Peter Rabbit and Hotel Artemis. Paris Can Wait. Baywatch. Rough Night and Transformers: The Last Knight. Jeepers Creepers 3 was (incredibly) a double bill with BOO 2! A Madea Halloween. Under normal circumstances, I never would have thought about catching any of these films, least of all in a cinema. And yet? I watched them all. One theater brought me back, again and again, regardless of content. For over fifty years, only one theater in the greater Los Angeles area stood against the onslaught of art and ‘taste.’ That was the Valley Plaza 6.
I was levelled to discover the Plaza Theater in North Hollywood dead, the victim of that most vulgar of curtain calls, time (also the pandemic). Another Southern California movie house gone. In poor shape, she fought the advance of the clock for decades. The Northridge quake in ’94 had shaken dozens of ceiling tiles loose, never to be replaced, so the place always looked to be falling apart, and it was. Not a thing of beauty, inside or out. A grotesque decaying beast, a holdover from a forgotten era, another time. If one were to randomly arrive at the Plaza 6 in the past decade, the reaction would be ‘ugh.’ A visual inspection, something I was keen on and journal entries were noted for future pieces just such as this one, because where else would anyone care to hear about it, would indeed reveal much to desire. The abysmal bathroom maintenance, the sticky carpets, the air of abandonment that ran through the walls and hallways like a fading ghost, the smell of cigarettes, all the broken shoot ‘em up video games, the drug dealers and homeless people in the parking lot; all would give one pause before entering.
“Let’s be together and enjoy it. It’s the most fulfilling thing that can happen to any kind of creative artist. The audience is the thing. The guy cackling in the balcony, just enjoying people around you joining in on the laughter.” -Mel Brooks
It was fantastic for one thing, and that was not the movies. I paid my two dollars like the rest, two dollars we can all agree is a minuscule amount, and while that kept most criticism in check, no one cared when I said ‘it’s two bucks, man’; they still refused passage to the greatest of outposts, the movie theater at the end of the universe where the only films screened were second run, a final hurrah before streaming and Red Box. No matter how low the price, no matter how exciting the prospect of tearing through the punishing heat of August in the valley on a forty-year-old motorcycle cutting in and out of traffic with a writer holding not one but two warrants, the idea of going to see Tomb Raider, Slender Man or Sherlock Gnomes was just too much. Life may imitate art, but most Angelenos conflate the two and leave little to chance. A trifling two dollars or not, the appeal was lost on most.
The Valley Plaza 6 was great for one thing: the audience. I loved nothing more than sitting in that main theater on a Friday night full of strangers, often a hundred or more, because as you must admit and attest as well, we leave a movie as strangers no more. We have shared something, whether beautiful or banal, stupid or clever, as a society. I have always loved the magic of required darkness for the art. To enjoy its spell, you must kill the lights.
Giant immigrant families, groups of nuns, a broke uncle tasked with watching his nephews for the afternoon, stoned teenagers from Reseda, not Woodland Hills, scavengers searching through tubs of rolled-up movie posters in the corner of the lobby. Tourists on the cheap, former gang members with their born-again church group, the hardest thing they now ingest is a last run of the great Michael Fassbender in the very not great Assassin’s Creed. We came alone or in small clutches of humans, in crowds or on buses, looking for something to do on a Thursday afternoon, and we found it at the Plaza.
In 1951, the year of its birth, the Valley Plaza was hailed as the largest mall on the west coast. While Wilshire had its miracle mile, the valley had its own brand of America. When I arrived in 2011, the area had become progressively lower income as working-class replaced middle- and upper-class and the suburbs expanded ever westward and northward. Sadly, this allowed lower-end retail, such as the 99 Cent Only store and Smart & Final to thrive in places like North Hollywood. The only saving grace was the retention of the Plaza 6.
Weekends were always packed, because where else in LA can you take your family or your girlfriend for a night out without spending hundreds of dollars? The concessions were as bland and tasteless as anything offered at AMC’s city walk, but at a quarter of the price. Hot dogs were only fifty cents more than Costco, and while half of the ten trailers promoted the Armed forces, it didn’t matter. We went there together.
I usually went to matinees. Get up early, write all morning, then knock off around one or two and catch a movie. One afternoon, I lingered too long over a pitch proposal and ended up going to an evening show. Totally different audience. These are mostly people like me: cheapskate, out-of-work writers and low paid gamers and their girlfriends whose stars will never rise. A typical entry from my journals:
‘…and then, suddenly, in the middle of one of Charlie Day’s absurdly over the top racist diatribes against Sofia Boutellas character ‘Nice’, a girl in the audience laughs, and it’s a snort-laugh, and it’s hilarious, the scene and her laugh. Charlie’s delivery, Sofia’s reaction, it just plays funny. Then, good ‘ol Zachary Quinto gets in Dave Bautista’s face, warning him about ‘consequences’, and more people laugh. Seriously, who gets in Dave Bautista’s face for anything? Zach is literally looking up at Dave’s biceps as he threatens him. And now, as an audience, we’ve done it. We’ve crossed the bridge. We all see this as a comedy. I’ve been wanting to laugh the whole time, but snort girl started it. So here we are, seeing the hilarity in the seriousness. Hotel Artemis has cult film all over it. Try and watch Jodie Foster’s character walk in this film, and I guarantee you’ll laugh. Or at least say ‘what the hell is she doing?’ Which to me defines all ‘so bad it’s good’ films. Intention is lost in the absurdity of the moment, yet onward they struggle. Hotel Artemis is many things, but mostly it is a multiple personality. Dystopic drama? Horror? Thriller? Crime? It’s not clear. But one thing I am sure of: it is truly not bad.’
I’ve cried at comedies, and I’ve laughed my way through Reservoir Dogs. In the dark, we are free to let go and let the magic take hold of us and carry us away, to a place where no one sees us for who we are. No one can see us at all. I know it may seem like no historic loss, but I was truly devastated when I discovered our plaza was gone forever. It’s been almost a year now. There are moments that hang on us, and in us, and remind us to never let go of what we longed for as children, sometimes we just need to be told a story, any old story. The cinema is still a place where the ancient arms of the storytellers are placed over our shoulders, where we are alone and together, in a place where we can laugh, and point, and weep, and best of all: to be in a place where rabbits speak.