I was talking to Neal Reed, manager of the Fine Arts Theatre, on Monday morning to see if 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was going to play a second week. Not surprisingly, the answer was “no.” I don’t guess it matters how well-reviewed it was — there’s just not that much call for bleak Romanian abortion dramas. Very few laughs. That’s actually beside the point, though, since what did surprise me was learning that Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind is still doing good business.
Goodness knows, I’m not complaining about this. It’s still far and away my favorite film of 2008. But only the day before, I’d noticed that it was way down the charts on the national level, with a per-theater average of $800 for the entire weekend. Yet here it is in Asheville, still drawing a crowd. In fact, after selling out this past Friday night, the theater moved it back downstairs to the larger house and banished the underperforming Romanian angst upstairs.
At this point, I think we can truly conclude that Be Kind Rewind qualifies for the accolade of an “Asheville movie.”
This isn’t an isolated occurence, by any means. I’m forever talking to friends in other parts of the country who tell me they tried to go see a movie I’d recommended, but that it had already come and gone, while the same movie will still have life in Asheville. Why?
I’ve been reviewing movies here since late 2000 and have noticed a tendency — and I’ve mentioned this before — for some movies to have this unusually long shelf-life. And very often it’s with movies that aren’t expected to do that well to begin with. I noticed this early on with the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou?.
It was easy to tell that the Disney folks didn’t think much of the picture, since it had a presskit consisting of an undersized booklet and one black-and-white 5” X 7” photo. At that time, it was standard for presskits to be 8.5” X 11” with copious notes and 10 to 15 Hollywood-type glossies. (These days, you’re lucky if you get a CD-ROM.) Plus, O Brother was booked into one theater. And it stayed and stayed and stayed. I noticed this, but didn’t make much of it at the time, since I’d no frame of reference.
The next time I saw something like it was with Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001), which was poised to be a hit, but slightly missed the mark to quickly become the biggest cult movie of the year. (Cult movie, by the way, merely means a movie that not a whole lot of people like, but the ones who do like it, like it a lot.) This was a case of a movie that opened in every possible local venue (read: any theater not within 5 miles of another theater playing the film) that dropped off fairly quickly to one theater where it settled in for a good run — one out of proportion to the rest of the country.)
What, if anything, connects the two films? Well, they’re both musicals, though I’m not sure O Brother is actually thought of in that light. They’re both quirky, inventive, stylized and, for want of a better term, artsy. At the same time, they’re none of those things in the same way. Luhrmann’s flashy colors and aggressive editing make the Coens’ limited color palette and choreographed camerawork look positively subdued. Similarly, Luhrmann’s pop music and movie musical-inspired script is a universe or two removed from the Coens’ Preston Sturges-like dialogue and their Homer-inspired storyline.
It seems to me that the biggest connection between the two lies in the shared appeal they might have for audiences wanting to see movies that offer something different, movies that actually push the boundaries of film. But I don’t think that’s the whole story.
Boundary-pushing is certainly something that one of the most notable of all “Asheville movies” did. I refer to Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). This is the film that really set me to thinking about the peculiarity of our special demographics. Eternal Sunshine was a movie that played here so long that people were driving from Columbia, S.C. to catch it. In fact, the distributor contacted the theater chain asking them to find out what was being done to promote the film here, since it had made so much money in this one location. The truth was that it wasn’t being promoted at all. It had simply caught on.
This isn’t to say that it had caught on with everyone. There was a certain amount of dissatisfaction from people who thought they were going to go see a “typical” Jim Carrey movie. And I heard of one viewer who was so angered by the film that he attempted to insist that the theater’s manager be forced to sit through the movie in order to “see the kind of crap you’re showing.”
Certain filmmakers seem to be pretty much guaranteed a warm reception locally. With the exception of Planet of the Apes (2001), which did good business but not with the director’s core audience, Tim Burton’s films catch on here more than they often do nationally. Regardless of their fates elsewhere Big Fish (2003), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) and even the limited (which proved not to be so limited here) 3-D reissue of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) had good runs in Asheville.
Wes Anderson is a filmmaker for very specialized tastes — and a lot of the people with those specialized tastes seem to live here. In all honesty, I don’t recall just how well The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) did locally, but I do remember it didn’t do badly. His next picture, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), underperformed (that’s Hollywood-speak for “lost money”) most places. And by most places, I mean as close as Hendersonville, where it had a week’s run that could charitably be called disastrous. It played in Asheville for at least six solid weeks of business. During the last couple weeks it was here, it had vanished off all but 50 other screens in the entire country. Anderson’s most recent film, The Darjeeling Limited (2007), fared poorly most places. It was if not the most popular, then certainly near the top of the list of popular films the Fine Arts played all year.
