It's hard to believe that the Fine Arts Cinema only has been in business about four years. For the significant impact it's made on the Bay Area specialized-film scene, the movie theater would seem to have been there forever. In the time since Keith Arnold, Emily Charles, and Josephine Scherer first opened the doors of their homey repertory art house on a drowsy block of downtown Berkeley in January of 1998, the Fine Arts has become a Berkeley institution, a beacon for the film-crazy, a scruffy monument to noncommercialism in an increasingly crass entertainment landscape, a place where bohemians and multiplex refugees could watch hand-painted shorts, rare silent pics, dance film fests, and the complete works of such auteurs as Hal Hartley and Jean-Luc Godard while sipping coffee beneath homemade posters.
But all that is about to change. The Fine Arts will close Sunday night, June 30, after the last showing of Lotte Reiniger's hypnotic 1926 animated fantasy, The Adventures of Prince Achmed -- the same film that opened the Fine Arts in 1998. The old structure (in earlier incarnations a porno house and Bombay cinema) will be torn down. And if all goes well, a brand-new Fine Arts will magically appear in more or less the same location, probably by June of 2004, with a full-sized state-of-the-art auditorium plus a gallery, a museum and performance space, a cafe, and a hundred-seat screening room.
The new, improved Fine Arts is part of a proposed five-story, hundred-living-unit, mixed-use project by Berkeley developer Patrick Kennedy and his company Panoramic Interests. For the Fine Arts, partnership with Kennedy means a ticket to the film buffs' promised land: a 7,000-square-foot space with 24-foot ceilings (compared to the current 20) in the auditorium and lobby, which will occupy the ground-floor center of the new Fine Arts Building; a versatile space for Arnold's Cinema Preservation Society and its screening room and museum; the Newsreel Cafe, a movie-themed snack shop operated by the folks from nearby La Note restaurant; and a twenty-year lease on the above. In other words, a true Cinema Paradiso.
One might assume that the sometimes-controversial Kennedy is benefiting from having an arts organization as the project's centerpiece in order to avoid certain zoning restrictions on the new project, as he did in the case of the Gaia Building in Berkeley. But Kennedy says that's not the case. "It was already zoned for a 65-foot-tall building," he says of the property. "There are obvious public-relations benefits, but we didn't get any economic benefit at all." Rather, Kennedy says the Fine Arts complex is part of his oft-stated wish to make Berkeley "a West-Coast Greenwich Village."
Keith Arnold buys that proposition. "He believes arts animate a neighborhood. They enhance the value of his properties, and Kennedy has been on the forefront of getting the most out of his projects," he says. "He could have turned our proposal down, you know. He's certainly not following the money on this; it could just as easily have been a shoe store instead of us." Arnold wouldn't disclose how much rent he'll be paying ("We have a promise that we're going to be paying essentially the same rent we always have"), but he's clearly happy. "We've already got the theater designed, and it's the one we wanted. The city wants this to happen. The zoning board passed it unanimously with one condition: that the theater must be the same size. With our architect, Harvey Hacker, we've been able to design the theater from the ground up. It'll have elevation changes, including an eighty-seat loge area."
The ambitious scope of the new movie complex comes into focus more fully when discussing the Cinema Preservation Society, a separate nonprofit organization that will act as a curator, programmer, and presenter for the Fine Arts, as well as other theaters. In spinning off the Society from the Fine Arts, Arnold is following a trend among the dwindling few remaining independent repertory exhibitors -- going nonprofit as a shelter from the marketplace. Says Arnold of the gambit, which has been put forth as a panacea for ailing rep houses like SF's Roxie Cinema: "It sure can't hurt." Under Arnold's plan, the Fine Arts Cinema itself will remain for-profit, while the nonprofit Cinema Preservation Society, a separate company which will in some cases rent the Fine Arts for its riskier, less commercially viable events, will take advantage of public funding and grants in its efforts to champion worthy noncommercial films.
Arnold sees the Society's role as threefold: presentation of worthwhile films; preservation, in the sense of programming rare films that have undergone technical preservation; and interpretation of noncommercial films through ancillary events such as live music and filmmaker appearances. "It legitimizes our information base and access to scarce film," says Arnold. The Cinema Preservation Society will have its own offices in the new building, alongside a small screening room and a gallery space for ambient projections and installations, including large-scale paintings of classic theater interiors by artist Yoshiro Yoda of New York. Arnold even envisions a scenario in which the Society could rent a living unit in the new building for a filmmaker-in-residence.
