Repertory Film Programming: A Web Exclusive Supplement to a Critical Symposium
by Robert Cargni-Mitchell, Bruce Goldstein, Gary Meyer, James Quandt, and Jackie Raynal
The closed but not forgotten New Yorker Theater
Cineaste, like all serious film magazines, prides itself on being a forum for film critics, scholars, and enthusiasts of all stripes, all of whom work tirelessly to sustain a vibrant and vital film culture by studying films and filmmakers in depth and by seeking out the best of world cinema, both past and present. Rarely represented in these pages though, or in similar magazines around the world, are another breed of film devotee, closely related but often laboring (sometimes happily) behind-the-scenes: those responsible for curating and organizing film programs at repertory cinemas, film societies, and other screening venues. Film programmers are a vitally important but often unacknowledged part of the film cultural landscape—they labor not only to keep great films in circulation, and to discover those forgotten or overlooked, but also to ensure that films are seen as they were intended to be seen. If viewing a movie on video or a computer screen means experiencing an approximation of the work of art but not the work of art itself, then the world’s cinematheques and the men and women who program them play an indispensable role in keeping cinema’s heritage alive.
With this in mind—and (full disclosure) fueled partly by my own dual role as both an Associate Editor at Cineaste and a film programmer at Anthology Film Archives in New York—we’ve decided to devote our latest Critical Symposium to the field of repertory film programming. By doing so, we hope to shed some light on the practical realities involved in organizing and presenting film programs. But our goal, too, is to call attention to some of the individual programmers who are in large part responsible for ensuring that certain films, filmmakers, national cinemas, and film historical movements do not sink into oblivion—whose work, in other words, constitutes an integral part of the process by which a coherent history of cinema is formed and maintained.
To survey the art and practice of film programming, we invited a number of programmers from around North America (sadly, space did not allow us to look further afield, though of course there are legions of great film programmers working around the world) to respond to a series of five questions addressing their experiences and philosophies as programmers, and their reflections upon the current condition and future fate of repertory film exhibition. While, traditionally speaking, “repertory film house” denotes a commercial institution devoted to screening classic films, for our purposes we’ve wielded the term more broadly to mean simply those film exhibition venues that do not primarily focus on first-run releases.
With the classic rep house generally having fallen victim to the rise of home video, the exhibition of classic films has fallen to a broad range of institutions—museums whose public programs include film screenings, theaters attached to universities, cinemas that are encompassed within larger cultural organizations, and other independent nonprofit institutions. Almost all of these venues depart from the classic repertory model in featuring films both old and new, with retrospectives and historical surveys alternating with programs on filmmakers or movements in contemporary film that rarely if ever surface at first-run commercial theaters. Our goal at Anthology—one most certainly shared by all the venues represented in the Critical Symposium—is to give exposure to films that might otherwise fall through the cracks. Given the inadequate state of theatrical distribution in the U.S., where truly challenging new work, both foreign and domestic, often struggles to be seen, this inherently means screening neglected contemporary films as well as lost or long-unscreened classics.
It’s true that repertory cinemas are far from the only means by which films are discovered (or rediscovered) and presented in contemporary film culture. As these cinemas become increasingly outnumbered by other avenues of exhibition—home-video distributors (aside from the studios, valuable work is being done by labels such as the Criterion Collection, Masters of Cinema, and many others), Websites (Auteurs has pioneered the presentation of films on-line), cable channels (TCM holds an important place in many a film buff’s heart), and video-on-demand providers (IFC)—the film programmers of the world are increasingly finding a home outside the confines of the movie theater (for example, Kent Jones, one of the contributors to the Critical Symposium, recently left his position as a film programmer at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, and is now the executive director of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, an organization founded to preserve and promote films from around the world). But, fueled by the conviction that preservation of the traditional moviegoing experience is a crucial part of the role played by repertory film programming, we’ve limited the focus of this Critical Symposium to those whose primary experience, past or present, is at good old-fashioned movie theaters.
If there’s one overriding theme that emerges, it’s an assertion of the invaluable role played by repertory film programming in placing films in context, along with an underlying conviction that this context counts—the context represented by the quality and nature of the experience (seeing a movie projected from a film print, onto a large screen, in public), but also that established by a creatively and perceptively curated film series, an in-person appearance by a filmmaker, or a lecture by a visiting film scholar. The consensus here is that film programming, at its best, helps start a conversation, putting different films in dialog with each other and fostering an awareness of individual works as part of an oeuvre, a tradition, an historical era, or a nexus of relationships and interconnections—something that is easily lost when shopping among the hordes of films available on video or on-line.
Anthology Film Archives
If the value of repertory cinema is (naturally) universally affirmed by the contributors to the Critical Symposium, the question of the fate of these theaters, of the experience of watching films projected theatrically, is left unresolved. On balance the contributors express a guarded optimism, predicting that a small but passionate audience will continue to exist, even if the experience is destined to become ever more specialized. As a programmer and an inveterate filmgoer (admittedly in a city with an unusually large number of repertory cinemas), I can say that the community of avid cinephiles in New York, who are fully (often obsessively) committed to seeing movies projected in public and on their proper format, seems to be constantly replenished with new, younger faces, people who are passionately taken not only with the art of cinema but also with the transformative power of moviegoing.
