, and Mrs. Fletch and I are off to a newly re-opened discount theater to catch a screening of Eraserhead. First we split up to use our respective lavatories, only the men's version is located past the "box office" in the inner lobby, so we must purchase our tickets first. "Cash only!!" reads the handwritten sign taped to the wall. Not a problem - $15.00 for two. Pushing through to the inner lobby, we find a large open space. There is a projection screen TV pushed against one wall, and a few couches and loveseats that look like remnants from a college dormitory pushed against the other. Due to the vastness of the lobby, the couches and television are probably 40 feet apart, so I wonder who watches the TV and when - it ain't that large of a screen. We purchase some popcorn and two large drinks (surprisingly good popcorn) for a bargain $7.00 or so and make our way to the screening.

We enter the theater about ten minutes before showtime, but it's been a daylong David Lynch event, and a collection of short films is currently wrapping up. Things are also starting to get interesting...

For starters, the first noticeable thing is that for a discount theater, there are a lot of screens (10 to be exact). But as we enter our theater, the size of the room itself is also surprising. It's roughly equivalent to a mid-size theater at your local big movie house, with a large screen to boot. The room is fuller than the lobby and exterior had suggested, with about 30 people spread out inside. The real treat, though, is that in many of the rows, there is a table in place of a seat. It's not uniform, so the impression is given that the acquisition of the seating in the theater was somewhat haphazard, but it's an odd charm that impresses, as though there were a table in the middle of a row of airplane seats. Though the chairs themselves are equipped with cupholders (wooden, to boot!), there's a sense of freedom in placing our popcorn and drinks on the table instead of holding it on one of our laps.

Then the movie started. I realize I'm about 30 years late to the party, but bear with me.

If you have yet to experience Eraserhead, I think I highly recommend it. That's not to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the movie; in fact, I sat in awe, mouth agape, for much of the running time (though I think that's an intended consequence). It's garbage and high art simultaneously, filled with terrible effects, lofty aspirations and absurd behaviors. The first five minutes are almost purely experimental filmmaking and impossible to put into any sort of context without having seen the rest of the film, and even then stand out for their bizarre visuals and silence. The narrative does slowly pick up, though, and it's a doozy that I won't bother trying to explain in this space (go to Wikipedia if you're looking for any sort of cohesive plot analysis). It's a wonder the film was finished (it was filmed over a span of about six years) or found any audience, but its importance and influence probably can't be underestimated.

As blasphemous as it may sound, the high point in the movie for me was when the "Lady in the Radiator" sang her song the first time. I recognized it immediately but couldn't quite place it. "In heaven, everything is fine.." sings the lady with chipmunk cheeks (literally). It wasn't until we were leaving the theater that it hit me - the Pixies had covered the song some years back, and it's on their B-Sides album. As is turns out, the song has been covered by a number of acts. My naivete knows no bounds.

Though it's a lengthy drive, we'll no doubt head back to the Chandler Cinemas for more quirky nights filled with strange films. On their upcoming slate is a double feature of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian, which ought to be a hoot to catch in front of a live audience, and a film independently produced by Crispin Glover, where the actor will present his movie and participate in a live Q & A. There is also a weekly showing of Rocky Horror (not my bag) and a "shadowcast" of Moulin Rouge where a group of performers will act the movie out directly below the screen playing the actual film. Too weird, or a must see? You tell me.

For local fans, here's the Cinemas' MySpace page.

11 people have chosen wisely: on "Scouring the depths of suburban cinema"

Daniel G. said...

Great write-up on what sounds like an interesting night at the movies - one, in fact, that describes all the reasons we go.

The Moulin Rouge thing sounds...a little weird.

Adam Ross said...

A daylong David Lynch event -- so could you buy a single pass to see all the movies? Sounds like an interesting place, wonder how long it will be around.

Evan Derrick said...

Great little piece here Dylan. I love reading 'reviews' that are more about film experiences than the film itself.

Sounds like a great, odd, bizarre, theater, though at $15.00 for two I would hardly call it 'discount.'

Fletch said...

If I recall, a daylong pass for the Lynch event was $15 per. We got single movie passes for 7.50 each. And Evan, second-run movies are discounted (a buck or two); special engagements like this are a bit more (but still not terribly priced, if you ask me).

Thanks all.

Robb said...

A Moulin Rouge "shadowcast"?? That sounds awesome, a must-see if you ask me. Were I living in Fletch-ville, I'd totally be there. Rocky Horror isn't quite my thing either, though it was fun for a high-school date. Ah, memories.

Chandler said...

Wow. I am humbled beyond my ability to express myself.

It's nice to read a review by someone who "gets it".

When my partners and I were given the opportunity to take over this theatre, we did so with an eye to filling a void in the Phoenix-area cinema market, a niche that no one else was catering to--art, foreign, independent, cult and retro films, collectively, repertory fare. Metro Phoenix has one of the largest population centers in the USA--and NO ONE in the area is servicing that market.

But at the same time, Rep theatres have been struggling all over the place--with competition from multiplexes, DVD, the economy, and general apathy. The people we took over from (who opened this door for us in the first place) had been running it as a discount, second run theatre--which have also been struggling, with narrowing windows between first-run and DVD releases for new movies.

Thus we settled on the hybrid art house/discount format, which is we believe unique: we are quite possibly the only one in the country, for all that we know. Certainly no one else in the Phoenix area is doing what we're doing--nor do we feel they will, if we should cease to operate the theatre.

