Last Saturday evening — thanks to clever planning on my part (read: I’d forgotten that Che Part One started at 7:20 rather than 7:00) — I ended up with a half hour to kill at the Fine Arts Theatre. The staff was busy and the weather didn’t exactly make the prospect of stepping out for a smoke particularly appealing, so I wandered on into the theater and sat down to wait. Having nothing to distract me, I ended up thinking about just how much time I’d spent in that theater in the past eight and a half years and trying to mentally catalogue what all I’d seen there.
None too surprisingly, I didn’t have much luck coming to any actual conclusion. But it made me curious enough that I later went through the archived movie reviews on the Xpress site and took a shot at amassing a list — everything from 21 Grams (2003) to Zatoichi (2003). I’m sure I missed some titles, and there are some omissions in the archives, but I came up with a little over 250 titles — not counting retrospective screenings at the film festival, movies seen more than once and things like that. Figuring that at roughly two hours a movie, that’s about 500 hours. A pretty hefty chunk of moviegoing time. Put in another light, 250 movies represents nearly 100 more titles of new releases than I review in the space of a year.
On its own merits, this information is merely interesting trivia—about on a par with those old “Fun Facts to Know and Tell” Juicy Fruit adverts that used to run on the bottom of the Sunday comics in newspapers. What is more noteworthy is the quality of those 500 hours. Running down the list of titles I encountered only a handful of titles that I’d say weren’t worth the time it took to watch them—Cache (2005), Margot at the Wedding (2007), My Wife Is an Actress (2001), Paranoid Park (2008), Rodger Dodger (2002), Sidewalks of New York (2001), Super Size Me (2004), Waking Life, (2001), What the Bleep Do We Know? (2004). That’s nine movies spread over eight years. I could probably name nine movies playing in mainstream theaters right now that aren’t worth the time it takes to watch them.
I’m not making the case that the other 246 are all great works of cinema. I can certainly rattle off a number of overrated titles that have played there, but they were still worth taking the trouble to see. I may never want to see In the Bedroom (2001) again—in fact, I don’t—but I’m glad I saw it once. More to the point, I’m glad I had the opportunity to see it once. And that’s the kicker.
When I first came to Asheville with an eye toward possibly moving here, it didn’t escape my notice that the Fine Arts was showing Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters (1998) and that Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) was coming soon. I won’t say it was a deciding factor, but it certainly had bearing on my decision. For that matter, when I finally made the move in August of 2000, one of the first things I did was go to the Fine Arts to see Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). Now, despite its greatness, this isn’t one of my favorite movies, but the chance to actually see it in a theater wasn’t something I was passing up.
That was just the tip of the iceberg, especially once I started reviewing for the Xpress—at which point it became something of a haven. Is there a better antidote to staring at the prospect of sitting through Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away (2000) than starting the evening by watching a re-issue of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964)? I certainly viewed it that way, and was glad of it. I still am.
Every so often during our Friday radio segment, Matt Mittan will try to get me to tell him which theater in town is my favorite. I’ve always dodged the question. I go to most of the area theaters, have good working relationships with them and have friends at them, so it’s a particularly loaded question I’m disinclined to answer.
I will, however, say that the Fine Arts takes place of pride in terms of identity and what it shows, which is part of its identity. Of course, a lot of this comes from the fact that it’s not a corporate entity. It belongs to no chain of theaters and as a result is more responsive to the local moviegoing public. As a theater, it answers only to owner John Cram and manager Neal Reed, not to some far off corporation that hasn’t a clue as to local demographics. That makes it truly Asheville’s own theater—a distinction I sometimes think we forget or take for granted, especially if we’re in the mood to bitch about downtown parking.
Stop for a minute and think back on what we’ve seen in Asheville strictly because of the Fine Arts. Sure, there are a number of crossover movies—movies that became big enough that the more mainstream theaters picked them up. Yes, we’d have seen Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire eventually because of its popularity and its awards, but who opened the film here before that was established? The same is true of Gus Van Sant’s Milk. Take a film like Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind. It opened at the Epic in Hendersonville and promptly tanked, but the Fine Arts took a chance on it as a movie that might play well in Asheville—and it did.
Looking over my list of titles I see title after title that we’d have had to wait for the DVD release to have seen locally had it not been for the Fine Arts. Consider the landscape of film in Asheville without Bad Education (2006), Bee Season (2005), The Band’s Visit (2008), Being Julia (2004), Breakfast on Pluto (2005), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Dirty Pretty Things (2003), The Dreamers (2004), Garden State (2004), Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), In Bruges (2008), Loggerheads (2005), Mulholland Drive (2001), Paprika (2007), Paris, Je T’aime (2007), The Science of Sleep (2006), Shortbus (2006), Sunshine (2007), Synechdoche, New York (2008), Talk to Her (2002), Volver(2006), Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)—the list goes on.
From the standpoint of serious film, this practically is the picture of Asheville movie life. Think of it without these films and without a place that will show them. Would some of them have made it into a corporate theater? A few perhaps. Most of them, no. Some movies—like Bad Education, The Dreamers, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Shortbus—would not play most corporate theaters simply based on their NC-17 ratings or unrated status.
When you think about Asheville and its status as an “arts destination” (however that’s defined) and a moviegoing town with a taste for more than the most mainstream fare, remember this and realize that this didn’t happen entirely by accident and that this oasis in what is otherwise too often a sea of cinematic mediocrity is our very own treasure. Me, I’m just looking forward to the next 500 hours spent there. It keeps me (marginally) sane while facing the prospect of Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.