Welcome Back to the DFT

“Welcome back to the Detroit Film Theatre,” greeted Larry Baranski of the DFT before the September 15, 2006 showing of the French film Army of Shadows. On this second weekend of the Fall/Winter 2006 season, Larry updated patrons on the progress of the DFT renovation project that has been going on for several years in conjunction with other improvements at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Up came the lights, and we were treated to the sparkling sight of the gold and silver leaf that had been applied around the auditorium this past summer.

Also, the red panel coloring that Larry said had been applied in 1960 was now replaced by a deep-blue shade that is closer to the original design of the auditorium when it opened in 1927. That same color will be used in the new, more comfortable mohair seats that will be installed after the current DFT season. One of these new chairs was on display in the lobby for visitors to test.

And so continued the renewal of my visits to the DFT, which I hadn’t attended for more than four months. As I drove down I-96 to the theater, I had to think hard about what exits to take.

Before the movie, I enjoyed a pleasant early fall walk around the DIA. At the Horace H. Rackham Educational Memorial Building, my spirit was soothed by the smooth green lawn and the friendly intimacy of its quiet public spaces. As I stood by the DIA fountains on Woodward, I noticed a sign at the main Detroit Public Library about a big exhibit on Detroit architecture. Walking towards Kirby, I caught a glimpse of some beautifully restored homes on Ferry.

In the theater, I carefully paged through the new schedule for the first time, a happy ritual that always fills me with excitement about upcoming events. I looked forward to spending many Sunday nights with films by two Japanese directors (Hiroshi Teshigahara and Kenji Mizoguchi). Among the newer movies, I quickly noticed Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles and Gabrielle, a French version of a Joseph Conrad story (“The Return”).

As the music of Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf and others filled the air, I adjusted to the new Thursday—Sunday schedule that has replaced the Friday—Monday pattern that had been in place for about a decade. I overheard many comments about the ongoing DIA renovations.

And then the main point of all this effort—the film, a restoration of a 1969 movie about the World War II French Resistance movement. Under the careful hand of director Jean-Pierre Melville, this movie showed the cold, hard messiness—and heartbreak—of life in the underground world of occupied France.

As I admired the skillful acting of Lino Ventura and Simone Signoret, I wondered what this film had meant to French filmgoers in 1969, about 25 years after the events in the film. I speculated on why this film had now been restored and released in the United States for the first time. I thought about some reviews in the October 2006 Atlantic Monthly of some new books about the ambiguities and tragedies of occupied France—The Unfree French and Bad Faith.

All in all, the kind of food for thought that I look forward to tasting over the next few months in the DFT auditorium. And of course, there was a wide variety of food for the body in the Crystal Gallery Café on the balcony level, where I relaxed and read the program notes for the film.

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Copyright © 2006 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.


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