TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Want to treat your behind like royalty?
Introduce it to a seat in the State Theatre in downtown Traverse City sometime, preferably during the annual Traverse City Film Festival. Founded and curated by filmmaker Michael Moore, the 5-year-old event — a very good one, considering the size (about 14,300 seats) of this tourist-dependent waterfront Eden — spreads out across five indoor venues, plus nightly outdoor screenings in a park on Grand Traverse Bay. The luxe-est of the five auditoriums is the beautifully restored State Theatre, a 1916 relic made over in 1949. It has suffered fires and many dark years behind closed doors. In 2007 it reopened in style, thanks to Moore’s largesse and a $1.4 million renovation.
“I went to Grand Rapids, where a lot of theater seats are made,” says Moore. It’s Wednesday around 10 p.m.; Moore, who has lived in Traverse City for six years now, settles onto a lobby couch, having just introduced the director’s cut of “Woodstock” and cajoled festival guests and ‘60s survivors Wavy Gravy, Country Joe McDonald and Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane into a prescreening mini-concert.
So, the seats: “I went to five different seating companies and took a pregnant woman with me, a guy with a bad back, a too-tall guy, a too-short woman and me. Five of us.” The favorites, Moore says, were based on designs used by Ford in the 1999 Mustang.
Moral: What works for long drives also works for an hour or two (or nearly four, if you’re watching the director’s cut of “Woodstock”) spent getting lost at the movies.
Run on a $1 million annual operating budget, the 2009 non-profit festival ended Sunday.
Moore and executive director Deborah Lake (who manages the State year-round) included 71 features this year, among them a handful of North American premieres, an array of well-regarded foreign and independent titles (many of which have already played in cities like Chicago), kids programming and at least one event designed to curl some hair. “Bruno” director Larry Charles is on the festival board and brought with him this year a collection of “Bruno” outtakes that won’t even make the DVD. Also, the undervalued master director Paul Mazursky was feted with a tribute including three of his better-known films — “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” “Enemies: A Love Story” and “An Unmarried Woman.”
Moore and his wife moved back here, he says, to be close to his father (his mother died in 2002). He notes that his famously leftwardtilting firebrand image is somewhat at odds with Traverse City, which went for McCain in 2008 (and Bush the previous two elections). He says that regardless of his politics, he and many of the local business owners are friends. And the renovated State really does appear to have worked: Wednesday night, after the first full day of the festival, nearby bars and restaurants teemed with life and cinematic discussions, while down by the water hundreds more took in the free openair screening of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” In a good print. With good projection.
Moore’s proud of the State’s acoustics (Skywalker Sound advised on the speaker system) and points to the starry theater ceiling design, contributed by a local astronomer, re-creating the image of the summer sky above Traverse City.
He deplores the big-box multiplexes — “what they call movie theaters these days. It’s just shocking how poor the picturequality is sometimes, the sound — the moviegoing experience. As filmmakers we spend years making these things, and we have no say in how they’re exhibited?” Moore believes that the success of the State, and the ongoing success of his festival, belies the notion that a single-screen venue in a downtown area can’t make a go of it.
While I change batteries on my tape recorder, Moore texts his wife. She is having dinner with friends at the restaurant next door. Across the street from the State is Moore’s office, where, he says, some 50 colleagues are scrambling to help Moore complete a next-to-final version of Moore’s newest film. He has two days to go on it, he says.
“Capitalism: A Love Story,” which he suggests will mark a return to the “incendiary” (his word) provocation of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” takes on American greed and the worldwide economic crises, with a side trip, he says, into the plight of the American daily newspaper.
After playing the prestigious Venice and Toronto festivals in September and opening in New York and L.A. Sept. 25, “Capitalism: A Love Story” plays the rest of the country beginning Oct. 2. Was he tempted to sneak-preview it at his own festival? Moore pauses.
“I’d like to. I’d like to test it, frankly. But this festival isn’t for my films. They had to drag me into doing a 20th anniversary screening of ‘Roger and Me.’ Still, yeah, I’m dying to get some reaction.”
It’ll come soon enough. And with that, as “Woodstock” unspools to a sellout crowd at the State, Moore’s off to join his wife and then finish his movie.