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Say you’re an eccentric film fan stuck in Phoenix with the arthouse blues again, and you’re not sure where to look. There are only two main places to check out, and neither lie within the official boundaries of Phoenix.
Two major competing theater chains vie for box office receipts in the Phoenix area -- the national AMC Theater chain and the Arizona bred Harkins Theaters. AMC specializes in multiplexes that cater to the teen audience and mainstream cinema, so Harkins Theaters is the only chain that consistently brings some arthouse fare to the desert.
Dan Harkins took over his father’s chain in 1974 and runs the ever-expanding chain of over 175 screens. Most of the theaters screen mainstream fare for profit, but Harkins loves good cinema and keeps two theaters running with more pretentious and unique fare. Harkins has recently taken over the Valley Art Theater in Tempe and has another theater in Scottsdale that often shows foreign films, independent film, and other arthouse style films.
It felt good to get back inside the Tempe Valley Art Theater again last night after many months of remodeling under new ownership. Previously, we could count on the Valley Art to provide some offbeat fare, some quality second hand movies that would change every few days, sick and twisted animation festivals, and a traditional Saturday midnight rendering of the Rocky Horror Picture Show experience. But the independent owners of the theater couldn’t make enough profit, so they sold the 60-year-old theater. Fortunately, Dan Harkins was the buyer.
The old days of the Valley Art are officially over with the familiar mildew odor and hard wooden backed chairs now replaced with a fresh car scent and comfortable stadium style seats. The sound system has been upgraded with THX digital equipment, and the restrooms
There were actually about 30 people at the twilight showing of the Holocaust documentary I saw, which is triple the usual number of arthouse suspects. The next two films scheduled are the Spanish drama Goya in Bordeaux and the Italian film Malena. So things are looking up for artsy fare in Phoenix.
Finding the Valley Art is easy. Simply head towards Arizona State University and find the campus town on Mill Avenue, and you are there. The difficult part will be finding a parking place, but I’ve usually had success parking at a nearby garage at the Centerpoint. If you get in there by mid afternoon, you may even get free parking.
The main location for art fare remains the Camelview 5 Theater. This Scottsdale theater actually has 6 screens. The one added screen looks like a private screening room that rarely has more than 10 people in attendance, so the most offbeat and least profitable films are screened in this matchbox style spot that is barely larger than many people’s large screen televisions.
Unless it’s the summer season or Christmas holidays, the Camelview will often show three or four non-mainstream films exclusively at this one theater. Not that the AMC Theaters are clamoring for those films, since most are showing on limited screens and won’t make that much profit. For example, currently the Camelview is showing the mainstream Red Planet, the independent Billy Elliot with a growing audience, the offbeat Best in Show that’s in limited release, and three exclusives in the Phoenix area: Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, the gay comedy Broken Hearts Club, and the Kurdish neo-realistic A Time for Drunken Horses.
Even during prime mainstream seasons, the Camelview will usually manage to book at least one unique film. Parking is generally plentiful except during the Christmas season, as it is located next to Nieman Marcus at our fanciest mall -– Scottsdale Fashion Square. While the theater is actually located on Goldwater Ave., the main cross streets for the mall are at Camelback and Scottsdale Rd.
I generally try to hit a matinee or twilight showing to save a little money. Harkins tickets cost $4.50 for the early showings and cost $7.00 for evening screenings. To save money, avoid the overpriced concessions. However, if you are dedicated and organized, you might make out well with large popcorn that you can bring back for free refills. The nice people behind the counter will also give you a free cup with ice that you can fill with water.
Other infrequent venues
Another rare treat could be in store for you if you happen to be in the area when one of the film festivals are in town -– Harkins occasionally runs an oldies/classic film festival that may actually show at one of its multiplexes, there’s usually an animation festival sometime during the year, a gay and lesbian film festival, and the really cool one is the newly formed Scottsdale Film Festival.
ASU professor Eugene Levy, senior film critic for Variety, is the curator of the Scottsdale Film Festival. There has been a spring festival and a fall one, with films showing Monday evenings on a sporadic basis. Generally, these showings involve independent cinema that was positively received at Sundance or other festivals and will include a session with the film’s director immediately after. For a schedule and location, see: http://www.scottsdalearts.org/sca/film/default.asp
If you hunger for cult fare, the ultimate cult film now shows at midnight every Saturday night at Tempe Cinemas at 1825 E. Elliot Road. Just wear your costume, bring some rice, and prepare to do the Time Warp. The rowdies who once did their Rocky Horror thing at the Valley Art have relocated to the cheaps.
We don’t have the extensive variety of eccentric and artistic film that New York City or Los Angeles has, but things could be worse. I could be stuck in Minot, North Dakota.
Note: for some pictures of the arthouse scene in Phoenix, go to http://www.geocities.com/janesbit1/phoenixart.html