This proliferation suggests that the experience of seeing movies projected does indeed remain (potentially) transformative, retaining the power to convert even (perhaps especially) those growing up glued to their iPhones. The trick is to ensure that venues remain where these transformative experiences can take place. This may increasingly mean museums, archives, and university-affiliated screening series, but it’s worth calling attention to the phenomenon of microcinemas (in New York, where several microcinemas passed out of existence in the last decade, Light Industry and Union Docs, among others, have triumphantly picked up the mantle), whose small scale gives them a remarkable versatility and vitality.
Like a couple of the other venues featured in the Critical Symposium, my own professional home, Anthology Film Archives, is an archive as well as a cinema—as an institution its mission encompasses the protection and preservation of film prints that are in constant danger of disintegration and decay—and in some sense, its film programs are increasingly becoming an extension of this spirit, preserving not just particular films but the ritual of filmgoing itself. From this perspective, all the venues represented in the Critical Symposium are committed to the preservation of cinema, to ensuring that the art form remains, not just a collection of individual, consumable works, but an opportunity for dialog, discussion, and debate, a basis for community, and, above all, an experience.—Jared Rapfogel
We posed the following questions to a selection of repertory programmers, whose responses appear in our Spring 2010 issue. Due to lack of space, the responses of Robert Cargni-Mitchell, Gary Meyer and Jackie Raynal appear here as a Web Exclusive supplement. As a special bonus, we are also including below two of the responses (from Bruce Goldstein and James Quandt) featured in the printed magazine. To read the full Symposium, with contributions from twelve additional programmers from across the United States and Canada, please pick up the latest issue from your local newsstand, or take out a subscription for a whole year’s worth of Cineaste.
1) Is there a future to repertory programming, given the momentous changes over the last decade in technology and viewing habits? How would you characterize the impact on theatrical exhibition of home video, Internet streaming, downloading, etc.? Are the consequences entirely negative, or are there collateral benefits (i.e., new prints struck for video releases, more informed audiences, etc.)?
2) How would you characterize your programming philosophy, with regard to the variety of films selected, preferred formats (retrospectives, thematic series, national surveys, double features, etc.), your attitude toward audience expectation, or other considerations?
3) Do you find that good quality prints continue to be available? Do you think film prints will continue to be struck and distributed, or is this a dying exhibition format? And if projecting from film is destined to become obsolete, how great a loss do you think this is? Are you open to screening video or digital formats?
4) How have your audiences changed over the years? Are they increasing or decreasing? Have their demographics changed, in terms of age or background? Have they become more or less receptive to challenging and innovative programs?
5) What are some of your formative memories of repertory filmgoing? Do you have stories of particularly unforgettable experiences, inspiring series, or legendary venues?
Robert E. Cargni-Mitchell
1) Currently I am not a repertory film programmer in the strictest sense. That is not our model or mission at Film@International House. There are no repertory film theaters in Philadelphia city proper and there haven’t been in awhile. The one exception might be The Secret Cinema, a repertory film club that moves its programs from venue to venue. The motto on their website, reads ALL SECRET CINEMA PRESENTATIONS ARE SHOWN IN 16MM FILM ON A GIANT SCREEN (NOT VIDEO... NOT EVER!).
Within the suburbs of Philadelphia there are venues that use a modified model of the repertory film theater. I liken them to the model used by BAM in Brooklyn, NY where there are designated screens for contemporary commercial product as well as repertory film programming. To my knowledge, they all still draw good audiences, old and young alike.
One could note that this city is the host to three international film festivals annually, though the amount of programming designated to repertory or revival programming is small, since they choose to focus on newer international product touring the festival circuits.
I characterize the impact on theatrical exhibition of home video, Internet streaming, and downloading as having given overwhelming preference and access to the possibility of digital formats, which will forever confuse/complicate the private and public viewing spheres. There are just too many visual, verbal, and audio artifacts instantly available to people today. The best hope for repertory film theaters is the creation of informed groups who will see the value of participating in cinematic events beyond those of their portable devices. And if the history of film was put to some type of digital format, I agree with Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming for Film Forum in NYC, who said in a recent interview, “Part of the thrill for me when I was young was not having access to everything, pursuing and looking for things, checking the TV listings and haunting the revival houses.”
2) The programming mission of Film@International House provides me with numerous propositions that concern the demands of curatorial responsibility, and allows me the possibility of all the preferred formats. As well, it reinforces the idea that any artist or curator can be the impetus that moves things in a positive direction. The more that I learned in this programming role, the more I realized that I must go back to my responsibility as a curator/programmer/teacher, and in returning to the audience I must rethink of the steps that might be necessary to bring clarity and access of ideas to that audience—not exclusively the cognoscente, but rather those that need to know. Curation is not just positioning materials to contextualize the curator’s certain perspective. To be precise, it is akin to teaching in re-creating the steps necessary to bring the general audience to us, rather than expecting them to leap up and come along. The general audience then can begin to absorb these new ideas, ideas that will lead them to a new view of seeing film.
