The Lee Art Theater: A Forgotten Cinema Treasure

As a lifelong film lover, I have fond memories of my movie-going youth in Richmond, Virginia. There were not only distinctly different neighborhood venues like The Westover Theater, the Willow Lawn and the Westhampton but also much more opulent movie palaces in the city like the Byrd, the Loew’s and three first-run hardtops, which were situated on one Broad Street block known as Richmond’s Theater Row – the State, Colonial and the National; the latter was later renovated and rebranded the Towne. B-movie double features, sword and sandal epics and English dubbed European genre films were more likely to show up at seedier theaters like The Grand and the Venus. There was even a theater that catered solely to black audiences – The Booker T – and a plethora of drive-in theaters scattered around the city like the Sunset, Rose Bowl and Twin Pines which exhibited some of the most obscure and bizarrely titled films of the period as witnessed by marque headliners Invasion of the Animal People, Daughter of the Sun God and other oddities. But the most eclectic of all was The Lee Art Theater on West Grace Theater, which often paired racy adult features (Russ Meyer’s Lorna, Paris Ooh-La-La) with serious art house dramas (The L Shaped Room, Breathless).

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Ghana

“The camera eye is more perspicacious and more accurate than the human eye,” French filmmaker Jean Rouch once said, and his idiosyncratic documentaries, which were often fusions of reality and fiction, bear this out. Jaguar (1967) is a perfect example of this duality.

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A Case of Bad Timing

WE ARE NOT ALONE, Paul Muni, 1939

Everyone knows 1939 was a banner year in American cinema and probably the peak of the studio system. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Women, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind were just a few of the iconic American movies that premiered that year. In fact, so many films of superior quality were released in 1939 that it was inevitable that a few of them would fall between the cracks and go undiscovered. One of these was We Are Not Alone which was virtually ignored by the public despite appearing on several critics’ top ten lists. Yet, it seemed to have all the necessary ingredients for Best Picture nominee.

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Two Heads Are Not Better Than One

The title creature and star of The Manster (1959), a Japanese-American co-production made in Japan and co-directed by George P. Breakston and Kenneth G. Crane.

What we have here is a different type of mutant monster. It’s part man, part monster. In other words, a manster. The unlucky title creature of this 1959 horror thriller is Larry Stanford (Peter Dyneley), a brash American reporter who hopes to land a front-page story about some startling new developments in the field of medical experimentation. Well, he gets his front-page story all right. You could say he IS the story.  

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Bernard Wicki’s Die Brucke

When film critics compile their favorite top ten lists of anti-war movies, you can usually expect to see titles like King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925), Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plains (1959), Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981) and Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) among the favored elite. It has only been in recent years that Bernhard Wicki’s The Bridge (German title: Die Brucke) has popped up on lists, thanks in part to The Criterion Collection, which remastered it on DVD and Blu-ray in June 2015. Almost forgotten since its original release in 1959, the film is just as powerful and moving as it was some sixty years ago.

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White Boy Elgar

Marge (Pearl Bailey) welcomes Elgar (Beau Bridges), her new landlord, to the neighborhood in Hal Ashby’s debut feature, The Landlord (1970).

In the early seventies Hollywood studio executives began to realize there was a huge untapped market for films dealing with African-Americans, a situation made obvious by the unexpected success of Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), an action comedy based on the Chester Himes novel about two black cops, Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) and Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge). In the ensuing rush to capture this previously ignored audience, the “blaxploitation” film was born, but the majority of these films were urban crime thrillers like Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972). Films which attempted to explore racial issues or feature complicated black and white relationships were a rarity but one unique exception was The Landlord (1970), which was virtually ignored by the public when it opened.

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Down on the Farm

The exploitation of animals in society and the food industry, in particular, is a problem most consumers don’t want to face or consider but a protest movement against the practice is growing larger every year thanks to hard-hitting documentaries like Myriam Alaux & Victor Schonfeld’s The Animals Film (1981), Shaun Monson’s Earthlings (2005), and Robert Keener’s Food, Inc. (2008) – all of which expose the mass production of animals for food. Tackling the same subject but taking a completely different approach to it is Gunda (2020) by Russian filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky, which dispenses with voice over narration, a music score or any on-camera interviewees. Instead, it focuses a sow named Gunda and her piglets, a few chickens and some cows over a brief period on a farm before they become “products.” The concept may sound uninteresting and tedious but Gunda is not really a traditional documentary by any stretch of the imagination and the result is a completely engrossing, emotional drama with animals as its main characters.

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Season’s Greetings from Arnaud Desplechin

Misery loves company, and if you are anticipating a stressful holiday season due to an unavoidable reunion with family, in-laws or friends you’d rather not see – even if it is only a Zoom meeting – then you may find a kindred spirit among the dysfunctional gathering in Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (French title: Un Conte de Noel).  

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The Video Diaries of a Misanthrope

Somehow this one slipped by me. Originally released in 1995, Notes from Underground is Gary Walkow’s indie production of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella was released on DVD in 2004 but I only recently discovered it. Anchored by a riveting performance from Henry Czerny as Underground Man, this is not only an inspired re-staging of the original story for 21st century audiences but proof that Dostoyevsky’s writing and ideas are as relevant now as they were in 1864 when he published the story. 

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The Eternal Search for Paradise

What is it about human nature that makes men want to climb the highest mountains, explore unknown regions in search of a rumored paradise or challenge their perceptions of the world in the name of self-discovery? It is this eternal quest that drives the narrative of  La Vallée (English title: The Valley, 1972), Barbet Schroeder’s second feature film after More (1969), a drug addiction drama that explores a similar theme of people who go too far in seeking ultimate experiences and sensations. Both films were made at a time when the youth culture of the late sixties was becoming more pessimistic and cynical about the hippie lifestyle. While More is a deep dive into hedonism that has the structure of a traditional drama, The Valley is a stranger affair. It combines ethnographic documentary elements with a loose storyline about a small group of hipster explorers who are intent on discovering an unexplored area on a map of Papua, New Guinea that is marked as a valley obscured by clouds.  

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