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Sunday, October 9, 2011

"That's Entertainment!": Washington, Hollywood, and "The Ides of March"

George Clooney’s The Ides of March is about Hollywood, just as much – if not more – as it is about insider politics. Clooney is cognizant of his public reputation as an activist Movie Star and filmmaker, and so understands that his film will be perceived as smug politicking from the Entertainment Industrial Complex, as many saw previous offerings like Good Night and Good Luck and Syriana. Those two films were released in 2005, and whatever their respective flaws, they were passionate, uncompromising, and yet heavily distributed warnings about the political climate of the 2K decade. But instead of being silenced, the Joseph McCarthys of the last ten years have grown in popularity, the divisiveness between Red and Blue states dug in deeper with irreconcilable differences. The waste of late capitalism as dramatized in Syriana similarly has become more of a problem, doomed to disastrously explode rather than be placated or solved.

The Ides of March joins The Adjustment Bureau and Moneyball as a reflection of Obama Era disenchantment, where the idealism of the new hip boss is, if an improvement on the old boss, not sufficient to make manifest “Hope.” It’s the Audacity of ‘Eh.’ Gridlock and effective narrative construction, at which the Right is master, makes progress milquetoast. Media and Politics are bridged worlds, one and the same, selling stories and myths but still more interested in maintaining an audience than demonstrable change. The Ides of March is an acknowledgment of the futility in both elections and Hollywood narratives. As a political movie, it offers nothing new, and is initially a little underwhelming. An ideal left-wing candidate, Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), is running in a fictional Democratic primary against an old-school tax-and-spend liberal, and in his tactical bid for power we see the machinery and wheels running beneath the ideas, and how campaign consultants, such as young Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), are consumed with compromised principles in the beast of political discourse, which has less to do with solutions than with winning. There are issues of loyalty, as Myers is torn between his mentor, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is running the Morris campaign, and the rival campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who works to lure Myers to his side. There is the duplicitous hunger of the media, embodied by a New York Times reporter, Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), who is chummy with Myers, but is really only motivated by getting a big scoop. Both political candidates are working for the endorsement of a sleazy senator (Jeffrey Wright), whose delegates are easily traded for a promised cabinet post. And finally, there is the contrivance of the alluring young woman, Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), a campaign intern who seduces – or is seduced by – more than one main character.

This sexual contrivance was of particular annoyance at first viewing. The seduction happens in intense close-ups between Molly and Stephen during an after-work drink, with the young woman looking like a hollow design for conflict, and the young man as a flawed douchebag more interested in careerism than affection. And then it moves into another dimension all too quickly, as a late night cell-phone mix-up discloses that Molly is having a liason with the heretofore perfect Gov. Morris. It becomes more drastic when, in the same scene, Molly implies that she’s pregnant and is going to have an abortion. Stephen is hurled into confusion. He put the man Morris on par with Morris’ ideology. But now, Stephen realizes that Morris is the caricature of deviance with which conservatives see liberals: a horny philanderer who screws his buddy’s daughter, and then kills an unborn baby.

Stephen steals campaign money for the abortion, but he’s distracted from Molly’s problems when Zara fires him for not telling him about a secret meeting with Duffy. “In politics, loyalty is the only currency that matters,” Zara says. Stephen plans a late game-change, where he’ll give Duffy information of the affair and abortion for a job, but again, trust is valued over skill. Stumbling back to his hotel, he finds that Molly’s committed suicide. He grabs her phone – which links her to Morris – and uses his information to preserve his job. The Constitution is not his religion. Self-Interest is.

That’s The Ides of March. Pardon the spoilers, but there you go. It’s an unusual narrative for a prestige film (perhaps showing its theatrical roots, adapted from the play Farragut North), and I’m not sure if it’s exactly what audiences or critics are expecting, as the film ends with what is the beginning of the story they were probably wanting to see. Whereas most stories are about the fulfillment of cathartic release and solution, The Ides of March is about the frustration of cover-ups, the gap in politics – and entertainment – between truth and manipulated narrative. There is no closure, just as our political world documented in 24-hour cable news cycles has no ending, just regurgitation. Molly, the hot intern, is just as quickly replaced by another sexually attractive 20-year-old who riles the men around her with latent lust as she brings them coffee. Indeed, we are right to be upset with Clooney for having Molly be nothing more than a contrivance. Politics are structured atop a heap of tools, with no end save for the perpetuation of a present that always promises hope for tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.

