Before I turned 15, most of what I’d experienced from the world of independent American film was limited to horror and action movies. I had seen my fair share of foreign films, though most were dubbed, and starred Godzilla. I’d seen precious few subtitles to date; my friend since 5th grade, Jon, reminds me that I used to hate the idea of “reading a movie.” That was set to change. My movie world turned upside down the Sunday afternoon that I rode my bike and extra few miles past my neighborhood to the Cedar Lee Theater. Cedar Lee, at the corner of Cedar Road & Lee Road, was the first art house I ever visited.
I felt slightly bad@$$ for telling my Mom that I was going half the distance to the Cedar Center Theater, and then riding to a neighborhood that was at the time notorious (or so my folks were led to believe) for car thefts. I was ironically amused that the movie that drew me to this grand theft auto zone was Alex Cox’s REPO MAN. This movie was like nothing I’d seen before. I’d seen plenty of science fiction movies and a handful of black comedies. I’d seen movies with social commentary, but usually as Oscar-bait drama, not satire. I had seen movies with punk rocker characters, but never a movie that was a punk rock rebellion in itself. Truth? I didn’t like it that much at first; it took a few months pondering it for it to grow on me. REPO MAN was the first of many Cedar Lee films that would hang with me long after I’d left the theater; such an experience rarely happened up the street at Cedar Center.
A few weeks later I went to see Jonathan Demme’s concert film of The Talking Heads, STOP MAKING SENSE. I only knew a few Talking Heads songs, but the band had the strong endorsement of my buddy Stefan, a guy whose opinion I trusted because he loved rock-n-roll like I love movies. STOP MAKING SENSE was such an oddball ode to experimentation and discovery, it not only raised the bar for concert movies and performance music videos, it even made me expect more from live concerts.
I could not get The Cedar Lee out of my head after my first visit. The two screens looked like your average 80’s cube of a shopping mall theater, but the lobby included an arched ceiling and decorative molding that spoke of an earlier era. The girl at the popcorn counter told me it opened sometime in the 1920’s; recent online articles peg it at Christmas Day, 1925. It had been an 1,100 seat theater until 1983, when it was split into two sceens. In my youth I was less concerned with where Cedar Lee had come from than where it would take me. I couldn’t keep lying to my folks and riding my bike here — what would be my excuse if someone cut my bike chain in a neighborhood I wasn’t supposed to go to?!
Fortunately, my folks trusted my safety when I was in the company of my older brother Ed. Fortunately, Ed liked science fiction even more than I did. Fortunately, Cedar Lee showed an end-of-the-world movie from New Zealand called THE QUIET EARTH. I was afraid the disturbing stillness of this story might bore Ed, but he dug it as much as I did; he returned here with me whenever we were uninspired by the major studio stuff in Cedar Center or Randall Mall. We both began a lifelong appreciation for Werner Herzog, and I got extra credit in my German class, when Cedar Lee revived NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE around Halloween.
It was at Cedar Lee than I regularly began rolling the dice on movies that I knew very little about; the films shown here didn’t have big marketing campaigns, I hadn’t seen their trailers for weeks in advance, and the stars were rarely the A-listers that Entertainment Tonight sought for interviews. At most I’d know that Siskel & Ebert gave these films thumbs up, or that they had been recommended by Julie Salamon from the Wall St. Journal that The Fats (my Dad) would bring home from work. Ms. Salamon alone sent me to Demme’s SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA. I had never heard of Spalding Gray, but her review told me that SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA partly concerned Spalding’s experiences making THE KILLING FIELDS, which was one of my favorites of the era. If you’ve seen SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA, you know it begins with the making of a movie, but ends a world apart. Salamon and Cedar Lee introduced me to a personal literary hero; Spalding changed the way I write and look at everything around me — not a bad way to spend a weekend afternoon, huh?
There were other gambles that paid off gloriously, including when Fats and I went to see BRAZIL. As we were driving there, we realized knew more about Terry Gilliam’s battle to get his version to the screen than we did about the story. Fats asked “What’s this movie about anyway?” I said “I’m not sure, but it has DeNiro in it.” Good enough for us! While we were driving home, he asked “What was that movie about anyway?” and I answered “I’m not sure, but it had DeNiro in it!” We didn’t know what hit us, but we knew it was unique, which is what we aimed for whenever we chose Cedar Lee over the competition. Mission accomplished. Similarly, my girlfriend Lisa came with me to see John Sayles’ MATEWAN. One of the things I loved most about Lisa was that she would see anything with me. Sure, we saw THE LOST BOYS and BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 like all our classmates in the summer of ’87, but unlike most people I knew, only Lisa would come along for a movie where we didn’t know the end before it even started. We walked in knowing that MATEWAN starred James Earl Jones and it was about a mining labor strike in the 1920’s. We and walked out with quivering lips, a big lump in our throats, and our eyes opened a little wider. Mission accomplished.
Cedar Lee very quickly earned from me an expectation for the unusual, and it never disappointed. More recently it has been divided into 6 screens but they still show foreign and independent features, plus one-shot screenings of HD live events and midnight cult screenings, and they remain independently and locally operated. Plus they sell beer and wine! Funny story: one Saturday morning Ed installed a police radar detector in Fats’ gigantic Olds 98 company car. Fats went to Cedar Lee alone that afternoon to see DANCE WITH A STRANGER. True to my Mom’s initial concern, his 98 had been stolen when he came out of the theater.