Raiders of the Lost Art

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

It's a cold Friday night in the Twin Cities. Another long, tough week has finally come to an end. You feel like going out to a movie, just to quench your thirst for that thick brew of story, sound, and image. You want one of those magical screenings--a roomful of strangers, a beam of light, a swirl of collective energy.

Skimming the "Movie Guide" listings in the Star Tribune's Weekend section, you notice that a lot of theaters under the heading "General Cinema" seem to be playing Starship Troopers, some of them on two or more screens. This triggers a memory of loud TV commercials with these huge bugs squashing everything in their path--including some moist-looking teenagers with lily-white faces and big white teeth. A full-color photo of one of the slimy bugs peers out from the paper in front of you. You recall reading about the director, Paul Verhoeven, and how he's hoping this risky, $100-million blockbuster will make up for his cheap and awful Showgirls. Hmmm.

Then you spy an ad for The Full Monty, playing at more than a half-dozen locations across town, including General Cinema's Centennial Lakes 8 and Uptown's Lagoon Cinema, the five-screen arthouse owned by the national Landmark chain. Same goes for Eve's Bayou: It's at Lagoon and at GC's 14-plex in the megamall. How odd. You thought Lagoon only played exclusive runs of specialty films like Fast, Cheap & Out of Control--which starts there tonight at 7:45.

You pick up the phone to call your date--the die-hard cineaste who knows everything about movies--when you stumble upon a very long, very odd film title under the heading "Independents": something called My Sex Life...Or How I Got Into an Argument. Just as you're mulling over how well the title resonates, your date picks up the phone on the first ring, pissed that you haven't called until now. By way of appeasement you suggest My Sex Life--which, had it been his suggestion, would have led, like the title, to an argument. He's thrilled, of course, and offers to pick you up on the way to the Seventh Place Cinema in downtown St. Paul. You didn't know there was a theater in downtown St. Paul that played those kinds of films.

So you get there and discover that the movie is French, subtitled, and three hours long. Ugh. But the first scene is intriguing: A rumpled, 29-year-old grad student in philosophy (who looks a lot like your date) is asleep at his desk atop a pile of papers. A narrator explains that this guy can't finish his dissertation and can't break up with his girlfriend of 10 years. To resolve either of these issues would mean that he has become a grown man, and he's not ready for that, in part because he's secretly in love with his best friend's girlfriend. About halfway through the film, there's a bizarre and hilarious scene in which the chair of the philosophy department enlists the guy's help in rescuing a scared, violent monkey who's stuck behind a boiling radiator. Meanwhile, the protagonist can't get the other monkeys off his back.

The next day you're still thinking about this screwball romantic comedy that left you exhilarated and exhausted--appropriately, it seems, to the experience of surviving your 20s. You can't remember the last time you saw a film whose plot was based around chronic indecision, provoking more than it resolves and causing you to wonder whether it's time to give your date his walking papers. You also can't believe how close you came to not seeing this weird, amazing movie.

It was less than a year ago that the Oscar nominations for Shine, Fargo, Secrets & Lies, and The English Patient got tongues wagging about the death of the old studio system at the hands of the grubby "indies." Since then, everyone from The New York Times Magazine to Premiere and Entertainment Weekly has been busy measuring the vast gulf between "the two Hollywoods": There's the big-budget nest that hatched the $100-million Starship Troopers, and the low-budget, "independent" sector that scooped up the sleeper Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. Never mind that the proceeds from both films flow in the same direction--to the Sony corporation. And never mind that the meager likes of My Sex Life get no play in this argument whatsoever.

The split-personality profiles claim to be blowing the lid off a new phenomenon, and perhaps even a "revolution" (per the New York Times). But in fact, it was obvious to any moviegoer who paid attention to the 1994 ruckus around the "independent" Pulp Fiction--which grew consecutively from a cult must-see into a critical fetish object, a vehicle for John Travolta's second coming, and a $250-million worldwide smash--that the once-monolithic film industry had become a two-party system. In '94, Quentin Tarantino played the "rock & roll president" Bill Clinton to Forrest Gump's Bob Dole--or something like that.

But not for long. After all, why would the major studios and their mega-conglomerate parents tolerate outside competition? Most mini-major "indie" companies have either been acquired or spawned by the big studios, while those studios' even larger parent corporations continue trading media marbles at a pace that makes it hard to keep track of (or care about) who really owns what.

