ArtSEA: SIFF launches festival with a Cinerama save

Plus, local filmmakers in the lineup and offscreen happenings at the Pacific Bonsai Museum, Third Place Books and Tractor Tavern.

a photo of the blue and red mural adorning the facade of the Cinerama movie theater

The historic Cinerama, shuttered since 2020, has been acquired by the Seattle International Film Festival. (Courtesy of SIFF)

Here’s some news that’ll pop your corn and butter it: The Seattle Cinerama is back! Among the opening-night announcements at the 49th Seattle International Film Festival this evening was the blockbuster reveal that SIFF has acquired the historic movie venue from the estate of Paul G. Allen.

Read the full story on Crosscut.

Projectors (and chocolate-popcorn machines) will fire back up by the end of this year. SIFF will manage year-round programming at the Cinerama — as it does for its other historic theaters, SIFF Uptown and SIFF Egyptian — screening everything from first-run blockbusters to niche documentaries.

This is thrilling news for movie fans who have feared the worst for the Cinerama since it closed suddenly for unspecified renovations in early 2020 and never reopened.

While it’s not yet ready for this year’s SIFF (which runs May 11 - 21), SIFF artistic director Beth Barrett told me the Cinerama  — under a new, to-be-determined name — will definitely be one of the SIFF venues during the festival’s 50th-anniversary celebration next year. 

(Valerie Niemeyer for Crosscut)

But first! Let’s talk about this year’s SIFF, which as usual is packed with globally sourced goodness, as well as a full lineup of Northwest Connections, all made by local filmmakers and/or filmed in the Northwest. It’s a great program for finding gems with a familiar glint — and this year includes several profiles of Northwest artists. (I’ve noted in-person screening dates; many films are also streaming online May 22 - 28.)

ArtSEA: Notes on Northwest Culture is Crosscut’s weekly arts & culture newsletter.

“The first week I was working here I was kind of in awe of some of these vegetables,” says acclaimed Seattle painter and poet Alan Chong Lau (b. 1948) in the opening moments of the charmingly lo-fi documentary Alan @ Work (May 14 & 16). “I would cut open a cabbage and just kinda space out on the pattern of the leaf,” the American Book Award winner and former NEA fellow says.

The portrait covers a 10-year span of Lau’s adult life, while he is working full-time in the produce department of the Uwajimaya grocery store, scratching out short poems and sketches in a notebook during breaks. Honolulu-based filmmaker Doug Ing reveals the artist’s indefatigable humor and drive to create, even amid the tedium of a day job — he writes poetry about produce, he adorns his green work apron with a cartoony figure — as well as the tough economics of being an artist.

‘Even Hell Has Its Heroes,’ a documentary by Seattle filmmaker Clyde Petersen, profiles Northwest rock band Earth. (SIFF)

Seattle artist and filmmaker Clyde Petersen’s new doc, Even Hell Has Its Heroes (May 17 & 18) is about sludge-metal Olympia band Earth. Shot on deliciously grainy Super 8 film, the intimate profile of the 30-plus-year-old group includes evocative glimpses of quintessential Northwest locations, from a tiny wedding chapel in Sultan, Wash., to a guitar bonfire at Golden Gardens beach. As guitarist Dylan Carlson and drummer Adrienne Davies share local music lore, their trademark ambient-drone sound imparts a dark tension that seems drawn from the landscape.

There’s also a doc about 1990s Northwest performance art troupe the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow. The group’s onstage antics (see: hanging irons from ear piercings) totally skeeved me out back in the day — and apparently I have not recovered enough even to get through the trailer. But if gross-out physical stunts are your thing, check out Circus of the Scars (May 19 & 21). It’s definitely part of grunge history.

If gently humorous wordplay is more your scene, try the documentary Punderneath It All (May 16 & 17) about the high-stakes world of live pun competitions. (I’m feeling calmer already.) Scenes from Seattle pun slams reveal that while goofy, this particular form of funny comes with very specific parameters — so just make sure you aren’t punning on empty. 

Two very different coming-of-age movies are also on view at SIFF. Local filmmaker Sudeshna Sen’s Anu (May 14 & 15), based on the novel Looking for Bapu, stars Redmond actor Diya Modi as a 12-year-old girl who after witnessing her grandfather's death is visited by his ghost and prompted to begin a spiritual quest. 

And Seattle director Megan Griffiths (Lucky Them; Sadie) presents her latest, Year of the Fox (May 13 & 14). Shot partly in Seattle with a local crew, this tense and moody story follows a young woman who never feels quite at home in Aspen — her wealthy and toxic hometown — where divorcing parents, partying friends and her own status as adopted build toward a transformative boiling point. 

Finally, for those with a shorter attention span, consider Sound Vision, a 90-minute collection of locally made short films showcasing wildly diverse stories, from an unhoused haircutter to an aging pickleball champ to a dad-joke comic who skulks through Harbor Island at night.

“Frankenpine,” a Japanese black pine with nails and a steel plate, is part of "Avant-garden," a new show of innovative bonsai trees. (Pacific Bonsai Museum)

So you say you aren’t into movies? There are plenty of other places to find cultural drama in the coming days. 

Perhaps you’ll sense a contemplative sort of drama in the annual BonsaiFEST at the Pacific Bonsai Museum in Federal Way (May 13 - 14). Regular readers know I’m a big fan of this all-outdoor ode to tiny trees, and this year I’m also excited about the edgy new exhibit Avant-garden (May 13 - Sept. 10). Showcasing trends in “bonsai futurism,” these innovative plant artists combine ages-old techniques with personal interests and a contemporary view. The result is, dare I say, cinematic.

A couple authors with local ties are reading from new books next week. Third Place Books in Seward Park is hosting Seattle native Claire Dederer (May 15 at 7 p.m.), whose new nonfiction book Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma I wrote about last month. (It also nabbed the front page of the New York Times Book Review last weekend.) At Town Hall Seattle, former Seattleite David Schmader will appear (May 17 at 7:30 p.m.) to discuss his new book Filmlandia!, a compendium of films and television shows created in the Northwest. 

And for a transportive musical experience: Portland-based soul legend Ural Thomas is coming to town, and look out: He’s bringing his band The Pain. Now 83, Thomas has gigged with some of the greatest acts of all time (including James Brown, Etta James and Otis Redding). These days he continues to perform all over — and makes awesome videos like “Dancing Dimensions.” Also on the bill is Seattle-based Reposado, the up-and-coming “tequila funk” band led by singer Jean-Paul Builes. (Tractor Tavern, May 12 at 8 p.m.).

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