The Brattle, Front Row, Balcony

Harvard Square is changing, it isn’t what it used to be. I heard it in 1996 when I arrived in Boston and I’m pretty sure people have been saying it since the beginning of creation. Which doesn’t make it any less true; Curious George and Out of Town News closed in 2019. Tealuxe shuttered in 2018. The Harvard Square Theater has been closed pretty much since the day it opened. Goorin Bros. hung up the hat. Even Urban Outfitters, that mainstay of counterfeit corporate street cred, couldn’t survive under the crushing weight of the pandemic. Still, there’s an undeniable air of tradition that pervades it all. Maybe it’s the Pit, or Cardullo’s, or L.A. Burdick’s. Maybe it’s in the architecture. Maybe the simplest and most obvious answer is that Harvard has always been the glue keeping it all together. But for me, The Brattle Theatre was the first beacon of culture, and even now during the 2020 pandemic, it remains for me the brightest.

In 1996, I was a first-year film student at Emerson. I knew shit-all about film but I knew I liked Pulp Fiction. It didn’t matter that I had been taking all that sly retro pop culture at face value––it was exciting, it was new, and for me, that was enough. As soon as I landed I started to seek out the local theaters. The Kendall, The Coolidge, The Somerville, The Brattle. They all had their unique personalities but the distinction of The Brattle was the atmosphere. To quote Vincent Vega: “It’s like a wax museum with a pulse.”

It wasn’t just the inside of the theater, with its squeaky floorboards, that narrow staircase, the better-than-it-should-be popcorn, or the ritual of fumbling with the calendar and deciphering its strange hieroglyphics in the dark. Or the balcony, that wonderful balcony, which still feels like discovering some secret screening room. It was everything leading up to the theater too; the train station, the Pit, the Chess Master, and the cafe over the theater. It was all so peripheral, scaffolding for some invisible building that I couldn’t see the whole of yet, but like my newfound Pulp Fiction obsession, it was more than enough.

Two men playing chess
The Chess Master, a former staple of Harvard Square

Over the next two decades, The Brattle would become both a yardstick and litmus test for different entries in my life. I wandered in the despondent existential bliss of French New Wave for years. I muttered and drank myself into a blinding rousing stupor with Fellini. I gazed in wide-eyed wonder at the sad and wacky castles Herzog built. I learned the difference between insecure theater laughter (sorry, but there’s really nothing genuinely lol in Brazil) and the joy of authentic theater laughter (looking at you, Love Witch). I learned that enchanted confusion can be a valid and thoroughly enjoyable part of the experience (looking at you, My Winnipeg). Somewhere along the way I even started to form my own opinions, one of the more dangerous endeavors to undertake when you start plumbing around for profundity in art. (Sorry, but I found Cronenberg’s Crash as insufferable as the bowtied blowhard who tried using big words to convince me otherwise. Later that day in Peet’s Coffee, I watched him perform a smoldering removal of his sunglasses in a failed bid for the attention of two gawky and oblivious freshmen. That was a genuine lol).

Like any subjective endeavor, there’s a lot of half-truths when talking about film. After watching 1,113 movies (I added them up recently, thanks 2020), I’ve only discovered two undeniable constants: it’s not the idea, it’s the execution and you can only see it for the first time once. The first explains why a movie like The Fits doesn’t sound very compelling on paper, but it remains of the most spellbinding viewings I’ve ever had.

The second explains all the sanctity surrounding talking, cell phones, and general conduct. It’s a significant reason why I found myself drawn to niche theaters like The Brattle. While I found it both hilarious and appropriate when someone in the front row at the Loews AMC stood up and shouted “Hats off, motherfucker!” when Spiderman punched The Green Goblin, every crinkle of that Haribo wrapper during La Dolce Vita made me die a little death. It’s rare, but I’m not immune to it either––I just couldn’t help but shout my one line review “Stale of stales!” at the screen during the Tale of Tales credits. One of the remarkable things about watching a movie in a theater is, for better or worse, time ceases and you’re left feeling inexorably alone with it.

Moviegoers wait outside the Brattle Theatre in 1967
Moviegoers wait outside the Brattle in 1967

In August of 2017 I had just finished seeing After the Storm for the second time in the same month. I rarely watch a full movie twice and almost never twice in the theater. But for the second time that month, I was in that exquisite haze you find yourself in after you’ve just seen something you’re certain is a triumph. This was a movie I needed to show the person I love, to be the one who brought her this remarkable masterpiece that I felt like I alone was responsible for discovering. The Brattle was the perfect venue for this quiet little paragon, especially that now we had just moved in together about a ten-minute walk outside the Square. It no longer seemed peripheral––we now owned our very own little piece of that culture. Or at the very least, we were renting it.

We exited the theater into the summer night, into that slim brick alley that spills out onto Brattle Street. It was late and the doors to Cafe Algiers were propped open, its lights beaming with uncharacteristic intensity. We stumbled inside, both of us still wrapped in that tender post-movie fog, and right into the middle of a fire sale. Algiers was closing. The charming Moroccan inspired cafe that had, at different points in our lives before we had met, been the setting for countless first dates, last dates, and all those dates in between to mark our lives. Just when we had finally arrived.

The owner was all business; everything had a price, nothing was nailed down, everything had to go. She was probably tired, or tired of caring, or maybe it was just easier to be clinical about it. All I remember is bright lights and tables being whisked past us, those little octagon tables with the brass inlays. And then I spotted it––the brass censer, suspended above us in the open air of the mezzanine.

I don’t remember what I paid for it, but I remember it felt inappropriately cheap, like I was looting a corpse. I also recall thinking it all seemed so impossibly fitting, having just come from a movie whose denouement revolves around an object (an inkstone) that through the process of emotional catharsis, transforms from an object into an artifact.

After The Storm sparked an urgency to watch the entirety of Kore-eda’s film catalogue. To me, each one is a tiny little masterpiece, painted with the same sort of swift and certain unhewn brushstrokes of an old world master. My favorite piece of his is After Life. The premise is that upon dying, everyone is sent to a sort of weigh station for the soul. You spend a week working with a counselor to determine the best five minutes of your life. The staff then helps you recreate and film that moment on a soundstage. At the end of the week, everyone files into a theater and watches the short films together. After your film plays, you simply blink out of existence. It’s a profound love letter to cinema, the nature of art, and to life itself.

It’s Spring of 2021. Like everyone, I miss the world before the global pandemic and I’m not sure if life will ever return to normal, or even if I’ll ever actually set foot in a movie theater ever again. But I’m pretty sure that if I had to watch the best five minutes of my life on film before I embark onto oblivion, I would want to watch it at The Brattle, front row, balcony.

Steven Santosuosso Written by: