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Monday, October 3, 2011

"Please Don't Eat the Urinal Cakes": My Baptism at the Oak Street Cinema

“When the last flickering frame of one reel had twitched out of sight and the lights went up in the hall and the audience’s field of dreams stood before them like an empty blackboard, there was not even the possibility of applause. There was no one there to clap for, to thank, no artistic achievement to reward with a curtain call. The actors who had been cast in the play they had just seen had long since been scattered to the winds; they had watched only phantoms, whose deeds had been reduced to a million photographs brought into focus for the briefest of moments so that, as often as one liked, they could then be given back to the elements of time as a series of blinking flashes. Once the illusion was over, there was something repulsive about the crowd’s nervous silence. Hands lay impotent before the void. People rubbed their eyes, stared straight ahead, felt embarrassed by the brightness and demanded the return to the dark, so that they could again watch things, whose time had passed, come to pass again, tricked out with music and transplanted into new time.”

- Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (John E. Woods, translator)

The Oak Street Cinema is no more. A 95-year-old permanent fixture at Oak and Washington near the University of Minnesota, the Oak Street exhibited old and obscure films, both new and archival prints. It was demolished on October 1, 2011, to make space for apartment buildings.

It’s there where first I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey on a big screen, Nashville, Cabaret, Chinatown, Spartacus, Blue Velvet, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, My Man Godfrey, Nosferatu, Contempt, and so many others. It takes an effort to remember, but glancing at an old calendar from the summer of 2000 gets me all tingly. It’s hard for me not be wax poetically, or at least pompously, about it. The movies and the Oak Street, the films and the theater being marriage partners as it were, made me. They shaped my sense of cinema, whether how correct or incorrect it is, and maybe even molded my personhood, my private mythos. My time there feels more peculiarly intimate than broadly escapist. I read a coherence in my relationship to the Oak the same way I may overread motifs, symbols, allusions, etc into films. And in that, I perceive the corresponding tragedy between the Oak Street’s final whimper and cinema generally (You could say, “How about a little hope?” But you know me). On a university campus, a theater like the Oak should be doing gangbusters – and indeed, I think it did once, and not merely with students. But in the digital era, students in particular are drawn to instant downloads, usually pirated, which they can view at their convenience on their laptops. The melancholy sense generated by the Oak’s destruction is that it signals that the aura, the temple ritual, and the collective spirit of cinema is obsolete. The sadness is more pointed when we consider that the Twin Cities' best moviegoer, Terry Blue, also just passed away (some excellent remembrances are found here and here).

The most memorable exhibition of a film I ever attended was on Friday, August 15, 1997, 7:30 p.m. The revival film was Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975). To this day, this screening still finds its way into my dreams, luring my unconscious self to relive the experience. Nashville had long been out-of-print on VHS, and the one copy I could get find at my video store was a roughly handled panned-and-scanned mockery. On the VCR, I didn’t enjoy the picture, and it made me wonder, as so many people do about acclaimed hallmarks, what all the fuss was about.

Then I was blessed with the opportunity to be dwarfed by Nashville on an imposing, wide-screen canvas of picture and Altman’s signature multi-track sound. The whole event had a buoyant energy that encapsulated the film, the characters, the weather, the music, the message (whatever it was), and the moment. I was solitary but with everyone else, infected by the magic woven into Altman’s craft just as it was generated by the architecture of the art-deco theater. The feeling began immediately, before the film even began, after opening the door and getting a ticket from a girl behind the glass, with a pale face, big eyes, dressed in black with short dark hair, who to me was an otherworldly idealization of the “eternal feminine” (you can see how silly this all was). The spirit was blowing outside through the eve of autumn decay, linking the spectators, the theater volunteers, the posters, the popcorn, the soda, the dirt in the cracks. An antique from 1975 was freshly surging and potent with life. Wrong or right, I was spellbound, much like Lily Tomlin while listening to Keith Carradine sing "I'm Easy."

