One night in the early 1990s, I entered the Neptune Theatre in the University District, found a seat, and began watching a movie that changed my life: Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice. In the mid-1990s, in the same neighborhood, I watched Charles Burnett's The Glass Shield at Metro Cinemas. One night in the early '00s, I listened to the melancholy robot in Moby's "Whispering Wind" as I waited at the nearby Seven Gables to watch Claire Denis's one-night-stand odyssey, Vendredi Soir. When the movie started, the screen fell over the Seven Gables's mural of a prince and princess having a moment on a medieval bridge.
My reason for these recollections is that the theaters that formed them no longer exist. Seven Gables is closed, the Neptune is now a popular music venue, and the Metro Cinemas keeps changing hands—it's currently AMC Seattle 10. All three were once a part of Landmark Theatres, a company that used to be a giant but is now barely a ghost. Its presence in Seattle has been reduced to the Crest in Shoreline.
But the University District has managed to survive this catastrophe, largely because of the Grand Illusion Cinema, which is still going strong. In fact, Grand Illusion is experiencing a renaissance.
Opened in 1970, and saved from death by Northwest Film Forum in 1997, the Grand Illusion became its own nonprofit in 2004. During much of this history, it had a reputation for screening films that were considered too radical or experimental or rare for the standard art house crowd. These days, however, the Grand Illusion is more and more screening movies that, under normal circumstances, would have landed at a Landmark theater.
A great example is The Insult, a Lebanese film that was nominated for an Academy Award in 2018. "The Insult from Cohen Media was booked when it was just on the short list for an Oscar nomination," Dan Hudson, Grand Illusion's lead programmer, told me. "I judged that it had a strong chance of getting nominated, so we locked it in early. We held it over into a third week. Sometimes we get lucky with a title like that, but it also can take active persistence on our part to get to a 'yes.'"
Grand Illusion is now showing two valid art house films, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Before We Vanish, and Tom E. Brown's Pushing Dead.
"I just secured the new Wim Wenders film, Submergence, to open April 13, which stars James McAvoy and Alicia Vikander," Hudson added. "This is certainly a title you might have seen at a Landmark theater, but now that they are all shuttered (besides the Crest), we've got the Seattle exclusive. This is the first film we've booked with the film's distributor, Samuel Goldwyn Films, an upper-end specialty distributor that often places films at AMC- and Regal-level multiplexes."
This change of fortune has put the little theater in the same league as SIFF and NWFF. "Overall, I think it's a positive thing that Seattle film-going audiences have gravitated to SIFF, NWFF, and Grand Illusion for their art house fare," Hudson said, "and that the three of us are programming pretty separately and not usually in direct competition with each other."
I couldn't agree more.