home Pacific NW Magazine home

Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Taste Northwest Living Now & Then

Cover Story
A Film Classic | Beyond the Hollywood hype, The Grand Illusion keeps the faith
Photo spacer
The theater is so intimate that sometimes you feel like it's your personal screening room, and sometimes a few people can make a crowd.

The reel is primed and ready to roll down at The Grand Illusion Cinema, the tiny nonprofit movie house that resides above a University District used-book store and deep in an entertainment netherworld, galaxies away from television's "reality" poseurs and Hollywood celebrity worship. On this particular Friday night, the theater that time forgot is, as it almost always is, reviving a classic that time forgot.

Perhaps 45 customers have climbed the purple steps that start 20 yards east of Northeast 50th Street and University Way Northeast. They've opened the oversized wooden front door, which stays slightly ajar because it sticks, and entered a lobby the size of a luxury dorm room.

The 6-foot-long ticket counter is also the concession stand. One young woman hands over tickets ripped from a nicked wooden roller while another scoops popcorn and rummages through the mini-fridge for pop, Yoo-hoos, juice. It's two people doing a one-person job, but they work for free. In fact, nearly everyone, other than theater director Zack Carlson, works for free at the Grand Illusion. He not only finds the films and takes his turn behind the projector but also troubleshoots, like fixing a seat some midnight-show rowdy broke.
spacer Photo
On Thursday afternoons, volunteer Corey Brewer builds the reels, scanning for imperfections that might choke the projector.
The natural movie-going inclination is to find your space and spread out, but that's hard to do here. A crowd of 45 doesn't sound like much, but it makes a theater with 70 seats more than half full. That's a dense assemblage for a 68-minute, 70-year-old, 16mm black-and-white print. Besides, the screen is so close, the ceiling so low, and the cooling system so iffy, it feels crowded.

Longtime regulars like Hank and Ted are here. Hank has a demeanor as temperate as his Einstein-white hair is unruly, so it makes sense he favors the back row. He has watched movies here since the '70s, when it was The Movie House and kicked off Seattle's thirst for independent cinema. "Whistling Ted" sits along the only aisle and near the front, 15 feet from the screen. He got the nickname because he will absent-mindedly whistle until someone yells at him. A young couple has taken over the loveseat jammed in a back corner. This is notable because a loner with his backpack usually hogs the furniture.

Michael Seiwerath, executive director of the nonprofit Northwest Film Forum, which owns and operates the cinema, sits off to the side and toward the back with his young son and his son's squiggly friend. Carlson wanders around, checking what little could go wrong.

They all have gathered in this jewel-box-style theater, a dentist's office in a past life, to usher in a three-week "futility of war" series. There are some classic international antiwar films coming as part of the series, from "Dr. Strangelove" to Jean Renoir's 1937 "La Grande Illusion," the theater's namesake. But in Grand Illusion style, it all is kicked off by the Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup."

• • •

Photo spacer
GRAND ILLUSION tradition requires each projectionist to introduce the film. Often, the presenter fidgets and speaks in halting sentences that fade with each word. Tonight, though, we get confident Jamie Hook, who with his wife, Deborah Girdwood, birthed the old theater's present life. They founded the nonprofit WigglyWorld Studios, now the production arm of the forum, and bought the theater in late 1996. The idea was to promote alternative and independent film, generate non-grant money, and help local film work.

Hook is a writer, director and proselytizer of cinema as art, so he's at home between the screen and the crowd. He loves to tell Grand Illusion war stories — how he worked 108 straight days when they took it over, how the projection room used to be as cramped as a submarine, and how Blammo! "the angry drunken clown" was introducing the film "Shakes the Clown" when he launched into an hour-long harangue before passing out in an aisle. Hook is quick to add that Blammo's alter-ego now is a forum board member.

Tonight, though, Hook is up there telling other stories. The crowd claps as he announces the birth of his second daughter, but he quickly segues to the film and larger point: Groucho is going to ignite war over a perceived slight.

"Sorry guys, but I couldn't help think about how different daughters are," he says with the trace of a smirk. "Men are like blunt instruments, and war definitely has a masculine approach. You'll see even in this brilliant Marx Brothers film that war is an impulsive act built on the tripod of fear, pride and jealousy."

