From 1995 until 2009 the Oak Street Cinema was church for me. When I first moved to Minneapolis in the late 1980’s this theater near the University of Minnesota was known as The Campus. I can only recall seeing one film there with my first wife Sayer before it closed in 1989. I remember that film clearly, Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly, because it was winter, below zero outside, and the boiler that heated the building had failed. We watched the film through the condensation of our own breath.
Bob Cowgill, literature professor and dedicated member of The Congregation, relaunched the theater as the Oak Street Cinema in 1995 with the quintessential repertory double feature: Citizen Kane and Casablanca. When I first learned of this resurrection, I was shooting my second animated film Desert Dive Inn. This job was considerably more complicated than the shoot for my first film Harvest Town in 1990. I worked for three straight weeks, twelve hours a day, under hot lights with a Mauer animation camera I’d bought from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago earlier that year.
My relationship with the Oak Street began at the end of one such twelve-hour workday during June, 1995. I entered the theater lobby still preoccupied with the cel layers and frame counter; flashing movements appeared in the corners of my eyes and I blinked rhythmically to chase them away, counting the number of times that I blinked, relating that number back to an image of the exposure sheet in my head.
That evening I saw Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel for the first time. About ten minutes into the film, a group of socialites returns from the opera to enjoy dinner at one of their homes. The entry into the house is repeated twice (7:10), a jarringly unsubtle disruption of narrative film language and a cue that conventions are about to be subverted more radically. In my animation-shoot state of mind, I wondered if I had actually seen the repetition. Because of my experience as a projectionist, I then speculated that perhaps the print had previously broken and had not been repaired correctly. After dinner the socialites begin their goodbyes but find that they, inexplicably, cannot leave the dining room. They adopt a shipwreck mentality of survival, descending into conflict and barbarity. Not only had Bunuel gleefully attacked movie narrative expectations, but he had also begun to explore an alternative system of absurdist storytelling. It was a relief when I realized that my disorientation had been designed into The Exterminating Angel.
A few years later, with my girlfriend Jenny, I watched a series of the late Bunuel films at the Oak Street: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire. His deconstruction of tradition, both social and cinematic, grew more revolutionary with age; Bunuel was that rare filmmaker who continued to innovate until the very end.
Of the many nights Jenny and I spent at the Oak Street in the late 1990’s, a Robert Altman double feature stands out in my memory. One Friday night we passed a half pint of whiskey back and forth and drifted pleasurably through California Split and The Long Goodbye. Elliot Gould’s shambolic Marlowe felt like an evolutionary step between Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep and the Coen Brothers’ Dude in The Big Lebowski, which I'd also seen recently. Both movies conveyed the smart-ass, film-production-as-party atmosphere of that period of 1970’s naturalism; other examples might include John Cassavettes’ Husbands and Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail. Jenny and I were wide open to the spontaneous flow. At the end of this excessive dose of buddy-film disillusionment we lingered, slouching in our seats. Jenny leaned toward me and said, “Man, that Altman really hated America.” “No Jenny,” I corrected her, “Robert Altman loved America so much that it pained him to see what had become of it.”
As a regular at the Oak Street I became friends with the programmer Emily Condon, who had grown up in a family owned video rental store and had developed an admirable patience with film obsessives. I convinced Emily to attach one of my Tati-influenced animations, A Plan, to Playtime as the warm-up short in 2004. This had seemed like a perfect idea, but when I watched my movie in that company it felt immensely trivial . . . like a postage stamp attached to the door of a cathedral.
Emily later asked me to program a night of independent animation and I recruited the recent shorts of my festival friends, directors not widely known to general filmgoers: David Russo, Rosto, Jim Trainor, Steven Woloshen, Agnieszka Woznicka and Igor Kovalyev. These filmmakers are unique auteurs working in the small-scale neglect of the art animation subculture and I was excited to help the Oak Street introduce their work to a Minneapolis audience.
In my personal life, I transitioned from Jenny to Hilde in 2002. During the early exuberance of our relationship, Hilde and I watched all of Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films at the Oak Street: The 400 Blows, the short Antoine and Colette, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board and Love on the Run. This series depicts the romantic adventures of protagonist Antoine from childhood through young adulthood, infatuation, unrequited love, romance, marriage, divorce and the love that endures beyond physical attachment. Jean-Pierre Leaud plays Truffaut’s alter ego in all of the autobiographical films. In Stolen Kisses, Leaud stands in front of a mirror and repeats “Antoine Doinel, Antoine Doinel, Antoine Doinel” as if calling attention to the complicated transference of identity occurring.
The movies played on four Monday evenings during the rainy June when Hilde and I first lived together and Antoine Doinel will always star in my memories of this period. I felt again the simple happiness of sitting next to one's love in a dark movie theater. After every film, we emerged into rain outside. The sun hung low in the sky, filtered dimly through the clouds. The surfaces of the city were as dramatically wet and reflective as in a Michael Mann film, art directed for our heightened sensitivities. We began to recognize another couple, also at all of the Truffaut films, and also clearly in a state of new infatuation. We stood apart on the sidewalk in front of the theater and smiled, a mirror for each other’s contentment. I said aloud, “Antoine Doinel, Antoine Doinel, Antoine Doinel.” We all laughed. The idealism of my youth may have been partially restored when I fell in love with Hilde but, at forty, I also understood with gratitude that life offers few moments of such pleasant passing harmony.
Shortly after the Truffaut series ended, the full five-hour Swedish television version of Scenes from a Marriage appeared in the Oak Street program. I told Hilde that this film had saved my life in my early thirties. Seeing it again with her, I discovered that Scenes from a Marriage is as profound at the beginning, as it was at the end, of a marriage.
