City & Politics, Essay

Futuristic without a future

(Photo credit: Flickr)

Like many people, I caught one last show at Winnipeg’s Portage Place IMAX Theatre, before it shut down for good.

The closing of the theatre seems like the shuttered Future Shop on Regent Avenue or the depiction of the Knoxville Sunsphere on The Simpsons; something futuristic without a future. The designers of the Winnipeg IMAX Theatre seemed to strive for a neat-o veneer of futurism, obvious from the blue neon and white colour scheme and the entrance’s imitation of a UFO. Placed, as it was, on the third floor of Portage Place Shopping Centre, right beside the open air centre court, future viewers were maybe supposed to jetpack themselves up to the ticket booth, or hover beside the clock tower if there was a lineup.

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Like many who attended the theatre over the last month, it had been awhile since I’d seen any IMAX movies. The last time was when someone who worked there had free passes for us to some African safari movie. Either that, or it was to take advantage of a Father’s Day special they had at the time. I can’t remember what the deal was (double-header for the price of one?), and neither can I remember what the movies were at the time. Egypt? The Amazon?

That sort of sums up IMAX in a nutshell. You know you’ve seen movies there, films of an educational nature that were narrated by Liam Neeson or Omar Sharif, or someone of that ilk, and it usually had something to do with a National Geographic-like setting. The movies were earnest and overdone; there were always some really great shots, but the films themselves weren’t perhaps entirely memorable, and sometimes traded optics for authenticity.

The movie I saw there that last weekend, Everest (one of IMAX’s biggest hits), had a flashback scene of Jamling Tenzing Norgay (son of the first Nepali summitteer) as a boy, but the overcoiffed, overdressed child actor playing young Norgay looked like he’d just stepped out of a late-night hair care infomercial. In no way does a Nepali childhood look like that.

Earlier in the movie, Everest introduced two characters by pretending we’d caught them on vacation, bicycling, evidently, through the exact same desert area where Wile E. Coyote pursues the Roadrunner, complete with ridiculous cliffs and unlikely rock arches (All that was missing was a mailbox and an Acme distributorship.) ‘Bumping into them’ in this setting had the vague reality show whiff of Gene Simmons having to suddenly babysit quadruplets on Family Jewels. There was always a bit of dissonance between the look of IMAX movies and their content. But it was an IMAX movie; like a director of a 3-D movie having to poke the camera with a sword every three minutes, IMAX movies were at the whim of helicopter pilots, zip-line cameras and crane shots.

Everest did end up being pretty watchable, with some ferocious views of the mountain. My tween-aged daughter called it the most horrifying thing she’s ever seen, mostly because they talked a lot about death, and risk. But, even there: Everest, the film, it turns out, was shot in May, 1996, during the single-most infamous climbing season in recent memory, immortalized by, amongst other works, Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer. Eight climbers of varying nationalities died during one particular storm, days before the IMAX crew was due to summit. In fact, some of the members of the film assisted in rescuing others. The film was literally dripping with death, but it you weren’t paying attention, you might have missed it.

Not that I have any desire to see frozen bodies, but the movie was so sanitized, that when the people on screen first broached the subject of The Incident (Wikipedia refers to the various events during that several-day-long period as “the 1996 Everest climbing disaster”), it seemed like they were initially referring to the disaster in the past tense, when, in fact, it was happening while they were filming. (Later, they did include some real-time shots of people fretting over their lost friends.)

At one point, Ed Viesturs, the guy who said that he climbs Everest without oxygen because he prefers a challenge, says that when he found the body of his dead friend, Kiwi guide Rob Hall, he sat down and cried. The shot of him while he said this? A ubiquitous one of him climbing up yet another snowy incline. Everest is a dangerous place; people die there literally every year; show, don’t tell. The film was so disinfected that it ended up verging on being anti-educational.

So, did the IMAX theatre close because the films were too glossy and not sophisti-mi-cated enough? They did show some Hollywood action movies on that crazy big screen (but not enough of them, the management was quoted as saying to the local press), and there were some concert movies I remember seeing there in the past. Maybe the time has come for a Wes Anderson or Guy Madden IMAX movie. But it hasn’t seemed to have hurt the franchise in other places.

If you took the tour of the upper reaches of the theatre on that last, sad night on Easter weekend (after the film, a pre-recorded announcer asked you to fill out comment cards), past the projection room, there was, on the wall, 4×6 framed photos of other nifty, fancy-pants, stand-alone IMAX theatres all around the world (including some luxurious-looking buildings in decidedly not-rich countries), many of them looking like they’d walked off the site of the latest world exposition. I researched “closed IMAX theatres” elsewhere, and came up with one in Birmingham, England, which evidently did close… only to reopen under new management. Surely, Winnipeg is not the only place to lose their IMAX movie theatre, but it would be slightly embarrassing if it is.

Really, the loss of the IMAX theatre may have more to do with Winnipeggers’ traditional and well-documented avoidance of downtown. But the closing of IMAX seems unlike the recent closings of institutions like the Paddlewheel Queen or the Wagon Wheel. Rather, this one is like the shuttering of a planetarium or a museum, albeit a mildly forgotten one. Apparently, Silver City Polo Park does have IMAX capability, but whether or not they will use it is another matter.

Take a second, though. Remember back to the first time you walked into the theatre. The assigned seats. The sound system. The ridiculously gigantic screen. I never did see the ceiling; it was so far up. IMAX Winnipeg was a lavish place, one that we don’t have enough of in our multiplexed culture. For a society so obsessed with entertainment, it’s kind of ironic how we warehouse movie-goers; watching Everest, I heard exactly zero explosions from movies playing at neighbouring cinemas. That hasn’t happened to me in a long, long time.

On Easter weekend, not only did Winnipeg lose a big, beautiful, underappreciated screen, it lost the largest single-screen theatre in the province, and the only one in the city, next to tiny Cinematheque. We also said goodbye to a bit of luxury.

Jim Chliboyko is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him at: @jchliboyko