It's true that we're considerably away from "central", location-wise in the Phoenix area; we're in the extreme southeast portion of the Valley. This is a deterrent to some, though we feel the inconvenience of extra drive time is worth it for what we offer. (For whatever it's worth, I myself drive from Glendale--about 30 minutes/miles northwest of the theatre--and really it's not so bad unless you're heading out there at rush hour; Phoenix's gridded layout is a blessing at times.)

Long-term, of course, we would like for this theatre to be successful enough to allow us to expand to other locations in the Valley; I have dreams of a mini-empire of non-corporate theatres, all offering both mainstream and alternative fare. Hopefully even with multiple locations we'd still be able to maintain our present distinction of being the only truly independently owned theatre in the Valley.

I need to note that we're movie geeks ourselves; much of what we program is because we love it and won't see this stuff anywhere else. Rocky Horror is my baby and has been part of the fabric of my life since childhood. Indeed, successfully running the local ROCKY show for years is what led me to where I am now, if you can believe it. I'm also a huge Lynch fan, a medium Python fan, and just an enthusiast of pop culture in general. My main partner, Andrea Beesley-Brown (aka the Midnite Movie Mamacita), the finest Kiwi you will ever meet, is a lover of low-budget, trashy, exploitive B-Movies and other forms of camp & kitsch. She books her stuff and the mainstream second run movies, but we work together to balance out the art/trash/mainstream equations...and it works out pretty well, I think. She has a strong core audience; Rocky is consistently our biggest money maker (one of the most successful ROCKY productions in the country, actually); and our extra programming like Lynch, Python and Moulin Rouge all do very well.

But though she and I and our other partners all bring various skills and experiences from prior lives/careers to the table, this is our first time owning a business, much less running a movie theatre, so we're still learning as we go! Long-term ambitions aside, we're doing our very best to keep this place alive as long as we can, and at the moment, struggling a bit to do so. So every positive review, every ticket sale, helps! (I LOVE the speakeasy/Swingers comparison in the review; but unfortunately the "tucked away" quality which enhances the "hip" factor is a complete detriment to business...)

To answer some random points (I debated leaving the mystery a bit, but what the hell, I'm here...)

We need new signage, yes. The "Cinema Grill" signage, like the randomly spaced tables in the auditoriums, are leftover from one of the several previous owners. They remodeled the theatre in 2005 intending to turn it into a "dinner theatre". Didn't quite work out...but we're benefiting from the tables, if not the signage. (The signs will be changed when we can afford to change them--or when we find a Rich Uncle Eccentric Movie Lover who generously finances our many dreamt-of upgrades and renovations...) The sofas and tables in the lobby are meant to convey a sense of homeliness. They also have a distinguished hipster pedigree: they were purchased from the now sadly defunct Paper Heart Arts Venue in downtown Phoenix, which used to be THE destination for all the cool artsy types. So you know, it enhances our "street cred" to have them. Plus which they're just pretty damn cool. And the TV is mostly used during big event shows (including ROCKY)--we'll show random childhood favourites, old Saturday Night Lives, Beavis & Butt-head episodes, you name it. I might even break out Michael Nesmith's Elephant Parts or Mr. Mike's Mondo Video sometime soon...

Anyway, I've digressed far afield now. Forgive the tangents. The point is...thank you, Fletch, for the review, and for all of you who have commented in the positive. The more people who know about and support what we’re doing, the longer we can keep the dream of independent theatre in the Phoenix area alive.


Matthew M. Yenkala
Owner/Operator, Chandler Cinemas

p.s. Don't feel bad for singling out the "Lady in the Radiator" scene of Eraserhead. It's quite rightly the most famous scene in the movie. And it sums up, in my view, the central message of much of Lynch's work...Redemption. Because who doesn't want to believe that indeed, In Heaven, Everything Is Fine?

joen05 said...

Looks like I got to this after the owner/operator did, but that was a great write up on that theatre! The picture you gave actually somewhat resembles the theatre I work for, but you definitely paid a lot less than it would cost here, lol.

Anyway, I'm glad you enjoyed your time, I wish that I were able to run events like that where I work.

Pat said...

Wow, what a great theatre! I wish we had something like that in my suburban area. Your summartion of "Eraserhead" was right on the money. I think's it an amazing but disturbing film (like many subsequent David Lynch movies.)

Fletch said...

Well, thanks to Matthew for the visit and comments. As I stated, we'll be back this weekend for the Monty Python double feature (Python-a-thon?).

Also, I'll be on the lookout for an RUEML (Rich Uncle...), and will be trying to come up with ways that Mrs. Fletch and I can offer help, however small.

People outside of Phoenix may not realize it, but you're being modest about the drive to Glendale to Chandler - that's a brutal commute, and definitely is an example of your passion for the theater. That said, when you're gonna expand into Scottsdale, let me know - I'll be a franchisee! ;)

Chivid said...

Eraserhead has the distinct honor of being one of three movies that have actually made me physically nauseous.

The other two are Halloween III and Brazil.

Matt said...

Eraserhead is way out there, but it's great that you found a theater that's willing to play different films than the average humdrum lineup.

Have fun watching The Holy Grail. I've heard that Monty Python in general is "for guys." I'm not sure if it's true, but Holy Grail is up there as one of my favorite comedies of all time. Enjoy.