This was a golden time. Later in the week, a full house watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (and that ticket girl with the moon white face was moving back and forth and eating some ice cream behind the glass). The next Sunday had a Bob Fosse double feature of Cabaret and All That Jazz. Coming soon was Toshiro Mifune in his Samurai series. By September, a Monty Python double header on Friday night, Life of Brian followed by Holy Grail. Then on October 3, I think, maybe the last of 1997’s beautiful and cozy Fridays, if you approached the Oak you would hear the mourning strings of Georges Delerue’s score for Godard’s Contempt, showing for two weeks with a restored print. That night I was foolhardy and approached the moon-white faced ticket girl. She tolerated me, but left for London two weeks later.


I think I was looking for something there. A lot of film people are, I think, looking for something, which is why so many great movie experiences can be harmed a little by the mallified mass-cult pinballing advertisements of comfortable stadium-seating complexes. For example, Terrence Malick’s The New World at the mall is like Christ finding the money-changers at the temple. The contrast of what's in the film and outside of the film, whether in the lobby or in the advertisements preceding it, is too immense. It's disheartening.

What are we looking for? Maybe a lost youth, a glistening moment of our personal history captured, wrapped, contained, frozen, and waiting to unfurl again, much like the plentiful shapes beamed through the projector. Cinema is about the Un-Dead, which is why vampires have always had a sparkling relationship with it. There was even a wonderful Vampire Series in early 1998 (or November 1997?), where I saw Nosferatu performed with a live organist, Guillermo Del Toro’s Cronos, Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu with Kinski, and the sexy trash of Tony Scott’s The Hunger, with Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie.

I’m trying to get the memory correct, and as I said, that first Nashville screening recurred in dreams. Allured from the outside by the light moving through a myriad of bulbs which ornament the marquee names and titles, the patrons are wafted into the crimson murk of deep red drapes and chairs, green lights, and phantasms of dust floating through the light beam. There are ticket stubs on the floor. The musty air from the ancient underground is brewing with the deep popcorn smell. There’s that vampire quality, hunger and agelessness, the dead walking again in the shadow of Prospect Park’s Witches Hat water tower. Popcorn is served in modest buckets, and sodas poured in cups not the size of elephant bladders.

I have to arch my neck when winding down the steps leading to the restrooms. This is a building that feels delicate, maybe properly intended for a shorter breed of human being. The Man with No Name is on the Men’s door. At the urinal, there’s a face drawn into the wall, sexless, with prominent nostrils. The initials AK are markered near it, and then the request graffiti: “Please don’t eat the urinal cakes.” Duly noted, sir.

Jack Nicholson and King Kong are posted on the walls behind the popcorn machine, not to mention a Baron Munchausen poster autographed by Terry Gilliam. A request book is on a counter near the exit; they never took up any of my suggestions. And the other people, between or after shows, congregate in the lobby and outside before dissipating into the late night, sometimes to the Dunn Bros on Washington, which then became Bayou Coffee, and which then became the European Grind. Other times they go to Stub and Herb’s.

I never found that "lost" thing for which I searched. It was in front of me but distant, large and loud but muted. Whatever I look for in movies has the specificity of a beautiful woman’s face that I can’t hold onto in my mind. Before long, the prejudice of memory restructures her: adapting and scripting her, photographing her, editing her, and then she is scored to music. The memory is the dreamhouse of moviemaking with its complicated mechanics and frustrating inaccuracies. The precise memory only usurps the remnants of the original thought as if by accident, caught like a butterfly. So, you see, the Oak Street, and cinema, is the questing quester trying to find time, control it, while also invoking how time gets away, leaving ghosts that will taunt another day. It reminds me of mortality - and the longing for immortality.

