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Friday, September 10, 2010

'The Plaza' profiles - you guessed it - The Plaza Theatre

I learned some things watching The Plaza, Matt Rasnick's documentary about Atlanta's historic Plaza Theater. Co-owner Gayle Rej, a former high school theater teacher, plays a recurring role as airheaded "Persephone" at the monthly Silver Scream Spook Show. Splatter Cinema screenings usually include an elaborate stage set that recreates grisly sequence. But the Plaza's bread-and-butter patrons, rather than the young hipsters who pack the special screenings, tend to be "matured, moneyed people" from the tony neighborhoods on the Northern side of Ponce de Leon.

Running about 40 minutes, The Plaza makes its world premiere at the cinema that provides its title at 8 p.m., Sun., Sep. 12.

The Plaza includes a historical overview of the theater, built in 1939 in Atlanta's first shopping center (as defined by its off-street parking). In the 1970s it spent a few years as a XXX theater, and the seedy reputation still clings to it. In the liveliest sections, Gayle and Jonathan Rej (a full-time editor/producer) recall how they decided, practically on the spur of the moment, to purchase the Plaza from long-time Atlanta film impresario George Lefont, without quite realizing its financial challenges. Jonathan explains how the purchase was motivated by more than just a love of movies, but as a gesture to stem the rising tide of gentrification in Atlanta's liveliest, funkiest neighborhoods. He mentions feeling dismayed at the closings of places local haunts like Tortilla's and the Echo Lounge, and the influx of big box chains like Best Buy and Target.

Rasnick records heartfelt testimonials in the Plaza's seats and balcony from local fans, filmmakers and entertainers from the likes of Blast Off Burlesque and Lips Down on Dixie, Atlanta's Rocky Horror Picture Show performers. The Plaza features clips from the theater's recent 70th birthday celebration, an even bigger deal than the visit from The Room's Tommy Wiseau, who answers such sage questions as "Which room is The Room?" Overall, the film feels more like a love letter for locals than a narrative to appeal to audiences from outside the state of Georgia.

Ironically, the film's most skeptical note comes from Jonathan Rej himself, who doesn't disguise how burned out he feels by the challenges of maintaining the movie theater. He says that he feels grateful when audiences thank him for "saving" the Plaza, but adds, "It's not really saved at all. It's on the brink of closing every month." Rasnick could turn The Plaza documentary from an appreciation of the theater to an elegy with only minor edits. One hopes the Plaza will never have to schedule a last picture show, of course.

The Plaza. Sep. 12, 8 p.m. $6. Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave. 404-873-1939. www.plazaatlanta.com.

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