Discoveries at the DFT

In almost 20 years of trips to the Detroit Film Theatre, I have discovered many fascinating things about the world of cinema. It started in 1988, when my good friend John Petersen invited me to a screening of the German film Wings of Desire.

The beauty and preservation of the theater impressed me, and then I was entranced by the hypnotic rhythm and evocative camerawork of this meditation on life in Cold War Berlin. After hundreds of trips to the theater, I still reserve a special place in my DFT memories for this first visit.

As I continued my trips to the DFT, I first noticed the pacing of the films. They moved in a more patient, deliberate way—some might call it slow. They seemed like film essays, compared to the more dynamic rhythms of American popular films. The camera lingered on details in a way that involved you more in the meaning of the film; made you feel more deeply the emotions expressed.

What caused this? The nationality of the filmmakers and the artistic culture in which they grew up? The more serious tone of the films?

As the DFT seasons passed, other patterns of discoveries emerged. I became more familiar with national styles of film. I followed the careers of actors, actresses and directors of different countries. I saw that filmmakers used their art to work out an understanding of important historical events in their homelands. Film was also a way to export an image of a country to an international audience.

The films of mainland China are a good example of all of these lessons. American viewers have been educated about the first Chinese emperor in The Emperor’s Shadow (1996) and The Emperor and the Assassin (1999).

The Cultural Revolution has been examined in such films as Farewell to My Concubine (1993), Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl (1998) and To Live (1994)—often at political cost to their directors. Modern China has been on display in Shower (1999), Quitting (2001), Zhou Yu’s Train (2003).

DFT patrons have followed the intriguing career of Chinese director Zhang Yimou. In the 1990s, he collaborated with the glamorous Gong Li on such films as Ju Dou (1990), The Story of Qiu Ju (1991), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), and Shanghai Triad (1995). After Li moved on to work with other directors, Yimou began making more intimate films like Not One Less (1998), The Road Home (2001) and Happy Times (2001).

Gong Li is one of many beautiful actresses whom I have discovered on the DFT screen, and who later were showcased in English and American films. The French actresses Juliette Binoche and Emmanuelle Beart continue a tradition of depth, mystery and glamour that also has included Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve.

My DFT discoveries have extended to older English language films. The DFT allowed me to first experience the seriousness of Pastor Hall (1940) and The Edge of the World (1937), and the silliness of Queen of Outer Space (1958) and several campy horror films by William Castle.

As another DFT season begins on September 7, 2006, faithful DFT followers are filled with excitement thinking about what new discoveries the 2006/2007 schedule will bring.

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Copyright © 2006 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.


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