I got to fulfill that desire of simulating my dream and seeing Nashville there again. It was even the same time of year (August 16 instead of August 15), and I brought friends along. It almost feels like Owen Wilson is up to his time travelling adventures in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. But I couldn’t duplicate the magic of that original illumination. Not that the movie had gotten bad (I’ve watched and studied Nashville several times since) – but my attempt to replicate that original Oak Street feeling with Nashville from that night – was impossible, like falling in love with the same person again. There was an incomplete gap between my waking reality and the dream theater of the mind. Illusions go the way of the screen, while reality sticks with us. It reminds me of another Allen picture, my favorite of his, The Purple Rose of Cairo, as Mia Farrow looks up at her beloved screen, in heaven as the actors sing, but still, in "reality," estranged and in the muck. It's an enchantment.


In his commendable memoir, Life Itself, Roger Ebert describes the almost supernatural component of a film critic’s profession. He writes, “There is something unnatural about just…going to the movies. Man has rehearsed for hundreds of thousands of years to learn a certain sense of time. He gets up in the morning and the hours wheel in their ancient order across the sky until it grows dark again and he goes to sleep. A movie critic gets up in the morning and in two hours it is dark again, and the passage of time is fractured by editing and dissolves and flashbacks and jump cuts. ‘Get a life,’ they say. Sometimes movie critics feel as if they’ve gotten everybody else’s.” Film lovers exist out of time, above it, through it, and so maybe it’s harder for them to exist in it. Living in and through movies is much like living in the mind, travelling through one’s interiority, because our thoughts are not linear. Memory’s method precedes us.

Here are some fragments: As I’ve mentioned in a recent post, Truffaut’s Day for Night, and feeling the kinship for the young Truffaut going to the cinema, like it were an archetypal castle of temple in his dreams, so much like mine, and stealing away the Citizen Kane posters. There was the night when the Oak Street promised William Friedkin’s personal print of The French Connection (1971), which they tested hours prior to showtime, and discovered that Friedkin had neglected to take into consideration how the color was heavily faded. Bob Cowgill addressed the house and asked for a vote: either Friedkin’s faded print, or an alternate, with scratches but good color. We took the one with scratches. I took dates to see The Last Temptation of Christ, Some Like It Hot, and Last Tango in Paris. Then Visconti’s The Leopard on a Good-God freezing November night in 2004. Dragging some high school friends from Cottage Grove to see Soderbergh’s Schizopolis, showing one night only. Coworkers getting together for Young Frankenstein. The opportunity to see Heaven’s Gate, the movie blamed for the fall of Hollywood’s greatest era – and yet viewed objectively, with intermission on a Sunday afternoon, I thought it was wrought with a rarely matched sadness, its beauty aching. Cimino was Judas – and like in Last Temptation, Heaven’s Gate at the Oak Street showed me how this film had been unjustly maligned.

I frequented retrospectives on directors, like Wilder, Scorsese, Bergman, Kurosawa, Altman, Kubrick, and Polanski, never forgetting the cackling mischief of finally being able to see Cul-de-Sac, Polanski’s absurdist gangster comedy that has been out-of-print until just a couple months ago when Criterion finally issued it on DVD. I shared the religious awe of Breaking the Waves with a good friend of mine, with whom I enjoyed theological conversations, and then seeing Lost Highway on a big screen for the seventh time – and for some reason, the late night screening at the Oak was the most haunting presentation of Lynch’s 1997 nightmare noir. Other times I sat rapt during films playing some of my favorite music: The Band in The Last Waltz (preceded, I think, by some of Scorsese’s short films), David Bowie’s final Spiders from Mars concert in Ziggy Stardust, and Alan Parker’s Pink Floyd: The Wall, an often derided film, but considering I love the album so much, I couldn’t help but be enthralled by it.

I lost touch. Or maybe we all did. Bob Cowgill relinquished his duties soon after merging with the U Film Society (the two establishments apparently had their differences), and the cinema’s programming suffered. The offerings lacked the impeccable consistency (as you can see in the calendars) of those early days. The historical perspective was absent. Students outside were now ripping their movies from pirating networks and staying close to home, the pirating perhaps, as Steven Soderbergh has suggested, resulting in studios taking fewer risks in a risk vs. reward market. The luster had faded and the gold turned grey. The other highlights were modest, like a Friday midnight Twin Peaks series, which ran the show up through the death of Leland Palmer, and then the 1992 feature Fire Walk With Me. There was pie and coffee.


