Sewanee’s Union Theater shut its doors this year. Following periods of low attendance, along with the 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 screenings to Blackman Auditorium inside Spencer Hall.
The old union theater was by no means a looker. It was objectively creepy by most accounts. My first time going I was sure I was in the wrong place. Stone walls framed a massive screen instead of curtains. Two lonely fans cycled high up in the air while the projector, which had been damaged and burned, spit out a blue-tinted splotch in the top right corner of every movie shown. But when the lights dimmed and the speakers got to work, I was in a movie theater. There is something that has always drawn me to theaters. That tunneling effect it offers. In the darkness, eyes lead nowhere but to the massive array of images in front, you can forget about everything else and immerse yourself.
During the pandemic, the world watched theaters become obsolete overnight. Services like HBO Max and Warner Brothers announced that every single one of their 2021 releases would appear in theaters and simultaneously premiere on their streaming platform. The closing of the Union Theater feels somehow more important because of this timing. This first weekend at the Theater’s new location, three films were shown. Pixar’s Coco, available right now on Disney Plus, the Ruth Bader Ginsberg documentary RBG, concurrently streaming on Hulu, and Spiral, Chris Rock’s entry into the Saw franchise, which I went to see, shockingly not released simultaneously anywhere.
Maybe I am in the minority, but the theater experience has always offered me something that watching at home cannot. The new location doesn’t exactly capture the same magic. Thinly padded chairs glide out from underneath cold wood laminate desks and a periodic table can be seen poking out from behind the dropdown screen. The room cannot be blacked out so overhead lights remain dim but make sure you don’t forget you are in a classroom. Theater seating is replaced with the amphitheater-style lecture hall layout. The screen feels far away, emotionally or physically I am not sure. I will admit I am being a bit unfair, the Cinema Guild team and work studies’ have done their absolute best given the circumstances. The sound quality is good if not great, the picture is cleaner than the one the crippled projector spit out 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 to the top of stairs that run down to the lectern. Gold table cloths are draped over the more obvious remnants of classroom furnishings. If you have to do all of this to make your space feel like a theater, it probably is not well suited for it. Our campus is filled with places to appreciate audio-visual arts. The Ralston Listening Room is home to some of the best audio equipment available to man. The University Art Gallery is well maintained and updated. The SUT deserves the same treatment.
The 2018 Strategic Assessment plan outlines the need to build a University Commons that offers healthy activities while providing space for meaningful social connections in an effort to create more activities here on campus that do not include a 6-pack and a half-mile walk back home. Did the SUT not offer just this kind of activity? The SUT was not a popular option, I will not pretend that its demolition in service of the Biehl Commons project is unjust, but thinking that the experience will be the same in a classroom is shortsighted. My sincere hope is that those who care about the theater experience the same way I do will be willing to speak up about a desire for a dedicated space for its appreciation.
It’s possible this is a shout into the void. Theaters are less important than they have ever been now. There were a total of 7 people who watched Spiral at the Blackman Auditorium this Sunday. I do know that Vanderbilt and UT Martin both have student-run theaters with dedicated spaces. The library website proposes three different buildings where teachers can screen movies for their class: Blackman Auditorium, Gailor Auditorium, Gailor Language Resource Center, and the SUT. I think this alone displays the kind of benefits a high-quality screening room could offer. I just hope that someday, maybe after I am gone, we will have that option available for students who long for that feeling that just isn’t offered anywhere else.
The coming demolition of the SUT, and the industry-wide reckoning that seems to have helped push it over, offer opportunities for us to think about the value of the movie theater today. There is a certain intentionality about going to see a movie. To sit down for an hour, immersed, having planned your day around it. Taking the walk home while images replay, a moral, a meaning, grabbing hold for a second just to elude you. It’s been beaten to the ground at this point but most filmmakers do not intend for their work to be watched on your 13in MacBook while you text. Even more troubling, streaming services keep something on their platform only as long as it continues to make them money. If not, the rights are sold to the next highest bidder. Movies are tossed around from paywall to paywall. If something doesn’t make money, it simply isn’t offered, unworth the 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 still will. Does this resilience not deserve our support as a university, to preserve the knowledge and art that these pictures have to offer? I hope you would agree.