Director Morgan White has a passion and drive to defend and support repertory cinemas in North America and around the world. This is more than evident from the very beginning of his film The Rep, Morgan`s documentary about the first year of the fledgling, and now sadly defunct Toronto movie house The Toronto Underground Cinema. His tireless multi-year journey to document and investigate the disappearance of so many of these movie house that are no longer with us, and the research that work would have entailed, is an expensive and daunting task for any independent film maker to take own alone. But Morgan’s passion for his subject radiates on screen because of this commitment.It also attempts to face down the grander subject about the state of Rep cinemas across North America. It’s that latter part that suffers, as a film about the history and dire situation of the Rep cinema scene seems to be in need of a much grander scale production to properly delve into.
Charlie Lawton, Nigel Agnew and Alex Woodside have big plans for the little cinema they are contracted to run for the cinema owner, Sedwick Hill. Rechristened the Toronto Underground Cinema, the boys barrel headfirst into a free screening launch that attracts a massive crowd, then they promptly have to close again to finish preparing the rest of the cinema. The first year is full of disappointments, near disastrous screw ups and dealing with the performance issues of one of their partners, someone who has never had a real job.
From part time programmer Peter Kuplowsky musing about how the trio`s mild cockiness hurt the cinema from the beginning to TIFF Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes commenting on whether opening a new Rep cinema is even a viable option, many of the local based interviewees seem to have foreseen the pitfalls well before the trio did. But cinemas are much more than film and seats, and its emotional stories – like that of Underground friend, roommate of Charlie and now film editor of this very site, Andrew Parker – provides needed context and support. Sadly there aren’t more stories of how the Underground specifically influenced people here, but there are many personal stories from the film special guests.
The list of film enthusiasts and luminaries that do appear to talk the state of Rep cinema is impressive, with the likes of indie darling directors John Waters and Kevin Smith, local film critics including Norman Wilner, TIFF programmer Noah Cowan, Lars Nilson from the Alamo Drafthouse and Toronto After Dark`s Adam Lopez. There are many more as well, each one with an interesting angle and take on the Rep scene and its future. But these interviews, while adding general context, also feels like they could be the meat of their own documentary. The real heart of the film is the trial and tribulations of the Underground boys, and some of the excursions from the main story have more negative impact on the pace and flow than positive.
White has directed a capable and idealistic documentary that doesn’t attempt to vilify anybody for the decline and closure of so many of the Rep cinemas he loves. Toronto is one of the more over-saturated cities in North America for Rep cinemas, and many of them are supported strongly by their communities. The amount of cinemas that still operate here is a testament to how much Toronto loves film, despite the mass amount of cinemas that have also fallen by the wayside. The fact that this documentary was produced in such a city should mean this film will get the support it needs and deserves, as there is more than enough here to carry the film through to a satisfying conclusion.