I’m happy with the last film I saw there, in March of 2007, which I see as a wonderful bookend with Nashville, and also a poetic musing on the nature of images with its own haunting sense of walking into the theater of dreams and staring up at one’s own self. Unlike Nashville, which was an old film, this final picture was in its initial, self-distributed theatrical run. David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE took me into its dark stairway, going down flights of its abstractions, fears, and longings, and three hours later when the lights went up, I wanted to stay there, inside. The film remained with me days after, not letting me go. INLAND EMPIRE was shot digitally, and denoted the changing nature of motion pictures in the digital era, but it was designed, I think, to be seen in a theater. Unfortunately most people assumed, because it was shot on consumer grade cameras, that television was its rightful place, and so were less able to be immersed in it, as I had in Oak Street. The irony is fitting, considering that Nashville on video had me craving the real experience of what its exhibition should be. Both films, by two masters, lit up my sense of interiority, where the subjective self goes on to encompass the whole extended world. That’s the ecstasy of INLAND EMPIRE’s lip-synched “Sinnerman” conclusion, as the actress played by Laura Dern has conquered the illusions of Hollywood Hell to become her infinite creative self, in the image, through the image, and above the image, the final grace reaching through and touching us. Through her journey, we go inside the illusion of a film set and are lost in the melodrama. One character goes into another, and then another, the screens like doorways. Cinema conveys the plethora of human psychological experience. I walked out of INLAND EMPIRE and into my personal inland empire, the geography of my mind. It’s as if there was no separation between the air of Oak Street and the brain’s synapses which constructs a reality. Recalling the Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain passage opening this post, documenting Swiss sanitarium patients at a cinema in the years leading up to the Great War, I wanted to go back into Lynch’s new map of time, and get lost again and again, and like an animist spirit, be a part of the lives of others, including their dream selves. We are far away, as Lynch's self-penned ethereal song narrates while a weeping woman watches a scrambled television, but we can still "see it there."

And that was it. The Oak Street closed, a lot of its programming ably replaced by Sound Unseen in Minneapolis, and then the wonderful stuff that Barry Kryshka has put together at the Trylon Microcinema on 33rd and Minnehaha in South Minneapolis. A lot of the familiar ornaments from the Oak is preserved and framed there, from priceless posters to the smell of the popcorn. But the air lacks the ancient mustiness. The restroom has no bid to resist eating the urinal cakes, nor is there a face breaking through the tiles, or even Clint’s visage on the door. The Holy Ark, as it were, has been smuggled out of the closed tabernacle of a grand palace and into a modest church, but the rituals are intact, and the dead still resurrect nightly. For that I’m thankful.

The parallels work out in a way that hushes me. On October 3, 2011, I read that the Oak Street Cinema was dead, and on October 3, 1997, I went there to stupidly flirt with the ticket girl, herself sharing some affinities with Bardot’s Camille from the Godard picture playing that night. On the radio, 89.3 the Current plays Ash’s “Goldfinger” from their album 1977, which I first heard during that late summer/early fall of 1997, incorporated into a soundtrack that included Radiohead’s OK Computer, Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie b-sides, Blur’s self-titled album, a lot of old Peter Gabriel, an infectious one-hit-wonder by a weird group of anarchists (Chumbawumba!), This Mortal Coil's 1984 album It'll End in Tears, a Cocteau Twins box set of EPs, and finally David Bowie, whose presence on the Lost Highway soundtrack, along with an October 17 tour appearance in St. Paul, inspired me to buy his albums and gradually become a big fan.

In October, I’m dancing on the dead leaves and leaving the summer glow behind. Time marches forth, accelerating too rapidly. Those pregnant days from the late 1990s are gone now, and that block, the Oak Street block, of both geographical space and interior time, is, if not blurry, puzzling because how it feels more recent than subsequent happenings, and yet more distant from the years preceding it. It’s its own film, its own dissolve-laden montage set to music, with its own archetypes, meandering melodramas, and frosted close-ups. Finally, like a film, it’s impossible to articulate, which is the bane of film writing and criticism, just as the analytical theologian will always be a few steps removed from the Divine.

