Kabuki, mon amour

The theater in its heyday as the Sundance Kabuki.

The theater in its heyday as the Sundance Kabuki, when it was Robert Redford’s place.

FILM | DAVID THOMSON

People call it “the Kabuki” still, as if clutching at something and hoping it will stay there. It is, or has been, our neighborhood movie theater, with a front onto Post Street, a parking garage, an alleged restaurant — and a certain dejected character.

I’m being as generous as possible because I want it to remain. But I have my doubts now, and I understand if people still think of it as Sundance, Robert Redford’s place, Carmike, AMC or the longtime home of the film festival.

Over the years, there were rumors: Were the Coen Brothers really thinking of taking it over? No, those guys were too shrewd for that. Our Kabuki feels like a place people are waiting to unload.

Under its latest ownership — AMC again — the place is not doing well. You can judge that by getting assigned seats in a large, empty room and still paying a few dollars extra for the “amenity charge,” even though most of the amenities are gone and now there are commercials before the films start. You go to the refreshment area and the sad servers tell you, sorry, they don’t do hot beverages anymore because the place has made a deal with Coke. The Kabuki used to boast about its dining offerings, but the upstairs bar and cafe is closed and it’s given up on coffee and tea, as well as that Humphry Slocombe ice cream it once had.

More importantly, it’s giving up on the movies, too. It’s not the Kabuki’s fault that so many of the films are so bad, but the theater complex is moving away from showing foreign films, cutting-edge documentaries and even classics. We shouldn’t knock the idea of old films. These days, a film that opens Friday afternoon is often ancient by Sunday evening; it simply doesn’t play. So it wouldn’t be eccentric of a theater, especially one on the edge of Pacific Heights, where the film festival thrived for so long, to show old films in great prints.

The business will tell you that kids want hot new movies full of special effects and apocalypse. But when I go to the Kabuki, I don’t see many kids there. Meanwhile, down the peninsula, at the Stanford Theatre — I’m biased because I’ve helped program a few things there — lustrous 35mm prints of classics draw appreciative audiences. A similar thing happens across the bay at the Pacific Film Archive, which has been doing very well since it opened its new premises.

One lesson of that — and it’s profound — is that movie-going is not exactly a vastly popular activity anymore. But come December, showing Gary Oldman as Churchill in Darkest Hour or Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks as Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee in The Post, the Kabuki will sell out — with stars who are 60 and beyond. That happy mood will exist for a week while you can’t actually get in and a few hundred packed strangers have a fine old time with mainstream entertainment.

All of this could reach further. If I were to list the Coronet, the Cento Cedar, the Metro, the Alhambra, the Northpoint, the Regency, the Galaxy, you know where I’m not going. And now the word is out that the Opera Plaza theaters will also soon close.

The logic is hard to resist. Not so many people think of going out to a movie theater as a regular pastime. I have sons who can’t believe it’s a movie unless they sneak it on their iPads or even smaller screens. What does “streaming” mean except that a movie is “out there,” waiting to be scanned, sampled and dumped? The wonder is that the drab but spacious formality of the Kabuki has lasted so long. This is not simply a lament or a warning. It’s saying that “movies,” as in night-out entertainments, barely exist now.

Our predicament could be much worse. Staying at home streaming can lead you, at your own convenience, into such treasuries as the Criterion collection. I fell in love again the other night with King Vidor’s The Crowd, from 1928 — a 90-year-old wonder. These are often great films in beautiful prints, shown in the proper aspect ratio, with rewarding back-up material.

And staying home is okay, too, when it’s raining, if the coyotes are on the street, or if there are hints of some imminent disorder we dread. But staying home is also a kind of loneliness, while going to the movies once offered an illusion known as the company of strangers.

Longtime local resident David Thomson’s new book is Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio. Its publication coincides with a 67-film season of Warner’s movies at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, which plays until early October.

  • Ian Berke

    Good (but sad) to read David Thomson’s take on the demise of the Kabuki Theater, which has been gobbled up by AMC, a Chinese-owned corporation and the largest theater chain in America, with 700 screens.

    The shift in programming from serious films to suburban teen age films, with shoot ’em up, blow ’em up Hollywood sequels, is the business model for AMC. The fine indy, foreign and documentary films that were the hallmark of the Sundance Kabuki are gone and venues for good films have become an endangered species here in a city that once prided itself on its array of good films. The Four Star is for sale and Opera Plaza may be the next to close.

    The economics of theaters are terrible, thanks in large part to streaming services that encourage people to watch at home. As Thomson points out, a communal cultural experience has become a solitary experience, to say nothing of the power and beauty of a large screen format. San Francisco is losing its film culture that made it special. Sad stuff indeed.