Philippe Lesage is a film writer and director based in Montreal. This piece was translated by Robert Gray.
Victoria Carmen Sonne, the actor, and I were standing in front of a small cluster of Swedish seniors who seemed to have stayed, perhaps out of courtesy, for the Q&A after the screening of our film, Copenhague: A Love Story. It was in 2017. On a rainy January Sunday at 10 a.m., what more could you want? Even if some of them were still there only because they’d fallen asleep.
Seniors are the last guardians of our culture: They still go out to see movies, watch plays, line up at festivals, buy books in bookstores and attend classical recitals and U2 concerts (nobody’s perfect). Will there be audiences once these boomers with their grey and salon-dyed hair have left us or no longer have the energy to go out? When movie theatres reopen, will boomers be too wary to return? It will be game over. Soon cinemas will be repurposed into hotel-spas for a new generation of less-cultivated geezers strolling about in white bathrobes like pale ghosts, anxiously holding their big-screen iPads to the heavens in search of a life-saving signal.
At that Sunday morning screening at the film festival in Goteborg, Sweden, astonishingly neither Ms. Sonne nor I are hung over. Nor are the boomers; they’re in strapping good health and sufficiently open-minded to have come out for an obscure film by a more or less (with the stress on less) well-known film director from Quebec. There is something touching about seeing an old couple sedately walking to the cinema, as if they’d grown into the habit when far younger. It seems for them to be about habit and nostalgia, just as my parents still often visit the area around Trois-Rivières where they grew up and met, even though they no longer have any relatives there.
The generation that didn’t experience the thrill of going to the cinema as children won’t start attending when they’re older. I once took my young nieces to the movies (the choice, narrowed beforehand by their mother, went to a Fantastic Beasts film), and they started sobbing in terror during the trailer for a superhero movie. I was astonished. At their age I’d already seen Deliverance. In our family, cinephilia may die out because of me. After this crisis, a future generation may one day return to the cinemas if it again becomes fashionable – a vintage distraction, like the no doubt ephemeral interest in vinyl records. But film is not dead. Somewhere in the world, right now, a lonely and different child is discovering online a movie that echoes his or her marginality, and that might change their life.
For decades, vehemently criticized first by the ex-No Future Generation X (who snapped up all the real estate in Montreal’s boho Mile End), and now by the generation of woke millennials (some who started investing in the stocks of big corporations at the age of 12), boomers may deserve some of the criticism aimed at them – just like the rest of us. But keep in mind that it is healthy, even normal to accuse the generation before us of every wrong (they destroyed the planet!), while mistrusting the generation that follows us (they want to steal my job!). It’s always been like that. But I won’t spare my peers, the Gen-Xers, from whom I’ve always tried to distance myself (I was born at the end of the wave). In the nineties, we had the luxury of experiencing films on a big screen while gorging on fast food, just as independent cinema was in its hour of glory. And what do we do now? We bemoan its death – the food is healthier, for sure – but mostly we criticize those younger than ourselves for being glued to their cell phones. Yet it’s us who’ve become the worst addicts in human history – of our iPhones. A fine example!
Still, let us also demonstrate our goodwill: Boomers carried the torch of culture. They were born to the strains of jazz, spent their teenage years arguing who was most poetic and existential among George Brassens, Jacques Brel and Léo Ferré – whose popularity in some circles must have been similar to that of Rihanna or Bruno Mars today. Boomers went on their first dates to darkened cinemas, and they continued to go as couples, as families, with their kids on their weekend of shared custody, with their new girlfriends, latest boyfriends, or alone, because it’s exceedingly pleasant to watch a movie alone.
Among the happiest memories of my youth are my solitary escapades to movie theatres that have since been shuttered in Montreal’s downtown: The Egyptian, in the Cours Mont-Royal underground mall, which showed the films of Woody Allen; the Loews, where I could easily see two or three films the same day by sneaking from one theatre to another; the Faubourg Ste-Catherine, where I saw Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction three times. I saw these films alone, most often in the afternoon. In the purest solitary pleasure of remaining anonymous in a vast, half-empty theatre, alone with the work of art, amid the few slackers who frequent cinemas the world over in daytime.
From my childhood I also remember the sticky aisles of the York, the magnificent art deco theatre where I went to see Full Metal Jacket. Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick had chosen the cinema personally, the only one in Montreal where the film was shown. Later, everything was wrecked and razed, the myriad old, often-packed theatres were demolished to make room for soulless plexes whose theatres were often empty. I almost gave up on going to the movies, I confess. Slowly, gradually, little by little, wearily, like you abandon a boring friend over time. It’s hard when as a child you’ve experienced the euphoric enchantment of discovering E.T. at the Place Longueuil.
Besides, for me going to the movies was never a group activity: The horror of travelling to the cinema in a herd and then afterward putting up with the loud, enthusiastic comments of a bunch of morons raving about a turkey of a film. I can be the worst wet blanket, I admit. And never go to the movies with people you barely know – it may end badly. You need to be on familiar ground, with people you’re close to; seeing a film is an intimate act, almost sacred. (I’ve never understood how you can go to the movies on a first date. You then have to remain silent, even though you don’t know the person next to you; it’s feeling the nervousness rise; it’s not being able to forget yourself, or get into the film.)
Ms. Sonne and I answered the questions of those very congenial Swedish seniors. “It reminds me of my youth,” was all we needed to hear. Otherwise, they were polite, keeping any reservations to themselves, with the less-enthusiastic responding philosophically, “Well, at least we stretched our legs and got out of the house.” None of them spattered their venom on some website. They were past the age of seeking attention when they had nothing to say. Grandpa, Grandma, Mom, Dad, Uncle Claude, Aunt Anne … please start going to the movies again when things are safe. We need you.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.