From 1995 until 2009 the Oak Street Cinema was church for me. When I first moved to Minneapolis in the late 1980’s this same theater near the University of Minnesota was known as The Campus. I only recall watching one film at The Campus with my first wife Sayer before it closed in 1989. I remember that film, 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, a literature professor and especially dedicated member of The Congregation, reopened the theater as the Oak Street Cinema in 1995 with the quintessential, repertory double feature: “Citizen Kane” and “Casablanca.” When I learned of the new cinema, I was shooting my second animated film “Desert Dive Inn.” This task was considerably more complicated than the one that I described for “Harvest Town” in an earlier essay. I shot for three straight weeks, twelve hours a day, under hot lights with the Mauer animation camera that I’d bought from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago earlier that year.
My first experience of the Oak Street was at the end of one such twelve-hour workday during June, 1995. It’s difficult to simply switch off the concentration required to shoot animation, so I was still preoccupied with cel layers and frame counters; 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 automatically back to an image of the exposure sheet in my head.
That evening I watched Luis Bunuel’s “The Exterminating Angel.” About ten minutes into the film, a group of socialites return from the opera to enjoy dinner together at one of their homes. Their entrance into the house is repeated twice (7:10), a jarringly unsubtle violation 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 also speculated that perhaps this print had previously broken and had not been repaired properly. After the dinner scene, the socialites begin their goodbyes but find that they, inexplicably, cannot leave the dining room. They adopt a shipwreck mentality of survival, trapped together in this space, descending into conflict and barbarity. Not only had Bunuel gleefully subverted my conditioned narrative expectations, but in the same film he had also begun to explore an alternative system of movie storytelling. It was a relief for me to realize that my disorientation had been designed into “The Exterminating Angel.”
A few years later, with my girlfriend Jenny, I attended 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 assault upon tradition, both social and cinematic, never abated and, in fact, his tactics only grew more revolutionary with age; Bunuel is one of the rare filmmakers who continued to innovate until the very end.
Jenny and I spent many nights together at the Oak Street in the late 1990’s, including a memorable series of the films Robert Altman had directed in the 1970s. One Friday night we passed a half pint of whiskey back and forth and drifted pleasurably through a double feature of “California Split” and “The Long Goodbye.” I had recently seen “The Big Lebowski” and Elliot Gould’s shambolic Marlowe seemed to me an obvious evolutionary step toward the Coen Brothers’ Dude. Both Altman movies conveyed the smart-ass, film-production-as-party atmosphere common to such 1970’s exemplars as John Cassavettes’ “Husbands” and Hal Ashby’s “The Last Detail” and 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 hates America.” “No Jenny,” I corrected her, “Robert Altman loves America so much that it pains him to see what’s become of it.”
As a regular at the Oak Street I got to know the programmer Emily Condon and the projectionist Joe Midthun, who had been a student at the Arts High School when I taught there. 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 glued to the door of a cathedral.
Emily later asked me to program a night of independent animation for the theater 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 individualistic work to a Minneapolis audience.
In my personal life, I transitioned from Jenny to Hilde in 2002. During the early exuberance of our life together 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.” The 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 throughout the autobiographical series. 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 films screened 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 that the simple secret of happiness consisted in sitting next to one’s lover in the dark, watching movies. After every film, we emerged from the theater into rain. 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 specifically for our heightened sensitivities. We began to recognize another couple, whom we didn’t know, also attending all of the Truffaut films, and also clearly in a state of fresh infatuation. We stood apart on the sidewalk in front of the theater and smiled at each other, a mirror for each other’s contentment. I said aloud, “Antoine Doinel, Antoine Doinel, Antoine Doinel.” 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 had played, the full five-hour Swedish television version of “Scenes from a Marriage” appeared on the program at the Oak Street Cinema. I told Hilde that this was one of the greatest films ever made and that it had saved my life in my early thirties. And I discovered that “Scenes from a Marriage” is just as profound at the beginning, as at the end of a marriage.
