DFT at the DIA

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The Detroit Film Theatre has forged such a strong identity for itself that it’s easy to forget that it’s also one of many activities presented by the Detroit Institute of Arts. The DFT screens films in the DIA auditorium, which was part of the original 1927 construction of the building and which also hosts activities like the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit.

The DFT and its founder Elliot Wilhelm are among the best known features of the DIA, along with the Rodin statue on Woodward Avenue and the Diego Rivera murals. The focused, contemplative atmosphere of the DIA is strongly reinforced in the DFT, where millions of visitors have been treated to wide-ranging exhibitions on the art of film since the DFT opened 35 years ago in 1974.

As part of the recent makeover of the DIA, the DFT was restored to its original look. New carpeting and seats were installed. The maroon color scheme changed to a more dramatic deep blue. The metalwork was replated and now adds a sharp glow to the atmosphere of the auditorium. The DFT was given a more user-friendly entrance area that merges better with the rest of the DIA than the old design. I particularly like the new public spaces that were created near the DFT entrance—nice areas for walking and thinking after a good DFT movie.

The DIA/DFT partnership was particularly close on the afternoon of April 11, 2009 when the DFT hosted the 1927 silent film The Chess Player, in conjunction with the DIA exhibition Master Pieces: Chess Sets from the Dr. George and Vivian Dean Collection. On hand to accompany The Chess Player was pianist David Drazin, a familiar and friendly face who has made many stops at the DFT in the last few years.

Fine Art

I visited the chess set exhibition before going to the film. I found a stunning variety of chess sets, more ornate and detailed than I ever imagined. There were creative variations on the traditional kings, queens, and pawns, using materials like ivory, marble, and different kinds of wood and metal. The designs of the pieces were so impressive that it took awhile for me to also appreciate the different playing boards, made from materials like felt and marble.

Chess sets were used to symbolize historical events, nature, and ideas (both abstract and concrete). There were mythological figures, sea animals, body parts (like fingers), and unique titles like “Good versus Evil Chess Set and Board” and “Capitalists versus Communists Chess Set.” The competitive nature of chess make chess sets a natural symbol for military victories. Many of these chess sets were products of the worlds of wealth and royalty—themes that continued in the film The Chess Player.

Film was integrated into the exhibition, with the showing of film-related scenes from Stalag 17 (1953), The Joy Luck Club (1993), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), and, of course, Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993). As I looked at the chess sets, I wondered how much these chess sets enhanced the playing of the game, the same way that sitting in the DFT auditorium enhanced the experience of seeing a movie. Both the chess sets and film are extensions of the two-dimensional art that make up much of the DIA’s collection. With the sets and film, motion and angles constantly change the message of the art.

After I left the chess set exhibition, I stopped for a moment in the galleries devoted to religious art, where I used the different paintings and sculptures of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ to reflect on the meaning of Easter weekend. It all flowed together, this heightened quality of life experience of visiting the DIA for different views of the inspired creativity of humanity.

Consistent Atmosphere

I soon went to the DFT auditorium, where the hushed, precise atmosphere of the museum continued. There was the same attention to detail, the same focused friendliness of employees. I noticed how the DFT auditoroum is itself a work of art, with ornately crafted images of animals and nature—just like with the chess sets.

Before The Chess Player began, the DIA/DFT connection continued, with screen advertisements for DIA membership benefits, the Brunch with Bach musical concerts, the Friday night activities, and the current major exhibition of the work of Norman Rockwell. Elliot Wilhelm gave the introduction, and with his usual skilled flair for marketing, gave detailed publicity for many current and upcoming DFT events.

Then we entered the 18th century world of Russia, which had taken over part of Poland. This provided the setting for a very dramatic tale of rebellion, romance, and chess-like political maneuvering. A chess-playing robot symbolized the clash of Polish rebels with the Russian military and royalty.

David Drazin’s gliding, epic piano style helped make this more than two-hour film move quickly. His subtly placed chords added emotional nuance to the voiceless screen images. And it was easy to see how the ivory material brought a sharp, angular texture to both the chess pieces in the DIA exhibition and to David’s piano playing.

A standing ovation met David’s performance, and many people stayed for later DFT shows. These other movies—the French romantic comedy Shall We Kiss? and the Austrian murder mystery Revanche—were further evidence of the variety of DFT experiences that also add to the many rewards of visiting the DIA.

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Copyright © 2009 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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