Part of this year’s thrust of thematic programming falls directly into many of the same concepts I’ve attempted to address previously while a programmer at Film@International House Philadelphia. Specifically, the question of memory and its preoccupation for both historians and film theorists: does art have a special responsibility with respect to past events that remain invested with value and emotion? How do filmmakers confront the problem of constructing a meaningful connection to the past? How does facing the past through cinematic representation in fact transform the present reality? It seems that different film genres have different modes of configuring these questions and thus of proposing answers to them. My work seeks to explore the varied representations of the formation of historical consciousness expressed through the art of cinema.
3) Good quality prints have been available thus far as we deal with small independent distributors, private collectors, archives, national ministries, film cooperatives, and sometimes the artists directly. No doubt a critical aspect of positive change has been the development of a symbiotic relationship between emerging markets of home video and the restriking of prints for theatrical distribution. Those who have ventured this risk are the small independent distributors such as Milestone Films, Rialto Pictures, and the Janus Collection. They have been champions of the foreign film, independent film, and avant-garde film. The latter point is critically important because each year foreign films get a smaller percentage of the U.S. market, making the risk involved in distributing them all the greater.
As long as there are filmgoers, those who are interested in the temporal uninterrupted flow of analog images full of their own singular esthetic properties, where light penetrates the emulsified material substance, producing—authentically—an unmatched richness and depth of field, there will be repertory film houses, film museums and film archives.
At Film@International House we have the capacity to screen all formats (35mm, in aspect ratios of 1.33, 1.37, 1.66, 1.85, and 2.35, as well as at variable speeds; 16mm, flat and scope, and again at variable speeds; and every possible video and digital format), depending upon the origin of the media as well as availability.
4) Empirically, I have no grounds to say that there has been a substantive change in our audience. Last winter we did a three-month marketing survey in which we found results indicating that although attendance was trending downward, basically the demographic had not changed. We’re all just a little older. Attributed to the diversity of our programming, which also includes a live music program as well as a visual arts gallery, we found a small upturn in the younger audiences. Receptiveness to programming was generally high, though that doesn’t always translate into greater attendance figures. Audiences continue to ask for their nontraditional favorites to be screened, and now want to know about any current DVD releases of these titles. The latter is a sign of the times. Finally, Philadelphia has always presented a perplexing challenge. Philadelphia’s large inner city has three major universities, all of which have thriving Cinema Studies programs which are located very close to International House, yet these programs do not contribute to large attendance figures. Institutionally, these universities support us, and, year after year, they contribute a constant number of attendees.
5) The notion of repertory cinema now seems to be as broad as the experience of the person using the phrase. I first encountered repertory cinema theaters as they were emerging in the Sixties along with college film societies. In retrospect, the “art cinemas” of the Dwight Macdonald variety (that is, those privileging European art cinema in opposition to Hollywood cinema, providing a critique of that popular culture), college film societies (which fostered the reexamination and recontextualization of Hollywood classics, in the spirit of auteur theorists), and repertory film theaters, all came together for me about the same time, but from separate directions, sharing one similarity: to legitimize cinema as an art form through the reexamination of all types of films. Upon my entering the academy at this time, the tendency was towards this changing attitude in spectatorship.
Teaching to this attitude was one dynamic figure: my mentor, Andries Deinum. In his classes, uniformity was not the desired goal. Andries taught film theory, film criticism, Film and Society, the Art of the Film, Film Directors, a senior seminar called “Film Committee” (which sought to examine the function, programming, and other practices of film societies), as well as general humanities courses, such as his noted “Sanctions for Evil” course at the Center for Moving Image at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. Andries was also the cofounder of Film Quarterly in 1958, and served on its editorial board for decades to follow. Andries gave testimony in an obscenity trial for my favorite “art cinema” venue, The Aladdin Theater (a repertory film theater I would later manage). The trial involved the screening of Louis Malle’s The Lovers. In court, Andries maintained that the film was a serious artistic effort and that it depicted the heroine’s adultery as justified by the film’s circumstances. Subsequently, there were failed efforts to fire Andries from his position at the University.
Robert E. Cargni-Mitchell is the Program Curator for Film@International House Philadelphia, where he showcases artistically significant and socially relevant motion pictures as part of an initiative with a thirty-year history. He is also the projectionist and main tech support for International House’s S.A. Ibrahim Theater, and the Special Programs Curator for the America-Italy Society, where he organizes events focusing on new works of Contemporary Italian Cinema, Italian culture, and the Italian language.
1) As Film Forum’s repertory programmer, I can only speak from a New York City perspective (even though I’m also involved in the national distribution end of the business with my company Rialto Pictures). New York has a long tradition of repertory moviehouses, but by the time I first joined Film Forum in 1986, they were nearly extinct—victims, not just of the VHS boom, but also of booming NYC real estate. Film Forum’s director, Karen Cooper, hired me to book the second screen with no specific mandate—the understanding was simply that I’d offer an alternative to her own programming of first-run independent films. I decided from Day One that we’d devote the second screen exclusively to classics—a policy we’ve stuck to ever since.
