tattoo-style swallow

Jen Myers

Remembering the Midwest's ArcLight

Thoughts on going to the movies in the wake of theater closures.

When news broke that the ArcLight Cinemas chain would not be reopening post-pandemic, the outpouring of heartfelt mourning was centered in Los Angeles, and understandably so—the West Coast is where the chain emerged and where it, along with parent company Pacific Theatres, occupied a special place in film industry hearts. But the almost complete identification of ArcLight with LA overlooks the fact that ArcLight had cinemas in other areas of the country, where there are no well-known industry figures but there are plenty of people who love movies and treasured the ArcLight as a way to enjoy movies without the distractions or detractions of other theaters. I live in Chicago and I loved my local ArcLight. The Midwest is used to being often overlooked, but I want to stake out at least a small space to eulogize the far-flung outposts of the beloved chain. Because it’s possible that their distance and obscurity made them even more important to the far-flung individuals they served, who are used to being often overlooked themselves.

In addition to California, there were ArcLight Cinemas in Boston, Maryland and Chicago. Well, to clarify for the other Chicagoans who know how important such distinctions are, there was a cinema in the Chicago suburb of Glenview and one in Chicago proper. I never went to Glenview, but the Chicago location, nestled in the northside Lincoln Park neighborhood, was one of my regular haunts. Chicago is blessed with some tremendous independent movie theaters and of course those always top the list, but for anything outside of their usual range that didn’t also require the risk of dubious projection/sound quality and annoyance of pre-show commercials, there was ArcLight.

The ArcLight made everything about the mainstream moviegoing experience slightly better. Not exactly unique—that’s what our indies are appreciated for—but better than it necessarily had to be. Assigned seating, no commercials, high projection quality, great sound, no late admissions, introductions delivered by ushers, homemade caramel corn. It was all just a little better. Even if the film you were there to see was not. I saw The Meg at ArcLight on a Saturday afternoon with local Chicago beer in hand and whatever the film itself lacked, the theater made up for.

I saw a wide range of movies at the Chicago ArcLight. I saw all of the Star Wars sequels there, including The Last Jedi three times in one long weekend. I took my daughter to see Detective Pikachu and Into the Spider-Verse. Thanks to ArcLight’s habit to regularly run older classics, I first saw The Wicker Man on the big screen. Whenever I had days off, I went for early matinees of artful horror films and enjoyed the heightened creepiness of being the only one in the theater. There were fourteen screens that showed everything from latest blockbusters to small releases and it was a perpetually convenient haven for people who find comfort the movie theater experience. I remember it as perpetually hushed and dim, as if it had built-in protection for those who needed to slip in and lose themselves, holding the space for their restoration. The Chicago ArcLight was not the most unique theater in the world or even this city. But it did what it did so well that it carved out a uniqueness in the fact of that, and managed to transcend the physical theater entirely. It was just about the pure love of going to the movies.

There is now much speculation about the ultimate fate of ArcLight Cinemas, wondering if they are as gone as they say they are and, if so, what will happen to the theaters themselves. Whatever comes next, we’re now in a moment of beginning to reckon with some of the slow-moving results of the pandemic and what it means for areas of art and culture that we might be in the habit of taking for granted. It seems more than appropriate to take the time to reflect and acknowledge whenever we can. Things can come back, but they will never be just the same.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a short piece of atmospheric horror fiction about a woman who seeks escape in a modern, frictionless movie theater and (uh, spoiler alert?) the theater ends up swallowing her whole. I wrote it specifically with my solo horror movie matinees at the Chicago ArcLight in mind. The theater I describe is that one, with its still silence and respectful distance, and the sense that portals of potential can open up there. It is a horror tale and, if anything, moralizes about the danger of seeking escape too compulsively. But also in it is the lure of living in that liminal space of the cinema, where the world is expanded and deepened and we’re free to roam through it. Now I like to think that the woman of my story can stay in that theater forever, merged with the indescribable, comfortably and peacefully alone in the dark.

Post image modified from original at Wikimedia Commons