Last year saw the release of a stirring saga of a Jewish family’s journey through difficult times that doubles as a paean to the power of cinema — it’s not called The Fabelmans.
Only in Theaters follows Greg Laemmle, a third-generation owner of a storied LA arthouse chain, as the business contends with the rise of streaming and a pandemic that shuttered their doors for a year.
Well before the landscape of cinema faced its mightiest challenge, director Raphael Sbarge was drawn to the Laemmle family, and it’s no wonder why. As Greg says, seated in a row of one of the Laemmle theaters, the premier LA venue for independent and foreign films (and also, he adds, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, which falls somewhere in between while resisting categorization), “there really has been a Laemmle in the film business ever since there has been a film business.”
The early parts of the film, shot in 2019, tell the immigrant story of Max and Kurt Laemmle, from Stuttgart, Germany. Their Uncle Carl came over with nothing and managed to found a little family firm called Universal Pictures. In the 1930s, Max was in Paris working for the studio when Kurt, fearing the rise of fascism, recalled him to the U.S. to open theaters. The rest is history and, lucky for the film, Kurt’s widow, Alyse, who worked the box office while pregnant with her first child, was around to share stories from the early days.
The current Laemmle family, introduced during a Shabbat dinner at their home (they have a painting of the famous “I don’t roll on shabbos” quote from The Big Lebowski), are remarkably charming and forthcoming about their business. Since they are committed to programming films with artistic merit or those that otherwise can’t secure a venue, the advent of streaming hurt their bottom line, forcing them to consider the sale of some or even all of their theaters.
Greg announces the future of the business during the annual Christmas Eve singalong to Fiddler on the Roof, an apt programming choice for the film’s concerns of legacy, tradition and changing times. The screening was in late December 2019. We all know what happened next, and Sbarge conducted a large portion of interviews over Zoom throughout the pandemic. (He also tracks the pandemic-era marquees, a favorite being “Now Playing: Life Stinks” and “Coming Soon: Hope Floats.”)
Sbarge, an actor and the Emmy-nominated director of LA Foodways, was nimble with his evolving story, though, as an occasional narrator, he holds the audience’s hand more than he has to.
Talking head asides from directors Cameron Crowe, James Ivory, Ava Duvernay and lesser-known filmmakers occasionally go off-piste in their appreciation of the cinema experience writ large. I wondered if it needed these interviews, or if a more vérité approach could have served the same purpose.
When the film focuses on the Laemmles, the film delivers a funny, touching, multi-layered portrait that gets at an elemental part of the human experience.
“We’re designed to be around other people,” Greg Laemmle, says. It’s a lovely sentiment, best enjoyed in a dark room with other moviegoers.
Only In Theaters opens in New York on Jan. 20 at the IFC Center and New Plaza Cinemas.
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