Save the Oak Street to Save Our Culture

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The raging debate over the future of the endangered nonprofit Oak Street Cinema in Minneapolis, now over $130,000 in debt, has raised a number of important issues. However, it has largely focused on the implications of the loss of the cinema on a personal level, steering away from conversations as to the consequences to the continuous homogenization of the U.S. cultural landscape. As members of the Board of Directors of Minnesota Film Arts (MFA), the parent organization of Oak Street, seek to convert the Twin Cities’ only repertory theater into a mere mimicry of commercial cinemas, staff, volunteers and supporters fight to maintain an important staple in the Twin Cities film community.
Since its inception in 1995, Oak Street has screened classic, foreign and first-run independent films. After years of financial viability, mismanagement, dwindling ticket sales and the last Executive Director’s failure to meet the deadline for grants have resulted in the theater’s staggering debt.
Despite pressure at a meeting on January 14th, board members refuse to illuminate how the financial crisis became so severe and why no one, staff or members of MFA, was informed earlier. The board blames poor screening choices for low ticket prices and has proposed shifting programming to popular independent films such as those played at the very pleasant but generally indistinguishable Landmark Theatres in the Twin Cities and across the country. According to media reports, board members have declined offers from Oak Street founder Bob Cowgill to lead a fund-raising campaign and seemingly dismissed the idea of collaboration with supporters to find ways to solve the cinema’s problems while maintaining its character. The shift in programming appears already to be in effect, as Oak Street recently screened The Squid and the Whale, which had already played for weeks at the Lagoon Landmark Theatre in Uptown.
The story of the Oak Street is not particular to the Twin Cities but part of the nationwide homogenization of a cultural landscape now marked by the cookie-cutter sameness of corporate culture. The decline of repertory, art-house and other specialty cinemas across the country is just one example of the rampant loss of cultural diversity that has been a defining characteristic of U.S. culture since the mid-20th century.
The importance of easily mass-produced identical objects is the mainstay of the ethos of corporate culture, and the value of uniformity permeates cultural production as our society consciously and unconsciously absorbs this pervasive value system. While the homogenization of our culture has by its own turn prompted a new generation of cultural producers actively combating its destructive effects, these individuals and groups continue to be marginalized.
The material ability to actively engage in cultural production diminishes as corporations become the dominant force, primarily through sponsorships, of all corners of our mainstream and even avant-garde culture. Moreover, corporate culture has affected our communal mindset, launching an all-out attack on our creativity and teaching us to define our culture through consumption rather than production. Thus we find our potential cultural array disappearing as with each generation our imaginations decay from lack of use.
There is no need to idealize the elitist and mistaken ethic of originality that marks our historical studies of the West’s cultural past, but it is undeniable that across the country, popular culture is being thinned out as diversity disappears. We only need take note of the increasing uniformity of our urban landscapes to prove the rapid disappearance of cultural variety, as our communal physical space becomes dominated by the sameness of chain stores designed to minimize choice.
The loss of Oak Street as a repertory cinema means homogenization of the film culture of the Twin Cities. Oak Street provides a venue to screen films that are otherwise largely absent from the popular cultural landscape and which are part of the history of film that is mostly forgotten. Their revival in repertory cinemas across the country is the main avenue through which we can expand our current culture and restore our communal cultural memory.
Oak Street is an important cultural landmark in the Twin Cities. It’s not just a place to watch films, but a site of community where all moviegoers are immediately friends sharing in the intimate experience of watching film. It is a place where audience members linger before and after films to talk to each other, staff and volunteers, and friends are easily made. It is a rare movie-going experience, unparalleled in the Twin Cities, and it is foolish to believe that the uniqueness of the experience is unconnected from the distinctive programming which is the heart of the cinema.
The closure or programming change of Oak Street would represent a personal loss for me and for scores of Twin Cities residents, but more importantly, it would mean another loss in a constant battle to maintain a diverse culture that refuses to forget its own history. The board members’ decision to change the programming at Oak Street as a result of the financial instability they have wrongly blamed on screening selections is simply one more example of the pervasive corporate culture which is using all its financial power to dictate a homogenous culture that is forgetful and limited, and ultimately, boring.
To be part of saving Oak Street, tell board members of MFA to maintain the exceptional programming, and come out to the theater to be part of a community that Netflix or Blockbuster will never give you. For more information on the fate of the theater, visit SaveTheOakStreet.com.

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