Seeing the roccoco Keith-Albee and one unrelenting film

Oct 22, 2011 by

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Keith-Albee Theater ~ Huntington, W.Va. ~ Oct. 2011 ~ by Douglas Imbrogno

Being inside the historic Keith-Albee Theater in downtown Huntington is sometimes like being on drugs without the drugs. The over-top ornamentation and brawny, rococo decoration that swirls from floor to crazy ceiling is a genuine trip. I was there last night to watch “Biutiful,” part of this week’s Marshall Artist Series Fall Film Festival, and snapped these iPhone 4 shots.

Keith-Albee Theater ~ Huntington, W.Va. ~ Oct., 2011

I’ve been going to the Keith-Albee ever since I arrived in Huntington from Cincinnati, as a fuzzy cub reporter for the Huntington Herald-Dispatch in 1987. The place still is a pleasure to witness. You sit there wondering: ‘Am I still in Kansas, Toto?’ I haven’t heard how the recent benefit went to replace the exterior Keith-Albee sign, which blew down in a windstorm some months back.  I hope they raised the money  needed. The theater is a must-see on any tour of  ‘The Seven Wonders of West Virginia.” (A list for which WestVirginiaVille is soliciting nominations, in order to compile a state-ly version of this list.)

I recommend “Biutiful,” but only if you want to see the kind of mercilessly, street-level film Hollywood wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot needle. The film is unrelenting in its depiction of lives lived on the margins and in the impoverished underbelly of Barcelona. (“Depressing,” the spousal companion decreed afterward.) But “Biutiful” is stunning, in its own way, in depicting the teeth-gritting grace of barely hanging on at society’s edges, while trying to keep your kids and family above the water line. Plus, watching the male lead, Javier Bardeem, is like scanning the craggy nightime beauty of a magnificent mountain range.

The film screens one last time at 2:30 p.m. this Sunday. And don’t believe the overall sunny synopsis of it on the Film Fest’s website, which helped bring us out to see it. (“… As fate encircles him and thresholds are crossed, a dim, redemptive road brightens, illuminating the inheritances bestowed from father to child, and the paternal guiding hand that navigates life’s corridors, whether bright, bad — or biutiful.”) This film by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Amores Perros”,  “Babel”) is a workout. But there’s a glimmer of humanity at its heart that is heartening. Roger Ebert’s review describes it well:

Gonzalez Inarritu follows Uxbal’s last days with great intimacy, burying his camera in the seamy street life that Uxbal lives, introducing many characters in sharp and colorful relief. He grants his characters the dignity of having feelings and reasons, and not simply behaving as mechanical inhabitants of a crime plot.

The film’s moral sense is heartfelt but not especially daring; by giving us a good man as his hero, Gonzalez Inarritu possibly weakens his case against the general sense of injustice in his film (nominated for a best foreign film Oscar). Uxbal is so wholly sympathetic that it’s hard for us to assign blame for his sins, and yet surely they are sins. Perhaps the idea is that he inhabits a world so lacking in goodness that his possibilities for choice are limited. Everyone he comes into contact with is flawed, except for his children and Ige (Diaryatou Daff), a Senegalese woman he hires as a nanny for his children. And her love for them (and to a degree for him) is warm but almost obligatory in a story of this sort; one more unworthy character would be unthinkable.

What drew me into the film and engaged my sympathy was the presence of Bardem himself. Bardem, who received a best actor Oscar nomination for “Biutiful,” is a vastly human actor. He can be handsome, ugly, hard, tender or a monster (as he was in “No Country for Old Men“). Here he suffers, and is good, and suffers partly simply because he cannot do good things. That isn’t a complex message, but I see films every day like “The Mechanic,” that will entertain millions with cold, amoral violence, and sometimes it’s good simply to see a man who cares about the consequences of his actions.