No one’s been more vocal about the baffling fact that a city as rooted in art, and in film particularly, as Portland hasn’t had a dedicated art theater since the Movies on Exchange Street closed in 2009. Especially since that space has sat empty and echoing with movie-ghosts for half a decade.
Well, that’s about to change.
Starting this summer, the old Movies on Exchange theater space is reopening – in a different but very promising form – as Low Motion. A combination art space and repertory movie theater, the new venture is the work of local artists and businesspeople Skylar Kelly, Sarah Lemieux, Juris Ubans, Andy Graham, Peter Weed, Nick Loukes, and Jenny Anastasoff, who have teamed up to transform the Movies’ empty shell into something every film fan in Portland should get excited about. I spoke to Skylar Kelly about how Low Motion came to be, and what, exactly, Portlanders should expect. While the final details are still being put in place — a group of glass company employees are excited at making the new window for the projection booth, Kelly said — the plan is for Low Motion to be up and running within the next month.
Low Motion, which received a $5,000 grant last year from SPACE Gallery’s arts organization The Kindling Fund, plans to show a film from the collection of co-founder and film historian Juris Ubans on every First Friday through November. That should be said “Ubans’ collection of film prints,” as Low Motion has restored the Movies’ original 16mm projector as part of the theater’s resurrection.
Former Movies owner Steve Halpert heard about the groups plan to revive the theater and suggested they reach out to the Portland Museum of Art to get the old project, Kelly said. “It’s awesome — one of the best possible projectors you can get,” he said. “And Dennis Levasseur, the original Movies projectionist, helped us clean it up, get it running smoothly, and is teaching me the ropes.”
That film (as opposed to digital) moviegoing experience is key to the Low Motion mission, according to Kelly, who also cites the flat $5 admission fee as aimed at making “the experience feel like going to the movies in the ’90s.” He adds that the heavily renovated space will look a lot different from what people remember but that his group is committed to keeping the spirit of the Movies alive.
“As we cleaned the place up incrementally, we still wanted to preserve the roughness of it,” Kelly said. “This was a magical place — it was run down, but it feels incredible.” In addition to taking out the old sloped floor (“There was about six tons of rubble under there,” he said. “For 35 years, audiences were sitting on top of a torn-down brick wall”), Low Motion boasts a new sound system and room for about 100 film fans. Seating in the multi-purpose space will be on folding chairs, and while there won’t be concessions at the start, Kelly sees no reason why people shouldn’t bring their own movie snacks.
The group’s ambitious plans for the space include not just the First Friday screenings, but also an ongoing series of experimental films and other still-to-be-determined film offerings throughout the year. In addition, Ubans is heading up “Kinonik,” which Kelly describes as a “film archive and educational component,” which will help support Low Motion — and vice-versa. “We want to rekindle the magical cinematic experience,” says Kelly, “And fill up the rest of the space with the most experimental, offbeat, repertory program we can come up with.”
The spirit of Movies (and the movies) lives on on Exchange Street, as a group of idealistic and committed people put their efforts into making Portland’s film scene that much more rewarding. With enough support from Portland film fans, Low Motion’s impending opening is just the beginning of what should be a beautiful friendship.
Keep an eye on the Kinonik Facebook page for details on when Low Motion will be up and running: facebook.com/kinonikmaine
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Nickelodeon Cinema in Portland.
Saturday: “Racism: Through The Eyes Of Portland.” Sponsored by OPEN Project, a youth-driven program that builds neighborhood unity in Portland, this short documentary is followed by a discussion with OPEN filmmakers and members. A $5 suggested donation goes to the project.
SPACE Gallery in Portland.
Tuesday: “They Will Have To Kill Us First.” Before you start calling your band “hardcore,” you might want to watch this horrifying but inspirational documentary about Malian musicians practicing their art in a country whose religious extremist government has banned all music under penalty of death.