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November 24, 2009

Seeing the Smaller Picture — Arthouse Cinema at the Catamount Arts Center

35-shots When you go to the movies today, you feel less like a guest of the house and more like a sheep in transit. In the barnyard maze of a mega-cinema multiplex, you’re lucky if you get a seat — really lucky if you’re a row’s distance from the rest of the pack, especially the chatty couples and compulsive text messagers.

The romance (really, the feed) begins not a moment before the tacky trivia and trailers finish. Seconds into the flick, the bombs explode, the high-speed car chase rears its head, and the predictable love affair sparks. Before you can say, "Bah," you’re in a two-hour, $8.75 Hollywood entertainment coma.

What’s missing from this modern picture isn’t only a red curtain and a greeting face. It’s an appreciation for the art of film and the experience of an independent theater.

Enter Catamount Arts, an independent theater in St. Johnsbury. It's "one of about 200 left in the country," claims Jerry Aldredge, film director.

"This means we deal directly with the distributors," says Aldredge. "Instead of hiring a middle-man company" that assesses the theater's market and tastes, then does the bidding, "a few other film buffs and myself sit down and choose films we’d like to watch ourselves."

Modeled after its metropolitan predecessors, such as the Angelika Film Center in Manhattan (1989) and the Coolidge Corner Theater in Boston (1933), the Catamount Arts Center has a righteous philosophy: “We only choose films that have artistic or cultural merit. This rules out most blockbuster and Hollywood films – allowing us to sift through the best of independent, documentary, and foreign films,” says Aldredge.

With the weight of a mission to bring the best of true arthouse films to the Northeast Kingdom on his shoulders, Aldredge admits to "a strategic game of showing and picking films." 

"Distributors," Aldredge explains, "are not willing to give us the film on the very day that it comes out, so premiering films can be tricky. Most art films do not have many prints, either." 

Financially, the business of independent cinema is trying; the Catamount Arts Center relies on both "the films to pay for themselves, to at least break even" and on a small amount of funding from the School of Cinema and Performing Arts in NYC.

The Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield, another indie theater, also relies on creative financing to stay afloat. Co-owner Claudia Becker says the theater shows first-run movies "if we can get them" and relies on earnings from the theater's restaurant, as well as contributions from members. "It's a total balancing act between commerciality and 'arthouse cinema,'" says Becker.

Merrill's Roxy in Burlington and the Palace 9 in South Burlington both program a mix of indie films and standard Hollywood fare. But the Savoy in Montpelier and Catamount Arts are the only ones resolute in showcasing almost exclusively independent films.

In a Hollywood-dominated market, access to films that are not guaranteed blockbusters is a rarity. You don't necessarily go to an indie theater to escape — you may go for the provocation and political education. Unfortunately, this rarely translates into dollars. 

I first got wind of Catamount this week, when I was amazed to see Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum as a headliner. Denis is a French filmmaker whose semi-autobiographical debut Chocolat (1988) captured the essence of a childhood spent in the throes of French-African colonialism.

Tugging at the tight-woven social fabric of imperial power and racism in Cameroon, Denis opens on the sexual dialogue between her protagonist’s mother and the family’s African “houseboy.” As screenwriter Marguerite Duras does in Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and director Agnès Varda does in Cleo de 5 à 7 (1962), Denis entangles character and geographical metaphor, revealing an indissociable link between femininity and colonial repression.

The Catamount Arts Center is the only cinema in Vermont that showcased Denis’ latest art film!

You may have missed Denis this week, but be sure to catch the live feeds of "Times Talks," the National Theater of London, "A Prairie Home Companion" and the Metropolitan Opera in the near future. This Friday is the first day of a week-long showcase of Cédric Klapisch’s Paris and Sophie Barthes’ Cold Souls. Look for Black Dynamite and Still Walking on Nov. 27, and Big Fan on Dec. 4. All three have generated enthusiastic reviews.

All in all, art cinema is not dead. You may just have to drive to St. Johnsbury to find it.

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