We watched it together on a Saturday afternoon. The first episode began at one o’clock. After each hour-long section, as the credits rolled, a calm voice asked us to observe peaceful shots of the island of Fårö, a tranquilizing balm to the intensity we had endured. Then a short intermission followed, allowing us to go outside and stretch or even walk into the neighborhood quickly to buy a coffee or a tea. Over the course of an exhausting afternoon, Hilde and I weathered the path together of Johan and Marianne’s tumultuous romantic life.
Hilde had lived in Seville for two years in her early thirties. She’s attracted to the southern Spanish temperament and is a fan of Pedro Almodovar’s films. When we’d watch Almodovar movies together, I always complained that I couldn’t relate to the speed of emotion in his films. Every scene was played so melodramatically, with such exaggeration; the psychology of the characters felt chaotic and unmotivated to me. I always held Ingmar Bergman forth as an example of my own 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, “You call Bergman quiet and repressed? I don’t even think Pedro can compete with that!”
A Jasujiro Ozu series at the Oak Street Cinema perhaps most typifies the theater’s status as church for me. I’d seen “Tokyo Story” in the late 1980’s and one of Ozu’s silent films a few years later, “I was Born But . . ..” I responded to the disciplined and alien formality of the films and, particularly, to the surprising transitional shots between scenes of narrative exposition: boats crossing a harbor, silent rooms without characters, factories and smokestacks, a ceramic vase. Ozu’s empty tableaus conveyed a sense of the smallness and emptiness of life, a matter-of-fact, encompassing simultaneity.
In “Tokyo Story,” three generations of a family are engaged in a drama that would remain firmly center stage in most narrative films. But Ozu visually surrounds his characters with the still, particular context in which their prosaic interactions occur. As I describe this tendency, it reminds me of the remove of perspective that Jacques Tati also used in his films. The intentions are different, but the effect for me is one of calm melancholy, a humane, poetic emptiness.
I was so enamored with “Tokyo Story” that I refused to watch any other Ozu movies on VHS or DVD. I felt as if I owed it to the filmmaker to wait until I could first experience his work in a theater, projected on 35mm film as he had originally intended them to be seen. 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.
The pacing of the films also suggests a quality of contemplative ritual. I recall scenes of tea-making that represent a perfect metaphor for the patient, ceremonial construction of the movies. Pouring the water into the pot to be heated, picking up a towel to wipe the spout of the pot, placing the pot on the fire, picking up the wooden container which holds the 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 . . . and so forth, without ellipsis, in real time, meticulous, imperturbable, reverent.
Ozu functions more like a lyric poet than a novelist in conveying his experience of life. The primary dramatic movements of a story often aren’t depicted directly. He works through particularity, by means of a deceptive, oblique banality, to present an accumulation of incidental details that suddenly coalesce into an emotional meaning of unexpected impact. As a famous example, a father played by frequent Ozu collaborator Chishu Ryu is alone at the end of “Late Spring” after his only daughter’s wedding. He enters his house, stands in the silence as if completely 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, a cut to a characteristic, empty Ozu 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 late autumn. These quiet sequences of estrangement realize the poetic possibilities of film storytelling.
I attended the Ozu films every week on Sunday mornings at eleven, 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 or cultural background information, including seemingly apocryphal stories about Ozu himself. 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 reportedly 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 was increasingly watching films in private on a variety of home media formats. The theater was sold, demolished and an apartment complex was built in the space it had occupied. 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 that managed the operation of the theater and who believed in the importance 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 present a diverse screening program of classic, art, exploitation, independent and foreign films. I’m overwhelmingly pleased when one venue screens Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (the shortest four-hour film I’ve ever experienced) and Ted Kotcheff’s “Wake in Fright” in the same week. For me that is a sign of a city’s cultural health.
My friend Mike Dust (to be introduced in the following essay as Dr. Richard Brinkman) and I often bemoan the decline of physical film exhibition. We’ve both worked as projectionists and have currently reached an age when a nostalgia for celluloid is inevitable. As I presently edit these essays (in the fall of 2016), I reflect upon 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 the fears of The Congregation, there may never have been a better time in Minneapolis to watch classic movies projected on film. And I find it reassuring that one principle inherent to repertory cinema, the love of the social/public nature of film exhibition, regenerates itself with a passion that transcends any particular physical venue.