The woman as impelling agent of desire is a hallmark of Hollywood movies: the femme fatale, the romantic love interest, whatever it is, as long as it has legs, breasts, a comely smile, and is under the age of 30. A na├»ve and superficial viewing of The Ides of March would instantly – and so has – trigger a dismayed reaction of “pure contrivance.” But thinking about Molly’s function as a character reveals Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov's intentions. Stephen is distracted from sex with Molly by a Town Hall meeting on TV starring Morris who is, humorously enough, talking about gay marriage. Stephen's desire is not plugged into Molly, but politics, and more than that, the electronic delivery of the message – which is exactly what a film director deals with. For Molly, the scene where she confesses her pregnancy is deliberately calling attention to her contrivance status. She is malleable, going from Stephen’s lover, to Morris’, and then to pregnant, all in the space of a minute. That she is portrayed as a victim doesn’t necessarily make her one, another odd attribute of Molly’s place as a character and Clooney's direction. Everyone is framing a narrative, altering history, and constructing a message with a lie, something we see the morning after as he casts her as "the cleaning lady" to whomever he is talking to on phone, while she claims that he seduced her, even though an examination of earlier scenes indicates that she was the seducer, putting her number in his phone, proposing the after-work drink, and saying things like, "I've been trying to fuck you for a long time." The sick joke finds climax at her funeral. Her father eulogizes her, referring to how she “touched” so many people. Indeed, Molly did touch quite a few people. Her function has little to do with her talent, and everything to do with her comely smile in a close-up.

We too are sutured into the pathos, or pretend like we are, which is in accordance to the nature of politics. Clooney, no slouch in working with formally demanding directors like Steven Soderbergh, means to ask us if we’re falling for it. Do we believe the speeches? Does Clooney’s electronic message control us, like Stephen’s cell-phone blackmail manages to control Morris? At the beginning of the picture, Morris announces at a debate, “My religion and what I believe is called the Constitution.” He’s told that his form of rhetoric works for “student council president,” but not President of the United States – but he still won’t back off. We listen to him, and we’re as “goosebumpy” as Stephen, who admits, “I have drunk the Kool-Aid, and it’s delicious.” Morris earns more respect when he shakes his head after someone passes him a laptop. This man of the "real world" says, “Give me a hard copy. I hate those fucking things.” Later on he shows how down-to-earth he is when he responds to Myers’ belief that noble missions can’t end in a disaster (e.g. plane crash). "Roberto Clemente," Morris points out, Clemente being the baseball player who died on his way to bring earthquake relief to South America.

But at the end of the picture, Morris is in shadow, surrounded by the silver metallics of a cafeteria kitchen, blending into the grey world of tools for consumption around him. This dark moment works on us because Clooney’s perpetually nice-guy image is also now tainted in our moviegoer heads. Even when – and sometimes especially when – Clooney played criminals in the past, he’s always been sympathetic or likable. This is his darkest character, just as he is, conceptually, a nation's brightest hope.

So is Mike Morris just “singing Kumbaya,” as Zara cynically implies? Even as a sexually dominating horn-dog willing to cover up an intern’s death, there is no reason we should doubt that he would, like a Clinton or Obama, be more of a centrist than a fighting liberal. This is a pertinent question Clooney and Heslov are asking: is the ideal candidate worth it if their personal lives are morally questionable? Is the figurehead different from the man of flesh and blood? Morris himself states, “Society has to be better than individuals.” This dream candidate is all too human. But FDR, probably the greatest president of the 20th century, also had some questionable virtue; while George W. Bush, who may have been a very good man (such as portrayed by Oliver Stone in W.), was maybe the worst president of the last 100 years. The dark and sticky stuff of sex and abortion, which all politics seems to collapse toward, is personal. So it’s strange, as Myers tells Morris, that “you can bankrupt a nation, you can start unnecessary wars, but you don’t fuck the intern.” This is the irrational truth of political discourse. Public violations are far more acceptable than private ones. The political life is a willing sacrifice of its stated ideals, dignity and integrity, which it nevertheless continues to talk about. As he chides Myers, Duffy offers a desperate warning that seems to squeal from the vestige of his humanity: “Get out.” Duffy is mapping out a new world for the Democratic Party, where they must be “meaner, tougher, and more disciplined” – descending to the Machiavellian level of the Republicans. The dark message of Clooney’s “liberal message movie” is that if Democrats hope to win, they have to get rid of that annoying “humanity” thing.

