Moving Pictures
May 03, 2023, 06:29AM

Little Nicky in Baltimore

Twenty years at the Charles and Senator Theaters.

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Just as my family moved from Manhattan to Baltimore in June 2003, I was becoming more and more interested in movies that didn’t play at the multiplexes and chains that we haunted through the 1990s and early-2000s. A Mighty Wind might’ve been the one and only movie I ever saw at the Angelika when I lived in New York, but by 2002, I was learning about directors: I remember thinking it was incredible that Steven Spielberg had three movies in theaters that year, even if E.T. the Extra Terrestrial was a re-release. By that summer, I must’ve been reading more press, because I remember sitting in that packed theater at the UA Union Square waiting to see the walkie-talkies show up. But as much as I enjoyed Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can, these were major studio movies that could’ve been directed by someone else. Not anyone else, but unlike the other director I was aware of, George Lucas, Spielberg’s films lacked any signature or eccentricities.

Later that year, my dad took me to see Gangs of New York, the new Martin Scorsese movie. I’m not sure I knew about Scorsese beyond the name and a few titles by that point, but that was the first Scorsese movie I ever saw. And we both hated it. I haven’t seen Gangs of New York since that night in November 2002 at the UA Battery Park, and it has yet to go through its inevitable “critical reevaluation,” but I’ll go out on a limb and guess that The Age of Innocence it’s not. But what I do remember is a teaser trailer that ran before the movie: a model airplane descends over a model Tokyo, fade to black, and then a series of title cards in yellow Impact font: “MIRAMAX FILMS PRESENTS,” “THE 4TH FILM BY QUENTIN TARANTINO,” followed by the sound of the man himself calling “Action!”

The Bride opens the trunk that holds a mutilated Sofie Fatale. She cruises through Tokyo on a motorcycle in a yellow tracksuit with black stripes. The camera dollies in on her sitting at the bar. Cue horns, and her first title card, “UMA THURMAN,” followed by moments from both volumes of Kill Bill, at that point still one movie and marketed as such. The teaser trailer ends with the following series of title cards: “IN THE YEAR,” “2003,” “UMA THURMAN,” “WILL,” “KILL BILL.” It remains the greatest trailer I’ve ever seen, one that fully introduced the concept of an auteur filmmaker to me, someone who could make multi-million dollar movies that were eccentric and exciting as painters, writers, and musicians. I never thought about being a filmmaker before I saw the teaser trailer for Kill Bill; I knew I’d be an artist, but in pre-school, I made a wooden guitar, not a camera. I never aspired to be a filmmaker before I saw that trailer because I didn’t know you could make movies like that. At the peak of my Nirvana fandom, Tarantino felt like a kindred spirit.

But I had to wait a year to see the first volume, and then another six months for the second. In that time, my family moved to Baltimore and tried our best to acclimate from living in 1990s and pre-9/11 Manhattan, the capital of the world, the center of the universe. Baltimore isn’t Boise, but it’s not New York. Nothing compares to the city I grew up in. It took me a couple years to shed the built-in arrogance of a native New Yorker, perhaps mocked most famously on Sex and the City, “the guy who never leaves the island.” I certainly had that attitude, especially since we lived in a penthouse in Tribeca, and most of the common complaints and drawbacks of the city didn’t apply: we had a washer and dryer, took cabs to private school, and enough money to travel internationally at least twice a year, and far more often before 9/11.

So moving to Baltimore was an adjustment for all of us—fish that could swim anywhere now confined to a tank. I knew we were well-off, but it took me nearly a decade to realize how comfortable we were in Manhattan and how unique our situation was. Oh, you want a washer and dryer in your apartment? You don’t want roommates? You want to move back to the neighborhood where you grew up? None of this is possible anymore. But I have a feeling that if the four of us had remained in the city, by now, one of us would be dead. For whatever reason, I’m convinced moving here saved our lives, however tough those first few years were. At first, it was a series of minor absences and differences that accumulated into the picture of a much more limited city: instead of dozens of multiplexes and just as many arthouse theaters, Baltimore City had The Charles and The Senator. Unlike in New York, the daily papers didn’t list movie showtimes, a shocking omission, and something I really did miss—those ads in The New York Times were fucking incredible!

