hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture June 2016


Staying true to the best in film

New director keeps tradition alive as Images Cinema nears 100


Images Cinema got its start in 1916 as the Walden Theater, a silent-movie house on Spring Street in Williamstown.By JOHN SEVEN
Contributing writer



Images Cinema got its start in 1916 as the Walden Theater, a silent-movie house on Spring Street in Williamstown.

When Doug Jones took over as director of Images Cinema two years ago, he began to look to the theater’s past as a way to size up its future possibilities.

“I started looking at what was here, what Images is doing, what its role was in the community,” he explained. “In the history of it, I looked at that as a really great foundation to continue, and also to build upon.”

The venue’s history is getting special attention this year: In November, Images Cinema will achieve its centennial. It began life in 1916 as the Walden Theater in the former Sigma Phi fraternity house, which previously also had been home to a trucking business and a warehouse. It became the Taconic Theater in 1932, the College Cinema in 1967, the Nickelodeon in 1971, and finally Images Cinema in 1978. In 1998, Images Cinema reorganized as a nonprofit.
Its yearlong centennial celebration includes a number of special events that count down the decades to its birth year. Each month celebrates a decade of film-going: June will feature a screening of Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” (1973) on June 13, as well as a “drive-in” screening of “Jaws” (1975) at Sand Springs Pool in Williamstown -- giving viewers a chance to swim as they watch.

Images Cinema keeps changing with the times, but it continues to provide the northern Berkshires with unique movie-going experiences that the multiplexes don’t often have any interest in providing — art and indie films, foreign movies, documentaries, and even obscure oldies that the mainstream has managed to overlook.


A fascination with film
Jones took over at Images when Sandra Thomas stepped down after 12 years as director. He got his start in the movie-theater business as a 14-year-old in Minneapolis, selling popcorn at a concession stand.

“There’s never been a time where I wasn’t working in film in one way or another, whether on film productions or at a movie theater or at a film festival,” he said. “It set me on my course pretty early.”

He worked for Landmark Cinema’s uptown theater in Minneapolis for awhile, and he also worked in film production, and finally he worked for the Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul and its film festival, which was helpful when it came time to move on. One of Jones’ roles there, as print trafficker, put him in contact with the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Jones ended up moving to San Francisco with several other friends. They all wanted to move, but had no idea where, and when one of the friends was dead set on San Francisco, they decided to follow her. Jones spent a decade working for the San Francisco International Film Festival and then moved south to the Los Angeles Film Festival for another 12 years. It was from there that he came to the Berkshires and Images Cinema.

Jones said it was his work at the festivals that gave him a clear sense of possibilities.
“I went to film school, which was great, and it gave me a good base for everything, but when I started working at film festivals, what that really did was it made me realize how big the world of cinema was,” he said. “It wasn’t just Hollywood stuff. It wasn’t even just American independent stuff. You learn that every country has their equivalent of the studio system or the independent film movement, and that there’s so many things to find and discover if you just spend a little effort and go looking for them.”

Jones has brought that lesson and several others with him to Images. In choosing programming for the theater, he takes a very similar approach to what he did with the festivals.
“You don’t want to be showing variations of the same movie over and over and over,” he explained. “You want to put together something that displays the breadth of what’s happening out there in contemporary cinema.”

This plays into one of Jones’ favorite parts about the job: bringing in unusual and sometimes obscure films for limited screenings, films that might not need to play for an entire week. This has allowed local movie enthusiasts the chance to see the likes of “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence,” a Swedish black comedy-drama from 2014, on the big screen.
“I realize that while there’s an audience that wants to see those films, it’s not as big an audience as the audience for the new British period piece that’s coming down the pike,” Jones said. “It’s always a constant walking back and forth between ‘Here’s some quality cinema that you would expect and that people are aware of and has familiar elements to it,’ and ‘Here’s something maybe a little bit new for people to take a chance on.’”


Adapting to a digital age
Jones sees it as part of the role of a movie theater, even in this digital age, which hasn’t quite resulted in every movie ever made being available on immediate demand as was predicted 20 years ago. The Internet has sped up the way information about films becomes available to fans, though.

“Way back when, it used to be you were an archaeologist,” Jones said. “You had to sort through thinks and sift through clues and track things down. That meant sending a couple bucks off to get some fanzine you read about or ordering a video from Video Search Miami or something like that. You had to put a lot of effort into it.”

Images is able to fill that role for the hardcore buffs while also catering to the more casual moviegoer who is looking for something beyond the realm of Hollywood blockbusters. And Jones is cognizant that the appreciation of film is a journey you can go on, where one movie can provide clues to the direction you want to head in, what hidden treasures you want to mine.
“I think you still can crack the code,” he said. “You’ll see one thing that will lead you to another thing that will lead you to another thing, whether it’s a film comes through by a filmmaker you haven’t heard of, but then you do a little research and realize that they’ve got a body of work that stretches back however many years.”

Jones’ feeling is that Images acts as a filter for its regulars, doing the archaeology and giving them the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of the effort.

“Especially for an organization like Images that has this 100-year history and has all these connections to the community,” Jones said, “there’s possibly a little more faith to looking to us as far as what’s playing here: ‘This will be something of merit; maybe I haven’t heard about this film, but since it’s at Images I’m going to give it a shot, because they’ve done me right in the past.’”
After a century of tradition and a year of reflection, it’s what comes next for the theater that really matters. Jones points out that change has typically been incremental for the cinema, as with the last decade that has seen renovations to revert to the original 1916 entrance and a brand new marquee. What could possibly be next?

“There’s always very-exciting-to-us but maybe-not-exciting-to-other-folks things,” Jones said, “like now is the year that we need to get a new popcorn machine.”