Politicians are like artists who give their lives for the creation of imaginary narratives and images. The public feeds on it, but the artisans struggle for respite. In Julius Caesar, when Caesar is assassinated on the “ides of March” from which Clooney’s picture gets its title, he does not have a first-person reaction of confronting his mortality, but refers to himself in the third-person. “Caesar” the politician is an independent creation. Shakespeare was himself a very ironic artist, whose medium is so often the message, the theme of performance being central to his plays. Clooney marries this perennial truth of political drama to meta-movie observations. The Ides of March, with its credit titles in a distinct font recalling a rich 1970s-movie inheritance, begins with Myers reading from Morris’ scripted speech, the lights and sound being prepped in the auditorium where a subsequent debate will transpire. The buzz of a moderator’s desk is loudly generated, calling attention to the showmanship and technology used in staging the “message.” The Ides of March will end in a similar environment, with Myers sitting in a Hollywood production-style director’s or actor’s chair, putting in an ear-piece for sound, and looking directly at the camera – not a camera in the studio, but at us, at Clooney’s camera, the film surrounding and encompassing the fiction.

As Steven Ross documents in his recent book, Hollywood Left and Right, American movies have a rich history of political involvement. But though activist figures like Clooney, Warren Beatty, Barbara Streisand, and Matt Damon (those “elitists”) generate the most attention and so people see Hollywood as a liberal establishment, Ross shows how the Right really controls the narrative, in figures like Louis B. Mayer, incidents like the Blacklist, the political involvement of figures like Charlton Heston, and elections of Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sonny Bono. More than a cult of personality, it’s the style of an “American Narrative” that most explicitly proves the dominance of triumphalist, conservative values in Hollywood (and remember, “political correctness,” though used with more annoying sincerity by the Left, is used just as often in the service of the Right). The complicated sense of collective guilt, nuance, and empathy are not as successful as simplicity, good and evil, might makes right, an eye for an eye, and American righteousness. A Marxist Dialectic where the viewer actively is in dialogue with the picture, usually ends up annoying typical moviegoers who "just want to be entertained" and feel good (look at Meek’s Cutoff, The Tree of Life, Terri, and Drive – the four best films I’ve seen this year, all of which upsetting many mainstream -- and indie -- American moviegoers).

Do the Right Thing and Thelma and Louise did not necessarily mean progress for blacks and women in film and culture; and Brokeback Mountain didn’t open up the floodgates for acceptance of gays. As South Park pointed out in their satire of Clooney’s Oscar acceptance speech from 2006, derided as a large cloud of “Smug,” Hollywoodland is distinct from middle class America, and Clooney is here admitting to that. But he’s also showing how people simply refuse to understand celebrity, either Political or Televisual: the "Smug" is part of the performance, and we refuse to see through the fourth wall. We embrace the Lie, as we always have. If there is to be any sort of revolution or change, the public too must be snapped out of their entrancement and hypnosis of images. This may be the key theme of Clooney’s body of work. Beyond Good Night and Good Luck, about newsman Edward R. Murrow (an excellent David Straithern) going against Joseph McCarthy, Clooney’s first film was the undervalued Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, where Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) leads a double life as Gong Show entertainer and CIA assassin. Entertainment and policy’s underbelly are performed by the same characters. In both cases, the audience sits rapt, passive, and docile. Clooney must make a liberal movie where liberals are made to look their worst, and so exorcising himself of the “Smug Elitism,” which he knows does indeed exist in his profession. Clooney has persistently worked against his movie star status, disappointing his viewers in Solaris, Up in the Air, Michael Clayton, and The American, staying away from pat endings and clear distinctions of good and evil, demanding that they engage with the picture. Will a pissed-off audience result in change? People demanding their money back? A dialectical exchange of ideas? Clooney himself may be too jaded. But his refusal be absorbed by the tropes of his world (see what's happened to Johnny Depp, who can't turn down big paydays) indicates that those ideals of dignity and integrity still run, if not in him personally (can they, for celebrities in either Washington or Hollywood?), then at least in his work.