The first two movies I saw at The Senator were Hulk and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, both with my mom, and while they were disappointments, The Senator itself was the most striking and beautiful movie theater I’d ever seen, and it remains my favorite movie theater in the world. We never went north of Midtown for movies in New York, so besides Mulan, I’m not sure I saw that many movies at the similarly art deco Ziegfeld. But I knew immediately that if The Senator was all Baltimore had to offer, that was fine, even if they were a single screen at the time: this was the church my religion deserved, not the grimy AMC Towson Commons 8 or the even worse Regal Hunt Valley (still open). The Loews White Marsh was the only suburban multiplex I went to regularly, and while their 24 screens were appreciated, it was really far away and, and, and… well, it wasn’t the UA Union Square.

But I saw countless movies there: Johnny English, Paycheck, Big Fish, Barbershop 2, Secret Window, Anchorman, Dodgeball, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Spider-Man 2 and 3, The Bourne Supremacy, The Terminal, The Manchurian Candidate and The Stepford Wives and The Wicker Man and Fun with Dick and Jane remakes, The Aviator, Wedding Crashers, Snakes on a Plane, Borat, Nacho Libre, Tropic Thunder, Spring Breakers, and most recently, The Hateful Eight. Without a car, eight years passed quickly between me and the Loews (now AMC) White Marsh 24.

The now shuttered Towson Commons 8 was an even more frequent stop because of its proximity: at that theater, I saw The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, S.W.A.T., The Cat in the Hat, Elf, School of Rock, Matchstick Men, Man on Fire, The Butterfly Effect, White Chicks, Collateral, Spanglish, Team America: World Police, Ocean’s 12, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Red Eye, World Trade Center, The Pursuit of Happyness, Superbad, Ratatouille, Hot Rod, The Hangover, and Unstoppable, Tony Scott’s final film and the last film I saw before the theater closed in early-2011. There are many more, but I haven’t even gotten to the two best churches in Baltimore:

At The Senator, I saw: Seabiscuit, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Matrix: Revolution, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Kill Bill Volume 2, Troy, The Village, The Passion of the Christ, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the SithThank You For Smoking, Million Dollar Baby, Sin City, The Interpreter, Must Love Dogs, Superman Returns, X-Men: The Last Stand, Clerks II, Grindhouse, Charlie Wilson’s War, Dreamgirls, The Dark Knight, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, ODDSAC, and many more in the last 13 years.

At The Charles, I saw: Shattered Glass, The Last Samurai, Elephant, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Garden State, Fahrenheit 9/11, I Heart Huckabees, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Napoleon Dynamite, Shaun of the Dead, Syriana, Broken Flowers, Half Nelson, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, I’m Not There, There Will Be Blood, Let the Right One In, Synecdoche New York, Drag Me to Hell, Broken Embraces, Dogtooth, The Tree of Life, and even more in the last 13 years.

I’m not even mentioning the Rotunda Cinematheque or the Landmark Harbor East!

Elephant wasn’t the first movie I saw at the Charles, but it was early on, and it was the first “arthouse” movie I took my dad to. He knew nothing about it going in, even that Timothy Bottoms, star of his cherished The Last Picture Show, plays the drunk dad at the beginning and end. I wanted to see it, once again, because of the trailer, another masterpiece I watched hundreds of times on the Apple website when they were still the premiere destination for streaming trailers. Besides the non-Hollywood structure, form, and aesthetics of the film, there was the violence—I’ll never forget the shot of the curly-haired girl getting her brains blown out in the library—and the homosexual relationship between the two school shooters. The constant homophobia of the 1990s and 2000s infuriated me for as long as I can remember, and while I knew then I wasn’t gay, I was still enraged by anyone trying to keep two people who love each other apart.

I may have known gay men and women growing up in New York, and I certainly knew the stereotypes flaunted constantly by the media, but I’d certainly never seen a (tasteful) shot of two high school boys kissing the shower. Van Sant films this as clinically as the rest of the movie, and it’s profoundly disturbing, but also real, and far closer to the daily ennui and reality of life I knew than anything coming out of Hollywood. If A Mighty Wind was my introduction to the etiquette and atmosphere of the arthouse, Elephant was the first art film I ever saw. And I saw it on the same screen—theater 4—as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, just this past Sunday. I went with my mom, and we were beaming ear to ear as soon as we walked in: it was packed, a matinee crowd I haven’t seen since 2019.

My mom and I had a great time at the movies, just like my dad and I did 20 years ago in the very same spot. As much as I’ve written about Manhattan and going to the movies there, it was a relatively brief period compared to my time in Baltimore—if New York City was where I fell in love with movies, Baltimore is where I became a filmmaker.

—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith


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