After writing about the decline of the drive-in, it seems appropriate also to devote a few essays to profiling the repertory/art cinema venues of Minneapolis/St. Paul. By the mid-1980’s the established repertory cinemas were in decline: the Orpheum in St. Paul had ceased operation in 1984, the Uptown in Minneapolis had shifted its programming in 1985 to first-run independent films, the Cedar, the Campus and the Varsity near the U of M campus all went dark by 1990. The introduction of VHS tape rentals drove both drive-in and art house theaters into a rapid and near complete obsolescence. In retrospect, the popular embrace of the VHS format initiated a cultural movement away from the collective viewing of films in a public theater. The greater accessibility of movies on home-viewing media that began with VHS has subsequently evolved through DVDs to downloading and streaming content from the Internet; the distribution of cinema has presently transcended a physical format. Most movies are now instantly available with a few clicks of a computer mouse.
On the one hand, this easy access to films has been a boon for the film obsessive. It’s simply much easier to find movies, popular and obscure, local and international. My students at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design don’t have to rely upon broadcast television or a Film Club series for their film history education. They can watch whatever movie they want, whenever they want to watch it. But for those of us who still value the ritual of sitting in a darkened public space with The Congregation to share the experience of films, the consequent decline of the repertory cinema has been a distressing development.
From the late 1980’s until the mid-1990’s, when the old Campus Theater was resurrected as the Oak Street Cinema, the opportunities to watch classic, art or foreign movies projected on 35mm film had diminished considerably. The Walker Art Center devoted a full-time curator and staff to adventurous, international programming; as these essays testify, some of my most significant experiences watching films occurred at the Walker. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, to a lesser degree, screened films in the Pillsbury Auditorium (where I was the projectionist for a time). And finally, there remained an old pioneering stalwart on the University of Minnesota campus . . . The University Film Society, essentially a better-financed, more ambitious version of the Film Club at Lawrence University.
Al Milgrom, who had graduated from the University of Minnesota, founded the Film Society in 1962 and oversaw its operation for the next fifty years. He also created the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival during this period. Al brought world cinema to somewhat provincial Minnesota and his taste tended toward formally challenging, non-escapist films. For decades, the University Film Society projected movies in the auditorium of the Bell Museum, a small, natural history collection of posed animal dioramas. The setting of the Bell reminded me of the scene in Chris Marker’s “La Jetee” in which the lovers stroll amidst large animal taxidermy, a pointed metaphor for moments preserved by photography and, one could say as regards the Bell, for a repertory art cinema as a repository of cultural memory. Al was often present in this surreal setting, introducing the films in his gruff and unaccountably irritated manner, troubling over notes that he had scrawled on a crumpled piece of paper as if he couldn’t read his own handwriting. He introduced Robert Bresson’s “A Man Escaped” one night by wondering out loud why the audience had come to see such a slow, dark film. And similarly, in introducing the Dardenne Brother’s “Rosetta” to a nearly sold out audience during the film festival in 1999 he asked, “Why are all you people here to watch a depressing Belgian film on a nice spring day?”
I was so overwhelmed by “Rosetta” that I watched it two more times that same week. Al noticed that I kept returning to see the film and asked me why. I explained that I was trying to diminish the emotional impact of the film so that I could study it with more detachment. He said, “Well, you don’t have to do that, I can tell you how the movie works. It’s the handheld camera that’s like a point of view shot, except the character is also in the shot, it’s always shot over the shoulder of the character; first person and third person at the same time. Like Truffaut said about “Lady in the Lake” (a famous Hollywood experiment shot continuously from the eyes of the main character), it’s not a point of view shot that creates empathy, it’s identifying with a character that we see in the shot. “Rosetta” has it both ways.” Al consumed films constantly, investigating them with a keen awareness of what they were attempting aesthetically and from what sources they derived historically. He had educated himself by sheer compulsive persistence and he, in turn, had inspired a few generations of film enthusiasts in Minnesota. The Coen Brothers, who grew up in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, wrote his name into “Inside Llwelyn Davis,” presumably as a subtle tribute to the man’s influence on the local film culture.
The University Film Society introduced me to many of my now favorite directors and particularly to a school of unsentimental, naturalistic cinema. I first saw Robert Bresson’s films at the Bell Museum: “A Man Escaped,” “Pickpocket,” “Mouchette,” “Balthazar” and “L’Argent.” I learned a film-going patience from watching Bresson that prepared me for Andrei Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror,” “Stalker,” “Solaris,” and “Andrei Rublev” and also for the Bresson-influenced Dardenne Brothers: “La Promesse,” “Rosetta,” “Le Fils,” and “Le Gamin au Velo.” Al’s programming also furthered my Bergman education, first introducing me to his great films of the 1960’s: “Through a Glass Darkly,” “The Silence,” “Winter Light,” “Shame” and “Persona.” “Persona” represented a particular revelation to me, somewhat like my first viewing of “Street of Crocodiles,” a film so utterly revolutionary in form as to demand a rethinking of how the movies could communicate states of consciousness. And I first saw Mike Leigh’s “Life is Sweet,” “High Hopes,” “Secrets and Lies,” and “Naked” at the Bell, which exposed me to the generation that had followed the model of John Cassavetes.
