The Parkway Theater is the greatest artistic development in Baltimore in my lifetime. Nothing comes even close. If you need to find me for the duration of the Trump presidency, I will be in the front rows of MICA’s new art-film theater, adjusting my spine to the curvature of its seats.
Nothing prepared me for my first view of its largest theater. It was a vision of a resurrected America — the desiccated jewels of its cities reborn. In the Parkway you see the hopes of 100 years ago, the disappointments of 50 years ago, the maturity of now.
Much as I love it, a lot of people will be disappointed. The renovation cost $18.2 million. Most of it was clearly spent to remove the lead and asbestos, because they barely repainted a single inch. It does nothing to cover up the faded decline of the late century; the faded paint and deteriorated surfaces. Every minute in the Parkway reminds you of how we neglected it. This is the story of Baltimore, of American cities themselves, told in a building.
The seating is awkward, yet nearly perfect. It will be sparsely attended enough that you can choose your seats. Don’t sit in the balcony where the seating is stadium style and you look downward or eye-level. Sit downstairs in the orchestra. The shallowness of the orchestra level forces you to crane your neck upward. If this strikes you as uncomfortable, go to the Senator, it’s exactly the same. Generations watched movies in palaces precisely like that, stiffening their necks upward to be overwhelmed and immersed in images that tower over you. This, not over-comfortable TV-like stadium seating, is the way to watch movies to be awed by them.
People who grew up in the TV age don’t often know how central movies used to be to American life. Sunday was for church, but Saturday was the real day of worship. All ages, all colors and creeds, went to movies and sat together for six hours at a time. You’d see a double feature — quality release juxtaposed with fun B-movie trash — newsreels and cartoons. It was entertainment, art, news and socializing, all in one. Highbrow with lowbrow, young with old, poor with rich. It was the experience that bonded America together.
On Sunday, I stayed for two movies and made my own double feature. One was a movie from Senegal about the longings for success of a young couple from poverty unimaginable even in Baltimore. It never succumbed to the easiness of making them victims. It portrays them as brave humans, perhaps even glamorous, who steal and swindle to stay alive and adapt hubris as a way of coping with their vicissitudes.
The second was about a gay, working class German man who wins the lottery. He’s financially fleeced by gay bourgeoise whose lifestyle puts him into debt. The true subject of the movie is not homosexuality but money and social class. The homosexuality is merely there for atmosphere. Change the details and the movie could just as easily be about straight people. It gives lie to the idea that art movies are elitist because it so clearly and rightly takes the side of the “philistine.”
Were these movies masterpieces? Well, not quite, but who cares? When you see the plight of people so ostensibly different from you, it becomes much more difficult to view their problems as less deserving of attention than your own. Whether left or right, your political opinions may not change from watching them, but your dehumanizing instincts become that much more difficult to give free reign.
Art movies are unfairly derided in America. The whole concept of “art” is something un-American, indicative both of of boring elitism and moral decadence to many. But art movies are not a matter of elevating quality over ostensible trash. Hell, the German movie makes fun of exactly that pretension. What’s important is curiosity and empathy; expanding your universe by taking an interest in what people different than you value.
Movies are the most miraculous art yet invented — more so even than music or novels, movies are the best of us. You’re deposited and immersed in the sights and sounds of worlds completely different from yours. The shape of your mind is changed from the experience. The fact that Baltimore can now support a full-time art house cinema is the best yet evidence that we still matter to the world and see the experiences of people from all around the world from our back yards.
Evan Tucker is North Baltimore-based writer and composer. He is the violinist and lead singer of the Yiddish rock band Schmear Campaign and has a monthly podcast, “Tales from the Old New Land,” which is a Jewish version of A Prairie Home Companion. Listen at podomatic.com/podcasts/oldnewland.