The Triangle became hospitable to art films, but when will the filmmaking begin? | News Feature | Indy Week
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The Triangle became hospitable to art films, but when will the filmmaking begin? 

Critical conditions

click to enlarge Art house pioneer Maggie Dent in 1983 - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NEWS & OBSERVER
  • Photo courtesy of The News & Observer
  • Art house pioneer Maggie Dent in 1983

It is not about foisting the critic's opinion on anyone. It is primarily about ensuring viewers' access to the most interesting and accomplished films. And that involves trying to stimulate enough interest and awareness to keep a healthy cohort of independent local theaters in business. At the end of the day, it comes down to films and viewers; a critic helps connect the two.

Such are the kinds of reflections prompted by significant anniversaries, of which 2008 gives me a startling abundance. It is the Independent's 25th year in business, and my 10th with the paper. It is also my 30th anniversary as a Triangle film critic and—ye gods—the 40th anniversary of my first film reviews being published in my high school paper.

That initial review, if you must know, was of two movies adapted from well-known books, Richard Fleischer's The Boston Strangler and Robert Ellis Miller's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (I preferred the former, and still do). My second movie column was devoted to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film that, more than any other, inspired my giddy adolescent plunge into trying to make sense of movies in print.

I was writing for my friends then. I had no idea of becoming a film critic professionally. That notion dawned in proverbial light-bulb fashion a decade later, as I was enjoying a long post-college sojourn in Europe. "Aha!" I thought. But how?

Luckily, I got the chance I was looking for when I returned to Raleigh and met a smart, cantankerous, buoyantly self-assured guy named Bernie Reeves, who told me he was about to launch an alternative weekly—soon to be a hot publishing format—called Spectator Magazine. Somehow I talked my way into a job as arts editor and film critic.

I had never studied journalism, but that was OK. I didn't want to be a journalist. I wanted to be an activist, a cultural inciter. Everyone at Spectator in those heady early days brought their own agendas to the operation, and there were two items at the top of mine. I wanted to foster music coverage that would both chronicle and catalyze the Triangle's then about-to-explode rock music scene. And I wanted to write film reviews that would help foreign and independent films secure regular play dates in the area.

Late 1978 was an interesting time to try the latter. A few months before Spectator cranked up, Durham's venerable Carolina Theatre was inaugurated as an art cinema managed by Maggie Dent, a cackling free spirit whom I've often referred to as the Joan of Arc of North Carolina art house exhibition.

Maggie was in it for the right reason: She loved cinema with passion that verged on obsession. She had started several local art houses previously. All showed fabulous movies and all eventually went under. To ask whether she could finally succeed with the Carolina was to ask whether the Triangle might at last be ready to support a reliable, ongoing venue for alternative movie fare.

I decided to make this a crusade, and I know I wasn't too subtle about it. Months would pass when I would write about what was playing at the Carolina almost every week, ignoring the Hollywood junk that I figured smart people didn't want to read about anyway.

It was an exciting time. The New German Cinema was producing the stunning masterworks of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. Aussie directors like Peter Weir and Fred Schepisi were making noise Down Under. And U.S. filmmakers like Victor Nuñez, Barbara Kopple and Ross McElwee were providing the first stirrings of the U.S. independent movement that would transform American cinema a decade later.

The Carolina's business grew at a steady clip, and the management cited our contributions by pointing to a customer survey showing that only a quarter of the theater's patrons came from Durham; half motored in from Chapel Hill, a quarter from Raleigh. Since Spectator was then the only above-ground paper providing cultural coverage of and for the whole Triangle (something The News & Observer was eventually prodded toward by the magazine's success), we took that as a telling validation.

By the time the Independent started up five years later, the Carolina's success had spawned similar operations in the Triangle's other corners. (Maggie Dent moved over and inaugurated an art policy at the Varsity in Chapel Hill, then did the same at a theater in Raleigh that was renamed the Rialto in honor of the area's first art house, which she had started in Durham in the 1960s.)

Flash forward a quarter century and the local independent exhibition scene—the cornerstone of any area's film culture, I believe—is much the same, only better. Besides multiple screens each in Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh, there's now the Galaxy in Cary, with an admirably eclectic booking policy that includes the latest from Bollywood.

Beyond its theaters, the area has others cinematic crown jewels ranging from the Flicker series to Duke's Screen/Society and Freewater Presentations to the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, a world-class event that brings a cornucopia of nonfiction cinema to downtown Durham every spring.

All that's lacking, perhaps, is the kind of filmmaking scene that makes Austin, Texas, the home not only of the Alamo Draft House but also of notable auteurs like Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez who prefer to practice their craft far from the confines of Hollywood. So far, N.C. film directors such as Peyton Reed (Almost Beat), Phil Morrison (Junebug), David Gordon Green (Snow Angels—see review on page 68), Ross McElwee (Sherman's March), John Schultz (Bandwagon) and Tim Kirkman (Loggerheads)—all of whom have made distinctive films about North Carolina—have found it easier to base themselves elsewhere.

What's ahead? No end of change, perhaps. Much print journalism and many critics are migrating to the Web, or being undone by it. Art-house audiences are growing grayer and not being replaced by younger viewers, observers claim. Movie theaters are still bracing for the sea change that will come with full digital capability.

But the basic components—the event, the viewer—remain unchanged. It still takes a conversation to connect them, and that's where the critic comes in, again.

  • From the Carolina through the Galaxy, and points related

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