December 28, 2009

Oak St. Cinema: Out Like a Lamb

Well that was pretty anticlimactic. From a firework to a fire to a flame to a fizzle, the storied Oak St. Cinema will unofficially be closing down this month, in case you haven't heard. The news came out a couple weeks ago in a release from Minnesota Film Arts (the nonprofit that owns and operates the theater), as well as an accompanying article in the Star Tribune. But as it happens I found out about the closing over a month ago when, tasked with reviewing an upcoming weekend series at the Oak for the Strib, I stopped by MFA's office above the theater to pick up a screener of Citizen Havel. I was shocked to see that the moving process was already underway, but I kept my word that I wouldn't spill the beans about MFA's impending relocation to St. Anthony Main. 

It wasn't a huge secret and nobody would have believed me anyway considering the rumors that have swirled around this situation for the last decade (including my own premature obituary almost two years ago), but I kept mum anyway even if I wanted to urge readers of the Strib to check out that series at what might be their last-ever chance to visit the Oak. But the news remained hidden, and who knows, deep down maybe I didn't even believe it was actually going to happen.

Well it did, with really no fanfare at all, and in this transitional period before the "new" MFA reemerges at St. Anthony, I've realized I have the odd distinction of having written the last-ever published review of a film series at a theater that was the bedrock of the film community in the Twin Cities for decades. The seasonally shown Swedish film Ronia, the Robber's Daughter is playing through next week, but by all accounts there will never be a curated series at the Oak like the one I previewed earlier this month.

Considering I only went to the Oak a handful of times in the 90's, and considering that I was not living here for any of the theater's tumult in the first half of this decade, my opinions on the situation are mixed and somewhat meaningless - maybe even misinformed. On the one hand I think it's tragic that a theater with such a great reputation for film education could not survive in this community. On the other hand I realize that MFA might not have done the best job in managing the theater according the community's wants and/or needs.

Things have picked up a bit in the last year or so, but it would appear that it was too little, too late. The international film festival is still a terrific annual event (the festival's terrible website notwithstanding), but other groups - namely Take-Up Productions and the upstart Trylon microcinema (full disclosure: I volunteer there) - have pretty much filled the gap for repertory series and special screenings.

It's a loss and a gain anyway you look at it. I'll be sad to pass by the Oak St. regularly (it's two blocks from where I work) and see it shuttered, but if MFA can reinvent itself at St. Anthony, they could make the local film scene even better than it already is. Kathie Smith has rightly noted that one area for MFA to focus would be first-run international films that typically only play in select markets outside of NY/LA. It might be difficult to draw huge crowds for movies that only a few of us have on our radar, but MFA could develop a niche, build off the film festival momentum and have the luxury of playing everything in exclusive engagement. Not to mention that for most people, St. Anthony Main is both more convenient and more appealing than the Landmark Edina. Something to consider, anyway.

As I said, I missed a lot of the controversy around here a decade ago and I haven't been one to take sides on MFA's operations. I want them to do well because I think their success adds to the health of our local film culture, but I'm also committed to the Trylon and other theaters that have filled the gap in the absence of regular MFA programming. Hopefully the competition in 2010 will be healthy and friendly. I just want to go to the movies.


  1. Daniel,

    I'm rounding up bloggers' choices for their own best of the year for a year-end post on my blog. Here's the relevant post:

    Hope you'll jump in - among other things, this gives me the opportunity to catch up with what I've missed as my blogroll expanded, yet my blogging and blog-reading largely slipped. I enjoyed the Michael Jackson conversations here & on my blog in particular but I missed a lot too: point me in the right direction!

    Happy new year,

    Joel (MovieMan0283)

  2. Interesting article from Euan Kerr Oak Street closing - kinda - sort makes me even more encouraged that St Anthony may be a new spot for first run films. Waiting with bated breath to see what the first film(s) will be!

  3. Thanks, Joel - I'll be happy to add my year-end posts, once I finish them of course (could be late January, as usual).

    Thanks for that, Kathie. Everything I've heard sounds promising and I didn't know Ryan is also now taking over St. Anthony Main, so that will really open up the flexibility of things. Should be cool. But, as far as the Oak goes, I'm really skeptical of him calling the Oak the "jewel" of the organization. Might get some MSPIFF screenings, but nobody is going to use that place for any kind of "gala" event. But I should reserve my judgment until at least the next festival comes and goes.

  4. It's always sad to read about these closings Dan, and this latest one does appear to be a major loss for Minnesotans. I have been through the same thing in my own neck of the woords with the shuttering of the Ridgefield Park Rialto to build offices, and there have been a few more too that have been forced out due to economic wows. i do hope your wishes there for re-location become a reality, though I know you generally having a thriving film going community there.

    Happy New Years to you and yours Dan!

  5. Same to you, Sam - hope you and your family have a healthy 2010.

    I hope the theater here isn't demolished to build yet another empty condo complex or unnecessary salon, but I wouldn't be surprised if they turn it into something more "student friendly", whatever that might turn out to be.


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