At the time, the perceived wisdom was that home video would make the revival theater obsolete. But our rep screen took off immediately and, almost 25 years later, is still going strong. One reason for this is that we’ve built a loyal audience over the past quarter-century and we’re still extremely aggressive with promotion and publicity (and, yes, we’re in New York City, but, contrary to popular belief, that doesn’t guarantee instantaneous success)—and we’re also reliable in terms of programming and the general quality of film prints. But I also believe that the new technology and viewing habits—DVDs, streaming, TCM, etc.—have actually helped build a new interest in seeing films in a movie theater (just as television was the wellspring for my own generation’s budding cinephilia). As evidence of this, some of our biggest rep hits of the past 10 years have long been available on DVD: Rules of the Game, The Red Shoes, In a Lonely Place, The Third Man,etc. So the answer is, yes, there is a future to repertory programming. But it’s important that both the organizations running it and the audiences are committed to it.
2) We put out a quarterly repertory calendar and I try to offer a wide variety of movies on each one—the films and series are juxtaposed graphically on the calendar to pique the reader’s interest and excitement over the line-up. On our winter-spring 2010 calendar, for example, we’ve got a new print of Kurosawa’s Ran, followed by a return engagement of the restored Red Shoes,followed by a new restoration of Five Easy Pieces. Then a series on director Victor Fleming (including Hollywood mega-classics like Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz), a new 35mm print of Joseph Losey’s offbeat Film Noir TheProwler, new 35mm prints of Abbas Kiorastami’s Close-up and Murnau’s Sunrise, a mini-series on Scottish director Bill Forsyth,and a four-week series on the newspaper movie, including films from the Pre-Code era (another of our hallmarks)and a sidebar on fast-talking actor Lee Tracy. This is a very typical calendar: two festivals (one a director retrospective and the other a thematic series) and six long runs of new 35mm prints (including two new 35mm restorations). This calendar also reflects many of my own special interests—and those of our audience: Pre-Code, Film Noir, silents, rediscoveries, etc. The only thing missing from this particular calendar are French films.
It would take an essay in itself for me to explain my “programming philosophy.” I do think, though, that it reflects, less on critical consensus, than on my own taste—I want to keep the films that have meant a lot to me in the repertory—but I also pay close attention to what’s popular with our audience. And I continue to be in contact with distributors, studios and archives about new film restorations and still initiate many new 35mm prints.
3) When I began in the business (which pre-dates my tenure at Film Forum by 15 years), the quality of film prints was hit and miss (mostly, “miss,” as I recollect). I would say that over half of the films shown were in 16mm. 35mm prints were often riddled with splices and scratches (especially at the beginnings and endings of reels)—on some Marx Brothers movies, for example, I could recite the dialogue, splices and all (since there was only one print in circulation). Color films were, more often than not, faded to magenta. Most movie buff audiences put up with this because “that’s all there was.” (I remember a sign at a Paris cinéma d’essaibox office, saying in essence that bad prints were the nature of repertory cinema, so take it or leave it.)
It was just as bad, if not worse, by the time we began Film Forum’s rep screen in 1987. I realized that we couldn’t keep an audience by offering the same old bad prints, especially as pristine copies of some classics were now available on video, so we began to offer distributors longer runs for classic films, thus higher film rental guarantees, as incentive to strike new prints. (Prior to our long run policy, most rep houses only played films for a day or two and most often on a split bill.) A Film Forum run will often cover the cost of a new print and in this way we’ve put over 700 new 35mm prints in general circulation. So from the very beginning, we’ve tried to raise the standard of film presentation with better prints, which I think has benefited the entire rep community. Film Forum is still the showcase for most new 35mm prints and restorations (and we are very careful in differentiating). And our 16mm projector is rarely in use anymore.
We’re privileged to have access to prints from the studio archives—in particular, Universal, Sony, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, and MGM—all of which, in the past 15 years or so, have done outstanding work in film preservation. We also work closely with the Library of Congress, UCLA, the Museum of Modern Art, George Eastman House, the BFI, and The Film Foundation—all major players in the film preservation world.
It’s important to note that not all of the prints we show are available to every venue, but a growing number of film distributors are making classics in excellent 35mm prints generally available. I founded Rialto Pictures in 1997 in order to distribute (mostly) foreign classics unavailable in this country. Other independent distributors who’ve made classics a specialty are Janus Films, Kino International, Milestone, and The Film Desk.
Not all films are available in great prints, especially for a series when our aim is to show all of a subject’s major work—but it’s very rare that we play anything less than in fair condition. The overall quality has improved dramatically over the past 20 years. In fact, I consider this a Golden Age for cinephiles.
As for the future of 35mm, I like to say that we’ll stick to that format until the last projector part is unavailable, though I believe 35mm is a long way off from dying (I don’t even think it’s seriously ill). But digital restorations have made tremendous advances in the past 10 years. In fact, most of the major restorations today are done digitally and then outputted to film (the recent restoration of TheRed Shoes—the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen—was done this way; the extraordinary work would have been impossible to achieve photochemically). So it’s inevitable that we will be seeing more and more digital projection within the next 5-10 years.