When it opened in 1998, the Fine Arts' quirky bill of fare hit a bull's-eye in the movie-mad East Bay market, midway between the rambunctiousness of the now-defunct UC Theatre and the academic comprehensiveness of the Pacific Film Archive. Arnold and his partners play down talk of competition ("Not one of us can do it all," says Arnold), but with the Fine Arts' new prominence, added to the established luster of the PFA, Berkeley will be able to lay claim to being the film fanatics' Mecca of Northern California.
In the meantime, there's the two-year hiatus, which will take the three Fine Arts principals down diverging paths. Veteran union projectionist Josephine Scherer, who is continuing as the Fine Arts' technical director, now concerns herself with matters such as the number of seats in the new house, fire laws, and building codes. "Up to 299 seats, it's one set of rules," reckons Scherer. "More than 299, it's another whole set of rules. One of the things we were obligated to provide in the new space is just as many seats as we had before, so we know we'll at least have that. I'd rather have fewer seats but better ones." Emily Charles is quitting the movie game, at least until she explores the feasibility of opening a New Orleans restaurant in Sendai, Japan, where she spent time before. Charles, who has always championed silent films and the work of women and minority directors, seems a bit discouraged by the weightlessness of showbiz in the age of Harry Potter and Spider-Man: "The audience is not quite as adventurous as I'd hoped. I feel better about leaving now. I talk to a lot of people all over the country and it's the same everywhere. I think we're living in a conservative time."
Be that as it may, Keith Arnold is going into his sabbatical with great vigor. As part of the Fine Arts' and Cinema Preservation Society's "On the Road" project, in the coming months Arnold will be presenting films at Oakland's Parkway, on the patio at La Note down the street (French movies, natch), at the Castro (silent classics) and the Red Vic in SF, at Ocularis in Brooklyn, New York, at the Vine Theatre in Hollywood (a Walter Matthau tribute), and at a number of venues in the Netherlands.
The final two weeks' films at the old Fine Arts are, in a way, a perfect distillation of the theater's mission. Opening Thursday, June 20 for a six-night run, alongside Paul Thomas Anderson's intermittently coherent Magnolia, is a genuine rarity -- Orson Welles' The Fountain of Youth, the thirty-minute pilot episode of Welles' aborted 1956 network TV series (it was called "too intellectual"). Written, produced, and directed by Welles, who also narrates onscreen, the wry, playful little drama has Twilight Zone-style fun with the story of a middle-aged professor (saturnine Dan Tobin), his vial of "magic anti-aging formula," the young actress who jilted him (blond glamour-girl Joi Lansing), and the actress' tennis star boyfriend (Rick Jason). Welles piles on the technique, using a montage of stills, back-projected scenery, exaggerated acting, intentionally stagy sets, and a jazzy soundtrack -- but the technique, some say, compensates for the low budget.
On Friday, June 28 only, the SF Cinematheque and the Fine Arts combine to present a special shorts show, "The Short and Shorter of It." The package leans heavily on the sort of politically progressive, female-empowering, skeptical-of-capitalism efforts (many produced in the Bay Area) for which the Fine Arts is notorious. San Franciscan Kat Eiswald's three entries, for example, portray a knife-wielding man's jealous rampage at Bruno's nightclub on Mission Street (Lulu's Big Date), a female intruder trying on a woman's clothes after sneaking into her apartment (Body & Soul), and another clothes-swap between two women (2WMN). Best of the lot is probably Anne Smolar's oblique, trippy documentary exposé on the dark side of San Pedro, California, House of Cards (1999).
The Adventures of Prince Achmed, as noted before in these pages, is a deceptively enchanting piece of work -- reputedly the first feature-length animated film -- dealing with princesses and princes, magic carpets, and faraway island kingdoms. Who would have imagined that paper cutouts projected on a screen could be so captivating? The film is presented in a hand-tinted print from Germany, and is accompanied for all four performances (it plays one show nightly, Wednesday, June 26 through June 30, but will not screen June 28) by the Georges Lammam Ensemble, an Arabic band. Musical magic lantern shows like this are what has made the past four years at the Fine Arts so memorable. The impulse has always been to seek out the unusual (with attention to the socially responsible) and then give it time -- instead of one night, four or five days. Says Arnold: "You gotta be patient. Sometimes you have to run it for a week. We try to remain flexible. You have to meet the audience on its own terms." Of course, employing a commercially risky strategy like that in Berkeley is easier than in some other places. "We couldn't have done this anywhere else," says Arnold of the local support. "The diversity of this community is a gold mine. The work is in mining the gold."
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