by Niles Schwartz
The Uptown Theater, the center of Minneapolis’ exclusive film releases for as long as I can remember, is finally going to have its Turin death shroud cast off and be resurrected this Friday. Rejoice and hallelujahs aside, perhaps in the conveniences won by this long-due renovation we’re also seeing some of the last crumbs of Olde Uptowne, that punk-rock alternative world so removed from the suburbs, being finally swept aside for good. Though the new and improved Uptown Theater promises to be possibly the best venue in town for new releases, its aged shabbiness re-lit and redressed with menus, bars, couches, and tater tots has the elitist in me coupling it with the area’s full gentrification, of bars for “bros” and “hos,” Apple Stores, and new condos.
But sod to that attitude. (I mean, c’mon. Who the hell doesn’t want tots during a movie?) Maybe the “character” of Uptown is just a wee more smudged over, but I’m rather pleased to see the slate of creaky and crooked chairs with worn and ripped fabric wiped clean, the cramped restrooms with yummy urinal cake smells being pushed aside for something more suited to huge sell-out audiences filled with soda – and not just soda, my friends, but beer. Summit beer! Instead of those rotting seats, you have 342 new ones, more fitting our hyperevolved (and overfed) 2012 bodies. The screen, once upon a time the biggest in the Twin Cities, is now 50% larger, with digital projection. The floor arrangement is now reworked to anticipate the new releases – beginning with Sleepwalk With Me this weekend, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master next weekend – in such a way that those lines around the block, such a marvelous fixture of Uptown weekends, will be greatly diminished.
Okay. Those lines around the block were part of the whole Uptown experience, particularly in the dead of winter during below-zero temps, the snow seeping through Florsheim shoes so that the patrons’ socks would dampen, and three hours later they would require toe amputation. The creaking of the chairs, of readjustment, relaxation, or impatient responses to whatever movie’s duration, was like a commentary beyond language during screenings. And those urinals, where your elbows were literally poking into your neighbor, were mocking judges, pointing out to the public those unlucky souls afflicted with pee-shyness.
The Uptown was established as the Lagoon Theater almost 100 years ago (1913 to be exact), undergoing a few adjustments in the subsequent decades. A fire resulted in a full reconstruction in 1939. Erected high above the theater, serving as any visitor’s sign that they are now in “Uptown Minneapolis,” is the legendary marquee – which thankfully remains intact. Of the murals inside, which my feeble teenaged Cottage Grove mind always took as naked Grecian figures, reminders of how Uptown was the city’s center of gay sex, I can’t be so sure.
But enough of the Uptown – let’s talk about me. Because I can’t help but think of a movie theater as a cathedral or church, a shrine where signs of age amount to a good thing. And religious experiences are subjective. The modern multiplexes have the numbing irreligious quality of those new Mega-Churches, and are a little dispiriting when the lights come up; the mystic otherworldliness is absent. The Uptown was – and so shall remain – one of my churches or temples, a large house of memories relating to my love for film, in addition to my relationships to other moviegoers, and how we’re all bound together in the dark. Was everything I saw there “consecrated” or “sacred”? No. Not all of the individual films were as noteworthy as the marquee promised. Does anybody remember Ralph Fiennes and an unknown Cate Blanchet in Oscar and Lucinda? Vanessa Redgrave in Mrs. Dalloway? An impressive Stephen Fry and newcomer named Jude Law in Brian Gilbert’s otherwise bland Wilde? I saw them all at the Uptown with friends, opening weekend, but I can’t say they made any impression on me. A lot of those friends have also drifted away with time.
Born and raised in the suburbs, I stayed relatively close to home and was intimidated by the infamous Punk Rock McDonald’s (itself long-since renovated and gutterpunk free) across the street at Hennepin and Lagoon. But after getting my driver’s license in 1996, I hit the Landmark theaters frequently: John Sayles’ Lone Star, Robert Altman’s Kansas City, Christopher Walken in Abel Ferrera’s The Funeral, Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s Big Night, Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, and, at long last my first David Lynch film in a theater on its opening day for its very first showing at 2 pm, Lost Highway. I saw it an additional two times that weekend, and three more times at the Lagoon.