Since “new 35mm print” is one of our hallmarks, we’ve avoided digital projection for the rep screen, apart from a few documentaries. Thus far, we’ve not shown a classic feature this way (since most independent films are now shot digitally, our first run screen frequently uses digital projection), but we will be getting our feet wet in May with the complete version of Metropolis (discovered recently in Argentina), which we’ll be showing in a High Definition format. But I’ve got an emotional attachment to 35mm, as does our audience, so we will continue to be extremely discriminating when it comes to digital.
4) Film Forum’s membership (who join for both the first-run and repertory programming) has been steady over the past quarter-decade and our overall audience numbers have increased. We also benefit from hits on the first-run screen, and vice-versa, when new audiences discover the theater.
Regarding the age and demographic, that, of course, depends on the films being shown—and the time of day. We have a very loyal senior audience for matinees, but if you come at night, you’ll see a very young audience for a lot of our classic screenings. But I can’t tell you what our exact demographic is—I don’t think we’ve ever done any kind of survey.
As far as what’s considered innovative in repertory programming, on each calendar I try to feature a well-known classic in a new print as an opportunity for new audiences to discover it. But on each calendar we also try to include a long run of a film that’s not a classic—in other words, rediscoveries, to which our audience are extremely receptive. Losey’s The Prowler is a good example of this.
5) To this question I could write a book—if anyone would read it. My first rep houses were Channels 2, 5, 9, and 11 in New York (all I remember about Channels 4 and 7 was that their afternoon movies were cut to ribbons). My first rep screening was a double feature of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (decades later, I’d promote its restoration) and the forgotten Sundays and Cybèle at the Thalia. When I picked up the Thalia calendar (which I still have) and saw all these double features of films I’d never heard of, I was hooked. I then discovered that another revival house, the New Yorker, was only a few blocks away (for more on the New Yorker, see Toby Talbot’s wonderful new memoir). Later, Theater 80 St. Marks was theplace to see obscure Hollywood movies—films from the early 30s that rarely appeared on television. In my twenties, I moved to London, where the programming at the National Film Theatre was a huge influence on me. (I began my own New York career at the Carnegie Hall and Bleecker Street Cinemas, and later the Thalia.)
Some of the major revivalevents when I was growing up weren’t always at rep houses: the reissue of The African Queen at my local moviehouse; the 1969 reissue of Gone With the Wind, which had been out of circulation for seven years—though for this re-release it was blown up to 70mm and therefore cropped top and bottom; and, most important of all, the reissue, in the early 70s, of all of Chaplin’s great features. If you can imagine growing up reading about CityLights, Modern Times and The Great Dictator all your young life, with no opportunity to see them, and then suddenly they’re all announced at your local moviehouse, you maybe able to channel some of my euphoria. This is the kind of cinephilia that I miss and still hope to re-capture.
Bruce Goldstein is the Director of Repertory Programming at Film Forum in New York City. In the past twenty-two years, he has programmed over 300 film series and retrospectives and unveiled over 700 new 35mm prints. In 1997, Goldstein founded Rialto Pictures, a distributor specializing in classic reissues. He has been the recipient of awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, Anthology Film Archives, The National Board of Review, and the San Francisco Film Festival, and was made a “Chevalier” (“L’ordre des arts et des letters”) by the French government.
1) In the Eighties-Nineties home video killed most rep programming. Distributors wouldn’t make new prints and what we showed was often inferior to even a VHS. But I think now these new ancillary platforms could increase some areas for the theatrical experience. Never back to what it once was but it depends on how we use Video-on-Demand and certain cable services as ways of promoting a series. And we should offer extras.
2) Purely classic programming is hard unless one has solid financial backing dedicated to that like the Stanford Theatre. Most of us need to do a mixture of series and selected premieres. Creating more events connected to the films (speakers, music, installations, workshops, tastings) can draw otherwise skeptical patrons.
The most fun for me always was programming double features but the costs have made it difficult and most of today’s audiences don’t even know what a “double feature” means.
3) It is becoming acceptable to show digital formats. I was forced into using DVDs when some bad prints arrived and the audience responded well. More film festivals are also showing digital restoration instead of film. And distributors will make fewer new 35mm prints and be highly selective about which venues can project their archival prints.
Many classics departments book the titles and urge us to use our own DVD. If this can lower the costs (shipping, projection make-up) many exhibitors might play older films.
4) The audiences that supported repertory programs in the Seventies and Eighties have continued to attend art and repertory films but with a reduced number of regular visits as their careers and families take precedence. As more become empty nesters, maybe they will visit more often. But with TCM, Sundance, IFC, and several specialty genre channels on cable all programming like a rep house it is hard to predict attendance patterns. Younger audiences generally aren’t in the habit of regular visits to rep showcases. The big challenge is to bring in new audiences and we need to involve young people in programming and marketing.
5) Certainly the Surf Theatre and later the Castro in San Francisco, as programmed by my mentor, the late Mel Novikoff, set high standards. Pauline Kael’s Berkeley theaters ran a classic but dependable repertory and she wrote those great notes. Tom Luddy and Edith Kramer both set a very high bar at the Pacific Film Archive. David Packard’s Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto shows classic American films the way they were intended to be seen.
