Pinching Mimsie Starr

If you read my open letter to St Michael’s a few months ago – a letter that was, in its intent, far more sincere than I discovered some people assumed – you’ll know that Melbourne’s Astor Theatre, a cinematic emporium whose cultural importance cannot be overstated, was under threat of closure.

By virtue of circumstance, St Michael’s Grammar School, the owners of the extraordinary art deco building that houses the Astor, was cornered into the role of the villain. It was clear that they were only acting in the best interests of their students, but those interests were working in direct opposition to the survival of a unique cultural institution, and one many of feel very, very passionate about. To use a cliché that I trust St Michael’s advises its students against using in their own writing, they were damned if they did, and damned if they didn’t. I did not envy them.

The community rallied, and turned out in force for the massive Save The Astor rally this past June, but what followed was a worrying silence. There was a sense that something was going on behind the scenes, but nobody on the outside of the bubble knew what that was. Last week, we found out.

Lionel Barrymore:             not Ralph Taranto.

St Michael’s Grammar has relented, and sold the building to businessman Ralph Taranto.

Who is this man? A ruthless corporate figure, one who’d no doubt be played by Lionel Barrymore in the film, who would tear the building asunder and sell it off, molecule by molecule?

Thankfully – gloriously – no!

Ralph Taranto loves his cinema, and having spoken to some people who have had dealings with him, it sounds like this love is genuine and sincere. Taranto clearly has a passion for keeping the Astor going, and he’s already committed to extending the business’s lease, as well as giving the building some much-needed refurbishments.

Right now, you probably want to give him a bear hug. Get in line.

Mr Taranto is definitely a hero in this situation, but he’s not the only one. (Although, as my Hell Is For Hyphenates co-host Paul Nelson pointed out to me, the saving of the Astor Theatre has a strikingly-similar narrative to the saving of its spiritual sister, the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. Not least because the Astor was saved by Ralph Taranto, and the New Beverly was saved by the nominatively-similar Quentin Tarantino!)

It strikes me that we should also be thanking some of the higher-ups at St Michael’s Grammar. They deserve a significant amount of the credit for this result, because they were under no obligation to sell the building. Zero. It seems apparent that they did so because they recognise that they are themselves part of the community, and the community had made its feelings very clear. If you’re wanting to give Ralph that hug, St Michael’s deserves, at minimum, a high five.

It goes without saying, but none of this would have happened without the incredibly tireless efforts of both the Astor Theatre itself and the Friends of the Astor organisation. I know at least one of the key figures prefers not to be singled out for credit, so we’ll simply credit the larger entities.

So, what next? A suggestion that you, the reader, support the Astor?

No. Definitely not. To ask you to ‘support’ the Astor is to suggest that it’s some sort of responsibility, a task you do out of duty*. And if it was such a thing, it would never have survived the past eighty years.

Tomorrow night, the theatre will play a double featuring two of my favourite films of the year: The King of Devil’s Island and Declaration of War. Great films on their own, but the pairing is inspired.

There’s a David Lean retrospective starting on Saturday, featuring Brief Encounter, Blithe Spirit, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Doctor Zhivago, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, and the brand new restoration of Lawrence of Arabia. (The first time I saw Lawrence was in 70mm at the Astor. The second time was in 35mm at the Astor. I can’t wait to see their 4K digital print looks like.)

Then there’s the amazing four-hour Woody Allen: A Documentary, a Wes Anderson retrospective, a Russ Meyer ‘Vixen-Fest’, the George Romero Night/Dawn/Day trilogy on the one night, the Back to the Future trilogy on the one night, the extended version of Kenneth Lonergen’s Margaret, 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 70mm, a Jodorowsky double of Holy Mountain and El Topo, the Lord of the Rings extended edition trilogy on the one day, a double of Cabin in the Woods and Drag Me To Hell… and all of that within the space of only three months. Not only is the above just business-as-usual for the Astor, but I actually left out a whole lot of incredible stuff. Go take a look if you don’t believe me.

This is one of those rare instances when everybody wins. St Michael’s still gets to use the Astor for school events. We get to keep our beloved cinema. And much like the classic films it so frequently plays, the building itself will be subject to a gorgeous restoration. The only way this could be better is if I was allowed to live there.

So don’t feel obliged to ‘support’ the Astor; just visit it every night for completely selfish reasons. When I’m back in Melbourne, that’s exactly what I’ll be doing.

* That said, you should definitely join Friends of the Astor.

An Open Letter To St Michael’s Grammar School

Dear St Michael’s,

We’ve never met before, possibly due to the fact that I’m a human and you’re an educational institution, and such a meeting would be logistically and anthropomorphically difficult for the both of us. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to write to you, because you are on the verge of making a decision that will affect the both of us.

If you don’t know – and I’m guessing you do, but this is an open letter, so we have to assume ignorance on the part of interlopers – a few years ago, you bought the building on the corner of Chapel Street and Dandenong Road. A magnificent art-deco palace that has, for the past 76 years, been the home of The Astor Theatre, an extraordinary single-screen theatre that plays everything from vintage cinema to the latest blockbusters. And yet, it’s so much more than that: it’s an institution. It’s one of the few places you could justifiably call “the heart of Melbourne”. (Although it’s not really situated where the heart would be. Maybe it’s the pancreas of Melbourne. Not as romantic an image, but still a vital organ you really would not want to do without.)

I won’t lie to you. When you bought the building, some of us were a bit nervous. What would that mean for the place that has been so integral to the childhoods, teenagehoods, unnecessarily-awkward twentyhoods, and adulthoods of vast swathes of Melburnians and a surprising number of interstate and international visitors? The last few years have taught me that the formative Astor experiences I thought were so unique are actually universal. There are few people who don’t have at least one important story of life-changing experience that took place within that cinematic cathedral.

