Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on January 2, 2011
I celebrated the new year by proofing a final mock-up of my Spring arthouse calendar film series program. It will screen about 50 films. Some new. Some old. The selection usually nets an equal amount of praise and criticism. I put out a sneak preview of coming attractions on my FaceBook page the other day and within a few minutes received one enthusiastic remark from a reader looking forward to the latest Steven Soderbergh documentary about Spalding Gray (that one called And Everything Is Going Fine) while simultaneously getting one smack-down from a reader wanting to know why I won’t be screening González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, or Charles’ Ferguson’s excellent documentary regarding the details of our recent financial collapse, Inside Job, or even something so obviously winning as L’illusionist, which displays the latest animation of Sylvain Chomet of The Triplets of Belleville fame – especially as it is working from an unpublished screenplay by Jacques Tati. What could be more perfect for an arthouse theater? For those curious how this particular film curator made his final choices, here are my answers.
A little background: In one week, I’ll have 25,000 schedules to distribute. When it arrives from the printers, I’ll invariably hack open a box from the first shipment, reach in, grab a freshly minted program, and within .03 seconds spot a glaring typo – and it won’t be my printer’s fault (they – unlike me – are consummate professionals who have done everything in their power to prevent this). Nope, the buck stops at my desk. It should, anyway. But I’m a sloppy guy and I make a lot of mistakes and this typo now in front of me will have somehow escaped the detection of the half-dozen people who helped me proofread the damn thing back when we had all the time in the world to peruse it line-by-line. And who am I kidding? There won’t be just one. There will be many. But that’s okay, I’ll still be as proud as can be. That’s because, unlike any chain theater whose programming is dictated by the bottom-line or committee, I’m a non-profit and, furthermore, in the enviable position of being the only programmer calling all the shots. There’s no question who the father is – this is my baby, warts and all.
I kick things off on January 26th with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (dir. by Daniel Afredson, 2009), and this despite the fact that it comes out on DVD the day before. Once a film is widely available on DVD, that cuts my attendance numbers by over half, and I usually avoid it when showing newer titles. The venue I screen films in has 400 seats, so the difference between a sold-out show and one scarcely attended is huge. But in this case I’ve already screened the other two films in Stieg Larsson’s very popular trilogy, and since admission to my series is half the rate being charged at other theaters I’m still providing a service for the budget-minded folks out there who purposefully missed it at the multiplex. Also insofar as this trilogy is concerned; we have bragging rights to having given The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo its Colorado premiere. A big “thank you” to Music Box Films for that feather in our cap. Those sold-out shows gave me the freedom to program other more obscure films that I knew would lose money but still deserved to be seen on the big screen. As a non-profit I don’t have to make a lot of money to function, but I can’t lose too much either – so it’s important to have a few high-profile performers to help subsidize the repertory and off-the-beaten track titles that don’t usually pack ‘em in. That’s the other reason I’m leading the Spring series with this title; most of the films on my program don’t have any multi-million dollar publicity campaigns behind them to boost public awareness, so best to put something up front that people will recognize and draw attention to itself. It’s a good way to prime the pump as we get back from a holiday hiatus.
The Sundance Shorts package is a collection of nine shorts that have been culled from the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. This year, the Sundance Film Festival takes place between Jan. 20 – 30, so I thought it’d be appropriate to highlight this shorts package from last year at a time that overlaps with the current festival. I normally only give a title one or two days on my program so that I can cram in as many other films in as possible, but this is a rare case where the money due to the filmmakers is divided amongst all nine of them equally. That extra day will help increase the box office tally being split by these young filmmakers. Also, on a Sundance-related note, I usually attend the first half of the festival and, after watching four or five films a day it’ll be nice to give my eyes a small break when I return. I’ve already seen this collection of shorts, so timing their screening with my return means having three extra nights to catch up on emails and laundry.
BLACK & WHITE MAGIC ON SUNDAYS! As I wrote in my program notes, over the years I’ve purchased a lot of my favorite films on DVD. Most of them are still wrapped in their cellophane. Why? Because by watching it on DVD I knew I’d be cheating myself of their reel magic. This Spring calendar I’ve decided to dedicate Sunday to some of these titles. The first half are film noirs, the second half are enigmatic, haunting, or somehow infused with the fantastic. All of these Sunday films make incredible use of black-and-white cinematography, and all of these Sunday films are on 35mm film.
I just saw the Coen Brother’s True Grit at the theater via digital projection. It was beautiful. No scratches. Crisp. In focus. The audience loved it. So did I. But the black spectrum of color, for me, still lacks the nuance of 35mm film. It was a solid and inky black, rather than a graduated and nuanced black that felt alive within its shadows. It was the difference between a counterfeit Mona Lisa and “the real deal.” I’m amongst a shrinking handful of people who care about such things, but for those shrinking handful I dedicate every Sunday of my Spring program, and I kick thinks off with The Killers (dir. by Robert Siodmak, and starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner). Grubby hotels, sleazy nightclubs, shadowy, dark, expressionistic lighting… On actual film it’s like walking out under a full moon and seeing the landscape all dreamy and surreal-like – a format portal that gets you as close to the real thing as possible.
