If comfort can be art, then the Walker Art Center’s newly remodeled cinema is ready to unveil a new Twin Cities masterpiece.
Not that the theater wasn’t already one of many local cinephiles’ favorite haunts, but thanks to a grant from the Bentson Foundation, the art museum is boasting a theater that can stand shoulder with just about any multiplex in town, both technologically and aesthetically.
It’s been a long time coming, too. The Walker has been presenting movies in the space since May 1971, when they inaugurated the space with a collection of short films, including The Great Toy Robbery, Space Place, and the classic Laurel and Hardy short The Music Box.
Though the screening room was somewhat ahead of the curve in the sense that its original incarnation as a mixed use auditorium gave it build-in stadium seating long before that became the standard in new theaters, there hadn’t been too many other tweaks in the cinema’s four decades’ worth of movie presentation.
Walker’s film curator Sheryl Mousley was quick to point out one of her least favorite aspects of the room prior to its overhaul, chastising the white ceilings toward the back of the room with their rattling ventilation.
Now, the theater’s ceilings are unobtrusively dark, as are the side panels and walls. In place of the old chairs (which, I have to say as a tall person, could turn many sold-out screenings longer than 80 minutes into something of a contortionists’ worst nightmare), there are rows and rows of red, ergonomically correct seats. The lobby has been redone with attractive black walls, setting the area apart from the rest of the museum and announcing it as an entity unto itself. The design came from John Cook of the Minneapolis-based architecture firm HGA.
The grant from the Bentson Foundation — $1 million in total, which was then split into a few museum projects — has also allowed the Walker to move forward with its plan to digitize its cinematic holdings, which is great as the theater just upgraded their projection room to include a new 4K DCP digital projector (which is incidentally capable of presenting in 3-D, as the Walker did earlier this year for Wim Wenders’ dance doc Pina). Purists should fear not, though. The Walker will continue to run movies on 16mm and 35mm film, as well, using a two-projector reel-to-reel procedure (not platters) that will ensure their functionality as an archival rep house.
To commemorate the new digs’ first days in operation, Mousley picked three films to run through the weekend that would touch upon what the Walker Cinema stands for: contemporary artistry, global political relevance, and cinematic history. The movies they’ve selected (in that order) are:
— Beasts of the Southern Wild: Benh Zeitlin’s bayou excursion into magical realism that was the toast of Sundance and won a prize at Cannes; the movie is set to open at Landmark Theaters later this summer),
— This is Not a Film: A devastating, surreptitiously produced account of the persecution of world class Iranian director Jafar Panahi (whose Crimson Gold was, in my opinion, one of the greatest films of the aughts), who was banned from making films for two decades owing to his vocal support of Iran’s opposition party. (In something of an ironic stroke, the movie, which was shot in part on an iPhone, is being screened at the Walker digitally. This is not a film, indeed.)
— Aelita: Queen of Mars: A positively loopy Russian 1924 sci-fi fantasy with shades of both Fritz Lang and Marcel L’Herbier. Little known outside of isolated pockets of cult-like devotion, Yakov Protazanov’s silent epic will be presented with a live musical accompaniment by composer Dennis James and Mark Goldstein, who will be playing on, among other instruments, a Theremin.
Given all the technological advances the theater has undergone, I asked if we could be expecting a forthcoming Regis dialogue with Michael Bay. Mousley and public relations rep Christopher James laughed with me at the suggestion, but didn’t discount the idea totally. (I’m pretty sure their equipment would do Transformers 3 … um, justice.)
Be it Bay or the hometown heroes the Coen Brothers or French New Wave titan Chris Marker or the endlessly fascinating Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who is currently working with the Walker to curate an avant-garde program and whose new film Mekong Hotel should be making its Twin Cities premiere at the Walker this fall), the refreshed Walker Cinema should attract top artists from worldwide for decades to come.