He walks back up the aisle, strangely skewed at a 15-degree angle, to more applause and backslapping.

Chad Imhoff, a tall, floppy-haired young man who takes a screenplay workshop at the forum and scribbles in a notebook during down time, is tonight's projectionist. He has been peering through the rectangular window toward the screen and from behind two 16mm projectors that rest on a board that bridges two permanent 35mm projectors.

It's showtime. Imhoff dims the lights and flips on the first projector. The blank screen awakens. A trembling image appears, centers, and finds focus.

• • •

spacer Photo
Volunteer projectionist Chad Imhoff is one of the army of the faithful who keep the theater going.
THERE ISN'T ANYTHING grand about the Grand Illusion unless you value intimacy, stamina, quirkiness, seats that don't rock and the certainty that nobody involved is getting rich. It is as humble as a screening room — and no bigger than some you'd find inside mansions around town. Most nights, the closest thing to a ticket line is when someone waffles over whether to buy a Bubble Up or a Cherry Cola.

The theater does, though, pump money into the forum so local films can get shot, edited and, at least to some degree, seen and appreciated. It is also distinguished as Seattle's longest-running independent movie house. It knows its niche: the arty, funky, foreign, weird, political, cultish, obscure, sweet, slow but thought-provoking. It is a place to get a close-up look at five-star classics like "Dr. Strangelove," no-star trash like "Gummo," and treasures only a cinephile has heard of.

During the winter, the Grand Illusion presented its usual range, including "Lolita" for Valentine's Day and an existential documentary by Chris Marker (a Frenchman who took his pseudonym from the Magic Marker). It also showed a rare 35mm print of "The Virgin of Lust," complete with live introduction by the Mexican director who owns and brought the film. Late Friday and Saturday nights are reserved for the weird and edgy guilty pleasures. The recent "rabid youth series" included "The Violent Years," a tale of girls gone bad because their parents didn't love them, written and directed by the famously bad Ed Wood. The Grand Illusion can go straight, as well, showing "It's a Wonderful Life" every Christmas season for more than three decades.

The audience can be as eclectic as the film menu. Director Quentin Tarantino might be there. When he attended the Seattle Film Festival two years ago, he showed up at the Grand Illusion and fell in love with the place, ambience and goal. He talked about dropping out to a theater like this after his Hollywood run, and bought a lifetime membership. Some day or night you might notice an old guy sashaying past the ticket table without paying. The story goes that he walked in one day, donated $1,500 and said, "I probably won't live much longer so how about I get in free for life?" An elderly woman shows up for anything in the horror genre.

What you won't see at the Grand Illusion, says Carlson, who is in search of some Don Knotts movie and once defeated a pot-bellied pig in an eating contest during an anti-consumerism event, is "Bruce Willis' next crappy movie."

With art and surprise, of course, come the pretentious, boring and obtuse. Sometimes, the films show their age, like a green line streaming down the center of the screen or sparkling blemishes that look like space dust. Because the ceiling is so low, the screen is, too. That means the foreign films ride especially low, and viewers must either find the right line of sight and stick with it or know the language. Some customers call this character and lament the Grand Illusion's drawing-board plans to raise the roof.

• • •

Photo spacer
You get the feeling that The Grand Illusion Cinema is not your average theater the moment you approach the front door. A dentist's office in a past life, the little theater sits above what now is a used-book store.
WHILE THE MOVIE HOUSE is the oddest of boutiques in these days of chains, it was at the forefront of Seattle's famous independent-cinema explosion during the '70s. Randy Finley, once nicknamed "the littlest mogul" because he eventually founded The Seven Gables chain, opened the theater in 1970 with friends. His idea was based on the porno-house model, except he would show movies "based on literature" not skin. The entrepreneurs hauled out seven tons of plaster and set up 73 seats, including a two-person bench and four stools.

"There was a time," says Finley, who now owns and operates a winery near Bellingham, "when there were 13 different independent theater owners in Seattle."