To wit: Just before releasing Pulp Fiction and the no-budget Clerks in the fall of '94, Disney bought the art-film boutique Miramax to work the other side of the street from its live-action and animation departments. Gramercy Pictures (Bean) is half-financed by MCA/Universal, which has also owned October Films (Career Girls) since earlier this year. 20th Century Fox begat Fox Searchlight (The Full Monty); Sony Pictures Classics (The Myth of Fingerprints) sits on the same lot as both Columbia Pictures and Tri-Star Pictures; and New Line Cinema (Boogie Nights) and its offshoot, Fine Line Features (Shine), were absorbed in 1993 into the Turner empire, which was itself recently absorbed into the Time Warner empire. Disney's Miramax gave birth in '94 to a "genre" division called Dimension Films, whose Scream last year grossed over $100 million--roughly the same amount as Uncle Walt's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Quasimodo, meet your new best friend, the teenage psycho killer.

I know what you're thinking: So what? Are these corporate indies automatically devoid of artistic value? No, they aren't. But neither are they indies--at least not as defined by films that exist outside the studio system. And yet, because they're widely perceived as independent films, they occupy that sacred spot in the minds of audiences and critics--and on the screens of chain-owned arthouses--as the only alternative to the big-studio productions that play in the malls. Where once the distinction was made between big Hollywood and non-Hollywood, now it's between big Hollywood and little Hollywood, with the rest going largely unreported.

To put it another way: Despite what we read in publications owned by companies that own studios in both arenas, the struggle in movies today isn't between the old and new Hollywoods, but between everything non-Hollywood and one increasingly powerful system--the latter made to seem like two distinct entities in order to retain the illusion of choice. Ain't democracy grand?

Meanwhile, the low-end range of noncorporate cinema stands in constant danger of falling off the map. This includes the new work of English-speaking iconoclasts like Abel Ferrara (The Blackout), Gregg Araki (Nowhere), and Steven Soderbergh (Schizopolis); the new New Wave of vital French cinema in films like A Single Girl; the old New Wave tradition of the still-prolific but rarely screened Jean-Luc Godard (For Ever Mozart); the modern classics of Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami (Through the Olive Trees); the Japanese policiers of Takeshi Kitano (Sonatine); and the post-Chungking Express work of Hong Kong hipster Wong Kar-Wai (Fallen Angels and Happy Together).

If you haven't seen many (or any) of the above, I'm not surprised: Only four have earned one-time-only screenings at U Film Society's Mpls./St. Paul Film Festival or (in the case of Sonatine) at Asian Media Access's "Cinema With Passion" program at the Riverview. For now, take my word that any one of them would be enough to preserve your faith in the medium.

One reason these good and great films remain largely invisible is because they compete with a highly publicized, nationally reviewed roster of "independents" released by the big-studio offshoots--films that enjoy privileged access to chain-owned arthouses and, not coincidentally, resemble their high-budget Hollywood counterparts in being premised around fashionably marketable packages of stars, genres, and proven formulas. Ghastly as it sounds, Noah Wyle and Parker Posey have become the poor studio's Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Accordingly, films like Sony Pictures Classics' The Myth of Fingerprints and Miramax's The House of Yes benefit further from "PA tours" in which actors and directors are flown from city to city at the studios' expense, meeting journalists at each stop and generating a flurry of fluff just before the films open. By contrast, small companies like Strand Releasing (The Delta), Kino International (Fallen Angels), Zeitgeist Films (Taste of Cherry), and New Yorker Films (Underground) have only their great movies, which isn't always enough to attract attention or secure a screen.

The supremacy of the bottom line is hardly surprising given that film is the most expensive medium around; but it is depressing that, even after nonstandard fare has proven its ability to attract an audience, there's still so much missing. For all practical purposes, films that screen in out-of-the-way places without the benefit of much publicity or critical coverage (if they screen at all) simply don't exist. And what's really frustrating is that most people, critics included, don't really know what they're missing and don't really care to know either--not when support for Shine registers as an easily placed vote for alternative film.

You might say Shine is a great movie, and maybe it is--but it's also one whose reputation was made for reasons that had very little to do with its merits as filmmaking. Shine sparked a multimillion-dollar bidding war at the Sundance Film Festival because of its earning potential as an uplifting biopic. It benefited from an avalanche of publicity because of the distributor's need to protect its inevitably big investment; and it earned prominently placed and overwhelmingly positive reviews because any "independent" movie with that much mainstream hype must be important. For the record, I like Shine. But if quality were the primary cause of its success, there would be a long line of films from smaller distributors comfortably awaiting their own mainstream accolades and artsyplex grosses.

