Happy Birthday Ken Cinema
The San Diego Reader isn’t good for much. This is probably because I’m not a wild twenty-something seeking medical marijuana, cheap breast augmentation, a new career in medical office administration, or beer in a boot. I go long periods without looking at an issue. When I do pick one up, I mostly read News of Weird during those moments alone in the bathroom. But every once in a while The Reader will surprise me with something that I really do want to know.
For example, a brief rant by Scott Marks, slotted in with the movie reviews of the August 23 issue, informed me that my local single screen theater, known to regulars simply as The Ken, turns one-hundred this year. Of course, I knew that The Ken had been around a while, but I had no idea it was one of the oldest surviving single screens in Southern California. Marks himself is also something of local fixture, having been, for far too brief a period, Curator of Film at the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts. He had been planning a series of Val Lewton films when he got canned as part of a money-saving decimation of SD MOPA’s film offerings. I sent the museum my shredded membership card in protest, but nobody seemed to care.
I’m not as old as The Ken, of course, but the theater and I do go back nearly twenty years. I was a graduate student attending SDSU when I first moved into the neighborhood, mostly because of its proximity to the #11 bus route. I quickly discovered The Ken and the adjacent Ken Video, the amazing family-run specialist video store right next door to the theater. I spent a lot of time in The Ken’s somewhat shabby seats during its independent heyday. I watched a lot of great movies, and more than a few that were enjoyably bad. I first saw Reservoir Dogs there, double billed with Pulp Fiction. Every summer brought the annual Hong Kong Action Festival, featuring chop-chop flicks with titles like Naked Killer 2 and Bullet in the Head. My admiration for Wes Anderson began there with a screening of Rushmore. The Ken showed me what Lawrence of Arabia was really supposed to look like, CinemaScope sand dunes tamed somewhat by an Italian soda from the concession stand.
These days, The Ken is no longer quite so grubby or quite so eclectic. Like it or not, it’s now a part of the Landmark Theater Group, and as such shows the kind of middle-of-the-road art house and foreign films that appeal to the KPBS / AARP crowd. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen some pretty awesome flicks there in recent years. I vividly remember sweating my way through a summertime screening of Chan-Wook Park’s Lady Vengeance. The Ken’s air conditioning had conked out on one of the hottest days of the year, but the movie was so good I couldn’t make myself leave. And the theater’s annual screening of Academy Award Nominated Animated Shorts has become a ritual for me and my boys. But on the whole I don’t make the hike down to my local single screen nearly as often as I used to.
Which brings me back to Scott Marks, and his rant in the SD Reader. Marks complains, rightfully so, I think, about the meager slate of revival films Landmark is offering to commemorate The Ken’s hundredth birthday. It’s not just that the films are few–a mere ten movies, doled out on weekends through October–it’s the films themselves. Between slightly dusty blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Back to the Future and revival circuit warhorses like Some Like It Hot and Double Indemnity, there isn’t much to draw me to this ‘celebration.’ I might take in Charlie Chaplin in Gold Rush, which I’ve never seen on the big screen, at least. But I’d rather see some of the films that drew me to The Ken in the first place. I’d almost prefer Naked Killer 2. Almost.
Luckily, revival is alive and well in San Diego. It just doesn’t live at The Ken anymore. Lately I’ve taken in a lot of the Forty Foot Films offered by Reading Cinema. Coming up at their Gaslamp location: The Omen and The Producers. Soon to arrive in the Town Square theater: Chinatown, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Young Frankenstein. All to be followed by four weeks of ‘Hitchcocktober.’ It’s a cinematic feast. And yeah, it’s DVD projection, and not Scott Mark’s beloved celluloid. But the $5 ticket price more than assuages my inner film snob.
So I’ll see you at the movies. While we’re there, maybe the muckety-mucks at the Landmark Theater Group should think about why I’ll be celebrating The Ken’s big birthday at a multiplex.