Monday, October 3, 2011

"Please Don't Eat the Urinal Cakes": My Baptism at the Oak Street Cinema


“When the last flickering frame of one reel had twitched out of sight and the lights went up in the hall and the audience’s field of dreams stood before them like an empty blackboard, there was not even the possibility of applause. There was no one there to clap for, to thank, no artistic achievement to reward with a curtain call. The actors who had been cast in the play they had just seen had long since been scattered to the winds; they had watched only phantoms, whose deeds had been reduced to a million photographs brought into focus for the briefest of moments so that, as often as one liked, they could then be given back to the elements of time as a series of blinking flashes. Once the illusion was over, there was something repulsive about the crowd’s nervous silence. Hands lay impotent before the void. People rubbed their eyes, stared straight ahead, felt embarrassed by the brightness and demanded the return to the dark, so that they could again watch things, whose time had passed, come to pass again, tricked out with music and transplanted into new time.”

- Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (John E. Woods, translator)


The Oak Street Cinema is no more. A 95-year-old permanent fixture at Oak and Washington near the University of Minnesota, the Oak Street exhibited old and obscure films, both new and archival prints. It was demolished on October 1, 2011, to make space for apartment buildings.

It’s there where first I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey on a big screen, Nashville, Cabaret, Chinatown, Spartacus, Blue Velvet, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, My Man Godfrey, Nosferatu, Contempt, and so many others. It takes an effort to remember, but glancing at an old calendar from the summer of 2000 gets me all tingly. It’s hard for me not be wax poetically, or at least pompously, about it. The movies and the Oak Street, the films and the theater being marriage partners as it were, made me. They shaped my sense of cinema, whether how correct or incorrect it is, and maybe even molded my personhood, my private mythos. My time there feels more peculiarly intimate than broadly escapist. I read a coherence in my relationship to the Oak the same way I may overread motifs, symbols, allusions, etc into films. And in that, I perceive the corresponding tragedy between the Oak Street’s final whimper and cinema generally (You could say, “How about a little hope?” But you know me). On a university campus, a theater like the Oak should be doing gangbusters – and indeed, I think it did once, and not merely with students. But in the digital era, students in particular are drawn to instant downloads, usually pirated, which they can view at their convenience on their laptops. The melancholy sense generated by the Oak’s destruction is that it signals that the aura, the temple ritual, and the collective spirit of cinema is obsolete. The sadness is more pointed when we consider that the Twin Cities' best moviegoer, Terry Blue, also just passed away (some excellent remembrances are found here and here).

The most memorable exhibition of a film I ever attended was on Friday, August 15, 1997, 7:30 p.m. The revival film was Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975). To this day, this screening still finds its way into my dreams, luring my unconscious self to relive the experience. Nashville had long been out-of-print on VHS, and the one copy I could get find at my video store was a roughly handled panned-and-scanned mockery. On the VCR, I didn’t enjoy the picture, and it made me wonder, as so many people do about acclaimed hallmarks, what all the fuss was about.

