Space on Congress Street in Portland. Photo by Joel Tsui

As if the process needed any speeding up, the pandemic has only accelerated moviegoers’ acceptance of home viewing as the new normal. Let’s face it, the old complaints about concession prices and sticky floors seem quaint after several years of weighing the risks versus reward of seeing the latest Marvel movie when there’s a deadly virus in the mix. Some movie theaters have closed, others continue to incorporate virtual screenings into their economic survival, and streaming services smugly sit back and chuckle, secure in the knowledge that viewers’ push for convenience and safety has finally reached the tipping point.

For Maine’s arthouse theaters and single-screen venues, this is an especially tough time to navigate. (As if it’s ever been easy.) In a previous column, I called the stalwart film curators, bookers and exhibitors still carrying the torch for in-person, eclectic moviegoing “heroes,” and I meant it. And even if Portland, of all places, still can’t boast a dedicated arthouse movie theater (RIP, Movies on Exchange Street, you magnificent little oasis, you), people like Portland’s Greg Jamie work overtime to keep independent cinema’s lights on.

Greg Jamie books films for both The Apohadion and Space in Portland. Photo by Ryan Marshall

“I’m trying to just book what I’m into and attempt to find forms of community partnerships that can help find audiences. But at the same time, I’m drawn to movies that don’t fit into normal categories, so that makes making those connections tricky.”

That’s Jamie for you, whose work booking films at both Portland’s Apohadion Theater (where he’s a partner) and Portland’s Space continues to bring a lovingly curated, adventurously weird indie movie spirit to two of Maine’s finest mixed-use exhibition venues. For example, Space is showing Japanese director Masashi Yamamoto’s 1987 film “Robinson’s Garden” on Wednesday, Dec. 14. The story of a young bohemian and sometimes drug dealer in bustling Tokyo who accidentally discovers a lushly overgrown abandoned industrial site, the film pretty much encapsulates everything Jamie loves about bringing the overlooked fringes of the movie world to Maine.

“I was just really taken with it,” Jamie said of the film, which was shot by cinematographer Tom DiCillo, fresh off lensing Jim Jarmusch’s groundbreaking indie “Stranger Than Paradise.” “It reminded me of when I was a teenager seeing a Jarmusch or (Hal) Hartley film for the first time,” said Jamie, “Deadpan, humanist, punk, but not lo-fi-enamored with its own aesthetic. It just felt like what I love about cinema. One of those movies where it feels like anything is possible, but also it’s unmistakably very narratively driven. And importantly, it felt like no one was going to show it in Maine.”

As Jamie notes, “Robinson’s Garden” came to his attention thanks to distributor Kani Releasing, whose mission is “dedicated to leveling the gaze and furthering the understanding of Asian cinema in North America.” (It’s also named after the floor-level, custom-made tripod of master Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, for added film geek cred.)


Jamie was kind enough to send me a screener, and his assessment of this strange and challenging film is right on the money. Starring Kumiko Ota (veteran of Yamamoto’s riotous earlier punk rock semi-documentary “Carnival in the Night”), the film explores one aimless young woman’s hazy attempt to break out of her rootless but overcrowded daily existence into a utopian, agrarian one. After drunkenly climbing a wall and finding an unattended green space filled with crumbling, overgrown structures right in the middle of Tokyo, she sells her meager belongings, ditches her part-time drug dealing, buys a handful of plants and a cacophony of multicolored paint cans, and plants herself.

A still from “Robinson’s Garden,” starring Kumiko Ota. Photo by Kani Releasing/courtesy of Space

Transforming the gray walls and corridors of her new home with anarchic spirals and splotches, and effortfully cultivating crops thanks to an intransigent well and some wonky ingenuity (Ota’s Kumi semi-successfully cobbles a plow onto her pink scooter, made from planks and multiple hand trowels), the odd young woman gradually turns her urban wilderness into something like an extension of her erratic and creative imagination. It’s here that “Robinson’s Garden” starts zigging when you think it will zag, Yamamoto never settling into a predictable narrative groove as his eccentric heroine’s undefined quest proves as unstable as she appears to be.

Utopias are extensions of our dreams, and just as doomed to evaporate in the harsh light of day. Kumi’s initial impulse to flee to this teeming oasis is as understandable as its dissolution is inevitable. Inviting her multicultural bohemian friends (all seen sharing a crowded hostel/commune at the start of the film) suggests a rosy jaunt of a film, but Yamamoto quickly shows how gathering a group of rootless, substance-abusing types is incompatible with Kumi’s ill-defined desire for unconventional peace and freedom. A strange and adorable little girl pops up among the ruins and the hedges from time to time, mainly to call Kumi names, and a sudden onset of a painful ailment hints at the drawbacks to self-imposed exile.

Still, Yamamoto follows his heroine without judgment, her hermit-like minor triumphs (one friend mockingly calls her “Robinson Crusoe”) shown as the results of her single-minded, if unruly, dedication. Her lover, wandering through the empty, echoing halls late at night, appears to have a mystical experience drawn directly from Kumi’s artistic will. At two hours, “Robinson’s Garden” is patient and mood-driven, with a late and defiant pilgrimage back to bustling Tokyo on a stolen bicycle playing out in an unsparingly extended sequence that reminded me of that Isabelle Adjani freak-out scene from 1981’s “Possession.” (If you’ve seen “Possession,” you get it. If not, you should watch “Possession.”)

In the end, Kumi’s flight from one troubled life to another is poetically inconclusive. A lovely late-film vision hints at the strange young woman’s motivations but doesn’t explain them. And the ending evokes sadness and serenity in equal measure, the fruits of Kumi’s impulsive efforts standing in testament to the best elements of her rebellious spirit. It’s an odd, often mesmerizing film that I’d never seen. And now, thanks to Space and Greg Jamie, I have. And I’m thankful.

Movies might have crossed, irrevocably, into sofa-bound experiences. But maybe that gives places like Space, The Apohadion and other Maine arthouse theaters an opening. Venturing off the couch is now an adventure, an event. And so seeking out the unheralded cinematic gems dug up by Maine’s programmers, exhibitors and other assorted film fanatics like Greg Jamie is a suitable reward for the effort.

The newly restored “Robinson’s Garden” is playing at Space on Wednesday, Dec. 14, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $7 for Space members and $9 for the general public. Head on out; it’s worth the experience.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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