BY BRANDON CONRADIS
Senior Arts Editor
Published October 15, 2008
It’s Saturday night. As the hands of the Bell Tower’s clock inch toward midnight, stores and restaurants close and bars fill to capacity. Much of the downtown area looks deserted, but above the desolate rooftops of State Street, a fatigued, neon sign burns brightly.
The State Theater beckons.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact charm of the State. Since its conception in 1942, the theater has been gutted, sectioned-off and handed to multiple owners. Having once been just a single large screen, it has now been divided uneasily into two smaller ones, which can force patrons into sitting at an angle completely contradictory to where their necks are turned.
But the theater has survived. More than that, it remains one of the few outlets for truly obscure, offbeat films to be shown on the big screen. And most characteristic of this is the State’s tradition of having midnight screenings of cult movies every Saturday night.
“We try to look for things that have that indefinable cult quality,” said Nick Milks, the general manager of the State Theater. “We’ve played ‘The Warriors,’ ‘Donnie Darko,’ ‘The Big Lebowski’ … ”
Anyone walking down State Street notices the theater’s marquee. Beneath the second-run titles that have already played at the Michigan Theater a half block away are titles of horror classics like “Re-Animator,” the original “Night of the Living Dead” and, just in time for Halloween, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” All three films are midnight movies slated for October. “Re-Animator” was shown this past Saturday.
“Generally speaking, we only have one or two weeks to play with,” Milks said, concerning the selection of this year’s Halloween lineup of midnight screenings.
According to Milks, the selection process was as simple as sitting down and making a list of the campy horror films the staff of the State Theater wanted to show. Choosing “Re-Animator” was, according to him, “a matter of circumstance,” whereas the choice to show “Night of the Living Dead” was driven by the fact that the film is in the public domain, and a man who owned a print was willing to rent it out to them.
Often the choices come down to a matter of popularity, as with the theater’s decision to screen films like “Donnie Darko” and “Rocky Horror,” which prove to be big hits whenever they’re shown. But sometimes, the decision is influenced by personal taste, as well as a desire to screen more obscure films that otherwise wouldn't reach a larger campus audience.
“That’s at least a certain part of it,” Milks said. “We might come across a title — like ‘Run Lola Run’ — and that was definitely a thought: We very well may get somebody who’s never heard of it. We wanted people who didn’t know about it to know.”
In a sense, the tradition of showing midnight movies on college campuses has always been about getting the obscure, weird and controversial stuff in front of an audience that might appreciate it. Historically, the first midnight movie is considered to be “El Topo” (1970), the outrageous, drug-addled Western by Mexican surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky, which was shown — along with the director’s “The Holy Mountain” (1973) — at the State Theater as part of this year’s Ann Arbor Film Festival.
Other films traditionally seen as midnight movies include strange gems like “Pink Flamingos” (1972), “Forbidden Zone” (1980) and the exemplary “Rocky Horror.” But the actual criteria for a midnight movie has never really been clarified.
Samantha Etters, one of the co-presidents of M-Flicks, a student group funded by the University Activities Center that sets up free screenings of popular films around campus, seemed hesitant to define the term. Concerning “Donnie Darko,” a State Theater staple, Etters said, “It’s very unique I guess. A lot of movies with a cult following are ... not always to the point. It taps into that weird human questioning. Personally, I didn’t understand that movie.”
But whether they actually understood or not, these films continue to find audiences thanks to theaters like the State.
“It’s an excellent idea to show lesser-known films,” said Andy Rasmussen, the other co-president of M-Flicks. “It started off as the only way to show them. The theaters wouldn’t normally show something like ‘Pink Flamingos,’ but they could show it during a midnight screening. Often times the classic midnight movies are the films you wouldn’t normally see in a theater.”
Even so, the number of people the midnight screenings will attract is always in question. As Milks described it, selecting which films to show is like “throwing things on the wall and seeing what sticks.” Sometimes the movies bomb, sometimes not. Milks was shocked, for example, by how well “Shaun of the Dead” (2004) was received when it was shown during a midnight screening. (“I knew it was popular, but I didn’t know it was that popular,” he said.) On the other hand, the screening of “Ali” (2001), Michael Mann’s biopic of boxer Muhammad Ali, drew an audience of 3 people.
Sometimes the staff of the State Theater encounters other problems. Milks’s biggest disappointment is that he didn’t get to show “The Boondock Saints,” the 1999 crime film starring Willem Dafoe (“Spider-Man”). According to the studio that distributed the film, all of the 35 mm prints had been melted — a major problem, as the State Theater can only show 35 mm versions.
Other films initially selected for midnight screenings that fell through the cracks due to various reasons include John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” (1981) and John Woo’s “Hard-Boiled” (1992).
On the other hand, Milks was happy he was able to show Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic “Yojimbo” (1961), noting that “classic cinema has just as much a place as a cult movie.”
And perhaps that’s the greatest aspect of this tradition: Through its screening of midnight movies every Saturday night, the State Theater has helped to strengthen the culture of film-watching on campus. As Milks illustrated, midnight movies aren't just about showing weird and obscure films so that people can laugh at them; they’re also about introducing forgotten classics to those who may not have even heard of them.
“(Ann Arbor) is a place where there are a lot of different people that like a lot of different things,” Etters said. “So I think it’s a great place for them to be showing movies like that.”
Maybe that is the reason why the State Theater has survived for so long.