Twenty Years at the DFT

This summer marks 20 years of visits by me to the Detroit Film Theatre.  I’ll never forget that first movie in the summer of 1988, when my good friend John Petersen finally talked me into visiting this theater that I heard about for years, but had never got around to seeing.

The first movie that I saw at the DFT was the German film Wings of Desire.  Its hypnotic black-and-white images of angels floating over Cold War Berlin was the perfect film for pulling me into the elegant solitude of the DFT.  It’s almost like that film was designed to sell me on both the form and content of the DFT.

After that, I became a regular visitor to the DFT, and for about 10 years, it was my primary source of big screen foreign language and old movies.  My rich and varied experiences at the DFT helped lead me to become a regular patron of the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor and the Redford Theatre in northwest Detroit.

Looking through old newspapers, I realize that the overwhelmingly positive reviews of Wings of Desire probably helped convince me to visit the DFT:

“If you see one art film this year, it should be ‘Wings of Desire’,” wrote Detroit Free Press Movie Critic Kathy Huffhines on July 29, 1988. “Dreamy and profound, it’s as dense as a poem and as delicately airborne as a drifting feather from the moment an angel’s eye opens and the whole screen is filled with its silvery, seraphic vision.”

Huffhines gave her highest rating to Wings of Desire (10), as did Detroit News Film Critic Susan Stark—4 roses (splendid).  The film played two weekends at the DFT—July 29-31 and August 5-7.

“Spiritually, intellectually and visually, the film is a masterpiece,” wrote Stark on July 28, 1988. “It will send you away renewed, ready for battle and for joy, hungry again for all of it.”

A Cinematic Journey

That screening of Wings of Desire was the first of about 500 trips that I’ve made to the DFT.  In that summer of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Coming to America, Die Hard, Big, Bull Durham, and A Fish Called Wanda, the DFT introduced me to a world of cinema that went far beyond the marketing conferences of Hollywood.

The major impressions of my early visits to the DFT included the more lifelike pacing of the movies; the personal feeling of the films; and the insights into the cultures of foreign countries.  After seeing a good DFT film, I felt enriched in a way that stayed with me longer than the entertainment of more mainstream movies.  At the DFT, you didn’t just watch a film—you observed it, studied it, learned from it—the same way you might experience a painting in one of the galleries of the Detroit Institute of Arts, which hosts the DFT.

As the years went by, there were other rewards.  The early 1990s was a great period for attractive, powerful actresses like Gong Li (The Story of Qiu Ju), Emmanuelle Béart (Un Coeur en Hiver), and Juliette Binoche (Red).  Gong Li teamed with direct Zhang Yimou to create many of the stirring movies that came from mainland China (Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell My Concubine, The Women from the Lake of Scented Souls).

Later, I witnessed the flowering of the Iranian cinema, with its unpretentious, straightforward interactions between characters, and its empathetic attitude towards children (The White Balloon).  In the mid-1990s, the dynamic sounds of the Alloy Orchestra helped build my interest in silent films.

In those 20 years, the DFT has continued trying different things, like the Crystal Gallery Café, and the Monday night film series that introduced viewers to one-time showings of many very unique films.  That innovation continues to this day, with the new summer season and the expanded weekend schedule.

Lessons Learned

As I think back over that time, and look at the many DFT schedules that I have collected, I reflect on what I’ve tried to get out of watching art films.  People often decide to expand their horizons, and build on an interest.  For some, it’s moving towards jazz or classical music after listening to pop music all their lives. For others, it’s opening a book by Thomas Mann after reading contemporary bestsellers for years.

With art film, I’m most interested in making a personal connection with the filmmaker.  I look at paintings and drawings in a similar way—what was the artist’s experience as they created their work?  How does a director get us to care about their characters?

At the DFT, films like Rosetta and The Dreamlife of Angels took me into the stressful daily lives of some young people.  Historical dramas like The Accompanist, Burnt by the Sun, and Capitaine Conan showed me how filmmakers reflected on important events in the history of their countries.  Documentaries like In the Land of the Deaf, To Be and to Have, The Long Way Home, and Tom Dowd & the Language of Music introduced me to real people whom I’ll never forget.

Without the DFT, I might have never discovered such classics as Purple Noon (1960), It Happened Here (1965), and The Edge of the World (1937).  I fondly remember the “film exhibits” on such topics as nickelodeons and “riding the rails” in the 1930s.

Many times, I have stood up after an emotionally powerful experience at the DFT and looked around, trying to somehow share my feelings with the rest of the crowd.  Films that have affected me like this include Jerusalem, Lamerica, Ponette, After Life, Three Seasons, and Au hasard Balthazar.  If I could relive any DFT experiences of the last 20 years, it would be my first viewings of those beautiful films.  They all stirred my soul in a life-affirming way.

And so I’ll continue to go to the DFT, in search of more such rewarding experiences.  Just last Sunday (August 3, 2008), the Israeli movie Jellyfish made me care strongly for the fates of three different women in Tel Aviv, including a Filipina immigrant who spoke English very well.  So the DFT helped introduce me to a culture, which in the movie interacted with another culture, resulting in depths of film entertainment that have kept me reflecting on the meaning of the movie.

Elliot Wilhelm

My memories of the DFT have in part been documented in DFT founder Elliot Wilhelm’s insightful and personable 1999 book, VideoHound’s World Cinema.  The book has short analyses of many of my favorite films from the first 10 years of visits to the DFT.  And when a restored classic comes to the DFT, I usually find some sharp commentary about that film.

World Cinema has two interesting quotes that have helped remind me that the wide variety of films at the DFT means that I might not always enjoy something that I looked forward to seeing. 

In World Cinema, Elliot writes that Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom “remains the only film in my experience that I genuinely wish I had never seen.”  He also mentions a regular visitor to the DFT telling him after a film, “That was the worst picture I’ve ever seen. I’ll see you next week.”

I also have a humorous memory of the following exchange between two women after a French movie at the DFT that was filled with the kind of verbose self-examination that you often find in French movies about romantic relationships:

First woman: “French women seem to have a sense of angst that American women can’t even comprehend.”

Second woman: “I’m glad I didn’t bring my husband—he would have killed me.”

I can relate well to all of these comments, and the DFT’s publicity, along with newspaper reviews and the Internet, have helped me decide what I might really enjoy at the DFT.

And I will keep coming back, filled with anticipation, as the summer DFT season ends on August 17 and the fall 2008 schedule opens on September 18.

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Copyright © 2008 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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