I started programming 8mm silent classics in my parents’ barn in Napa when I was twelve and soon was lent two 16mm projectors. Willard Morrison at Audio Films made me (and many other programmers in their formative years) an offer that could not be ignored. “If in one day you book any 10 films in the catalog to show over the next year, the rental fee will be $25 each.” This 50-75% discount made it possible to program serious films and stay loyal to the company that gave me my break. Our midnight horror series was always preceded by a séance or Arch Obler “Lights Out” radio show in total darkness. We had a house bat but it only flew through the projector beam for the horror films.
At one point at Landmark we had twenty-five theaters, often movie palaces, around the country showing rep with three to seven double feature changes each week. We tried to program to the interests of each city. I researched and planned hundreds of series and am especially proud of getting Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese to select the specific films that had the most influence on their own works and then creating double features. Our Visconti series at the Nuart included Burt Lancaster talking about working with the director for nearly an hour. In 1980, Los Angeles-based film critics were asked to choose double features of their two favorite movies of the Seventies and introduce. They usually brought the filmmakers. Long before “Sing-a-long” Sound of Music, a group of musical buffs made slides of the words for songs in Singin’ in the Rain and Meet Me in St. Louis. As the audience was singing, the first rainstorm since we took over the UC Theatre in Berkeley (1976) resulted in leaks throughout the theater and anxious fans vying to stand under the rain with their umbrellas open. Werner Herzog ate his shoe at the UC. Hong Kong Thursdays ran for many years there with terrific audiences.
Currently I coprogram the Telluride Film Festival with Tom Luddy, where our restoration showings, silent films with live music, and tributes offer an intense four days of rep programming. And I am especially proud of the Balboa pre-Code Paramount series, “Sin in Soft Focus” and our Boris Karloff series introduced by his daughter.
Gary Meyer co-founded Landmark Theatres and currently is Co-Director of the Telluride Film Festival (www.TellurideFilmFestival.org) and operates the 1926 neighborhood theater, the Balboa (www.BalboaMovies.com), in San Francisco.
1) It’s little wonder that film programmers joke about our imperiled profession and our future as door-to-door consultants for home-cinema owners. I recently wrote an article on the “new cinephilia” for Framework’s fiftieth edition, which will probably be lambasted for its defense of such outmoded notions as original format, and for its critique of our tacit acquiescence to a film culture that is an abasement of the art we supposedly serve. As many of us attempt to nurture, defend, and promote the traditional modes of exhibiting and viewing cinema, we also participate in a faux film culture, by pretending that we have “seen” (and heard) a film when we have merely consumed a degraded version of it, in the delivery systems you identify in your question. Recently, an on-liner rejected my claim that our touring Nagisa Oshima retrospective was “rare,” arguing that most of Oshima’s work can be easily streamed from the Internet, so is readily available to all. (He helpfully offered the necessary links.) Aside from the legal and ethical issues involved, how can anyone actually claim to have seen and heard an Oshima film in that diminished manner? Is cinema art or is it information? And why do we as critics, scholars, commentators, and curators do our visual and sonic analysis of films from such approximate (and often misleading or inaccurate) materials, and blithely present it as though we have worked from the original? What other art form allows such dissimulation? (I am as guilty as the next one for relying on screeners, but try to abide by the rule that they act as an aide-mémoire rather than a substitute for seeing the film on screen.)
Two of Tsai Ming-liang’s recent films, Goodbye Dragon Inn and It’s a Dream, are requiems for the classic cinemagoing experience. Tsai has suggested that technology and esthetics increasingly exist in inverse proportion, the advance of one diminishing the urgency of the other: “I am not happy about the whole DVD medium, in fact. The quality of film experience is crashing. People are now satisfied just watching a film to find out what the story is. The experience is almost being reduced to a kind of information gathering. What is going on? Who is it? My films are really for the big screen only.” But Tsai’s films will be seen mostly via the medium he decries, their enigmas rendered all the more mysterious by visual illegibility. As someone who had the good fortune of making a career of giving others the opportunities I had as a developing cinephile, to see, say, Godard’s Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle or Oshima’s Night and Fog in Japan for the first time on screen, and thereby attempting to foster the same “film love” that once consumed me—the immersive kind of cinephilia rather than the collector-cultish experience, as Thomas Elsaesser construes the two—I rue the thought of anyone’s initial encounters with these Scope masterpieces on a computer or television monitor, no matter how large or deluxe.
Complications arise from the counterargument, which assigns ultimate value to access. Is the proliferation and ease of access to cinema from every period, every country, not a miracle of “open museum” cultural democracy? Do the extras on Criterion and Masters of Cinema DVDs not serve as the kind of film education I would have cherished as a geographically isolated, self-taught cinephile? Hard to argue otherwise, but I think we have to be cognizant also of what we lose in the process. Regarding your second question, it would be dishonest and ungrateful not to point out that there have been immense benefits from the DVD boom of the last decade. The many restorations, undertaken by the studios for DVD release, often result in new prints being struck and distributed. I would never have been able to accomplish organizing the Oshima retrospective without the immense involvement of Janus Films, which made new prints of many of his films, including some rather esoteric ones, which I assume will eventually appear on Criterion DVDs. A mainstay of our Sunday afternoon series of classics are Schawn Belston’s amazing restorations of Fox titles. And so on.