On this day in 1997 I heard the theme from Godard’s Contempt, which Scorsese used in 1995’s Casino. I never saw Casino at the Oak, but the day I saw it, Thanksgiving 1995 at the Edina on 50th and France, was the last day I saw my grandfather, who elevated my appreciation of imagination and make-believe. So that piece of score holds resonance for his memory, just as it does for Bardot’s Camille, in a film about films and images adored “totally, tenderly, tragically,” just as Scorsese’s film is about images and the subject’s desire to control and dominate it, as Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) must the hollow Ginger (Sharon Stone). The spirits from both films and moments transmigrate, including the grandfather, autumn, temples and tabernacles (Casino describes the money room as “the holy of holies”), a beautiful ticket lady (the Rothsteins’ daughter has the same name), then beyond that Nashville and INLAND EMPIRE, and so everything else branching out. The Oak is appropriately named, representing its own tree of life. Scorsese ends Casino with the destruction of Old Las Vegas, which is his analogy to the end of the New Hollywood – both replaced by junk bonds and “Pirates of Caribbean.” “That’s that,” are his last narrating words, and the film ends with the Delerue music cue into the credits. So it is with Oak Street.

When I saw my grandfather’s corpse at his wake, two weeks after Casino and the “Theme de Camille,” I had the same reaction Thomas Mann writes about in The Magic Mountain, where Hans Castorp sees his dead grandfather: “The man who lay there, or better, what lay there, was not Grandfather himself, but a shell – which, as Hans Castorp knew, was not made of wax, but of its own material.” The grandfather had told young Hans the story of a particular baptismal bowl many times, like a family incantation, which linked the Castorps together. The water from this bowl was used to baptize Hans eight years ago, just as it baptized the grandfather 75 years ago, and then the great-great-greats would follow, “that somber sound of the crypts and buried time, which nevertheless both expressed a reverently preserved connection of his own life in the present to things now sunk deep beneath the earth and simultaneously had a curious effect of him: the same effect visible in the look on his face.”

Seeing the grandfather’s shell, that mass of gross body stuff so different from the storyteller who warmly passed on information to little Hans, is a kind of entrance into maturity, after which Hans Castorp is searching for this baptismal bowl, the grail, the secret of life and death, of animation, chaos and order. Echoes of that mystery, for Mann, reverberate in the Bioscope Theatre, where the past comes around again and the dead are once more alive, or Un-Dead. In Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, which I saw at the Oak Street with my friend Naida Zukic in September of 2003, when Jesus dies on the cross we see the film, the frames, the grain, the raw material of the picture: the film alone, a collection of unmoving photographs separated from the light, is death. Scorsese's ending reminds us that this is still a happy ending, and the moving frames in the light represent the resurrection. Indeed, for Scorsese and Jesus, it is accomplished: Cinema is Resurrection. Maybe it’s the same dynamic for me, and so why I insert my grandfather into the personally indulgent poetic narrative of my Oak Street Cinema. After all, He also, like the screening of Nashville, often resurrects in my dreams, and so shares a seat in the Oak's auditorium. The Oak Street Cinema was a kind of central magic mountain in my world, maybe to a bizarre extent, sculpting me and my senses, dictating my memories, at last being reduced to one. I can’t place the chronology together in perfect order, I can’t remember the details of space precisely as they were, and the faces are out of focus. Maybe nothing I write here is true. It’s drawn from a murky and contaminated well of memory, and like a film it is necessarily inaccurate. Someday, like the Oak Street, it too will be gone. And that’s that.


  1. To say "hey, this is a really good post" seems profoundly inadequate.

  2. A very nice write up. Thank you-

    Barry Hans
    Co- founder of Oak St. Cinema/ Oak St. Arts