“What do you think they do for excitement in this town?”
–Burt Reynolds, “Smokey and the Bandit”
For Nashville teens growing up in the ’80s — the heyday of suburbs and Shoney’s, malls and mustaches — the question roiled, stoking adolescent restlessness for somewhere a little more Fame, a little less Ordinary People.
Nashville’s cultural, culinary, and entertainment possibilities have exploded since the days when I rode the MTA to high school from Bellevue’s sleepy little hillside boxes to an ’80s-era downtown Nashville in which seediness and somnolence bizarrely coexisted.
In many ways symbolizing this cultural resurgence, the Belcourt Theatre’s trajectory has mirrored the city’s shifting mores: suburban to urban, corporate and generic to local and individual. After a nearly 30-year run as a mainstream Carmike cinema, the Belcourt went into disastrous decline, even closing for a time in 1999, as moviegoers fled to cinemall multiplexes and Blockbuster video stores.
Today, the Belcourt rides again, thanks to the efforts and creativity of the folks at Belcourt YES!, the nonprofit that owns and operates it. “The theatre is getting people to think about movie theatres the way that people think about farmers’ markets and food,” says Jim Ridley, veteran Nashville Scene film writer and editor. “Because it makes you feel like you’re somewhere specific and individual that appreciates you as a patron … They’re one of the tremendous local success stories of the past two decades.”
Ridley measures the theatre’s changing fortunes by comparing two screenings of the same film: A decade ago, Ridley watched Terrence Malick’s Badlands with an audience of 12. This summer, when the Belcourt showed a month-long Malick retrospective leading up to the release of the wildly popular Tree of Life, the line to see Badlands snaked around the block.
Summer of 2011 has been the Belcourt’s strongest yet, says Ridley, and he attributes that success to the creative collaboration of program director Toby Leonard and managing director Stephanie Silverman.
“This is a movie,” says the unflappable Silverman, pointing to a stack of 35mm film reels, opining more on the classic nature of the medium than on the content therein. “The crazy thing is Smokey and the Bandit is kind of an archival print,” she laughs. “Who would’ve thought? But they’re not gonna make another one.” (Mercy of mercies.)
Under the stewardship of Silverman and her staff, the Belcourt has found its footing again as magnet for local film lovers, an incubator for a burgeoning community of filmmakers, and an accessible entry point for the curious but uninitiated. With programming that runs the full gamut from the aforementioned retro mustachepic to more acquired tastes like the seven-hour Hungarian epic Sátántango, the Belcourt simultaneously sends out a knowing wink to fellow cinephiles and a warm welcome to the rest of us folks whose brows reside, unapologetically, lower on the cinematic spectrum.
By inviting filmistas and film neophytes into the same fold, the Belcourt has carefully cultivated a community of loyal patrons with wide-ranging tastes, all the while looking for innovative ways to connect to the wider arts community, with events such as the nD Festival, which ties in the fashion and music worlds. The Belcourt also offers a pipeline to the wider world of filmmaking — the theatre has become one of eight satellite venues for the Sundance Film Festival — with Silverman serving as one of Nashville’s acting Motion Picture Ambassadors.
“That was Stephanie’s vision,” says Metro councilwoman and Belcourt board member Megan Barry. “To create a community theatre with ties to a community beyond Nashville. International ties.”
Both Barry and Ridley describe Silverman as a business-minded arts manager with passion, taste, and discipline — a rare combination of talents she, perhaps, absorbed from her mother, a viola player with the Omaha Symphony who went back to law school later in life.
Wedged into a tiny office clogged with ancient pipes and the remnants of the old, gold-painted ornamental plaster moulding, Silverman leans in, describing how the 1925-era hall fills up at Christmas, when the Belcourt shows the inevitable It’s a Wonderful Life.
“This is when you know movies won’t die,” she says, her tumultuous curls barely hanging on as she gesticulates. “It’s on TV 24 hours a day, and no one needs to see it again. But what people want is to see it on a huge screen, because that’s what Capra intended.”
She goes on to describe her favorite moment in Tree of Life: a sweeping, wordless montage evoking the passage of time, children growing up. And suddenly, it’s clear Silverman loves movies, not from the dizzying heights of a film elitist, but as a no-nonsense mom with four kids, a mom brought to tears by an elegant moment of storytelling that captures what parenthood feels like.
“I just cried,” she says, “in that way that your heart’s kind of full of that experience.” It’s that full-heart experience that she wants to share with her adopted city, a city made all the richer for her desire to do so.
Photo by Michael W. Bunch