Despite our concerns back in 2007, The Astor appeared continued on its journey, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. This continuation was, it turned out, due to a legally-binding contract and not any form of altruistic charity, but that was of no concern to us. We still had our beloved theatre.

That was five years ago. Now, in 2012, the lease is approaching its expiration, and you guys are moving in. And that frightening sound you heard that followed this revelation was an explosion of community outrage and shock. There were newspaper articles. A massive petition. Somewhat-provocative blogs. There is a forthcoming rally.

You must be wondering what the hell just happened.

I once bought a second-hand car from a guy, and I can tell you that I’d have been quite incensed if, upon conclusion of the transaction, he’d launched a public campaign so he could still drive it around when he wanted. That, by any measure, would have been insane.

So, as you face down a deluge of public negativity the likes of which you have surely never before encountered, I want you to know that I totally understand where you’re coming from.

I totally get that you have a responsibility to your students, teachers, alumni, etc, and that Melbourne Cinephiles With No Actual Connection To St Michael’s is probably further down the list than those of us in that group would like to believe. And you bought that building for a reason; it just makes sense for you to repurpose it.

But you shouldn’t.

In fact, maintaining The Astor in its current form is in your best interest.

As you yourself well know, any educational institution worth its salt is not exclusively concerned with preparing its students for the workforce. Sure, forging a successful career and making money are vitally important skills, but on their own they don’t make for a rounded education or rounded humans. Your own website shows students singing in a choir, experiencing the Transit of Venus, putting on a production of West Side Story, fundraising for children in Uganda… nothing that’s going to get them the CEO job at BP, but incredibly important tools for maintaining their humanity and soul when they find themselves in the dubious position of being CEO at BP.

So how does The Astor figure into this?

You may not know this, but all around the world, cinema is undergoing a massive, unprecedented change. Film is being swapped out for digital in photography, projection and storage. For all the benefits this change offers up – and there are many – there are many, many problems with this, most of which won’t become apparent until it is too late.

The primary one is of preservation.

Digital storage – fast becoming the primary and exclusive method for storing films – is not only more expensive than the storage of physical canisters: it is far more likely to be obsolete. This may seem antithetical, but it is true. (It may also seem hyperbolic. If so, you should read about how close we came to having no footage of the original moon landing.)

But even the supporters of digital-over-film must admit that the change has not been as gradual as it perhaps should have been. The major studios, distributors and exhibitors have backed an almost-overnight switch to the new format, turning traditional film into an historical curio.

Film prints are being digitised and then destroyed. Not sold or given away: destroyed. The ideology that informs such a decision is a frightening one, and comparing it to its obvious historical correlation is probably too incendiary for me to get away with. These prints, once destroyed, can never be recovered. If the importance of this is not hitting you, imagine what would happen if the Louvre announced it would save money on storage by destroying the Mona Lisa and Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin because they’d now scanned them into a computer. The canvas of these pieces is no less vital than the canvasses of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Leone’s Once Upon a Time In The West or Antonioni’s The Passenger. History is quite literally being demolished by corporations with little sense of an item’s worth beyond the bottom line. And I know using the term ‘corporations’ in this context is often an incendiary pejorative, but it’s an important term because, by its very nature, a corporation tends not to have concerns beyond its own immediate growth. Preserving history and art does not factor into that. Or rather, it will, but by the time this is apparent to them, it will be too late.

Sadly, the number of people within the industry who acknowledge and care about this is too small to have the impact that is needed. And those who do understand the importance do not, on the whole, have an infrastructure available to them to contribute to its preservation. What they have is The Astor.

The Astor has, in fact, managed to upgrade to digital projection – and I say this with my hand on my heart, its 4K digital projection is vastly superior to anything I have seen at any multiplex – whilst still maintaining both 35mm and 70mm projection capabilities. It is the very model of how to embrace the new whilst preserving the old. The Astor takes great care to store film prints that its owners are unable to, and on more than one occasion it has fought tirelessly yet successfully to preserve the last remaining prints of classic movies.

It may seem on the outside as if The Astor is merely one small cinema in a city consumed with wonderful artistic venues, but it is far, far more important than that. It is one of the last remaining outposts in a time of cataclysmic upheaval that has far more dire consequences than most people yet realise.

On Christmas Eve of last year, I went to The Astor to watch a double (projected beautifully on 35mm film) of The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), two glorious films starring the incomparable Jimmy Stewart. Behind me sat a row of teenagers, and I must confess to a moment of dread when the entered. Would they talk throughout the film? Would their phones come out? Would they be bored?

They were nothing of the sort. They were appreciative, respectful, and – most importantly – engaged. These were kids who had grown up in the age of the internet and smartphones, of frenetically-paced media and attention-destroying pop-culture the like of which we have never seen, collectively enjoying two black-and-white films from the 1940s. Were it not for the legal issues that would have no doubt arisen, I’d have jumped up and hugged them at the end. They gave me a glimmer of hope for the future. And now I wonder if they were, perhaps, students at St Michael’s. It’s not out of the question: they were the right age and they were in the right area. I hope they were.

As a respected and long-standing educational institution, you understand the importance of imbuing your students with essential values. Values that include a respect of the past, an appreciation of long-term worth. And I’m glad you do, because we need more people who recognise the significance of our culture and heritage.

These lessons have, until now, been academic. Now is the time for a practical lesson. Demonstrate how committed St Michael’s is to history, to community, to the arts, to the past and the future.

Your students will receive no greater education.