Raiders of the Lost Art

Has the artsyplex boom housebroken the independent film? A partisan's manifesto.

Similarly, Walker Art Center's previews of Spike Lee's 4 Little Girls were jam-packed, as were its Juneteenth Film Festival showings of Charles Burnett's Nightjohn; the Walker also crammed 'em in for two screenings of Sarah Jacobson's self-distributed sex-romp Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore. Asian Media Access took a rare and successful break from action films with the romantic melodrama Comrades, Almost a Love Story at the Riverview Theater. And the Parkway was rewarded for daring to premiere two American documentaries for extended runs: Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern, both of which became word-of-mouth sleepers. (The theater also capably handled about half of this year's Twin Cities Black Film Festival.)

And then there's U Film Society--which, despite struggles that could convincingly be pinned on any of two dozen or more factors, pulled off another pair of essential Mpls./St. Paul and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender film festivals to enthusiastic crowd support. In terms of what this organization brings to the Twin Cities, it bears mentioning that in 1997 U Film premiered the following 10 movies, all of them superb: La Ceremonie, The Wife, Project Grizzly, The Keeper, Three Lives and Only One Death, Irma Vep, East Side Story, Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, Flamenco, and Ulysses' Gaze. And as this story was going to press, U Film announced plans to open Emir Kusturica's Underground on January 9. This screwball war movie about Yugoslavia's violent history has had a tough time opening anywhere since winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1995--which is another way of saying that it's one of a kind.

Now, you can take these examples in one of two ways: as evidence that plenty of great foreign and fringe cinema does make it to these parts, and so I should quit my crabbing; or as a reminder that U Film's perennially precarious condition stems largely from its daring, which ought to continue at all costs and especially in the artsyplex era. If we agree on the latter, then keeping up with what's coming out at U Film and other indie venues will require the close (and, at times, special) attention of buffs and critics.

On that score, however, movie lovers meet the passive resistance of some powerful players, not least among them daily-newspaper critics like the Star Tribune's Jeff Strickler. About a year ago, Strickler told a Minnesota Daily reporter that coverage of indies other than Landmark fare is limited in his paper by meager space and resources, then added a revealing comment: "My job is to report and review, not to support local filmmaking. It is not my job to sell tickets to their movies."

So if I understand this correctly, the Strib's comprehensive and prominently placed coverage of studio films week in and week out does not constitute "selling tickets to their movies." It's simply a matter of "reporting and reviewing" whatever's most worthy of attention. In practice, this has meant that a movie that's wide-released by a major studio, even if it sucks, is automatically deemed more worthy than a foreign and/or independent movie playing at Oak Street or U Film, even if it's great (and could use a leg up). The justification: The studio movie is the one most readers will be interested in. And the reason for that? It's never discussed, only proven again and again.

No conspiracy theory here, either. The problem with a lot of film reviewing isn't necessarily that the critics are prohibited from writing about revival films or independent features at length, but that they wouldn't want to. And maybe the bulk of their readers wouldn't want them to either--but I have a feeling we'll never know about that. And so, per Casablanca, it's still the same old story.

Which reminds me: Any film town that can provide screens for Gummo, Sick, and The Ride on the same weekend--as well as an Elvis double-bill at Oak Street, a Hong Kong kick-fest at the Riverview, a French movie about a street urchin at the Parkway, a program of local shorts at Bryant-Lake Bowl, some British TV ads at the Walker, and a pair of documentaries about pot-smoking and Hasidism at U Film, not to mention the anti-American Starship Troopers at area theaters--is a film town worth living in. But why stop there? Why settle for a great film scene when we could have an even better one?

Postscript: Movie Nirvana, Scene 1, Take 1. Enough about the politics of movie distribution. Pure and simple: Great movie plus attentive audience equals bliss. About six weeks ago, I was part of an audience at one of those magical screenings. For reasons that will soon become clear, I can't tell you the name of the movie. Suffice to say that it's foreign; it has opened successfully in New York and L.A.; and its distributor has been waiting for a definitive answer from the local art-house chain. And it's one of the best films of 1997.

Anyway, we were packed in a tiny room watching this beautiful film that featured a pair of drop-dead gorgeous actors, a hot sex scene, spectacular scenery, and a pulsating soundtrack. It resembled the other brilliant work of its director, and yet it was like nothing else he or anyone had ever done before. It was, in short, the definition of "visionary" filmmaking.

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