Finley eventually sold The Movie House to Paul Doyle, who changed the name to The Grand Illusion Cinema. Doyle worked hard to keep it alive, but he couldn't compete with the chains in the long run. By the mid-'90s he had tired of eking out a living. "I was in my 50s and still living like a student," he says.

He cast a wide search for a buyer, even calling Hook and Girdwood, who were about six months into their nonprofit operation that lived on a King County Arts Commission grant. WigglyWorld offered about 20 percent of the asking price, almost as a joke.

"We never thought he'd even get back to us," Hook says, "let alone that we'd be owning a theater."

Doyle took it, but WigglyWorld still needed money to pay the little they offered. After the group collected donations in the small increments an obscure startup nonprofit would expect, the Hanauer family, longtime art patrons, donated about half the needed total. The family's donation and enthusiastic support, Hook says, helped get film attention from agencies that had focused exclusively on art and dance.

WigglyWorld actually started making money and grew into The Northwest Film Forum. The cinema doesn't make a lot of money, but the nonprofit has advantages like tax-exempt status, eager volunteers looking to help the cause, and some customers who see their tickets helping big dreams, not bottom lines.

• • •

spacer Photo
IN "DUCK SOUP," Groucho plays a wisecracking ruler, edging closer to war. The first reel expires and the second clicks on. The image warbles. The projector groans like a car engine that won't turn over. Then there's a sickening crunch. The screen goes white; the audience groans.

Carlson soothes the crowd, "While this is a gorgeous print, it is 70 years old," he says. "We'll get it back up in just five minutes." It takes just two. Groucho doesn't miss a beat, and all is well.

The projection room is only about 7 feet deep by 30 feet long. With the two projectors and two worktables, that's not much space. But it is palatial compared to when WigglyWorld bought the theater. In the old days, the projectionist had to scoot by viewers in the back row and duck under the turning reels to get inside. Because there was so little space, Finley and Doyle used the "platter" method, meaning the reel laid flat. That can be hard on prints, and holders of rare and fragile films sometimes thought twice about renting to them.

The risk was never better illustrated than on the last night of a week-long run of Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries." Hook had run the 35mm print without problems, so on the final run he afforded himself the luxury of leaving it unattended so he could relax among the audience. The film's deep message was vaporized before his viewing eyes. By the time he scrambled to the projector, the film was spaghetti. It lives on, though. Remnants of it are stored at the forum headquarters on Capitol Hill and are incorporated in an arts-and-crafts way into the organization's annual award.

Expanding the booth cost the theater 20 seats but vastly improved its slate. Marker's work is an example of the more diverse films the theater can show now. Somewhere between documentary and feature, his films are both intriguing and hard to grasp. He's hardly a patron magnet, but a woman in a full-length leather coat and lavender hair discovered the theater because of him. "I will see anything Chris Marker does!" She sat in the front row for "La Jeete." When asked why she was such a fan, she sniffed, "I can't even answer a question like that."

Some of the other films, especially the late-night movies, reflect Carlson's taste. In addition to finding the prime-time shows, he searches for late-night groaners. He seems to like horror, but one longtime patron advised him to work on getting more skin in his late-night picks.

• • •

Photo spacer
The nonprofit theater is not exactly a shoestring operation, but close.
FILMS SHOW FOR six days, debuting on Fridays. (No movies on Mondays.) They are shipped in cases containing several reels, and Corey Brewer spends his Thursday afternoons merging the spools into two reels. Loud music drowns out the hum of the threader, and a small space heater keeps his feet warm. To build "Grin Without a Cat," a three-hour 16mm Marker film, he needed to tie 12 reels end to end.

He works in a video store and used to manage a Cineplex. He actually enjoys building reels and uses random film frames to accompany his local rock band. As the film threads, he lets the edges brush his fingers so he can catch imperfections that might choke the projector. It must be bad before he'll snip and paste. It can take a half-hour or more to repair a minute's worth of film, so he picks his spots for surgery carefully.

His work is critical. Grand Illusion patrons are often forgiving about disasters, and the theater is quick to refund when a reel breaks. But once, many years ago, things went terribly wrong. Parents and children were enjoying the kiddie movie "The Brave Little Toaster" when the second reel clicked on and a porn film, "Cafe Flesh," was all over the screen. Oops.