There were embarrassing memories, like a date that never happened for the January 1997 premiere of Kenneth Branagh’s 240-minute full-text Hamlet. After illegally parking in the nearby Lund’s lot, I purchased tickets for myself and my date. She was a Starbucks barista who had a boyfriend, but whatever, I didn’t care (you can suspend reality like that if you spend most of your time living in your head, or going to movies – which are kind of the same thing). The snow slowly accumulated and the show slowly sold out, and my date didn’t appear. I had to spend the next four hours in a cruddy back-of-the-auditorium seat listening to an indecisive Dane’s existential crisis under Branagh’s overbearing direction, the black surrounding the screen crunching in on the light: the truth of my high school rejection. These were the days before cell phones, when it was easier to blow people off, guilt-free. I’ve grown to since like Branagh’s Hamlet, but that cold night is fixed in my mind. Out of spite, I kept my date’s ticket stub.
A gentler night was October 17, 1997, when the word-of-mouth lured me inside to see an indie epic about the porn industry from a young director. The film was Boogie Nights, and it sent me outside into the mild autumn weather with its infectious exuberance. The director, Paul Thomas Anderson, was 27 years old and exhibiting the same kind of angry-ego rule-the-world subjectivity that fabulously rang through the most technically accomplished Martin Scorsese pictures, which were clearly an influence. The film worked its rigorous momentum the same way Alfred Molina’s drugged-up dealer chugs to Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” but was also filled with the longing that decorates the similar pop sensibility in the mix-tape song following, Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl.” You can imagine how a hopeless young romantic (so stun by that Hamlet experience, after all) would be wrapped up and all goosebumped by Anderson’s camera holding tight on Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg, instantly going from Marky Mark to respectable actor) as Springfield sings and the outside world shuts off: both Rick Springfield and Dirk Diggler – and me in my teenage mind – were supposed to be great…but the anticipation was followed by exhaustion. The song, and the texture of the film, becomes everything, becomes life. The film’s ending is an homage to Scorsese’s Raging Bull, where big-dicked Dirk in his Miami Vice fashions looks into the dressing room mirror and becomes De Niro’s Jake LaMatto, who was becoming Brando in On the Waterfront, the past linked up to the future. Quite coincidentally, as the photograph provided proves, Landmark’s midnight double feature that weekend was the Scorsese pair of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, which had to be relocated to the Lagoon because of Boogie Nights’ length (in running time, mind you). I saw Raging Bull immediately after Boogie Nights that Friday. My own ego was hungry and fragile, and had nothing but love for the quadrangle of obsessive control freaks displayed that beautiful night: Anderson and his Dirk Diggler, Scorsese and his LaMotta.
Anderson made his big break with Boogie Nights, so I caught his next two films at more commercial venues (Magnolia at the Har Mar; Punch-Drunk Love at the Edina, before it was owned by Landmark). But we all came together again over 12 years after Boogie Nights in January, 2010. I guess I had changed some, and it was clear how Anderson had – for the better. With There Will Be Blood, the show-offy wunderkind was now a detached observer, the influence of Scorsese and Altman surrendering to Stanley Kubrick. Anderson’s ambition was more mature, more direct, but still as domineering and controlling as his protagonist, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), one of the most fascinating characters in modern cinema. Instead of the exuberance of Rick Springfield, we had the dissonance of Jonny Greenwood. But again, the film knocked us all on our asses. Sitting a few rows behind me was my teacher from Hamline, Jeff Turner, who tapped me on the shoulder as the credits rolled. “Citizen Kane. Godfather II. There Will Be Blood,” he said. Too much praise too quickly, you might think, but time is proving Dr. Turner right. I’m grateful that the Uptown served as the location of this shared experience, binding young P.T. Anderson to his maturing self. (Another screening in Coon Rapids, a month later, had a far less kind audience).