The odd fact is that the indie "revolution" may have made it harder, not easier, for worthy films to get out: As the number of players in the field has increased, so has the competition. Even the Sony empire's art-film division ranks as a smaller distributor in the mini-major pecking order topped by Miramax. This is because Sony Pictures Classics releases a higher percentage of foreign features and other films that, compared to the likes of The English Patient, appear to have low commercial potential. Locally, the release of SPC's widely acclaimed Thieves (Les Voleurs) was held up for five months in the Twin Cities, stemming from the abrupt decision of Landmark Theaters to cancel a mid-February opening at Lagoon. This news was made known to local critics just after the announcement that Thieves had failed to earn an Oscar nomination.

Directed by Andre Téchiné (Ma Saison Préferée), Thieves is a fascinating melodrama that doubles as a crime film--even though the only action occurs when an unfortunate car thief makes the mistake of peeking around a corner. Otherwise, the movie digs deep into the rotten relationship between two brothers, a hard-boiled Lyon cop (Daniel Auteuil) and a gangster (Didier Bezace), who share an elusive woman without knowing it. Complicating matters further, Téchiné brilliantly alternates narrators, arranges a series of flash-backs and -forwards around one character's death, and teases his audience with the notion that everyone who crosses the frame is a voleur of one sort or another. Thieves' only crime was not being nominated for Best Foreign Film.

Now, I'm not suggesting conspiracy here: Thieves probably does constitute a hard sell in the current climate. Yet it's hardly an unmarketable film. Like the hallowed Shine, Thieves earned raves at 1996 festival screenings before its release on the coasts late last year. As a crime drama, it had the advantage of genre, along with distribution by Sony, an award at the Cannes Film Festival, a well-known star (Catherine Deneuve), and a director (Téchiné) whose much-admired Ma Saison Préferée had recently played at no fewer than three local venues.

Still, judging from the lineup at Uptown and Lagoon during the week Thieves was supposed to open (Hamlet, Marvin's Room, Kolya, Prisoner of the Mountains, Shine, and The English Patient), we can surmise that there wasn't room for even one non-Oscar-nominated film--even though Shine and The English Patient could each be seen at no fewer than 10 other area theaters. For months afterward, Thieves still wasn't worth the risk of a week-long run on one of Landmark's six local screens. Nor was it picked up by another exhibitor in town, as the theater chain waffled over whether to exercise its customary privilege of first dibs. The independent Oak Street Cinema was finally allowed to premiere the film in mid-July, just before its release to home video and long after the theater could have hoped to capitalize on the wave of national press.

Before going any further, I should mention that I'm not unaware of the basic laws of capitalism, nor do I mean to rip unduly on the Landmark chain and its friends in high places. I understand that the primary motivating force is greed--pardon me, good business. But I don't believe that chains which made a fortune on their audience's hunger for non-Hollywood fare should mock those audiences by screening predominantly safe selections. They might do well to remember that the fine art of movie love is founded equally on generosity and surprise, plus a pinch each of personal involvement and affirmative action.

In those terms, I'd make the following modest proposal: that Landmark devote one of its six screens to foreign and indie esoterica on a regular basis. This year's release dates being equal, for example, Lagoon/Uptown could have passed on Smilla's Sense of Snow, Love Serenade, Kicked in the Head, Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Going All the Way, and Paradise Road (none of which stood to be huge box-office hits or critical faves--and weren't) in favor of, say, Soderbergh's Schizopolis, Eye of God with Martha Plimpton, the French Nenette Et Boni by director Claire Denis (I Can't Sleep), the basketball doc Soul in the Hole, the Jim Thompson adaptation This World, Then the Fireworks, and the Japanimist Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, to name a few. None of the latter are without distributors or commercial potential, and none of them have played elsewhere in town or been actively pursued by our indie exhibitors.

I recently put this one-in-six idea to a Landmark vice president, Bert Manzari--a smart, funny, and honest gentleman with whom I've maintained a friendly debate about the politics of distribution over the last two years. Speaking from his L.A. office, where he makes booking decisions for Lagoon/Uptown as well as Landmark's 150 other screens across the country, Manzari summarized his position as "a delicate balancing act." He emphasized Landmark's refusal to book "commercial" films like Titanic and As Good As It Gets. Later, apropos of the chain's long runs of commercial films like Shine and The English Patient--the latter 19 weeks past its release to suburbia--he explained that it's hard to tell a distributor with whom he's trying to keep "the best possible relationship" that a movie should close when it's still doing big business. He noted that Shine and Patient grossed twice as much at Uptown/Lagoon than elsewhere, and that he was "under a tremendous amount of pressure" to keep Marvin's Room open.