Snips of film are part of the projector-room menagerie, which includes a John Cassavetes autograph, stills of icons like Audrey Hepburn and three obscure babes from "The Girls from H.A.R.M." There are Polaroids of directors who have visited, bumper stickers (some very dated, like, "bongs, not bombs") rows and rows of figurines, a tinfoil duck, spare spools, cases of reels and a log book that reads like the theater diary.

Popcorn buckets, pop bottles and emergency reels are stashed in an abandoned stairway beneath a trap door. Space is at a premium. Have to go to the bathroom? Better tip the barista at the connecting coffeehouse, because the theater doesn't have one.

• • •

THE NORTHWEST FILM FORUM has owned the Grand Illusion six years this month. Despite the organization's stuffy name, it is a grassroots group that doles grants, rents equipment, offers editing machines, conducts workshops and brings guest speakers. It also dreams up female-mustache contests and pillow-fight fund-raisers. Helping the filmmaker is a priority.
spacer Photo
The Grand Illusion's lobby looks much larger when the doors to the connecting coffeehouse open.
"We are artist-centric as opposed to arts-centric," says Seiwerath, who was the first volunteer to join Hook and Girdwood. "WigglyWorld is at the core of what we do."

The forum's annual budget is around $425,000. About 40 percent is raised from membership fees and grants. Much of the rest comes from the Grand Illusion and an even smaller theater called The Little Theatre (50 seats) attached to its Capitol Hill headquarters. The Hanauer family was once again the savior, donating money to buy the space.

The Little Theatre is more focused on local filmmaking and radical, political, edgier fare than the Grand Illusion. It also hosts live performances and is the scene of forum celebrations and fund-raisers.

Not long ago, Dave Hanagan, studio director at The Little Theatre, managed a "50-foot Super-8 Challenge." Participants had to shoot one reel and edit, if at all, without removing the film. The idea was to spur inspiration and self-editing on what and how to shoot. They had to supply their audio, if any, from an accompanying CD, tape or personal narration.

Nine participants gathered in the theater to watch the results, which were all over the skill and subject continuum but united by one aspect: They were safely off the mainstream. One featured toes outfitted with Cheetos and Doritos and concluded with some sort of dating scene. Another chronicled the anniversary of the WTO riot to a rambling recording of Gertrude Stein. Yet another showed a young woman lolling in a lake and on the beach. She was as graceful as a swan and as naked as a jaybird.

• • •

SHORTS LIKE THOSE make Groucho's duck walk across the Grand Illusion screen look even older, but the audience is rapt. Perhaps it is the comfort of the film's harmless humor or the juxtaposition of vaudeville and war. Maybe everyone needs silliness these days. Many viewers had seen it before, so maybe it was reassurance they sought. It could have been that folks who find a film and theater like this bring built-in appreciation.

In a Cineplex, you can distance yourself from the crowd, build your island and make the movie what you want. In the Grand Illusion, when there is even the slightest crowd, you're part of a group exercise. Each audience is different. Some are somnolent. Some are participatory. Not only can you join the mood, you can change it.

When "La Belle et la Bete," the old French version of "The Beauty and the Beast," played, it was clear this movie had come to the right place. The pastel black-and-white film would have looked ridiculous on a giant screen. It featured agonized pangs of love that rarely seep into American movies and a getup that made the beast look like a giant Furby. By the time the couple flew — yes, flew — off into the sunset, they did so to the audience's rousing approval.

The film did well by Grand Illusion standards on its six-day run, making $1,700. That wouldn't have paid for Nicole Kidman's Oscar-night gown (if she actually had to pay for it), but the money might help get a local vision onto a screen.

"Duck Soup" earns the same level of approval after the brothers lead a screen-filling dance finale. Ted, who never whistled, applauds with everyone else. Hank wears a big grin and plans to stay for the second feature. War, on screen anyway, has been averted. Happy talk wafts. The theater empties.

Tonight, at least, a grand illusion has been had by all.

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is a staff photographer.

Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Taste Northwest Living Now & Then home
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company