With nothing more than a terse note and a locked door, the Angelika Film Center in downtown Houston closed for good on Sunday afternoon. Word spread via Twitter and Facebook that evening before Monday saw some official word from the parties involved. An Angelika rep said only that they were given a 30-day notice that their lease was being terminated by Bayou Place, and that the matter is now a legal one; a spokesperson for Bayou Place said Angelika had flaked on a commitment to stay put. This is the basic back and forth you get in situations like this, and it's hard to know just what happened without more facts. However, we do know how this will play out for film lovers in town: badly.
Houston has plenty of run-of-the-mill megaplexes where you can see the latest 4,000-screen release, but precious few venues that will let you check out foreign films, specialty releases, or the unusual titles that are destined to play to small crowds before disappearing forever. There aren't that many first-run theaters, period, inside the loop -- Edwards Greenway Palace and Landmark River Oaks are the only ones that come to mind -- which is what made the Angelika so vital: It was a centrally located theater mostly devoted to playing things that flew beneath the radar. It was the only theater to offer the critically acclaimed war documentary Restrepo; it was the only theater to offer Micmacs, the latest from Jean-Pierre Jeunet; it was the only theater to offer Animal Kingdom, a film we hadn't gotten to see yet.
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It would be too easy to say that the expansion of DVD titles and online streaming make theaters like the Angelika quaint at best and obsolete at worst. While it's true that movie fans in Houston will still eventually have access to those films that would have unspooled at the Angelika, art-house cinemas are fantastic resources for what's out now and what's on the horizon, and that's something movie lovers will have to live without unless another exhibitor steps in. When news broke that the theater was shutting down, more than a few people tweeted that the Angelika's demise was being bemoaned by people who never cared about indie film until now, as if the shallowness of that argument or the snark with which it was delivered was somehow enough to make those comments anything other than needlessly contrarian and endlessly short-sighted.
A lot of people in Houston--and in other cities across the state and country--love indie movies, and seeing just one more art theater go is a damn shame. If you're inexplicably convinced that those saddened at the loss of the Angelika just needed a cause to glom onto, you're sorely mistaken. Loving movies means going to them, and the experience of seeing a quality film in a specialty venue patronized by people who tend to have a higher level of passion for film is a wonderful one, and not easily recaptured once lost.
In the wake of the theater's departure, we're left with nothing but questions: If the Angelika's lease was going to be terminated September 18, why didn't they say anything about it? Were they prohibited from doing so? Surely they could have raised funds or rallied locals by publicizing their cause and asking for help. Why not fight for survival? Did their corporate parent simply not care? Was there honestly nothing that could be done?
Better yet: What will take its place? Does Bayou Place want to keep that space a theater? It should remain one, if only because it's one of the few cinematic holdouts in the heart of the city. The Landmark River Oaks and the Museum of Fine Arts screen foreign and indie/specialty releases -- Landmark currently has The Kids Are All Right and Get Low, while MFAH is about to kick off a lengthy Kurosawa tribute -- but they're pressed for space. Houston is a vibrant, sprawling community, and it deserves a full art-house theater. We'd hate for the closed doors of the Angelika to be the last glance we get of independent film.