2) I envy those who do thematic programming! Over the twenty-five years or so of presenting film series in Toronto, at four or five different venues, I have foundered on one immutable fact: audiences here much prefer narrowly defined and strictly cohesive film series to multifarious and complex ones. In other words, directorial retrospectives are much preferred to thematic series. As much as the latter elicit a programmer’s creativity, knowledge, and reach, and therefore are the most rewarding to curate, the few successful examples I can think of in the cinematheque’s history include a series that sounded like a graduate thesis: “Spirituality and Sacrilege in Medievalist Cinema.” Indeed, it was almost completely sold out, and brought an extremely varied audience, not just cinephiles: theology students, early music aficionados, historians. Two of the very first series I did in Toronto, almost thirty years ago, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, when it still had a film department, illustrate the fact. The series that did extremely well paired each of Bresson’s films with one he influenced, the double bills sold as a single ticket; the one that did disastrously was the cinema sidebar of “The European Iceberg” exhibition of recent German and Italian art, because it mixed many disparate elements: masters and newcomers, experimental and narrative cinema, etc. Heady on paper, flummoxing in experience. The “throughline” was difficult to discern for an audience: how do Kluge and Fellini “work” with Rebecca Horn and Carmelo Bene?
Double bills also function better as concept than actuality. (A confession: I have often been congratulated for double bills that were mere accidents of scheduling.) It may be a cinephilic parlor game to match films by thematic or stylistic kinship, or to illustrate influence and homage, but the occasional hunch can pay off on screen. I thought it interesting to pair Blowup with Bunny Lake Is Missing in our recent Preminger retrospective. No suggestion of direct influence at all, simply hints of affinity: they’re both puzzle movies set in swinging Sixties London with “whiter shade of pale” protagonists (David Hemmings, Carol Lynley, Keir Dullea); one features The Yardbirds, the other The Zombies; etc. Much to my surprise, it worked splendidly. A counterexample from the same retro was programming Clouzot’s Le Corbeau after Preminger’s remake of it, The Thirteenth Letter. Not only was the mystery solved and thereby “spoiled” for those staying for both films, but the acidulous Clouzot also made Preminger’s version look even weaker than it is. National surveys are legitimate, especially when a country’s cinema suddenly emerges or resurges. The most obvious recent example is Romania, but also Argentina, the Philippines, Belgium. (I have been wanting to do a historical Belgian survey for some time, in light of recent developments.) It’s one thing to examine an emerging trend, but on an annual basis these surveys often become egregious, perfunctory. We used to do yearly “showcases” of contemporary Spanish and Greek cinema, which were extremely popular, but they became increasingly untenable because of a paucity of good films to warrant an annual event, so I let them go.
3) I am shocked at the number of companies, and the growing number of film directors, who instruct us to show DVDs when we find it difficult to secure a good print. Projected DVD is the worst instance of digital delivery, of course, and I often regret that I resorted to this shortcut when organizing the Rossellini retrospective. At the time, and I think the case has not changed, it was the only way a few of the key history films could be shown, so I slid down that slippery slope. But, to extend the metaphor preposterously, that slope is all mud, and I think it is best to maintain, for as long as possible, the high ground of original formats. We debate digital projection a great deal in our organization—especially as we are set to open Bell Lightbox, with five cinemas—and I remain a staunch defender of film qua film, celluloid qua celluloid, much to the distraction of those who see that purist attitude as archaic, reactionary. But I think at some point it will be a losing battle. In the meantime, I think it behooves us to educate audiences (and each other, for I learn something new about digital every day, and eat crow for breakfast sometimes) about such matters. Until the difference is made apparent, it won’t be the urgent issue it should be.
A Toronto film critic once claimed that the role of a cinematheque was to show works that were not available on DVD, implying that the latter replaces the former, while countless others have pointed out that most DVDs have fewer visual flaws than a worn film print. (Digital has indeed ordained the pristine, much to the chagrin of cinematheques.) The phrase “in cinema experience” has recently entered the discourse of film curation—to differentiate traditional filmgoing from gallery and installation presentation of “moving image” works, videotheques, etc.—a marker of the rapid move of cinema’s realm from the social and ceremonial to the insular and domestic, the analogue to the digital, the hard-won to the easily accessible. Many film archivists now envision the day when a Fritz Lang retrospective, presented in its original formats (i.e., 35mm film, the silents at proper fps projector speed) in the best possible prints, would be the equivalent of a Matisse or Bellini exhibition, the rarity and authenticity of which make it a destination blockbuster. That might restore a Benjaminian “aura” to cinema.