There are the strands of other Uptown Theater memories. I remember a romantic evening with a wonderful woman, still a close friend, who walked with me through fresh October snow to see Lost in Translation, the movie of 2003. Almost exactly a year later, recovering from a rough patch and trying to set my life right – though feeling impotent to do so – I marched out of my new apartment on a Saturday morning to see the matinee of Sideways, which ranks as one of the five most mirth-laden and cathartic movie experiences of my life. There’s a midnight showing during which I saw The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover for the first time, and was unable to close my mouth as I stared fascinated and repulsed. The gasps of admiration clashing with sighs of annoyance during The Tree of Life. Ian McKellan slowly sucking on his cigar while speaking to Brendan Fraser in Gods and Monsters, which I saw the same snowy spring break weekend that Stanley Kubrick died. Tapping along and rocking out with John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Working through the most unorthodox and demanding four-hour epic ever made, Steven Soderbergh’s Che. Dancing into the warm June rain after Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Watching No Country for Old Men the first time, mostly in chick-vision (hands covering my eyes during the suspenseful parts). The elation going into and coming out of The Full Monty, a little movie from nowhere that had those famous Lines Around the Block. The Ghost Writer. Far From Heaven. For Your Consideration. Rescue Dawn. Mystic River. The Wrestler. I Heart Huckabees. In Bruges. A Serious Man. The Limey. The Pianist. The Quiet American. The Filth and the Fury. The Apostle. Midnight screenings of Brazil, Mulholland Drive, everything Kubrick, City of Lost Children, Rear Window. Rebukes to local critics, as signs outside declared that Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere was “better than the Star Tribune review.” And then weeks and weeks of Michael Fassbender last year, with Jane Eyre, Shame, and A Dangerous Method, until finally the drama Pariah was accompanied with the marquee reminder, “Not starring Michael Fassbender.” The times are all mixed up, and images fragmented. As with all memories, there’s no linearity.
So a lot of time, thoughts, passion, friends, and loves have joined me at the old Uptown for the last 15 years. It’s reassuring to see that Anderson and his new film, The Master, will join the long list of films to be featured there, though with the slightest bit of remorse. Defiant and refusing to go gently into that good night, Anderson’s new film was shot in 70mm (and even cut the old fashioned way), while the cracking and clicking of film projection has been dropped for digital conveniences. And that’s fine. I’ve accepted the Death of Film, even though I’m grateful that Anderson will keep fighting his good fight (as meanwhile, the previous generation’s icon William Friedkin, whose Killer Joe plays at the Lagoon, welcomes digital filmmaking, because celluloid is a pain in the ass). To catch a flavor of the past, we still have the Parkway, St. Anthony Main, the Heights, and the Trylon.
The Uptown is going with the way of the future, but I’m certain the films exhibited there will continue to be, generally, marked by their distinction in a struggling industry, personified in a voice like Paul Thomas Anderson. One of the last songs in Boogie Nights is ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry,” Aimee Mann’s vocals ever-so-faintly heard in the headphones of Rollergirl (Heather Graham) as she skates past Burt Reynolds’ governing film director, followed from behind by Robert Elswitt’s watchful camera-eye. The memory of that moment and that song in that film – seen in that theater – means so many things to me. The song is the beautiful and hushed cry from a bygone time of decadent personalities who will probably suffocate under the weight of their excesses, just as it anticipates the full Aimee Mann soundtrack in Anderson’s conquer-the-world raining-frogs follow-up, Magnolia (1999). But it’s also a song, like many of its New Wave peers, that feels instantly nostalgic – for its own present moment. And that’s the hunger of Boogie Nights, of Paul Thomas Anderson, of moviemakers, and moviegoers reliving time, sculpted at 24 frames per second. That’s the sense that many of us might have walking into the new Uptown this weekend, thinking of our own past experiences of collective dream-time, voices of the past carrying on through repainted walls, like ghosts in a haunted burial ground. Let’s have a Summit and some tots, sit back, and thank the movie gods for this.