Monday, December 1, 2014

Watching movies the old way

By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard Magazine
December, 2014

Each yuletide, a smallish Christmas tree took up a corner of the living room in our apartment. All magazines but one were removed from the top of the end table to make way for a cardboard crèche. 
On winter evenings, our family quartet gathered around the warm, black-and-white glow of a cathode-ray tube to watch holiday specials.

The weekly TV Guide, hidden behind the crèche, was studied as carefully as holy text for the three shows my sister and I absolutely could not miss. These would be broadcast but once during the season and we were determined to view them.

We watched “Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” with unforgettable narration by movie monster Boris Karloff.

We watched “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” a stop-motion animation with Burl Ives narration. One of the characters was a prospector named Yukon Cornelius and since the Yukon was in Canada it was easy to believe Santa's Workshop indeed could be found elsewhere in the Great White North.
We watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with the sad-sack hero finding the true meaning of Christmas not in the commercialization of the holiday. The soundtrack was a revelation in a household favouring Elvis, as the Vince Guaraldi Trio's jazzy score remains as Christmassy to me as any carol.

The telecast specials offered a 30-minute reprieve for our parents from our constant requests for a Chatty Cathy™, an Easy-Bake Oven™, Battling Tops™, and Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots™ (“My block is knocked off!” “But you can press it back on again!”). Cindy Lou Who and all the Whos down in Whoville could make do without presents, but the redemptive holiday message of the specials was lost on two kids as greedy as any other.

By the time my own children were born, the shows were broadcast several times (including as early as November). Christmas movies were available on VHS tape and, later, on DVDs, while the soundtracks were on compact disks, technologies beyond imagination when those specials were first aired in the mid-1960s.

Many families maintain holiday viewing traditions, whether “A Christmas Carol” with Alastair Sim, or “A Christmas Story” featuring Ralphie's pursuit of a Red Ryder carbine-action, 200-shot Range Model BB gun with which he might put his eye out.

Rob Nesbitt, 46, a self-described traditionalist, watches “It's a Wonderful Life,” though he also holds an annual party with friends while screening “Bad Santa” with Billy Bob Thornton. Nesbitt's childhood favourites includes Charlie Brown's scrawny tree and the teacher's voice a sad trombone.
“It's got such a sweet centre, but it's not cloying and it's not clichéd,” Nesbitt said.

Christmas is an important season for Nesbitt, as it is for many other proprietors of small businesses in Victoria. He is a co-owner of Pic-A-Flic Video, the Cook Street Village landmark, where the holidays will be marked with a large display of movies with a holiday theme. The bottom shelves are dedicated to alternative holiday selections, including the likes of “Fubar” and “Die Hard,” the action movie that has become a classic in some circles as Bruce Willis takes on terrorists on Christmas Eve.

The seasonal offerings are among 48,000 titles stocked at the store, which is the region's largest and a survivor in an entertainment business decimated by online services such as iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon Prime. We got Netflix earlier this year and the convenience cannot be matched, though the selection remains limited and the suggestions based on previous viewings are an embarrassment, if not insulting.

“How are we doing? We're doing unbelievably well,” Nesbitt said, “because every other store in the world is closing, and we're not.”

To browse a shelf at Pic-A-Flic is to immerse in the history of cinema. The blockbuster is equal to the cult offering, the Bing Crosby classic “Going My Way” sharing space with my CanCon fave “Goin' Down the Road.” (The store's online catalogue describes the stars of the latter as “two hosers.”) 

Talking movies with the store's staff is like having a one-on-one with the late Roger Ebert. Recently, John Threlfall of the University of Victoria curated a selection of movies featuring time travel. That's beyond what's on offer from online streaming services.

“Netflix is an algorithm, it's not people,” Nesbitt said.

I'd feel bereft if the curtain ever dropped on Pic-A-Flic, as important in its way to cultural life in Victoria as Munro's Books. So, this holiday season I'm going to rent a stack of movies and support a local business. Think of it as an early new year's resolution.


Unknown said...

8950Good piece, Tom, thanks. (Cxn, though: It's Ebert, not Eberts, which in a movie-related column is heresy. Hope your Blvd editor caught it!)

reguvardan said...
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dth said...
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dth said...
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