Tales from the Vault

The University District Is Full of Film History

As adjacent art house cinemas close and online streaming takes over, two nonprofits find new ways to keep world culture and history in focus.

By Stefan Milne November 20, 2018 Published in the December 2018 issue of Seattle Met

The stacks at Scarecrow Video.

Image: Tori Dickson

In any decent film theory class, you learn about “suture”—the idea, at its simplest, that you’re taken into a movie’s illusion, you're knit together with a new world. Step inside Scarecrow Video (above) in the University District and you undergo a different sort of suture, here with your recent past. You see gummy candies behind glass and hear a single movie clamoring in the large, carpeted store, that precise mix of silence and sound. And you take in—suddenly, due to the soaring, mezzanined floor plan—over 131,000 titles on DVD, Blu-ray, VHS, LaserDisc. Scarecrow claims it is the world’s largest publicly available video collection. Many titles are so rare the store demands a deposit to rent, usually around $200.

Scarecrow turns 30 on December 8. Once a place that towered with film geek glee over other video stores, it’s now—along with Reckless Video further up Roosevelt and Video Isle in Fremont—one of three remaining in the city. After years bleeding money and competitors folding to Netflix and Hulu, Scarecrow survived by becoming a nonprofit in 2014. But why keep such a library around when so much is effortlessly available online? And why keep it on increasingly archaic formats, like the 15,000 VHS titles the store retains?

“The value is the diversity of voices,” says Kate Barr, Scarecrow’s executive director. “Because once you start paring that down, the question becomes what content is available? And who’s making decisions about what content is available?”

“Every time there’s a format jump,” adds John O’Connor, the development director, “thousands and thousands and thousands of titles get lost.”

As Scarecrow’s collection expands by 3,000 to 4,000 titles a year, Netflix’s streaming catalog thins. The online service has gone from 8,100 titles in 2014 to around 5,500 this year. When I searched its “Classic Movie” category on October 17, the service yielded only 42 titles, Schindler’s List (1993) and Steel Magnolias (1989) among them. Foreign options were also scant, four films in Farsi, seven from Russia, while Scarecrow carries movies from 129 countries, including cinema heavyweights like France alongside less famed locales like Morocco. Since different regions have different DVD coding (a Russian DVD wouldn’t work in a U.S. player), Scarecrow rents “region-free” players along with the movies.

So back to suture. One of the ideas in the theory’s orbit is that film closes the gap between self and other—empathy peaks. Watch an Iranian movie, says Barr, and you engage with the culture in a way travel TV doesn’t permit. And the same works with an old film across time. “Through that movie you get to hop into a time machine, go back to that period of time, and immerse yourself.”

About a third of the movies shown at the Grand Illusion are projected on film.

Image: Tori Dickson

Another sort of time machine, even more immersive, sits only four blocks away. At the Grand Illusion Cinema, the viewing experience itself transports—threadbare chairs, crimson curtains, popcorn scents both ancient and fresh. In 1970, University of Washington grad student Randy Finlay collected old seats and curtains from other theaters and opened the Grand Illusion (then called Movie House), aiming to show foreign and peripheral films, obscurities alongside classics. That mission has remained, says general manager Brian Alter.

Around 2003 a group of Scarecrow employees got together to save the Grand Illusion and in 2004 the theater switched to a nonprofit, run by volunteers, which has sustained it as neighbors shutter. The Seven Gables Theatre, four blocks away, and the Guild 45th in Wallingford both closed last year. The Neptune changed to a music venue in 2011. The Sundance Theater became an AMC. Scarecrow’s Barr (who sits on the Grand Illusion’s board) says the theater will eventually be ousted from its location—less a matter of if, than when.

Since it opened, and this year included, the theater has screened It’s a Wonderful Life in December, on 35mm film. It’s a simple dovetailing—old movie, old theater—but persistently powerful. In October the Grand Illusion and Scarecrow partnered for an event that ran even deeper into history. The Illusion screened Saving Brinton, a documentary about Michael Zahs, a man who saves a collection of films made between 1895 and 1909. Zahs attended the screening and showed some silent short films, their hand-colored pigments forming surreal auras around the actors. Then he went back further. He had a magic lantern (basically an antique slide projector) and a set of antebellum slides, dating to the time the technology was patented. They anticipated—in two frames each, stained-glass panes shot through with light—the filmic movement to come. You could watch a vase of flowers snap into bloom, a man move his arms up and down. The room hushed, someone oohed. It didn’t feel like a relic, dulled through time. This was, to us, new technology.

We didn’t merge with the illusion. But in a way just as powerful—much like pushing the cartridge bulk of a VHS into a rented player and hearing the machine’s click and grunt and spindly purr—we were present with the past.

► It’s a Wonderful LifeDec 7–27, Grand Illusion Cinema, $9

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