Then I was blessed with the opportunity to be dwarfed by Nashville on an imposing, wide-screen canvas of picture and Altman’s signature multi-track sound. The whole event had a buoyant energy that encapsulated the film, the characters, the weather, the music, the message (whatever it was), and the moment. I was solitary but with everyone else, infected by the magic woven into Altman’s craft just as it was generated by the architecture of the art-deco theater. The feeling began immediately, before the film even began, after opening the door and getting a ticket from a girl behind the glass, with a pale face, big eyes, dressed in black with short dark hair, who to me was an otherworldly idealization of the “eternal feminine” (you can see how silly this all was). The spirit was blowing outside through the eve of autumn decay, linking the spectators, the theater volunteers, the posters, the popcorn, the soda, the dirt in the cracks. An antique from 1975 was freshly surging and potent with life. Wrong or right, I was spellbound, much like Lily Tomlin while listening to Keith Carradine sing "I'm Easy."

This was a golden time. Later in the week, a full house watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (and that ticket girl with the moon white face was moving back and forth and eating some ice cream behind the glass). The next Sunday had a Bob Fosse double feature of Cabaret and All That Jazz. Coming soon was Toshiro Mifune in his Samurai series. By September, a Monty Python double header on Friday night, Life of Brian followed by Holy Grail. Then on October 3, I think, maybe the last of 1997’s beautiful and cozy Fridays, if you approached the Oak you would hear the mourning strings of Georges Delerue’s score for Godard’s Contempt, showing for two weeks with a restored print. That night I was foolhardy and approached the moon-white faced ticket girl. She tolerated me, but left for London two weeks later.



*

I think I was looking for something there. A lot of film people are, I think, looking for something, which is why so many great movie experiences can be harmed a little by the mallified mass-cult pinballing advertisements of comfortable stadium-seating complexes. For example, Terrence Malick’s The New World at the mall is like Christ finding the money-changers at the temple. The contrast of what's in the film and outside of the film, whether in the lobby or in the advertisements preceding it, is too immense. It's disheartening.

What are we looking for? Maybe a lost youth, a glistening moment of our personal history captured, wrapped, contained, frozen, and waiting to unfurl again, much like the plentiful shapes beamed through the projector. Cinema is about the Un-Dead, which is why vampires have always had a sparkling relationship with it. There was even a wonderful Vampire Series in early 1998 (or November 1997?), where I saw Nosferatu performed with a live organist, Guillermo Del Toro’s Cronos, Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu with Kinski, and the sexy trash of Tony Scott’s The Hunger, with Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie.

I’m trying to get the memory correct, and as I said, that first Nashville screening recurred in dreams. Allured from the outside by the light moving through a myriad of bulbs which ornament the marquee names and titles, the patrons are wafted into the crimson murk of deep red drapes and chairs, green lights, and phantasms of dust floating through the light beam. There are ticket stubs on the floor. The musty air from the ancient underground is brewing with the deep popcorn smell. There’s that vampire quality, hunger and agelessness, the dead walking again in the shadow of Prospect Park’s Witches Hat water tower. Popcorn is served in modest buckets, and sodas poured in cups not the size of elephant bladders.

I have to arch my neck when winding down the steps leading to the restrooms. This is a building that feels delicate, maybe properly intended for a shorter breed of human being. The Man with No Name is on the Men’s door. At the urinal, there’s a face drawn into the wall, sexless, with prominent nostrils. The initials AK are markered near it, and then the request graffiti: “Please don’t eat the urinal cakes.” Duly noted, sir.

Jack Nicholson and King Kong are posted on the walls behind the popcorn machine, not to mention a Baron Munchausen poster autographed by Terry Gilliam. A request book is on a counter near the exit; they never took up any of my suggestions. And the other people, between or after shows, congregate in the lobby and outside before dissipating into the late night, sometimes to the Dunn Bros on Washington, which then became Bayou Coffee, and which then became the European Grind. Other times they go to Stub and Herb’s.

I never found that "lost" thing for which I searched. It was in front of me but distant, large and loud but muted. Whatever I look for in movies has the specificity of a beautiful woman’s face that I can’t hold onto in my mind. Before long, the prejudice of memory restructures her: adapting and scripting her, photographing her, editing her, and then she is scored to music. The memory is the dreamhouse of moviemaking with its complicated mechanics and frustrating inaccuracies. The precise memory only usurps the remnants of the original thought as if by accident, caught like a butterfly. So, you see, the Oak Street, and cinema, is the questing quester trying to find time, control it, while also invoking how time gets away, leaving ghosts that will taunt another day. It reminds me of mortality - and the longing for immortality.

