Enter the Void
by Steve Dollar
Poor Hushpuppy looked so lonely. There she was, on a six-foot high cardboard promotional display, fireworks aglow in the scene from Beasts of the Southern Wild
, stuck over in a corner, facing the water fountains and the bazoinking clatter of the video games. A few feet away at the 20-screen AMC multiplex, The Amazing Spider-Man
loomed large and crime-bustingly formidable, gazing out at moviegoers as they surrendered their tickets at the entrance.
I'd like to think that the inconspicuous promo placement wasn't deliberate—just an accident of randomness. But it's also not like indie films, even those distributed by major studios like Fox Searchlight, are very well-served by major theater chains in off-the-radar markets like Tallahassee, Florida—my hometown, by the way, and where I spend at least half the year. A film like Beasts
would seem to merit a little something extra than the usual multiplex throwaway strategy. Maybe marketing has something in the works, but they'd do well to know that the same tropical storms and hurricanes that wreak havoc on Louisiana hang a left turn on the nearby Gulf Coast, and only recently turned a few Panhandle towns into a local equivalent of the Bathtub, the mythical setting for Benh Zeitlin's gobsmacking debut. And there's an even more integral connection: screenwriter Lucy Alibar grew up across the state line in Thomasville, Georgia, and went to high school here.
If this was a city that had an arthouse (or even an Alamo Drafthouse
franchise), someone would be able to swiftly connect the dots and cook up some unique programming concepts that might expand the potential audience for this film (or any film) beyond the core of culture-starved moviegoers who require something more than this week's 3D spectacle to scoot out to the 20-screen complex (about the last successful business propping up a dying, 41-year-old shopping mall). But that is not the city I live in. Last year, the run-down (if cherished) Miracle 5 theater ran out of miracles and was closed by Regal Cinemas, the other theater chain that owns the city's big screens. The place was in dire need of an overhaul, but was not apparently generating enough return to make it worth salvaging. The ghostly plaza it once occupied will soon be home to a Whole Foods franchise. The Miracle—where during a brief career as a teenaged usher I corralled the box office queues for the run of Earthquake
and The Towering Inferno
, and later enjoyed a life-changing experience watching The Road Warrior
—was not to be confused with any sort of fancy-pants cinematheque. It was simply the place in town that showed the most grown-up movies. The marquee for its closing weekend included Beginners
, Page One
and Tree of Life
. Those are the kinds of movies anyone might reasonably expect to be able to see in a real moviehouse in a city of 360,000, one with a sizable white-collar demographic and 70,000 college students.
You would be wrong. The choice anymore is this: Superheroes at the mall, or 2 Days in New York
on VOD. Anything else, forget it. Unless you want to surf the web, landing on excellent endeavors like Kentucker Audley's NoBudgeFilms.com
, or just invest in DVDs to watch at home.
Not that they don't trickle down. Steve McQueen's Shame
, with full-frontal Oscar-bait performances from Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, even lasted a couple of weeks. At the $3 discount theater. In the strip-mall outlet plaza, next to the pool hall/sports bar, playing to audiences of, apparently, four people (the night I went). The review in the local paper made the experience sound like non-consensual toenail removal with rusty pliers. It's a flop, I agree, but kind of a glorious flop that fascinates even as it flummoxes. The Raid: Redemption
, the Indonesian head-buster and one of 2012's best films, even ran for a few weeks, turning an eight-screen dump into an ad hoc cinematic Salon des Refusés
Regal has occasionally made good on a promise to keep booking arthouse fare at its major local venue, a multiplex adjacent to the city's other mall, but critically admired films like Nadine Labaki's Where Do We Go Now?
or Oscar-winner A Separation
tend to get lost in a multiplex and don't last more than one week. Last November, I took the chance to give Martha Marcy May Marlene
a second look when it opened at the AMC theater. There were three other people seated for the Tuesday late show.
Now, it's not as if there are too few enlightened moviegoers. Almost every weekend, the Tallahassee Film Society
screens something worthwhile in its unusual outpost: an out-of-service Amtrak station in a perpetually half-emergent arts district. Everything from Melancholia
has had held-over runs, and the sober-minded programming roughly emulates the new-release schedule at New York's Film Forum
a few months after the fact. The ambience can be distracting, as when someone decides to open the door in the middle of an afternoon movie, blinding anyone nearby with piercing Florida sunlight, or when a train rumbles by (oddly suitable for Lars von Trier's end-of-the-world drama). And the presentation is a little bit high-school cafeteria. But as a venue, it's established an identity, a following, and a track record (no pun intended).
Still, it's only one small cultural stronghold. Unlike Athens or Austin, college towns where the student population appears to feed a thriving arts scene, Tallahassee experiences a pathetic absence of spillover influence from the major campus (Florida State University). All the students seem to care about is pizza, beer and cover bands. Those 30,000 kids and their wallets might as well be a black hole as far as their positive impact on the city's cultural scene goes. Though they've got the campus rock venue and the campus movie theater, the bookings are of only intermittent interest to the world beyond, what's left of it. In the last year, the venerable "cool" record store closed, as did the venerable indie rock club and the all-age sidebar venue. But there are pockets of resistance and resilience. A plucky vinyl-only store abides, striving to fill both gaps with BYOB gigs of underground acts. In a similar vein, one of the co-owners of a radically good craft beer dispensary—The Fermentation Lounge
—down the block has begun an outdoor screening series in the lot of an old factory, pulling a Rooftop Films
number with screenings of kung-fu epics and public-domain staple Carnival of Souls
with food trucks and enough esoteric IPAs on tap to drown in.
But if any city was ripe for some entrepreneurial wizardry of an arthouse/grindhouse/Drafthouse bent, Tallahassee sure is. We are rich in derelict mid-70s shopping plazas begging for redemption! If beer and pizza are served, students will probably be close behind. Throw in some canny curatorial moves for the 37 eggheads and film geeks and it might just work. And then I wouldn't have to sit in the front row for Moonrise Kingdom
because it was slotted onto the smallest screen at the multiplex and there was nowhere else to sit (although that packed house was refreshing change up from Martha Marcy
And then Hushpuppy wouldn't be so lonely.
Posted by ahillis at July 19, 2012 9:03 AM