The first episode began at one o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. After each hour-long section the credits rolled as a calm voice asked us to observe peaceful shots of the island of Fårö, a tranquilizing wind-down after the intensity we had endured. Then a short intermission allowed us to go outside and stretch or even walk into the neighborhood quickly to buy a cup of coffee. Over the course of an exhausting afternoon, Hilde and I weathered the journey of Johan and Marianne’s harrowing emotional life together.
Hilde had lived in Seville for two years in her early thirties and was a fan of Pedro Almodovar’s films. When we’d watch Almodovar movies, I always complained that I couldn’t relate to the speed of emotion in the stories. Every scene was played so melodramatically, with such exaggeration, that the psychology of the characters felt chaotic and unmotivated to me. I used Ingmar Bergman as an example of my preferred emotional pace: brooding, Scandinavian repression. As we walked out of the Oak Street Cinema early that Saturday evening, after five hours in the crucible of Scenes from a Marriage, Hilde exclaimed, “I don’t even think Pedro can compete with that mayhem!”
A Jasujiro Ozu series late in the life of the Oak Street most embodies the theater-as-church feeling for me. I’d seen Tokyo Story in the 1980’s. I responded to the disciplined and alien formality of the film and, particularly, to the surprising transitional shots between scenes of narrative exposition: a boat crossing a harbor, silent rooms without people, factories and smokestacks. Ozu’s empty tableaus depicted the negative space surrounding the activities of his characters, a matter-of-fact, encompassing simultaneity. (The most discussed of these still-lives occurs in Late Spring.)
In Tokyo Story, three generations of a family engage in a typical narrative film drama. But Ozu places his characters in a still, particular context that deemphasizes their feuding interactions. As I describe this tactic, it reminds me of Jacques Tati's comic remove of perspective. The intentions are different, but the overall effect for me is detached melancholy, a humane, poetic emptiness.
I was so moved by Tokyo Story that I refused to watch any other Ozu movies on VHS or DVD, feeling that I should wait to see them projected on 35mm. I had to wait fifteen years, but the Oak Street finally gave me the opportunity. The films now blend together in memory because of the similarity of the titles, Early Summer, Late Spring, Late Autumn, and because of the common themes: the simple, inevitable evolution and dissolution of relationships between parents and their children, between married couples.
An Ozu film is paced like a contemplative ritual. The common scenes of tea-making represent a perfect metaphor for their patient ceremonial construction. Pouring water into the pot to be heated, wiping the spout of the pot with a cloth, placing the pot on the fire, picking up the wooden container of tea, undoing the lid, setting the lid down, picking up a spoon, transferring the tea into the pot, setting down the spoon, picking up the lid to place it back on the wooden container . . . without ellipsis, meticulous, reverent.
Ozu works like a lyric poet. The primary dramatic movements of a story often aren’t depicted directly. He builds meaning through particularity, an oblique banality, to present an accumulation of incidental details that suddenly coalesce into an unexpected emotional impact. As a famous example, a father played by frequent Ozu collaborator Chishu Ryu is left alone at the end of Late Spring after his only daughter’s wedding. He enters his house, stands in the silence absorbing the permanence of her departure. He brushes the left arm of his tuxedo, brushes the right arm. He takes off the tuxedo jacket and carefully drapes it over a hanger. Then he sits and peels an apple; and, finally, Ozu cuts to a characteristic empty tableau . . . the indifferent sea. I compare this sequence now in my mind to the final shot in The Third Man in which Alida Valli walks past Joseph Cotton between two long rows of trees shedding their leaves in autumn; two quiet scenes of estrangement that realize the poetic possibilities of film storytelling.
I attended the Ozu films every week on Sunday mornings, gathered with The Congregation in the lobby of the Oak Street Cinema where we were served a small bowl of green tea and rice. The director of the Oak Street then introduced each film with historical context. My favorite story from these introductions told that Ozu had been enlisted by the Japanese military during World War II to watch Hollywood films and report any useful insights he could glean on the character of the enemy. After watching several Busby Berkeley musicals, Ozu concluded, “If these people are capable of making films like this solely to entertain, we have no chance of winning the war.” He suggested surrender.
The Oak Street Cinema eventually surrendered to financial difficulties and the reality of an audience that increasingly watched movies on home media formats. The theater was sold, demolished and an apartment complex was built. I bike past the location frequently and, in my mind, I still picture the old building and the marquee, remember the films I saw there and pay tribute to the people who created the social life of a repertory cinema.
In 2006 Barry Kryshka opened the Trylon Microcinema, which has subsequently replaced the Oak Street in the lives of The Congregation. Barry and his largely volunteer staff program the same classic, art, exploitation, independent and foreign movies. I’m pleased when one venue screens Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (the shortest four-hour film I’ve ever seen) and Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright in the same week. For me that is a sign of Minneapolis' cultural health.
My friend Mike Dust and I often bemoan the decline of physical film exhibition. We’ve both worked as projectionists and have currently reached the inevitable age of nostalgia-for-celluloid. As I write this essay in the fall of 2016, I think about the movies that I’ve seen in the past week alone in Minneapolis: 2001: A Space Odyssey projected on 70mm at the Heights Theater, The Sentinel on 35mm at The Trylon and Jeremiah Johnson also on 35mm at The Walker Art Center. Contrary to our fears, there may never have been a better time in Minneapolis to watch classic movies screened as film prints. One principle inherent to repertory cinema, a love of the social/public nature of film exhibition, continues to renew itself with a passion that transcends any particular physical venue.