I got to fulfill that desire of simulating my dream and seeing Nashville there again. It was even the same time of year (August 16 instead of August 15), and I brought friends along. It almost feels like Owen Wilson is up to his time travelling adventures in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. But I couldn’t duplicate the magic of that original illumination. Not that the movie had gotten bad (I’ve watched and studied Nashville several times since) – but my attempt to replicate that original Oak Street feeling with Nashville from that night – was impossible, like falling in love with the same person again. There was an incomplete gap between my waking reality and the dream theater of the mind. Illusions go the way of the screen, while reality sticks with us. It reminds me of another Allen picture, my favorite of his, The Purple Rose of Cairo, as Mia Farrow looks up at her beloved screen, in heaven as the actors sing, but still, in "reality," estranged and in the muck. It's an enchantment.

*

In his commendable memoir, Life Itself, Roger Ebert describes the almost supernatural component of a film critic’s profession. He writes, “There is something unnatural about just…going to the movies. Man has rehearsed for hundreds of thousands of years to learn a certain sense of time. He gets up in the morning and the hours wheel in their ancient order across the sky until it grows dark again and he goes to sleep. A movie critic gets up in the morning and in two hours it is dark again, and the passage of time is fractured by editing and dissolves and flashbacks and jump cuts. ‘Get a life,’ they say. Sometimes movie critics feel as if they’ve gotten everybody else’s.” Film lovers exist out of time, above it, through it, and so maybe it’s harder for them to exist in it. Living in and through movies is much like living in the mind, travelling through one’s interiority, because our thoughts are not linear. Memory’s method precedes us.

Here are some fragments: As I’ve mentioned in a recent post, Truffaut’s Day for Night, and feeling the kinship for the young Truffaut going to the cinema, like it were an archetypal castle of temple in his dreams, so much like mine, and stealing away the Citizen Kane posters. There was the night when the Oak Street promised William Friedkin’s personal print of The French Connection (1971), which they tested hours prior to showtime, and discovered that Friedkin had neglected to take into consideration how the color was heavily faded. Bob Cowgill addressed the house and asked for a vote: either Friedkin’s faded print, or an alternate, with scratches but good color. We took the one with scratches. I took dates to see The Last Temptation of Christ, Some Like It Hot, and Last Tango in Paris. Then Visconti’s The Leopard on a Good-God freezing November night in 2004. Dragging some high school friends from Cottage Grove to see Soderbergh’s Schizopolis, showing one night only. Coworkers getting together for Young Frankenstein. The opportunity to see Heaven’s Gate, the movie blamed for the fall of Hollywood’s greatest era – and yet viewed objectively, with intermission on a Sunday afternoon, I thought it was wrought with a rarely matched sadness, its beauty aching. Cimino was Judas – and like in Last Temptation, Heaven’s Gate at the Oak Street showed me how this film had been unjustly maligned.

I frequented retrospectives on directors, like Wilder, Scorsese, Bergman, Kurosawa, Altman, Kubrick, and Polanski, never forgetting the cackling mischief of finally being able to see Cul-de-Sac, Polanski’s absurdist gangster comedy that has been out-of-print until just a couple months ago when Criterion finally issued it on DVD. I shared the religious awe of Breaking the Waves with a good friend of mine, with whom I enjoyed theological conversations, and then seeing Lost Highway on a big screen for the seventh time – and for some reason, the late night screening at the Oak was the most haunting presentation of Lynch’s 1997 nightmare noir. Other times I sat rapt during films playing some of my favorite music: The Band in The Last Waltz (preceded, I think, by some of Scorsese’s short films), David Bowie’s final Spiders from Mars concert in Ziggy Stardust, and Alan Parker’s Pink Floyd: The Wall, an often derided film, but considering I love the album so much, I couldn’t help but be enthralled by it.

