NORTHAMPTON - What's with the ponytailed guy holding the mandolin?
There are only five people settled into seats before the 10 a.m. showing of "I'm Not There" on a December day in the Pleasant Street Theater, and he is standing in the aisle talking to one of them, a friend it seems, about another friend's problem with her pain medication. He agrees that, yes, he is glad to be down in the brick-walled basement viewing room with 35 seats and not upstairs in the main theater, which at that moment is seething with students from Northampton High School come to see "Into the Wild" as an assignment for English class.
The gray-haired musician in the loose-fitting shirt then turns and stands before the screen and plays, unannounced, "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" and "All Along the Watchtower," two Bob Dylan songs from the 1967 album "John Wesley Harding." He plays gently and fiercely before the room darkens and "I'm Not There" begins its keenly edited exploration of Dylan, who he has been, what we have wanted him to be, how it all interrelates, and does not.
Lucid notes from the mandolin's shimmering strings - alive only briefly - reinforce an obvious but often overlooked point: The images and sounds, the ideas and acting that follow on-screen, come from specific moments of creation.
Such a random reminder about the virtue of originality can be reason enough, in an age of multiplexes and mega-studios, for a filmgoer to seek out one of the remaining independent cinemas. But string together a New England road trip to several of them - catching six films on six screens in three states over a 50-hour stretch, for example - and the journey itself becomes cinematic.
What does one singer's journey have to do with your own? And corn in the American diet? Who knew that the rope would snap in a canal in India, and what that would bring? Which movie next? Where? Why?
Or consider the sense of solitude that comes after an evening show, when walking into the darkened streets of an unknown town. Little things loom large. Which happened first: Did you see or hear the flat tire on the car rolling down Main Street?
The recent fate of the Pleasant Street Theater, set inside a brick building with a black awning out front, its narrow hallways leading to slim seats, says a lot about the state of independent cinema. There is little money to be made competing against the long-run screens and super-sized concessions of the multiplex. The December showings of Todd Haynes's "I'm Not There" and John Turturro's "Romance & Cigarettes" were the last for the privately-owned theater, which closed three weeks ago. But locals have rallied to save a favorite place, and after speculation and negotiation, a deal was struck to reopen it as soon as the end of the month. It will be operated by Amherst Cinema Arts Center, a nonprofit with a theater of its own that follows a different model: seeking donations to bolster ticket sales in order to preserve the presence of relative difference on the movie theater landscape.
The Amherst cinema - modern glass facade tucked behind a historic brick theater building redone as commercial space - was the destination for an afternoon matinee, but a clerk in a Northampton shop mentioned Moroccan cuisine. So first came a detour beneath the blue awning at Amanouz Cafe for fresh falafel and baba ghannoush before rolling seven miles northeast on Route 9.
Even independent movie houses survive by staying close to the mainstream, showing well-reviewed films that people know. That is why on screens from Waterville, Maine, to Montpelier, Vt., and Dennis, Mass., much of the art house fare was strikingly similar that week: among others, "The Darjeeling Limited," "Lars and the Real Girl," "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," and "Margot at the Wedding." Amid the familiar, though, cinemas still try to tempt with lesser-known titles.
Amherst Cinema Arts complemented its afternoon showing of the popular "No Country for Old Men," the Coen brothers' take on one state of America, with "King Corn," a documentary.
Radio-surfing en route to Amherst turned up an interview with Michael Pollan, an author whose work informed much of "King Corn," a supply-side version of the American diet dilemma dissected in "Super Size Me." In the film, two young men motor from Boston to Iowa to plant an acre of corn and find out how that and millions more end up in everything from burgers to
In one lingering image, a protagonist reaches a gloved hand through a hole cut in the side of a living cow, and pulls from its stomach a fistful of husk, kernel, and other corn roughage. Specialists inform that the diet can grow a steer quickly, but also kill it, and that if you were born in the United States after 1980, more or less, you may never have tasted grass-fed beef.
It is a bit difficult to fathom, then, standing at a counter in Pittsfield the next afternoon and ordering a $14.99 half-pound sandwich of wagyu beef at Burger, a designer burger joint if ever there was one.
The cashier doesn't say whether the steer was fed corn or grass, but assures it was well loved, even massaged. She holds up her hands and makes a rubbing motion, as you might do if massaging a 1,200-pound animal.
Only the evening before, a few hours after "King Corn," "The Darjeeling Limited" opened as a colorful lark with antics of three brothers largely in closed compartments of a train car. The film was the weekly offering at Images Cinema, another nonprofit that survives in Williamstown long after independent cinemas in nearby North Adams - the Richmond, Paramount, Mohawk - have long been silenced.
Images' management hopes soon to upgrade the single-screen theater's seats, which are still comfortable enough. Like the creative blends of seasonings offered with popcorn at the concession stand, each chair's sags and squeaks provide a unique perspective for the journey.
As the brothers continue across the desert of India, an unexpected collision of sorts occurs, and suddenly you are there, in the grit and hurt and hope of rural India, and when it is all over, you feel the urge to stand and glide, slo-mo like a Wes Anderson character, half-way around the globe.
The next afternoon, all burger-full and in a seat at Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington for "No Country for Old Men," the fare was not as inspiring. It is a great film, inasmuch as it plays on sweeping statements about the American condition, and presents excellent portrayals of characters largely relegated to life on-screen. But too many people get shot at close range. Like a lot of independent theaters, the Triplex sits in the center of town, so it was easy to find nourishment with conversation and fresh fish at Bizen, a small-town sushi bar with a worldly range.
An hour drive south into Connecticut ended outside the Bantam Cinema, a two-screen operation housed in an old barn. "Bella," a too-tidy tale pondering an unexpected pregnancy, was not worth the detour. As one customer wrote on the oversized notepad in the Bantam's cozy lobby, good, "but hardly a film."
On such an improvised cinematic circuit, though, films do not always have to be good to deliver. In the center of Brattleboro, Vt., the Latchis Theatre, an Art Deco structure preserving the past for the town's modern arts, at times hosts live music or talks by filmmakers.
On a Tuesday evening, one film offering, "August Rush," was full of overacting and cheesy dialogue. But a single idea - that music is everywhere - and a single scene - with amplified sounds of subway cars, tires, slamming doors, singing birds, of scrapes, smacks, claps, and whirls on a city street - were enough.
Stepping into the dark night afterward, the flat-tire car hobbled by, and still sidewalks led past shuttered shops until a silent door somehow promised more. Downstairs in the Mole's Eye Cafe came voices, including that of the bartender: "Tuesday night, actually, usually all the basketballers come in. . . ."
In the corner, four men who were gathered for a weekly jam session with guitars, banjo, and bass rested after intimate and tentative renditions of "White Dove," "In the Pines," and "Two Dollar Bill."
Up the stairs and outdoors again, after the Mole's Eye door swung shut, the only sound came from two feet on any icy sidewalk. Alone in the winter night, they marched on. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
Tom Haines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.