Movie Preview: Return to Noir Ville at Cinema 21

Hard-bitten crime films for now and 2 new theaters in the future

By ERIK McCLANAHAN

The latest series over at Cinema 21 is dressed to the nines with femme fatales, cynicism and (not so) happy endings. It’s called Return to Noir Ville, and features eight classic noirs from the time period in which the genre thrived, such as “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Night and the City” and “Gun Crazy,” and three neo-noirs, including Robert Altman’s crafty ‘70’s era deconstructionist piece, “The Long Goodbye” and The Coen Brothers’ masterful debut “Blood Simple.” All films will be shown over the next two weeks, starting today, on 35mm.

In the age of digital projection—something the long-time Portland arthouse resisted as long as possible, but has now somewhat reluctantly embraced—seeing these films in their original format, like dropping the needle on a classic jazz record, is without a doubt a rare, special and all-too-fitting experience. But that’s not the most impressive thing about this year’s festival (now an annual event). That would be the decision to stretch the screenings out to multiple weeks, giving moviegoers and diehard cinephiles some breathing room to catch every title if they wish.

Cinema 21 has, in its 86-year existence, always been a one-screen theater, making logistics and scheduling for “Return to Noir Ville” a daunting task. It’s managed to survive every change in technology, distribution and exhibition in the film industry, not to mention the ever-evolving viewing habits of audiences and an increasingly crowded marketplace. But there is major change afoot that will make arranging future noir festivals, and plenty of other exciting film programming, perhaps a little easier.

Tom Ranieri, owner and operator of Cinema 21, is now set to move forward on a major addition to his theater. Just recently, The City of Portland granted Ranieri a building permit to add two new screens. “The Demo is complete,” he stated via email. “If all goes reasonably well, we are looking at opening in August. Praying with crossed fingers here.”

I’ve personally known Ranieri for less than a year, but over many chats and ongoing email exchanges, he doesn’t strike me as a particularly religious man. but I get the sense that if praying would actually help him get this construction done by the end of the summer, he’d be on his knees three times a day doing his part to appease the cinema gods. His closing thoughts on this most recent email update says it all: “Hoping for the best, preparing for…”

Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye"

Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye”

Today, the movie industry is in a mostly exciting, sometimes scary, state of flux. Those in the exhibition game, be they giant, corporate multiplexes or the little independents, have had to adapt or die. Anyone with even a passing interest in the movies has probably come across an article about this very thing, no doubt laced with more doom and gloom than a Michael Haneke film. Because of the costs to convert to digital and many other complex, incalculable factors, the little guys are being squeezed like a fresh orange.

Yet Cinema 21, at a time when most indie theaters are holding on for dear life (though even that, at least in our thriving movie town, sometimes feels like an exaggeration), is expanding, bravely moving forward to stake a bigger claim in the hearts of every movie nerd in Portland. The expansion, consisting of two smaller auditoriums (the main house, complete with an wonderfully old-fashioned balcony, holds more than 600 seats) is happening in the back half of the abutting building next door to Cinema 21, to the north.

According to Ranieri, the space became available more than two years ago. “I would have done it sooner if I could have gotten by the obstacles quicker,” he said. “It took a bit of persevering.”

This perseverance has thus far proved fruitful, yet there are still many hurdles in front of Ranieri and his staff. From what “experienced people” tell him, with renovations there are surprises that can and almost certainly will pop up. There are no original drawings for the building next door, which dates back to around 1925. “That’s not atypical,” says Ranieri. “To some extent you discover how it was built and how it was renovated over the years.”

“If the surprises are few and minor, we should be close to our target dates. If there are bigger ones, then delays are to be expected while solutions are found.”

Ranieri had been waiting on the permitting to be approved since early March. He was initially hopeful to be finished with everything by mid-May, something he admitted even at the time would’ve been “really lucky.” Now that the time has finally come for construction to move forward, we can only wait to see what this change will bring for Cinema 21.

Both of the new theaters will be equipped with DCP projection only, which Ranieri confirmed, though lots of other details on the new theaters are “still being fine-tuned. He promises to “play everything we can get our hands on.” Now that more and more older films are being given gorgeous digital restorations (like the stunning 1931 German classic “M,” which played at Cinema 21 in April), the convenience and everlasting quality of digitally projected movies may finally start to prove its mettle. Again, all we can do at this point is wait, and, of course, watch plenty of great movies. Return to Noir Ville, for now, should suffice.

NOTE

Erik McClanahan is a film critic, journalist, podcaster, projectionist and manager (the latter two for The Northwest Film Center) living in Portland, OR. New episodes of his film podcast, Adjust Your Tracking, are released every Thursday. The latest episode, AYT #64: A Stroll Around Noir Ville, features an in depth, personal discussion about the film noir genre and the Return to Noir Ville series.

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