For a while, the last film I saw at the Harvard Exit theater was Zero Motivation. It was the second film I saw in 2015. I was crushed by the sudden announcement that the theater was closing. I cried on the walk home, and I still have the quickly-fading ticket stub pinned up at my desk at work, but it all felt wrong as nearly 20 years of seeing films on Harvard & Roy came to an end.
Luckily, the Harvard Exit was briefly revived for a 25 day wake at the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival. It was already not the same, but it was important to me to be there and really know everything was happening for the last time.
The Harvard Exit was fundamental to my development as a filmgoer. In my college years it was one of three Landmark theaters on Capitol Hill, along with the Egyptian now thankfully revived, and the Broadway Market Cinema, a four screen theater in what is now the Gold’s Gym level of the Broadway Market, and where I saw Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss, one of my first gay movies.
The Exit had its own vibe. The Egyptian was the cult house, Broadway Market was gay & upscale indie (I also remember seeing Pi there), and the Exit was the true art house of the Hill. It felt a little like home, a little like church. It had history. It had ghosts.
The Exit is where I saw my first Wong Kar-Wai film, In the Mood for Love, in the smaller house at the Top of the Exit. Until that day, I don’t think I truly realized cinema could DO that. I remember two girls giggling and walking out during possibly this gorgeous scene, & I judged them so hard.
I also judged everyone who walked out of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
I saw a couple of films in a Pedro Almodovar retrospective, and I’m pretty sure I came to one of them in pajamas, a true sign of being comfortable in a space. A few years ago I saw Anna Karenina there, curled up in a seat fourth row center, endlessly delighted that the movie even existed, strikingly aware in the moment of my own deep satisfaction to be watching it.
And though it was my neighborhood theater for over ten years, when I think of the Harvard Exit I think a lot about SIFF.
Since it was so close to home, that’s where I most often volunteered during festival, but I think even if it wasn’t convenient I would have chosen it, because that space was special. I worked Will Call for several festivals, including this year, and some of my best Harvard Exit memories are just of hanging out with Landmark & SIFF staff and volunteers in between films.
One year I was knitting at Will Call when a squirrel came in the open window into the lobby. What I loved about this is that it was clear from the staff reaction that this happened ALL THE TIME. Everyone had their role: get gloves, get a box, let’s get the squirrel out of here.
Another time I was on shift when the Seattle Ghost Tour came through, and an older lady who was waiting in the lobby told us of a ghost she experienced in the third floor washroom in the 70s. It’s a story I would have felt more nervous about if I had known then what I know now, which is that a door in the ladies room leads to a strange closet that appears to be a shower/urinal. I don’t even want to know what caused that space to come about.
Volunteering was also a treat because you got to get a peek at any special guests coming through near the end of the film. I remember America Ferrera, tiny & perfect, in town for Ryan O’Nan’s film The Dry Land, but even more I remember internally freaking out when Stewart Stern came up and asked me for directions. Stewart Stern! I’ve lost my head around two celebrities in the nearly 20 years I’ve attended the film festival. Stewart Stern & Ewan McGregor. That’s it; that’s the list.
I remember seeing Marwencol, and Jeff Malmberg calling up Mark Hogencamp after the screening so we could all applaud for him. I remember loading up on free snacks and watching the utterly bananas Robo-geisha from the balcony with a bunch of other volunteers. I remember everyone filing out in complete silence after The Act of Killing. I remember not moving for the whole of La Dolce Vita.
I’ll always remember sinking into the couches in the lobby, ordering an Americano at Joe Bar & knitting until I felt like getting in the line, watching Pride with a full house of other queer people, SIFF queues under the trees, waving at staff when I passed the theater on my way home, the thrill when the new quarterly calendar was in the box outside. It’s a lovely corner of Capitol Hill, and the Exit was the anchor.
This year I fit in a few more special shows: Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America, Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato, the achingly beautiful Sworn Virgin. I worked a few last volunteer shifts, and it broke my heart every time someone came in full of joy that the theater had reopened. “Sorry, no. It’s just for festival. Quick, here’s the guide; pick out one last movie.”
The truly final film that showed for the public at the Harvard Exit was Colin Hanks’s documentary, All Things Must Pass: the Rise and Fall of Tower Records. Tower Records was another cultural institution that entered my life in college, broadened my world, but was too beautiful to stay, and so it was in many ways the perfect way to say goodbye to the Exit, sitting there with friends and one last bag of popcorn, the SIFF staffer getting emotional over the introduction, and everyone staying all the way to the end of the credits one last time.
All things must pass, indeed.