I lost touch. Or maybe we all did. Bob Cowgill relinquished his duties soon after merging with the U Film Society (the two establishments apparently had their differences), and the cinema’s programming suffered. The offerings lacked the impeccable consistency (as you can see in the calendars) of those early days. The historical perspective was absent. Students outside were now ripping their movies from pirating networks and staying close to home, the pirating perhaps, as Steven Soderbergh has suggested, resulting in studios taking fewer risks in a risk vs. reward market. The luster had faded and the gold turned grey. The other highlights were modest, like a Friday midnight Twin Peaks series, which ran the show up through the death of Leland Palmer, and then the 1992 feature Fire Walk With Me. There was pie and coffee.

*

I’m happy with the last film I saw there, in March of 2007, which I see as a wonderful bookend with Nashville, and also a poetic musing on the nature of images with its own haunting sense of walking into the theater of dreams and staring up at one’s own self. Unlike Nashville, which was an old film, this final picture was in its initial, self-distributed theatrical run. David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE took me into its dark stairway, going down flights of its abstractions, fears, and longings, and three hours later when the lights went up, I wanted to stay there, inside. The film remained with me days after, not letting me go. INLAND EMPIRE was shot digitally, and denoted the changing nature of motion pictures in the digital era, but it was designed, I think, to be seen in a theater. Unfortunately most people assumed, because it was shot on consumer grade cameras, that television was its rightful place, and so were less able to be immersed in it, as I had in Oak Street. The irony is fitting, considering that Nashville on video had me craving the real experience of what its exhibition should be. Both films, by two masters, lit up my sense of interiority, where the subjective self goes on to encompass the whole extended world. That’s the ecstasy of INLAND EMPIRE’s lip-synched “Sinnerman” conclusion, as the actress played by Laura Dern has conquered the illusions of Hollywood Hell to become her infinite creative self, in the image, through the image, and above the image, the final grace reaching through and touching us. Through her journey, we go inside the illusion of a film set and are lost in the melodrama. One character goes into another, and then another, the screens like doorways. Cinema conveys the plethora of human psychological experience. I walked out of INLAND EMPIRE and into my personal inland empire, the geography of my mind. It’s as if there was no separation between the air of Oak Street and the brain’s synapses which constructs a reality. Recalling the Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain passage opening this post, documenting Swiss sanitarium patients at a cinema in the years leading up to the Great War, I wanted to go back into Lynch’s new map of time, and get lost again and again, and like an animist spirit, be a part of the lives of others, including their dream selves. We are far away, as Lynch's self-penned ethereal song narrates while a weeping woman watches a scrambled television, but we can still "see it there."

And that was it. The Oak Street closed, a lot of its programming ably replaced by Sound Unseen in Minneapolis, and then the wonderful stuff that Barry Kryshka has put together at the Trylon Microcinema on 33rd and Minnehaha in South Minneapolis. A lot of the familiar ornaments from the Oak is preserved and framed there, from priceless posters to the smell of the popcorn. But the air lacks the ancient mustiness. The restroom has no bid to resist eating the urinal cakes, nor is there a face breaking through the tiles, or even Clint’s visage on the door. The Holy Ark, as it were, has been smuggled out of the closed tabernacle of a grand palace and into a modest church, but the rituals are intact, and the dead still resurrect nightly. For that I’m thankful.



The parallels work out in a way that hushes me. On October 3, 2011, I read that the Oak Street Cinema was dead, and on October 3, 1997, I went there to stupidly flirt with the ticket girl, herself sharing some affinities with Bardot’s Camille from the Godard picture playing that night. On the radio, 89.3 the Current plays Ash’s “Goldfinger” from their album 1977, which I first heard during that late summer/early fall of 1997, incorporated into a soundtrack that included Radiohead’s OK Computer, Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie b-sides, Blur’s self-titled album, a lot of old Peter Gabriel, an infectious one-hit-wonder by a weird group of anarchists (Chumbawumba!), This Mortal Coil's 1984 album It'll End in Tears, a Cocteau Twins box set of EPs, and finally David Bowie, whose presence on the Lost Highway soundtrack, along with an October 17 tour appearance in St. Paul, inspired me to buy his albums and gradually become a big fan.

