Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Thanks to Seth Rogen and Kim Jong-un, I got to see a Robert Altman movie tonight

A funny thing happened on my way home to Houston from the CMA Music Festival in Nashville: My departure was delayed, so I got to see Robert Altman's That Cold Day in the Park -- a singularly idiosyncratic 1969 feature I had not seen since its original release -- at a major Altman retrospective organized by the Belcourt Theatre here in Music City.

But wait, there's more: At the end of the screening, I got so speak with two very special Belcourt guests: Kathryn Reed Altman, the filmmaker's widow, and frequent Altman collaborator Michael Murphy, who played a small but key role in the 1969 film. Cowabunga.

Actually, this was my second sampling of the Belcourt's Altman retrospective during this Nashville sojourn. Last Wednesday, I had the irresistible opportunity to see Nashville on the 40th anniversary of that 1975 classic's theatrical opening. And again, the Belcourt offered a special added attraction: Vintage TV news footage of the movie's local premiere, an extravaganza attended by several real-life country music stars (including Minnie Pearl, who seemed impressed by the acting but not by Nashville itself) and a few stars cast as country artists in Altman's epic. (Henry Gibson, evidently sensing that many locals were less than impressed by the film's depiction of Music City denizens, diplomatically told TV reporters how much he really, really enjoyed shooting Nashville in Nashville.) 

The Robert Altman retrospective continues through July 7 at the Belcourt Theatre, Nashville's premier art-house cinema. In a brochure prepared for the series, Belcourt programming director Toby Leonard credits Seth Rogen and Kim Jong-un for making it all possible. No, seriously.

Leonard writes:

The week between Christmas and New Year's has always been a tricky one in the art house world. Dominated by big-budget studio pictures with visions of gold statuettes dancing in their heads, what's an independent cinema to do? In 2013, we had a major success in that period with Inside Llewyn Davis on one screen and the opening of a three-week Hitchcock series on the other. In 2014, our plans were to have a solid run of Birdman going, with a series of Capra restorations tacked onto the end of our yearly holiday run of It's a Wonderful Life. By Thanksgiving, the Belcourt was already on track for a record year for ticket sales. But there were strange rumblings afoot. 

On Monday, Dec. 22, as friends and relatives were dialing down for the holidays, Sony Pictures -- at the behest of major multiplexes, fearful of North Korean retaliation -- had already put its planned Christmas Day release of The Interview on hold. By that point, many independent theaters had made offers to Sony to screen the film. I'd made my own inquiry, perhaps as some sort of joke. After all, what does a mainstream bro-comedy have to do with our mission anyhow? But by Monday evening, with the aid of the Alamo Drafthouse chain and the leadership committee of the Art House Convergence (upon which we sit), it seemed that a last-minute release of The Interview could actually happen. On Tuesday, it became a reality. Since Sony had restored the Capra films we'd planned for that week, we had no issue cutting showtimes from that to allow The Interview to open two days later. Local and national media descended. The rest is history and is totally on Google.

So, why rehash this story at all? It goes back to misgivings about the film itself and why, at the end of a banner year, would we alter plans to accommodate this movie (which was ultimately validated by an amazing outpouring of support). As programmer of the theatre and nonetheless still conflicted, I resolved to use our cut of the ticket sales for good. I decided on Robert Altman.

Many larger-scale repertory series have been underwritten by generous donors who have allowed us to really go out on a limb with some of our larger projects: Hitchcock, Bresson, the Coen Brothers, just to name a few. However, this one is different.

So, here it is, 19 features covered entirely by the proceeds from one truly remarkable folly. Thank you, Robert Altman. Thank you, Seth Rogen. And thank you, Nashville, for 90 years of support.

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