The University Film Society is responsible for my first recognition that “all films are accidental documentaries,” an idea central to many of these essays. I’d seen Werner Herzog’s “Even Dwarves Started Small,” “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “The Enigma of Kasper Hauser” and “Fitzcarraldo” as a student at Lawrence University. At the Bell, I saw the remainder of the films from Herzog’s great decade of the 1970’s, including documentaries such as “Land of Silence and Darkness” and “The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner.” The non-fiction films were presented in a theatrical, self-conscious manner, setting images to music quite similarly to the fictional films. The fictional films, on the other hand, often used non-actors engaged in obvious improvisation and relied exclusively on location shooting to place Herzog’s characters in an indifferent, or even actively hostile, natural and social environment. In short, there wasn’t a great difference between Herzog’s documentaries and his fiction films; he followed slightly different production paths to arrive at the same stated of goal of a ‘poetical truth.’ (I was present at the Walker Art Center when he read his Minnesota Declaration on April 30, 1999.) The boundary between artifice and reality, theatricality and naturalism, preconception and improvisation blurred significantly. All movies for me, after this insight, seemed to express a subconscious level of meaning beneath their narrative intentions: the spontaneous occurrence of place, time and person which any film inadvertently records.
The University Film Society eventually lost its screening space in the Bell Museum and evolved into the MSP Film Society, which programs films in one theater of the St. Anthony Main multiplex; Minnesota movie fanatics continue to benefit from the screenings in this venue that cater to the tastes of unique subcultures.
Hilde and I, on our twelfth wedding anniversary, shared a pot brownie that someone had left behind at a dinner party. I knew that Lenny Abrahamson’s “Frank” was showing at the St. Anthony Main Theater and thought that it would be a good film to watch in our state of mind. We biked across town on an unseasonably warm, late September evening when everyone was out in the streets with the last gasp of enthusiasm that precedes winter in Minnesota. At the ticket counter, I was told that “Frank” had been preempted by a special screening. Only momentarily disappointed, Hilde and I walked back outside and found a bench from which to watch people passing on the street. We observed three people approaching on the sidewalk: a large woman flanked on either side by a smaller, bearded, rapturous-looking man. She held the men close to her, turning from side to side to kiss them both, first one with great attention, then the other. We watched with child-like wonder as they passed and Hilde suggested, “Let’s follow them and do whatever they do.” We shadowed this trio back into the cinema from which we had emerged and saw that a long line of people had gathered. It resembled the crowd that might attend “The Rocky Horror Picture” show, but a little kinkier still; leather, rubber, dog collars and leashes. We asked the man selling tickets what these people were waiting for and he looked at us with a sense of amusement, as if we were a suburban couple on the town for the weekend and replied, “It’s the “Hump Tour,” a festival of amateur pornography.” Hilde looked at me and shrugged. I shrugged back and said, “Let’s try it.” The man grinned and asked, “Are you sure?” Hilde replied sincerely, “We’re old enough.” The man laughed and sold us tickets.
We entered the theater with the crowd and I now had growing misgivings. The printed program stated that Dan Savage curated the “Hump Tour.” He writes the brutally frank “Savage Love” column, entertaining every imaginable sexual practice and fantasy. “Are we going to have to watch people shitting on each other?” I wondered with apprehension and suggested to Hilde that we sit on an aisle in case we needed to escape. The man who had sold us tickets jumped on the stage in front of the screen to introduce the show. He was Dan Savage and he explained, “You know how you eat a pot brownie and you time it to kick in after you introduce the program of films? Well, I screwed up tonight and I’m really high right now, so you’ll have to bear with me.” Hilde and I glanced knowingly at each other and felt reassured that we were in the right place. Then he told us that the rules for curating the show were ‘no poop’ (I felt even better) and for the audience: no frat boy heckling. We were not going to be watching aerobicized porn stars. These were real people of all shapes, sizes and dispositions and that was the point.
These essays collectively address the social experience of watching films, but I also intend to champion small-scale individuality in cinema, ‘termite art’ in Manny Farber’s famous phrase and the very type of film that Al Milgrom taught me to appreciate. Pornography is, by nature, the most formulaic and impersonal form of filmmaking. I remember a secretive huddling of young men in a dorm room during my freshmen year at Lawrence University. Someone projected a Super 8 print in which an ugly man with a grotesquely oversized penis flipped a pale, chubby girl around, penetrating her emotionlessly by a swimming pool: the grinding routine of heterosexual pornography. In the first “Hump Tour” film, a woman bounced on a trampoline in a white leotard with underwear drying on a clothesline behind her, repeating, “It’s okay to pee, it’s okay to pee” and then she peed. I remember another movie in which shots of a woman with muscular dystrophy hopping down a sidewalk on crutches to catch a bus were crosscut with shots of her laying on a bed naked, her crooked legs vulnerably exposed, masturbating with one of her crutches. This collection of short, often amateurishly made films, put the individual back in the onscreen representation of sexuality.
As Hilde and I left the theater, we passed the line of people waiting for the last screening of the night. A slightly nervous couple looked at us and said:
“How was it?”
“Good,” Hilde smiled, “You should definitely see it.”
“Reassuring,” I added, “It will make you feel better about humanity in general.”