There is nothing like your favorite movie theater to welcome you back home. I had been out of the city for over a month to work on the film festival. It was great to escape the city for a while, but this time was also the first time I’ve been gone for so long and not wanted to come back. I was really enjoying being away from the recent spate of subway shootings, pushy people, the dysfunctional public transportation system. I had the beach, a bike, and all the time in the world to relax, unwind, and let the days unfold as they may. But the city, and my life, beckoned. I came back to New York City.
My second day back, after getting settled, I took the 2/3 from Park Slope and after a transfer that miraculously took no time at all, got off the 1/9 at Houston street and walked east to The Film Forum. This has become a sort of ritual for me. Whenever I return to New York from any amount of time spent away, I immediately go gorge myself on movies as a way of reminding myself why I love living here, why the city is essential to me. I grew up in the midwest, and despite what anyone will ever tell you about the abundance of creativity and the slew of options available for arts consumers in that part of the country, the reality is that finding a good art house cinema that consistently runs a challenging, interesting program is next to impossible. (If you happen to run one near Flint, MI– please use the comments section below to correct me. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks and will be in need of your services.)
The reality of growing up in Michigan in the 1980’s, when I started to explore more challenging arts and ideas– punk rock music, independent and foreign films, experimental fiction– was that you were pretty much isolated by geography from real access to a community and institutions that could nurture your curiosity. There was always Ann Arbor, the big college town 45 miles away that was home to the one screen, one film every two weeks Michigan Theater, but without access to gas money and sometimes a car itself, that trip became a far too rare excursion. Maybe one band or one film every couple of months would breeze through town, and if the show wasn’t 18+ or the film an enforced ‘R’, I’d haul ass down the road to check it out. Otherwise, there was the multiplex or the decimated Flint Cinema, both showing whatever Hollywood had forced upon the de-personalized exhibitor.
Luckily on the music front, Flint actually became a destination for bands that I liked (for a little while, anyway.) An ethnically diverse working class town, we drew quite a few good punk rock shows (Minor Threat, Black Flag, etc) and some great rap shows (Eric B and Rakim, Ice-T, etc.) But on the film front, there was one and only one option if you wanted to see something that wasn’t at the multi-plex–The video store. Months, sometimes years, after the film had been relased, it would arrive at the good old video store. Before Blockbuster took off, Flint was populated with small, mom and pop video stores that, big Hollywood movies aside, had tape collections that were curated by the store’s owners and managers. My favorite moments in a video store would invariably involve looking desperately for a film in the ‘Foreign’ section, only to find the box safely tucked away on the ‘Cult’ shelf. Or asking for a certain movie as a 15 year old, getting a strange stare and a smile, and having someone walk me over to the ‘Staff Picks’ shelf before proudly pointing out that my selection was a personal favorite of the cashier. I would get the tape home, pop it in the VCR, and push play. And then, the critiques would begin.
“What is this?“
“Hahahaha. Is this in French? You’re kidding, right?”
“Honey, Hill Street Blues is coming on in 15 minutes. Is it going to be over by then?”
Flash Forward, New York City, June 29, 2004. I walk east down Houston from Varick, and the blue lights of the Film Forum sign are visible under the scaffolding and bright against the harsh light of the summer afternoon. I enter, hand over my membership card, buy a ticket for The Five Obstructions, grab the largest ‘small’ popcorn in recorded history, and slide into my seat. It’s good to be home.