Another popular filmmaker on the Asheville scene is John Cameron Mitchell, who was actually in town for several weeks last fall. In fact, I found out after the fact that I was sitting behind him at The Savages during last year’s Asheville Film Festival. Both of his films Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) and Shortbus (2006) are definitely Asheville movies. The fact that the second — since it contains hardcore pornography, though is not in itself pornographic — played here at all says something.
I’m tempted to include David O. Russell on this list, but the only of his films to play here during my tenure has been I Heart Huckabees (2004). This is another film that played well locally. it had a nice run at the Fine Arts and was then picked up by the Carmike for a couple more weeks, but was received with outright hostility as close as Hendersonville, where one impassioned viewer saw it and wrote me a stern letter for having recommended this “vile” movie.
Neil Jordan’s filmography is probably too diffuse for him to qualify as an Asheville filmmaker. His The Good Thief (2002) didn’t do much locally, but his Breakfast on Pluto (2005) defied expectations — including opening to almost no business in Charlotte — to become a hit here. It followed this up by becoming one of the most-rented DVDs around, at least around here.
A film which has polarized quite a few people locally, Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2007) still qualifies as an Asheville movie, I think. How else can you explain the fact that this nationally underperforming film played here for eight weeks, and this was after it had played for two weeks in Hendersonville? Taymor’s Frida (2002) didn’t do badly here, but it was nothing like this in terms of longevity.
Danny Boyle mayn’t be quite a local favorite and his 28 Days Later… (2002) was hardly an Asheville phenomenon in terms of popularity. However, his Sunshine (2007) did far better in Asheville than in most places. That even came as a surprise to the folks at the Fine Arts who had been advised against booking it at all. This is another one that found a second life at another theater after leaving the Fine Arts. (It should be noted that movies occasionally depart the Fine Arts before they’re played out, owing to the logistics of having only two screens.)
After the phenomenon of Eternal Sunshine the likelihood of Michel Gondry having equal success with his The Science of Sleep (2006) was slim, and it came nowhere near doing it. It did, however, find an audience here, which was no mean feat for a film in three different languages with a generally sweet tone that was undercut by heartbreaking reality. Interestingly, when features were being judged for last year’s Asheville Film Festival, judge Robby Benson (who almost qualifies as an honorary Ashevillean) sent me an e-mail likening his feelings about the winning film, Year of the Fish, to those he’d felt upon first seeing The Science of Sleep. Is it completely coincidental that Year of the Fish also picked up the Audience Award for best film, something that almost never happens at film festivals? I’m going to say it isn’t.
And that brings us back to Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, the latest addition to the list of Asheville movies, and the question of what constitutes an “Asheville movie.”
I’m not sure that the question is answerable in any definite way. All of the movies I’ve cited here are similar in that they’re outside the realm of mainstream cinema, some more so than others. (Shortbus is a lot less mainstream than Across the Universe, for example.) They’re similar in that they’re all films that express the strong single point of view of the filmmakers. They have little to do with any sort of corporate filmmaking-by-committee mindset. The quirky quotient is high and all of them could be called offbeat.
Still, there’s something else I’ve noticed about nearly all the films, and I think it says a lot about Asheville. Nearly all of these films combine their own sense of effortless hipness (not a one seems to me to be trying to be cool, which, of course, is the coolest thing of all) with an amazing generosity of spirit. There’s not a mean-spirited or hateful movie in the bunch. I think that says something about Asheville right there.
Now, I’m not saying that Asheville is so unique that it’s immune to the big releases that find favor all over the country and even the world. It’s certainly not. I’m still shaking my head over the popularity of Alvin and the Chipmunks anywhere, and I cringe at the the fact that the saccharine and schmaltz of The Bucket List has made it the film that won’t die. These things happen. All the same, I remain impressed and heartened by Asheville’s ability to support a variety of wonderful movies that all too often fall be the wayside elsewhere.
Unfortunately, this is something that the movie studios haven’t figured out. As a result, we’re all too often looked on as a second-class market when it comes to specialized films. Then again, it may be just as well that they haven’t really noticed us.
There’s a key element in all this that I haven’t stressed — in most cases these movies thrived at one location. The question arises as to whether that would have happened at multiple locations.
I can think of two occasions when distributors killed movies by spreading them too thin — House of Flying Daggers (2004) and, more recently, The Jane Austen Book Club (2007). In both cases, Sony Classics decided that they had their hands on movies with a broader than usual appeal, so they insisted on opening them at as many local theaters as possible. The results were predictable. They’d cut the pie into too many pieces. If you added the weekend grosses from each theater together, they would have been sufficient to have put them over as at least modest successes. Divide that figure by three or four and you end up with movies it’s in no theater’s interest to hold over.
It might be in our — and the movies’ — best interest to keep the “Asheville movie” to ourselves.