In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Monday, September 2, 2013

77. Winter's Bone

Oaks Theatre

The Oaks Theatre opened on Solano Avenue in Berkeley in 1925. Designed by the Reid Brothers, who also designed the Grand Lake, the Oaks was originally a one-screen "Moorish" theater, but was later twinned in 1973.

At one time a part of Renaissance Rialto Theaters, the theater began the year as part of Metropolitan Theaters, but by April was being managed by Merriment Media (source). Sadly, the theater closed just a few months after my visit (source). While I was there, the manager told me that some patrons were confused, thinking that the theater was still closed from earlier in the year. Ultimately Merriment Media was able to keep the theater open for just nine months. A loss for the community.

Over the course of the year, the theater has shown blockbusters, independents, and Bollywood films, with an emphasis on kid movies during the day, and adult movies in the evenings.

The theater sports various decorative fixtures, like the mirrors at the drinking fountain, above, and gilded trim and elaborate wall sconces, below.

The hallway curves around the auditorium entrances, with stairwells to the closed balconies at either end. Overall, the theater is well maintained.

The auditorium doors contain etched glass, which does let in a bit of light, but is quite striking. As I walked down the hallway to my screen, I could see into the auditorium I was passing, a voyeur into the adventure being had by a different audience.

The auditoriums are long, an artifact of the twinning. Most of my fellow patrons were clumped together toward the front. The walls are thin; during moments of quiet, I could hear the movie next door, and noises from adjacent buildings.

Plaster trim rings the auditorium, with flowers and leaves stamped into it.

Though the theater originally had 1,500 seats, it now seats just 850 among its two screens (presumably because the balcony is closed). The seats are older, without any rocking.

A welcome change after so many modern multiplexes, the experience of being in an old theater is that of being part of history. I imagine decade after decade of excited movie goers streaming into the auditorium. It's peaceful and contemplative; sophisticated and fancy; it promises a romantic escape. A patron in front of me said, "I used to love ushers... they'd treat you like you were somebody." The ushers are already gone, but the beauty of the theater is still here.

This was my fourth and final visit to the theater, beginning with The Exorcist in 2000.


It's Kind of a Funny Story

Winter's Bone

While a question remains unanswered, all things are possible. The closer one gets to the truth, however, the more claustrophobic become the remaining possibilities.

Ree (Jennifer Lawrence, in a role that would earn her her first Oscar nomination) lives in the Missouri woods with her younger brother and sister. Their mother is long gone, and their father is recently absent. Though burdened too early with the rearing of two children, Ree is ever patient. She teaches them to shoot a rifle, skin a squirrel, cook potatoes, and to spell. When she makes deer stew she says, "Watch how I make it". She is responsible and motherly toward her siblings to a degree that is a delight to watch. Yet all her instruction portends a time when they too shall be forced to fend for themselves at too young an age.

Her duties are further burdened when the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) comes to the door inquiring about her father. The sheriff finds a cool greeting, and when Ree says she hasn't seen her father, we can't be sure if she's being honest or recalcitrant. Now motivated to find her father, at first perhaps to warn him, but later with more urgent purpose, Ree embarks on a quest that in a different community would be as simple as making a few phone calls. But in Ree's wilderness, everyone she seeks out is as close-lipped as she is.

With every scene we are cautioned that to speak is to betray. Ree instructs her siblings, "Never ask for what ought to be offered." One character tells another, "I said shut up already once with my mouth," warning that fists will follow. Noone speaks to the police; noone speaks to each other. A car driving up or a knock at the door are acts of aggression. Every house is guarded by a dog. Everyone is a suspicious protector and keeper of secrets.

At each door, Ree must navigate the strata of familial defense. Women act as the gatekeepers for their household, keeping visitors out as much for the visitor's sake as for their men's. Though her neighbors know who she is, Ree is treated little different from how she greeted the Sheriff. In making an active search, Ree has already broken out of her gendered role. She is questioned by one woman, "Ain't you got no men could do this?" The men, we come to learn, are volatile and dangerous. Ree's only ally is her uncle (John Hawkes); his allegiance is to Ree, but he is as interested as anyone in suppressing the truth; and we can never be entirely sure that he isn't a sexual predator.

The landscapes in Winter's Bone are beautiful but ominous, from the leaf-bare forests Ree walks through from house to house (she never takes roads), to icy swamps, to the houses themselves, surrounded by lawn ornaments, bicycles, and old vehicles, artifacts from some better life. In paleolithic times, humans feared the unknown stalking beasts of the night. Little is different here, except that the most dangerous creatures are other humans. Is there any other species that harbors a grudge, and seeks out a specific individual with the purpose of doing them harm? Winter's Bone is a haunting masterpiece of rural antagonism.

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