As I drove to downtown Detroit on Jan. 10, 2008 for the first movie of the Winter/Spring 2008 season of the Detroit Film Theatre, I thought about how the city landscape plays a role in the DFT experience.
The winding, subterranean concrete of I-96 takes me from a western suburb to the city. As I think with anticipation about that evening’s DFT film, old buildings rise up dramatically after I pass beneath highway underpasses.
As downtown approaches, a different feeling emerges, as I get farther and farther away from the suburban world. It’s that adventurous, mysterious feeling that only a city can provide, with its dynamic concentration of activity and architecture.
It hits me hardest as I sweep through the high curve that takes me from eastbound I-96 to eastbound I-94. To my right, I catch a glimpse of the towering buildings of the central business district. Pockets and splashes of light help add shadows and accents to the dramatic scene.
The stimulation of late rush hour traffic adds to the feeling. Soon, I’m pulling off at the John R exit, for the last part of my journey to the DFT. Driving down John R, different buildings rise at all angles of my vision, including the science center, the black history museum, the veterans hospital, and distant skyscrapers near the Detroit River.
I pull into the parking lot, where the familiar, friendly face of the lot attendant greets me as I hand him my parking voucher. Soon, I’m walking towards the new, improved Detroit Institute of Arts, which has settled into its latest incarnation for hopefully many years to come.
The drive through the city has put me into a unique mood as I approach the DFT. For many people, the city has a special appeal when different elements work together in a positive way. A special activity can draw people from different places, creating a mixture of emotions and sensations and personalities that only a city can provide.
And there’s that magical feeling of finding something uniquely special, something that perfectly fits your interests, something that’s just waiting for you in the dense, complicated, often impersonal, big city. Something like the Detroit Film Theatre.
A Chilling Documentary
So there I was, settling into my seat for Terror’s Advocate, a documentary about a French lawyer (Jacques Vergès) who through the years has often been involved with people who mix idealism and terrorism into powerful, often deadly, concoctions.
Terror’s Advocate was mostly a series of interviews with different people about their associations with Vergès. As I watched the film, listening to many tales of intrigue, I thought about how international terrorism includes many shadowy, ambiguous figures. Paris seems to be an intersection for a lot of underground activity.
While watching the interviews, I felt a disconnect between the well-spoken, well-dressed image of many of the interviewees, and the acts of destruction and murder that they often described. Vergès’s rationalizations for his behavior made you realize that there are many “true believers” out there who always “have their reasons,” for their actions, no matter how misguided. After the movie, my first thought was: this guy always seems to be around where violent death is occurring.
Thus began another DFT season, with the kind of unique, challenging, thought-provoking film that makes visits to the DFT such rewarding experiences. I didn’t talk with anyone in the crowd, but after the film, I still felt a sense of community, a sense of shared experience.
And I saw the new schedule for the first time in print, after reading about it on-line. It looks like another great season, highlighted by a tribute to African filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, who died in 2007. There is also a series of Saturday afternoon silent movies, with live accompaniment.
I’m particularly looking forward to April 12, when I’ll get to see Harold Lloyd in The Freshman at the DFT, followed by a trip to the Redford Theatre, which that evening will be showing the Laurel and Hardy comedy Way Out West.
Other highlights of the new DFT season include a season-ending tribute to German director Werner Herzog, and new films from Uganda, Mexico, China, Ireland, Austria, Iran, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Taiwan and Israel.
And on Jan. 24, the DFT hosts a film that is perfect for explorers of the urban landscape: City Lights, the 1931 silent movie starring Charlie Chaplin.
Copyright © 2008 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.