In October, I’m dancing on the dead leaves and leaving the summer glow behind. Time marches forth, accelerating too rapidly. Those pregnant days from the late 1990s are gone now, and that block, the Oak Street block, of both geographical space and interior time, is, if not blurry, puzzling because how it feels more recent than subsequent happenings, and yet more distant from the years preceding it. It’s its own film, its own dissolve-laden montage set to music, with its own archetypes, meandering melodramas, and frosted close-ups. Finally, like a film, it’s impossible to articulate, which is the bane of film writing and criticism, just as the analytical theologian will always be a few steps removed from the Divine.

On this day in 1997 I heard the theme from Godard’s Contempt, which Scorsese used in 1995’s Casino. I never saw Casino at the Oak, but the day I saw it, Thanksgiving 1995 at the Edina on 50th and France, was the last day I saw my grandfather, who elevated my appreciation of imagination and make-believe. So that piece of score holds resonance for his memory, just as it does for Bardot’s Camille, in a film about films and images adored “totally, tenderly, tragically,” just as Scorsese’s film is about images and the subject’s desire to control and dominate it, as Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) must the hollow Ginger (Sharon Stone). The spirits from both films and moments transmigrate, including the grandfather, autumn, temples and tabernacles (Casino describes the money room as “the holy of holies”), a beautiful ticket lady (the Rothsteins’ daughter has the same name), then beyond that Nashville and INLAND EMPIRE, and so everything else branching out. The Oak is appropriately named, representing its own tree of life. Scorsese ends Casino with the destruction of Old Las Vegas, which is his analogy to the end of the New Hollywood – both replaced by junk bonds and “Pirates of Caribbean.” “That’s that,” are his last narrating words, and the film ends with the Delerue music cue into the credits. So it is with Oak Street.

When I saw my grandfather’s corpse at his wake, two weeks after Casino and the “Theme de Camille,” I had the same reaction Thomas Mann writes about in The Magic Mountain, where Hans Castorp sees his dead grandfather: “The man who lay there, or better, what lay there, was not Grandfather himself, but a shell – which, as Hans Castorp knew, was not made of wax, but of its own material.” The grandfather had told young Hans the story of a particular baptismal bowl many times, like a family incantation, which linked the Castorps together. The water from this bowl was used to baptize Hans eight years ago, just as it baptized the grandfather 75 years ago, and then the great-great-greats would follow, “that somber sound of the crypts and buried time, which nevertheless both expressed a reverently preserved connection of his own life in the present to things now sunk deep beneath the earth and simultaneously had a curious effect of him: the same effect visible in the look on his face.”



Seeing the grandfather’s shell, that mass of gross body stuff so different from the storyteller who warmly passed on information to little Hans, is a kind of entrance into maturity, after which Hans Castorp is searching for this baptismal bowl, the grail, the secret of life and death, of animation, chaos and order. Echoes of that mystery, for Mann, reverberate in the Bioscope Theatre, where the past comes around again and the dead are once more alive, or Un-Dead. In Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, which I saw at the Oak Street with my friend Naida Zukic in September of 2003, when Jesus dies on the cross we see the film, the frames, the grain, the raw material of the picture: the film alone, a collection of unmoving photographs separated from the light, is death. Scorsese's ending reminds us that this is still a happy ending, and the moving frames in the light represent the resurrection. Indeed, for Scorsese and Jesus, it is accomplished: Cinema is Resurrection. Maybe it’s the same dynamic for me, and so why I insert my grandfather into the personally indulgent poetic narrative of my Oak Street Cinema. After all, He also, like the screening of Nashville, often resurrects in my dreams, and so shares a seat in the Oak's auditorium. The Oak Street Cinema was a kind of central magic mountain in my world, maybe to a bizarre extent, sculpting me and my senses, dictating my memories, at last being reduced to one. I can’t place the chronology together in perfect order, I can’t remember the details of space precisely as they were, and the faces are out of focus. Maybe nothing I write here is true. It’s drawn from a murky and contaminated well of memory, and like a film it is necessarily inaccurate. Someday, like the Oak Street, it too will be gone. And that’s that.