Oak Street & Lynch
Until last year there was a small one screen theater on the University of Minnesota campus called the Oak Street Cinema. Now it’s condos. Or, I should say, it will be condos starting August of 2012.
The theater catered to a variety of art house and revival cinema. It was a venue for the Mpls/St. Paul International Film Festival and hosted people such as Peter Fonda to screen his film The Hired Hand.
It’s where I bought my pristine Modern Times poster and where I introduced my future wife to the works of David Lynch. Oak Street was the only theater in the city to screen his film Inland Empire.
I still remember the moment my wife turned to me, early in the film, and asked “what did you bring me to?”
It’s a moment I will cherish until the day I die. It’s a moment that reminds me why I like going to movies in a movie house. And it’s a moment that is slowly dying.
Last year the theater was torn down. Bit by bit it was broken apart and eradicated from the landscape. I walked by the theater every day as this happened. The entire process took over a week and the moment I realized what was happening I started to bring my camera along.
There was no fanfare. No big goodbyes. There was something really sad about this place that had great importance to me disappearing and yet no attention, as far as I could tell, was being paid to it. People walked on. Cars sat in traffic. This example of a great part of my young experience was crumbling and the rest of the world just kept on like nothing happened.
To be fair, the theater was not in operation for some time before it. Over the years the site had a harder and harder time drawing attendees through its doors. From what I’ve been reading many theaters are feeling the same sort of pain.
David Lynch’s Inland Empire was the last film I saw in the theater. Fitting, I suppose. Many things were happening around that time to signal a new life. I was in pre-production of my first feature film. I was in the beginning stages of a relationship that already seemed like it could last and for the first time I was seeing a great filmmaker’s work exhibited the way it was supposed to be exhibited.
When the film started the sound was awful. At first I worried this was a byproduct of a theater slowly fading from existence. This was not how my future wife should experience David Lynch.
Especially considering the length and approach of the film.
I started to get anxious in the seat. Wondering to myself, is this how it will be? Oh, this cannot be good.
When my wife asked “what did you bring me to” it was during these opening moments. I had no answer. It was unclear what I had brought her to. This wasn’t the Lynch I knew. Lynch was a brilliant artist with a keen sense for using sound and music. But, here we were. Watching Lynch without the benefit of a speaker system.
And then, BANG!
Up came The Hollywood Sign and with it the sound of the picture. My heart leapt. I had no idea that he was playing a game. I could only hope the problem would be resolved.
In my wildest dreams I never imagined he would play with his audience for so long simply to make a point with a single moment. But, there it was. And now, we could enjoy (for some endure) the next couple of hours.
My wife and I return to this moment often. Sometimes as anecdote; other times as point of reference.
I remember thinking how amazing it was that she was willing to go without any previous experience. These are not her kind of movies. She loves a great comedy or a good car chase with explosions. But, she was willing to go.
Each day and night as I was standing on the street watching pieces of that experience torn away I ran through all the space had afforded. Years earlier I had seen Play Time here. What got me to that film was a very small picture in the paper which I thought exhibited a man with a shotgun in an office place. Boy was I off the mark. But, the film was greater than my small mind imagined.
These were days prior to Netflix and internet exhibition and everything we have come to take for granted today. In those days if you couldn’t find a theater to screen it you might not get a chance to see it. DVD was possible, but they were expensive to buy and most often were not available in the movie rentals near my home.
Inland Empire is the only David Lynch film I have seen in the theater. With each photo I took I saw those nightmares. With each photo I for some reason imagined my hopes of seeing any more of Lynch’s work in the theater demolished. Obviously (or maybe not so obviously) Eraserhead will forever be a midnight movie, but much of his other work does not carry the same cache and he has now moved on to greater ideas with predominant exhibition on the web.
After the film we walked the streets. It was a warm evening and people were out and about. We didn’t talk much about the film. To be honest, I didn’t know where to begin. I was worried it might have done something to the early romance.
But, no. My wife found it interesting. I think a lot of people would say the same if they didn’t despise it. There is plenty to like and dislike with the film. An argument could be made that the process was much more important than the final product and we are now seeing what Lynch learned through the varied projects he has undertaken with the medium.
I just wish the theater was still there*. I understand why it isn’t. The surrounding community is becoming a haven for condo development as the school attempts to turn itself into a place where students live. But, I look at the condos and feel sorrow.
I can never return to those seats. I can never smell the air. I can never buy a ticket from a raffle roll.
It was an incredible theater that signaled adulthood for me. I was able to begin going once I could drive myself. The choice was mine to see things there. And on one evening the choice was Lynch, in a broken seat with the woman I eventually married wondering what in the hell she had gotten herself into.
*As of this article’s publication the MN Film Arts’ website still lists it as in operation.
Sorry to see the Oak Street go but, glad to read your article! I saw so many films here when I worked at the U of M from 1969-1976. I even fell asleep during Patton while on a blind date in this theater!