The Union Theater in Sewanee closed its doors this year. After periods of low attendance, as well as conflicting plans for the Biehl Commons project, the space will be renovated to become an outdoor patio. In the meantime, the Cinema Guild has moved the screenings to the Blackman Auditorium inside Spencer Hall.
The old union theater was by no means a spectator. It was objectively scary by most accounts. The first time I went there I was sure I was in the wrong place. Stone walls framed a massive screen instead of curtains. Two lone fans cycled through the air as the projector, which had been damaged and burned, spat a bluish stain in the upper right corner of every movie it aired. But when the lights went out and the speakers went to work, I was in a movie theater. There is something that has always attracted me to the theater. This tunnel effect it offers. In the dark, the eyes lead nowhere, but in front of the huge array of images in front, you can forget everything else and immerse yourself in it.
During the pandemic, the world saw theaters become obsolete overnight. Services like HBO Max and Warner Brothers have announced that each of their 2021 releases will appear in theaters and be shown simultaneously on their streaming platform. The closure of the Union Theater somehow seems more important because of this timing. This first weekend in the new premises of the Theater, three films were screened. by Pixar coco, available now on Disney Plus, the documentary by Ruth Bader Ginsberg RBG, simultaneously streaming on Hulu, and Spiral, Chris Rock’s entry into the Saw franchise, which I went to see, shockingly unreleased anywhere simultaneously.
I may be in the minority, but the theater experience has always given me something that watching at home cannot. The new location doesn’t capture exactly the same magic. Finely upholstered chairs slide under cold laminate wood desks, and a periodic table can be seen behind the drop-down screen. The room cannot be darkened, so the overhead lights will stay dim, but make sure you don’t forget that you are in a classroom. Theater seating is replaced with the amphitheater-style conference room layout. The screen seems far away, emotionally or physically, I’m not sure. I have to admit I’m a little unfair, the Cinema Guild team and the work studies team did their best given the circumstances. The sound quality is good if not great, the picture is sharper than what the crippled projector spat before, and it’s the first week in the new location, but they deserve better.
Large cutouts of Oscar statues are placed in the corner of the classroom, while red carpets are laid out that run from concessions at the top of the stairs leading down to the lectern. Gold tablecloths are draped over the most obvious remnants of the classroom furniture. If you have to do all of this to make your space look like a theater, it’s probably not well suited for it. Our campus is full of places to enjoy the audiovisual arts. The Ralston Listening Room is home to some of the best audio equipment available to humans. The university art gallery is well maintained and updated. SUT deserves the same treatment.
The 2018 Strategic Evaluation Plan emphasizes the need to build a common university that offers healthy activities while providing space for meaningful social connections with the aim of creating more activities here on campus that do not include a 6 pack and a half mile back home. Didn’t the SUT offer just this kind of activity? The SUT was not a popular option, I won’t argue that its demolition in the service of the Biehl Commons project is unfair, but to think that the experience will be the same in a classroom is shortsighted. My sincere hope is that those who care about the theater have the same experience as me, will be ready to express their desire for a space dedicated to its appreciation.
It is possible that it is a cry into the void. Theaters are less important than they have ever been now. There were a total of 7 people watching Spiral at the Blackman Auditorium this Sunday. I know Vanderbilt and UT Martin both have student-run theaters with dedicated spaces. The library website offers three different buildings where teachers can show films for their class: Blackman Auditorium, Gailor Auditorium, Gailor Language Resource Center and the SUT. I think that alone shows the kind of benefits that a high quality screening room could offer. I just hope that one day, maybe after I leave, we will have this option available for students who yearn for that feeling that just isn’t offered anywhere else.
The upcoming demolition of the SUT, and the industry-wide computation that seems to have helped push it back, provide us with opportunities to reflect on the value of cinema today. There is a certain intention to go to a movie. Sit for an hour, submerged, after having planned her day around her. Take the way home while images replay, a moral, a meaning, hang for a second just to escape you. It’s been beaten to the ground at this point, but most filmmakers don’t intend to watch their work on your 13-inch MacBook while you’re texting. Even more troubling, streaming services only keep something on their platform as long as it continues to make them money. Otherwise, the rights are sold to the next highest bidder. Movies are tossed from paywall to paywall. If something isn’t making money, it just isn’t offered, which isn’t worth taking up server space and the cost of keeping it online. There is value in curation, a recommendation from someone else, a cultural zeitgeist created outside of whatever Netflix decides is the # 1 streaming show this week. The SUT offered this, and always will. Doesn’t this resilience deserve our support as a university, to preserve the knowledge and art that these images have to offer? Hope you will agree.