By Michelle Trauring
There was once a small, eclectic movie house that gave cinema of all kinds a home. It was a place for dreams, for art, and when it tragically burned to the ground, the community rallied around it, rebuilding it to its former glory.
If this story sounds familiar, it should — but it is not recalling the catastrophic Main Street fire that partially destroyed the Sag Harbor Cinema in 2016, explained screenwriter Bill Collage.
It is, actually, the story behind the fictional Cinema Paradiso and eponymous 1988 Italian drama of the same name that will open the “Here Comes The Cinema!” film series on Monday, December 16 — three years to the day that Sag Harbor will never forget.
“There’s no better movie about cinemas than this one,” said Collage, who will discuss the film following the screening at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. “And to do it on the third anniversary of the fire is kind of incredible, especially given that’s what happens in ‘Cinema Paradiso.’ It’s like the perfect film for the perfect time, as we get ready to re-open.”
From Southern Italy in “Cinema Paradiso” and Taipei in “Goodbye Dragon Inn” to occupied Paris of “Inglourious Basterds” and the Cuban Missile Crisis of “Matinee,” the new program will travel through history to celebrate the power of film, according to Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, founding artistic director of the new Sag Harbor Cinema, who will moderate the conversation with Collage.
“It’s an important anniversary for us, when we all looked at each other and said, ‘We need to jump-start this campaign,’” she said of rebuilding the cinema on the day of the fire. “And ‘Cinema Paradiso’ is a movie that is very dear to the wider audience. It’s an Italian film, but it crosses over completely into international audiences. It’s about the power of film and it’s about this cinema in a little town, in the South of Italy, but it could be any little town. I think it’s appropriate, both the film and the date.”
On the list of films that Vallan gave to the roster of presenters — who will include Eric Fischl, Laurie Anderson, Ed Burns, Rene Shafransky, Bill Morrison and more as the series continues through February 23 — “Cinema Paradiso” was easily Collage’s first pick.
“If it hadn’t been on that list, I would have chosen this one anyway. This is the movie,” said the screenwriter, whose credits include “Assassin’s Creed,” “Allegiant” and “Accepted.” “I claimed it right away and hoped someone super famous didn’t already claim it and I’d get bounced to another one.”
When Collage first saw Giuseppe Tornatore’s film in 1989 — it would win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival that year — he was a burgeoning screenwriter and it only fanned his ambitions, he said.
“I was in college in the screenwriting program and it was a very influential movie to me when it came out,” he said. “It made an impression right away and further cemented what already appeared to be my path, and what my calling was going to be. I’ve been doing it ever since. I haven’t done anything else. It seemed like a natural fit.”
Collage grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, where the major attraction in the farm town was the Warner Theater — a cinema that became as much of a character as the actors on screen throughout the course of any given film, not unlike the old Sag Harbor Cinema.
“It was quite a character. I mean, it was a disaster,” Collage said of the Sag Harbor icon with a kindhearted laugh. “Like, you got Ebola in there, like a Petri dish — quite a character. And I think the new one’s gonna be a new character, too.”
A main goal of the new cinema will be to reach younger moviegoers, who will congregate at the theater for a shared experience just as Collage did as a child — ultimately changing his life, he said.
Much like the young protagonist in “Cinema Paradiso” who is exposed, week after week, to the wonders of film by his mentor, the town projectionist, in the dark of the cramped theater, Collage first opened his eyes to the possibilities of storytelling and the importance of dreams at age 7, sitting inside his own local cinema staring up at “Star Wars” in 1977.
“To me, going to the movies isn’t something coming to you. You’re teleported somewhere else. It’s as much a window as it is a screen,” he said. “I began writing science fiction short stories. Movies were, I didn’t know how you went and did that, but I figured out how to dream and how to go to a cinema and dream.
“Your home was kind of like where problems exist, or where reality is,” he continued, “and the cinema was a place where you were with your friends, you’re away, and even when you were with your parents, you were in a collective experience.”
The cinema still represents a level of escapism for Collage. It is a place where dreams still live, and once completed, the new Sag Harbor Cinema will be the embodiment of that, he said.
“These theaters are a place that bring people together,” he said, “and in divisive times, or times when people are retreating into their homes now with streaming services, a reminder that art and music and culture can bring us all together and we’re all allowed our opinions on those things, but the collective thing of experiencing it is really special. That’s how bridges are built, and that’s how people reconnect. I think that’s where the movie’s relevancy is right now.
“This is about the enduring power of dreams,” he continued. “We live in a time when sometimes it feels like there’s a poverty of dreams, and this is a reminder that dreaming is a pretty good thing to do.”
“Here Comes the Cinema!” series kicks off with “Cinema Paradiso” on Monday, December 16, at 7 p.m. at Bay Street Theater. To comemmorate the third anniversary of the fire that nearly destroyed the historic Sag Harbor Cinema, Bay Street will throw open its doors for hot cider, mulled wine and a visit from Santa at 6 p.m. Admission to the screening is free, but reservations are required at 631-725-9500 or sagharborcinema.org.