Last Sunday, March 22nd marks the second most important anniversary in cinema history, the Lumiere Brothers held the first private film screening.
This year the 125th. The most important anniversary would follow in December (the 28th), a screening of short films for an audience at which admission was charged. People were so beguiled that several folks ran when a train approached on the screen – that’s a true suspension of disbelief! So cool. Even more amazing is that filmmakers who invented their own camera screened their own films in their own acquired venue. That day is what paved the way for spaces like the Alabama Theater and the Sidewalk Cinema and, yes, the multiplexes. We simply don’t exist in this exact capacity without that specific moment. Even more important, in one of those seats in that audience was George Melies.
I teach film along with programming it, and this is the point in my film history lecture where I’ve been known to jump up and down in excitement (not kidding). Unlike the Lumiere brothers who are incredible technicians and entrepreneurs, Melies was a f-ing film artist… well he was about to be. At the time of the Lumiere screening, he was a magician, one who was in possession of some of Houdini’s tricks and articles. Sitting in a seat in that first makeshift movie theater on that day and seeing people react to humankind’s most magical magic trick, movies, changed Melies’ life forever. He became an auteur filmmaker and the world’s first true film editor.
That day isn’t just important in film history because of what was on the screen or because people were willing to pay for it, but because of what happens when you bring people together for the shared experience of watching movies. That moment changed Melies’ life. Watching movies in a cinema has changed my life multiple times. I decided to transfer to film school sitting in a film class screening at the University Of Montevallo. I decided to move back to Birmingham sitting in a packed screening in a midtown Manhattan cinema. The Sidewalk Cinema is a dream come true for many people. It is a dream come true for me, personally, but I also truly believe it’s a dream come true for the city of Birmingham.
It’s now 12 days since we closed the cinema due to this terrible pandemic, not just a mandate, but a desire to keep everyone safe. I miss seeing everyone, I miss the excitement of announcing the upcoming lineup. I miss the cheers on bad movie night. I miss seeing people come out of The Farewell or Marriage Story with tears in their eyes. I miss meeting newcomers daily. I miss seeing people arrive in droves for a documentary about mushrooms. I miss the arguments after Uncut Gems. I miss the true magic of Valentine’s Day. I miss that anytime I feel down I can go sit in a room with strangers and friends and share a singular, yet communal moment in a darkened space – something that I think we could all use right about now. Movies in a cinema make us feel less alone because of what is on the screen and who is in the room sharing with us what is on the screen.
My birthday is approaching, April 1st, I like to think that it lands perfectly in the shadow of a Lumiere anniversary. I was planning to host a birthday happy hour at the cinema, buy everybody a round and screen April Fool’s Day (of course). I’ll miss that, but I know that the next time I have the opportunity to sit with you in a cinema, to share a drink in the lobby or sympathetic nod as you come out of a film like Portrait of a Lady On Fire or spar with you about a film like The Nightingale or The Lighthouse it will be with much greater appreciation. Which brings me to why I write this… finally!
I want you to know that I appreciate you deeply. I want you to know that Sidewalk appreciates you. If you’ve given a donation to the cinema, big or small, if your name is on a seat, if you’ve convinced a friend to come to the fest, if you’ve ever bought a ticket to a film at the cinema or the festival, or a drink at the bar, a concession item or a t-shirt or even if you’ve simply made plans to come visit in the future, you are so incredibly important to us and are the reason why we exist, the reason why we will continue to fight to exist.
Should you buy a membership or a gift card or donate now if you find yourself in a position to do so? Sure, of course.
Should you join us at the cinema as soon as the doors are open again? Absolutely.
But, more importantly, I want you to know that I can’t wait… we can’t wait to be back in the Cinema with you as soon as possible.
We miss you, we truly wish you well and we cannot wait to see you again.