By the mid-1980’s, when I moved to Minneapolis, repertory cinemas were disappearing as rapidly as the drive-ins: the Orpheum in St. Paul closed in 1984, the Uptown in Minneapolis 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 signaled a cultural movement away from the collective viewing of films in a public theater. The new avenues of distribution evolved from VHS to DVD and, presently, to online streaming services. Most movies are now available with a few clicks of a computer mouse.
On the one hand, this easy access has been a boon for the film obsessive. It’s much easier to find movies, popular and obscure, local and international, indy and commercial. 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 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 a film, the decline of the repertory cinema has been a distressing development.
Since the mid-1990's, Minneapolis has had the cinephile audience to support one arthouse, first the Oak Street Cinema, now the Trylon Microcinema. The Walker Art Center devotes a full-time curator to adventurous art and international programming. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, to a lesser degree, shows films in the Pillsbury Auditorium (where I was the projectionist for a time). And finally, there remains an old pioneering stalwart from the University of Minnesota campus . . . The University Film Society, a better-financed, more ambitious version of the Film Club I managed for a time at Lawrence University.
Al Milgrom 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 in 1981, originally called the Rivertown Film Festival. Al brought world cinema to somewhat provincial Minnesota and his taste tended toward formally challenging, non-escapist films. For decades, the University Film Society screened movies in the auditorium of the Bell Museum, a small natural history collection of posed animal dioramas. The setting of the Bell always reminded me of the lovers strolling amidst large animal taxidermy in Chris Marker’s La Jetee, a metaphor for moments preserved by photography and, one could say as regards the Bell, for an art cinema as a repository of cultural memory. Al was often present in this surreal setting, introducing films in a gruff and unaccountably irritated manner, troubling over notes 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 house 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 went back two more times during that week's run. Al noticed that I kept returning and asked me why. I explained that I was trying to diminish the emotional impact of the film so that I could see 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, 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 investigated films 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, created a character named Al Milgrom for Inside Llwelyn Davis, presumably as a 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 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 that had started at Lawrence University: Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence, Winter Light, Shame and Persona. Persona had a particularly visceral impact, somewhat like my first viewing of Street of Crocodiles, a revolution in how movies communicated states of consciousness. And I first saw Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet, High Hopes, Secrets and Lies, and Naked at the Bell, a great director expanding upon the model of John Cassavetes.
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. At the Bell, I saw the remainder of the films from Herzog’s peak decade of the 1970’s, including the documentaries Land of Silence and Darkness and The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner. Herzog presented these non-fiction films in a theatrical, self-conscious manner, setting images to music quite similarly to his fictional projects. The fictional films, on the other hand, often used non-actors in obvious improvisation and relied exclusively on location shooting. In short, there wasn’t a significant difference between Herzog’s documentaries and his fiction films; he followed slightly different production methods to arrive at the same goal of a ‘poetical truth.’ (I was 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. All movies for me, after this insight, carried a subconscious level of meaning beneath their narrative intentions: the documentary 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 year round and manages the annual festival.
Hilde and I, on our twelfth wedding anniversary, shared a pot brownie that someone had left behind at a dinner party. Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank was showing at the St. Anthony Main Theater and I thought it would be a good film to watch in that 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 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 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 the trio back into the cinema and saw that a long line of people had gathered. It resembled the crowd that ritualized 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. “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.”
We entered the theater with the crowd and I now had misgivings. In the printed program I read 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 pooping 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 climbed on the stage to introduce the show. He was Dan Savage. “You know how you eat a pot brownie and you time it to kick in after you introduce the program? 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, 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 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 filmmaking that Al Milgrom taught me to appreciate. Pornography is probably the most formulaic and impersonal movie genre. 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, sedated woman 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. In another movie, a woman with muscular dystrophy hopped down a sidewalk on crutches to catch a bus crosscut with shots of her 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 final screening of the night. A slightly nervous couple looked at us and asked:
“How was it?”
“Good,” Hilde smiled, “You should definitely see it.”
“Reassuring,” I added, “It will make you feel better about humanity in general.”