As for Thieves: "We screwed up," he said. "We should not have tried to book anything for that period." He explained that there are simply too few screens in Minneapolis to "get deeper into eclecticism," adding that in cities like Seattle, where Landmark controls 28 screens, the programming better suits my personal taste. I told him that the point isn't my taste, but the need for more variety and more titles from smaller distributors. He told me it was too bad I didn't live in Seattle.

Manzari went on to explain that Landmark has to pay for the Lagoon complex, built two years ago in a pricey urban location. Of course. But would one screen out of six really jeopardize that goal? The traffic through these theaters is always brisk, and on weekends they're often jammed: Put something weird and great on one of those screens, place a few tiny ads, and, especially as reviews of Landmark films appear to be given priority at local newspapers, the audience will come. And if they don't? Consider it a worthy investment in the local film culture, dividends to follow.

As it stands, the Uptown and Lagoon do show some great films; and some of these, owing to their distributors' acquisition power, are among the very best of the year. And that, in fact, is the rub: In terms of its steady access to high-profile product, Landmark has a virtual monopoly on art-house moneymakers. By contrast, U Film Society has been able to snare only two premiere runs of mini-major product in the last 12 months: Miramax's barely supported Albino Alligator in mid-May and Fine Line's stigmatized Gummo in December, the bookings of which clearly evinced their distributors' lack of confidence.

It wasn't always this way. Three years ago, at the time of the Miramax/Pulp Fiction boom, U Film Society enjoyed an exclusive, 15-week premiere engagement of Miramax's Clerks, which was enough to butter U Film's bread for the rest of another typically risk-taking season. Miramax must have rightly figured that Clerks' core audience lived on campus, and that a long run even at a second-tier arthouse would help the film gather word-of-mouth momentum.

But everything changed with the arrival of Lagoon's five screens a few months later (on the very day after Clerks closed up shop at U Film, ironically). Landmark was able to hold-over successful titles as long as it needed to extract a film's full gross, which added further to the appeal of a theater featuring modern decor, state-of-the-art projection and sound equipment, and a well-trod location.

Of course, these advantages are of great interest to independent distributors as well--to the extent that the vast majority of these independent companies won't consider booking their films anywhere until Landmark has passed on them (which can take several months). And since Lagoon/Uptown's repertoire in the last year has included the occasional foreign and/or independent title on slow weeks (e.g. Fire and Guantanamera), the promise of a Landmark playdate now carries the hint of likelihood.

Oddly, to squelch competition in this way could only be to the distributors' disadvantage. Granted, independent theaters cannot afford the same rental agreements as Landmark, nor are they likely to bring in as many ticket buyers. But some box office is better than nothing--which looks to be the reward of locally unscreened films like Nowhere and This World, Then the Fireworks. These and other titles have either been released to video or are headed there soon because their distributors feel that if they can't get into Landmark, there's no use trying elsewhere.

Here's where the arrival of other arthouses such as the Reading Cinema chain's newly acquired St. Anthony Main could be beneficial--not least in convincing distributors who underestimate the Twin Cities' art-film culture (no thanks to the caricatured yokels in Fargo) that there is a buck or two to be turned even at a non-Landmark venue. Competition of this sort would likely solidify Landmark's commitments to playing the titles it wants--leaving the others free to find their own exclusive engagements. There's plenty to go around. (On the national level, the recent announcement of Robert Redford's deal with the mainstream General Cinemas chain for the creation of Sundance artsyplexes also bodes well in terms of increasing competition and exposure--especially if this chain adopted a measure of the Sundance festival's benevolence toward uncommercial films and/or those without distributors.)

The obvious counterpoint here is the risk of oversaturating the art-film market. But it's equally obvious that the audience for The Full Monty is not the same as for Sonatine or Soul in the Hole--just as, in the local theater scene, Jeune Lune is able to pay its bills despite Rent. The reality is that there is a substantial audience for off-Uptown indie fare, as proven by the number of successful one- and two-night-only engagements this year. In September, Oak Street packed the house for its sneak previews of Michael Moore's new documentary feature The Big One (acquired by Miramax for a song--and after the Oak Street gig had been booked, natch). Two back-to-back screenings were sold out, and a third at midnight might have been, too, had Miramax not forbade it. (Suggestion to Miramax: How about giving Oak Street a crack at running this philosophically independent film when it opens next year?)

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.

Now a confession: This private screening took place at my house, in a flagrant breach of preview-tape etiquette. My friends and I had a great time--but the whole thing seemed a little sad, too. Sad because we were watching this consummate work of cinema on videotape. Sad because this film was without a local release date and I didn't know when I'd get to write about it. Sad because it reminded me again that daring and originality are seldom seen as virtues in the marketplace. But mostly it was sad because you couldn't be there.

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