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Garde film fest was fun, this is not

As we confront our new COVID-19 reality, I thought it appropriate to take a nostalgic trip back to a time when it seemed OK, even fun, to gather in large groups. A time when folks enriched themselves with social interaction, rather than protecting themselves with social distancing.

A time like last Sunday.

It is hard to believe it was only a week ago that I was seated with my wife and several hundred people at the Garde Arts Center in New London for the last film featured in this year’s Garde Winter Cinema Series.

The film was “1917,” a World War I epic and the best motion picture winner at the Golden Globe Awards. In 1918 the world would confront a pandemic, the Spanish flu, which would infect 500 million and kill tens of millions.

Now the world has a new declared pandemic. At least the declaration waited until the film series ended.

I always look forward to the winter cinema series. Beginning this year on Jan. 10 with the Elton John biopic “Rocketman,” it played out over two months, with 25 feature films and two series of short films, most nominated for various Academy and Golden Globe awards.

The Garde experience is the way to watch a movie, communally, on a large screen with a great sound system, surrounded by the opulence of a true movie palace dating to 1926.

“This is not a version of what was, this is history, still alive and still very effective. In a building built by people who at the time wanted everyone to feel connected to each other through movies,” said Steve Siegel, executive director at the Garde, who walks on stage to introduce most of the films.

For $62 patrons could purchase a series pass, good for every film. This year the public bought more than 900, said Siegel, a record. The Garde seats about 1,400. My wife and I each bought one. We do every year.

“People have told me they are not going to go see a certain movie because they want to wait and see it at the Garde,” Siegel told me last week.

That would be us.

Siegel said he seldom screens movies that are playing at the local cineplexes. Some are already available on DVD and through streaming, yet the crowds come.

Those who attend so much enjoy the experience that hundreds showed up to see several Netflix films — “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story” among them — that they could have viewed in the comfort of home.

This earned New London a mention in a Wall Street Journal story about Netflix’s push to get its films nominated for awards.

“Netflix appears to be investing an extraordinary amount of money into its leave-no-stone-unturned awards strategy. That includes holding screenings in cities where Oscar voters live, no matter how far away they are from Hollywood’s cultural centers — Madrid, Wellington, Sydney, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Berlin and even New London, Conn.,” read the Feb. 4 article.

Imagine that, even New London. Though I don’t know what Oscar voter lives here.

Much of the charm is the large-audience experience. You see friends and neighbors going in. Then check back with those you spot in the lobby afterward to see what they thought.

“Where else do people sit so quietly and then applaud (at the end) as if they were watching a live play,” Siegel said. “When I first heard that, I thought, who are they applauding?”

“Maybe we’re applauding each other,” I conjectured. “That we’ve again been rewarded for sharing this experience with one another.”

Back when we could share experiences, before COVID-19. Here’s hoping that, 10 months from now, we will be doing so again. Because right now it seems like we are all in a movie, and the ending worries me.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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