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As Aimee Levitt reported last month, some expensive technical problems have caused the Patio Theater of Portage Park to be closed for the foreseeable future. On Saturday, though, the owners plan to hold a last hurrah with two free screenings of It's a Wonderful Life at 1 and 5 PM. If you can brave two hours in the cold, I recommend going, even if it's just for the architecture. The Patio is the only theater in town where I regularly sit at the back of the house—the ornate design of the room, designed in 1927, has a way of gilding whatever's onscreen, adding another layer of spectacle to the film. I'm also a fan of the auditorium's high ceiling—sounds echo throughout the room as they do in a big top, and I derive a nostalgic pleasure from this.
I can't say that the Patio makes any movie worth seeing, but the ambience (early 20th-century grandeur made homey by age) encourages you to be more forgiving of bad ones. Back in April, the theater screened an eastern European sci-fi movie that I found almost remarkable in its unflagging pretentiousness. Every detail hung heavy with symbolic possibility, yet it conveyed no clear idea of what any of them might actually represent—it was the sort of leaden, wannabe art film that you can't even enjoy laughing at. Still, the Patio reminded me that the movie belonged to the same variety of spectacle as any Hollywood entertainment I'd seen there. The cavernous room encouraged the movie to be as big as it could be—and encouraged us in the audience to be overwhelmed by what we saw.
There were very few people in the auditorium that night, which made one's spectatorship feel especially like an act of charity. (Perhaps it's necessary to be disappointed by a certain number of films you see, so as to be truly impressed by the ones that are spectacular.) This wasn't so of the shockingly low-attended screenings of Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Upstream Color that I attended at the Patio. Feeling those movies reverberate through a small crowd made them seem even more like transmissions of secret information—or, in the case of Chinese Bookie, like a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that has all the best food.