For too long, the Detroit Film Theatre has seemed more like an afterthought of the Institute of Arts than a crown jewel. Sure, true cinephiles have been able to overlook the creaky seats and the womblike, flaking red paint, focusing instead on the world-class program of classic, independent and foreign films put together every fall and spring. But newcomers to the auditorium have long seen it for what it is: a legendary, worn-in movie palace that shows all the wrinkles, stretch marks and arthritic joints of its nearly 80 storied years of existence.
All of that is changing. With the announcement of their 30th anniversary fall lineup, the DFT has also unveiled the first stage of the diligent, meticulous restoration work that's been going on ever since the end of last season, in May. Gone is the pink and burgundy color scheme, replaced by a blue, silver and gold-leaf treatment that brightens and enhances the majestic space, designed in 1927 for a variety of presentations film, music, theater and lectures by famed architects Paul Cret and Detroiter C. Howard Crane. Though the paint job is incomplete, you can see details that never stood out before: the reflective silver surfaces that brighten the room before the lights go down, or the gilded border that runs the perimeter of the auditorium.
"It's sort of like this temple of the humanities," assistant curator Larry Baranski says, pointing to the restored Greek busts that flank the theater's ceiling. Crews worked 12-hour days for much of the summer to complete the bulk of the restoration, he says, and they'll continue to work whenever the DFT isn't showing movies this fall. Their efforts won't end with the walls. The continuing Take Your Seats campaign in which patrons donate money in exchange for a personalized nameplate has resulted in a new order of theater chairs, manufactured by the same company that originally supplied the seats for the DIA. The mohair-upholstered seats will be installed in December and will look as elegant and classic as they did in the '20s, but with one major difference: there'll be modern-day comfort and support underneath it all.
This can't come soon enough. Judging by the lineup starting this week, you're going to need all the posterior support you can get. As the theater regains its luster in full, the programmers at the DFT have planned an ambitious slate of films and events for this autumn and beyond, aiming for a day when there will be three seasons' worth of material a year, with screenings almost year-round. More than three dozen films will show from Thursday to Sunday nights over the next three months, highlighting no less than three masters of world cinema (see sidebar), as well as the best in topical, current documentaries (The War Tapes, Our Brand Is Crisis), American indies (including the universally praised Half Nelson, starring Ryan Gosling) and little-seen, restored gems like Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol and Stuart Cooper's Overlord.
The season's live events also run the gamut, giving props to both cinematic history and modern Detroit ingenuity. Boston's innovative Alloy Orchestra will return the last weekend in September to provide musical accompaniment for two silent chillers, 1925's color-tinted Phantom of the Opera and F.W. Murnau's 1922 classic Nosferatu.
On Nov. 2, Wayne State University Press and the DFT join forces to host the reception for the print biography A Woman at War: Marlene Dietrich, written by documentarian (and Dietrich's grandson) J. David Riva. Riva will be on hand to speak about his experiences researching the book, after which the theater will present the 1930 film that made Dietrich an international star, The Blue Angel.
Another more immediate Detroit connection occurs Oct. 27, when the theater plays host to the premiere of director James R. Petix's doc It Came From Detroit, a sweat-drenched look at the Motor City's oft-mentioned but rarely explored garage rock revival, featuring Blanche, the Detroit Cobras and the Hentchmen, among many others. What's more, the screening will be bookended by live performances from the Dirtbombs, the Witches and Outrageous Cherry, and it's all being planned to coincide with the DIA exhibit American Music, a collection of rock-royalty photos by Annie Leibovitz. The amped-up, red carpet event serves as a homecoming of sorts for the bands on display, but you could also consider it a fitting welcome back for a theater that's finally getting its due.
The Detroit Film Theatre launches its new season Thursday, Sept. 7. It's located inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-2323, dia.org/dft.Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]