A TIFF Cinematheque program offering its take on the best of the past decade
4) The question becomes do you attempt to shape an audience’s taste, or cater and respond to it; do you have the luxury (and temerity) of the former approach, or do box-office concerns dictate the latter? We’re fortunate in having maintained a large, dedicated audience, though its taste has changed markedly since our cinematheque opened two decades ago. In the early years, it was much easier to sell out a screening of an Angelopoulos film than to get more than Pastor Ericsson’s congregation to a new print of a John Ford classic. Everyone assumed that I had a prejudice against Hollywood cinema because we showed so little of it, but that was a totally specious inference. Our audience was more likely to pack out a Harun Farocki or Werner Schroeter film than to be caught dead at Hawks or Hitchcock.
That has gradually changed, and though I can’t say the obverse is now true, a Preminger retrospective certainly does far better than Rivette. Which perhaps answers your other question about receptiveness to challenging programs. A show that proved quite successful in the cinematheque’s early years, of documentaries about Japan by outsiders (e.g., Chris Marker, Kim Longinotto), would probably now have a tenth of the audience it did then. In the area of classic Japanese cinema, which is one of our mainstays, audiences much prefer Ozu and Naruse to Hani and Oshima, and not just because the latter are less known.
(Important caveat: attendance should not be the sole or defining marker of a series’ success. We’re all a little number crazy these days; I swear we’ll soon be using terms like “weekly nut.”) Regarding demographics, I think that, as with all the arts, our audience skews older than it once did. Though I get a little tired of cultural organizations’ fetish with youth and desperation to avoid appearing uncool—the consequence of so many arts administrators’ midlife crises—it’s always gratifying to see a completely new audience turn up, as happened with our Hong Sang-soo retrospective.
5) A Gray Old Man of the Mountain response. An autodidact and hopeless movie lover from a village in northern Saskatchewan with no television (so no late-night movies, the provenance of so many nascent cinephiles), and long before video recorders, much less DVD players or the Internet, I took my holidays in New York or Toronto to see films. I traveled hundreds of miles, made a master schedule of all the things I needed to see, and ran day and night—in shoes with yellow Lucite heels!—mostly to venues that no longer exist: the Bleecker Street Cinema, the Public Theater, the Thalia. Formative series were the Mizoguchi retrospective at Japan Society; a tribute to New Yorker Films at the Bleecker, where I saw my first Bressons; and my first shattering encounter with Red Desert at the Thalia (even when shown in a battered, faded print—Cerise Sand was more like it). Would that any of the series at our cinematheque have the same overwhelming effect.
James Quandt is Senior Programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto, where he has curated several internationally touring retrospectives, including those dedicated to Naruse, Mizoguchi, Bresson, Imamura, Ichikawa, and, most recently, Oshima. A regular contributor to Artforum, Quandt has also edited monographs on Robert Bresson, Shohei Imamura, Kon Ichikawa, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
1) I have closed my two repertory theaters, the Carnegie Hall Cinema and the Bleecker Street Cinema, in 1991, as cable television and the new video market were developing so fast that it was almost impossible to maintain a good, diverse repertory film program at those theaters. The cost of shipping prints increased so much that ultimately it made no economic sense. And at the same time, the cost of printing a program increased to the point that it was impossible to keep publishing our “1000 Eyes” magazine. Etc…
To me, as of today, the life of a good Repertory Cinema is finished, it is dead, alas!
2) I’ve been able to continue programming thanks to film festivals. As film programmer for the Mille Occhi Film Festival in Trieste, I’ve been able to program a number of film series: retrospectives devoted to Bulle Ogier, Jacques Baratier, and the Zanzibar Film Group, all in the last couple of years.
Now I believe, besides film festivals and museums, there are no more film events of that sort in regular cinemas. In Paris, thanks to strong financial help from the government, there are a few theaters that can afford to present repertory and retrospective programs; but those theaters are very fragile and are disappearing very quickly, alas!
3) Yes, there are still a number of good quality prints available. Film Forum in New York proves that, but it’s the only theater in the country that shows those beautiful retrospectives and film series with great prints.
The audience has changed over the last two decades—as we all know, now that you can screen anything on your computer, why bother to leave your home and buy an expensive ticket in a theater to see a good film?
4) I must say that we had one of the most educated and knowledgeable audiences at the Carnegie and the Bleecker Street Cinemas. Our audience knew the films so well, and sometimes even told us that a print shown last year was better than the one we were currently showing of the same film. We had many sold out shows for the Fassbinder retrospective, as well as the New Wave series and the Jean-Luc Godard retrospective. Now the current twenty-year-old, or even thirty-year-old, filmgoers do not know these directors!
Films and prints will always survive but only when presented in a museum or at a film festival. It’s sad that the new technology is killing the old fashioned film viewing experience as we knew it in the Seventies and Eighties.
Jackie Raynal is a filmmaker, editor, and film curator. As editor, she worked on such renowned films as Jean Renoir’s The Elusive Corporal, Eric Rohmer’s La Collectionneuse, and the Nouvelle Vague sketch-film Paris vu par…. Her own films include Deux Fois and New York Story. In the 1970s and ’80s she was the film curator at two legendary repertory houses, the Bleecker Street Cinema and the Carnegie Hall Cinema, and more recently she has programmed series for the Mille Occhi Film Festival in Trieste.