Movies aren’t just escapism. Sure, when they are intended as nothing but that, the movies are the best form of escapism ever created. Seriously, even a snobby film reviewer gets very cranky if he can’t watch Kurt Russell punch ancient ghost-demons in “Big Trouble In Little China” a few times a year.
But just as cinema can be the most effective when it taps into our desire to be entertained, a truly inspired film is the most effective way of getting us to think.
A powerfully realized film engages its audience on a fuller level than any statement of the facts or issues it expresses, no matter how receptive the viewer might be. It’s a lot of power, and a good filmmaker wields it with the appropriate responsibility. Certainly, there have been filmmakers who’ve used that power in service of terrible ideologies. Leni Riefenstahl, D.W. Griffith — two of the most talented and innovative directors who’ve ever lived — will always be known more for how they paired their artistic genius with moral monstrousness (specifically, the Nazi party and the Ku Klux Klan, respectively).
In other hands, though, a film can be a transformative experience — as long as you have movie venues willing to book it. After all, it’s rare that complex, socially engaged films are also the sorts of blockbusters that keep the lights on. And, since Portland lacks a dedicated art theater (something I’m not going to stop complaining about until the situation is rectified), local film fans looking to mix a little substance into their movie diet have a few creative and dedicated folks to thank.
While movie nights at public libraries have long been a staple, we here in Portland are especially fortunate, as the Portland Public Library’s programming director Rachael Harkness and her staff (like audiovisual specialist Patti Delois) consistently turn the library’s unassuming Rines Auditorium into an unlikely destination-viewing hub for movie-loving Mainers looking for a challenging viewing experience. Organizing theme months on subjects like banned books, LGBTQ issues and civil rights, the library’s movies, like the library itself, are intended to engage minds.
Currently programming a month of foodie films in its November-long “Feast of Films” series, the library traditionally enriches the flavor of its always-free movie offerings by teaming with local organizations related to its films, complete with speakers paired up for post-movie Q&As. (The next film is director Ang Lee’s sumptuous, deeply human “Eat Drink Man Woman,” playing on Thursday at 6:30 p.m., which is a full meal in itself.)
That same dedication applies at Portland’s Space Gallery, a multimedia art and performance space that has, since the closing of beloved Portland art theater The Movies on Exchange Street in 2009, become the most active, adventurously programmed film venue in town. Under the aegis of co-founder and screenings programmer Jon Courtney (who performs similar duties at the Portland Museum of Art’s PMA Films), Space is the place for foreign films, art films, cult movies and especially documentaries. Like the library, Space teams with local and national arts, civil rights, environmental and other organizations both to bring in the newest films and to provide a community gathering place for post-film discussions.
Playing on Thursday, Space’s most recent such offering, the 2016 documentary “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes” forms part of the gallery’s “The Freedom Side Film Series,” a months-long program of films shown in conjunction with the ACLU of Maine.
Watch the trailer:
The film, from director Brett Story, is a unique examination of the American prison system, told through portraits of the people — both inside and outside the walls — of a dozen prisons scattered in communities all across the country. For many, the issue of incarceration is a simple one — criminals are swept off the map, not to be thought of again. It’s a mindset mirrored in the film’s discovery of how prisons are shunted to the margins — sometimes even scrubbed from Google maps — even as the people locked up are, in various ways, an integral part of the communities where they are serving time.
It’s a challenging, eye-opening approach to an issue, and to people, all too often taken for granted. And it’s just the sort of vital, itself overlooked film that Space regularly brings to Portland, complete with post-movie questions and a discussion featuring Marena Blanchard from the ACLU, and Rachel Talbot-Ross and Joseph Jackson from Maine Inside Out. The movies are a lot of things — places like Space ensure that we here in Portland have access to their fullest expression.
“The Prison in Twelve Landscapes,” part of Space Gallery’s “The Freedom Side Film Series,” screens on Thursday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $8, $6 for Space members and students with ID.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Opening Friday: “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” Director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”) again teams up with Colin Farrell, alongside Nicole Kidman, in this acclaimed and divisive psychological thriller about a successful professional couple whose outwardly perfect life is threatened by the strange neighborhood teen who insinuates himself into it.
Opening Friday: “Trophy.” Directors Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz (“Narco Cultura”) profiles several people (a big game hunter, a rhino breeder) whose commitment to the preservation of endangered species is a whole lot more controversial than you’d think.