Digital Projection? It looks awesome, it’s here to stay, and it will soon eclipse the heavy, expensive, and easy-to-scratch celluloid prints of the past. But a small part of your brain will be asleep during the proceedings. It’s a small but important part of your brain that is connected with intuition. For me, that slumber is awakened by a pure image of reflected light, be it from a time long past or recent – it’s still the closest I can come to time travel. This does not yet exist for me in the digital realm but, again, I’m in a rapidly shrinking minority of people who still think of such things. In True Grit a horse is spurred on to its death for the purpose of saving the protagonist. In my case, I’ll keep beating that horse long after it’s dead because, well, I loved it too much to believe it would ever stop transporting me to new places. Or perhaps I should put it this way; as long as I own my own damn horse, I’ll take care of it for as long as nature allows. Coincidentally, the nearby Landmark Theatres will also be screening some film noirs around the same time, with a focus on Orson Welles, but this thematic “film festival” is really a “digital series” void of celluloid and mostly on Blu-Ray.
The week of President’s Day Weekend is always a bit tricky because that’s also when the Boulder International Film Festival sets up shop one mile away from us for its for its yearly and four-day event. BIFF is very successful, has no problems packing its venues, and always gets a lion’s share of the local publicity. That being said, most of their screenings are digitally projected and they rarely, if ever, show repertory. In contrast, most of my offerings are on film and I always give a fair shake to the classics. I also charge much lower admission and offer up screenings throughout the year, so we’re very different animals. I start things off with two very powerful docs, A Film Unfinished (dir. by Yael Hersonski, 2010) and Last Train Home (dir. by Lixin Fan, 2009). These two films are of the sort that might have screened at BIFF, but I show them on film, and I show them early on. When BIFF is in full swing I go with a cinematic kick in the nuts: Enter the Void (dir. by Gaspar Noe, 2009). Noe has long embraced a drug-fueled misanthropy that assaults its audience in many ways, and there are many people who will (and should) avoid him like the plague. But the fact remains: Enter the Void is one of the most visually audacious films to ever sizzle through the human synapses and fry the cerebral cortex. Last year BIFF‘s opening night film was The Lightkeepers (dir. by Daniel Adams, 2009) – and I cannot think of a more diametrically opposite film to this than Enter the Void – its opening credit sequence alone would give Blythe Danner a heart-attack. As BIFF winds down with closing night ceremonies, I also wind down the week with the 1998 restoration of Touch of Evil (dir. by Orson Welles, 1958), a repertory bit of programming that won’t step on BIFF‘s toes in any way and which I’ve been wanting to revisit for a long time coming.
Next up: a restored Godard print, some U.K. comedy, Spalding Gray, and my favorite Jim Jarmusch film. Every Man for Himself (dir. by Jean-Luc Godard, 1980) is enjoying a new 35mm print courtesy of a The Film Desk, a small distributor who has taken up the clarion call of keeping great and interesting arthouse titles alive on film. Gotta support ‘em, plus Godard still (!) brings in both the young and old. Four Lions (dir. by Chris Morris, 2010) made my small list of favorites at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and finds laughs in unexpected places, like Life of Brian, it gleefully tips over various sacred cows with wild abandon. And Everything is Going Fine (dir. by Steven Soderbergh, 2010) has gotten great reviews and hearkens back to such arthouse anchors as Swimming To Cambodia – which used to play for months on end at neighborhood arthouse cinemas now long extinct.
On my fourth “noir” Sunday night I will admit to a cheat. Dead Man (dir. by Jim Jarmusch, 1995) is certainly no film noir in any traditional sense and probably should have been squeezed into the second-half of my Black & White Magic on Sunday’s program (what with it being haunting, enigmatic, and having fantasy elements). Still… so many of my favorite film noirs feature doomed characters and deadly gunslingers in an existential battle that put their free will into question, and I feel Dead Man touches on all of those things – and more. J. Hoberman referred to Dead Man as “the Western Andrei Tarkovsky always wanted to make.” Here is a film that casts a spell. If you get it, you’re mesmerized and carried somewhere transcendent. If you don’t get it, well, you’ll probably hate it and get sick, quickly, of Neil Young’s repetitive (aka: hypnotic) score. Much like American Astronaut (another true, great, black-and-white original), it’s one of those films where you can easily divide those who love it (these usually having seen it on film, on the big screen, with a receptive crowd), versus those who don’t (which, from my personal experience, means those who saw it on DVD, on a small screen, with a distracted friend or two). When programming a series of resplendent films whose black-and-white cinematography shine on celluloid, I had to sneak Dead Man in. Perhaps this excerpt by Jonathan Rosenbaum for his BFI Modern Classics on Dead Man will explain why:
Phew! Okay, now we get to Oscar Week. Not much for me to say here other than I find it interesting that this, the most aesthetically bleak chunk of layout we have – due to the fact that we didn’t know who the Oscar nominees were when we went to press – will still probably be our most successful in terms of attendance. How to explain this? Well… an anecdote does come to mind. In 2000 John Corigliano won an Oscar for Best Music to The Red Violin. We brought him out as a special guest, and I’ll never forget an idea he had that he was convinced would make millions; condoms that were molded to look like Oscar. Why? Because John’s experience was that when he had that Oscar in his hands he couldn’t believe how many people at the after-parties wanted to touch and grab it (at that time this included one-time pin-up queen Farrah Fawcett). Corigliano swore me to secrecy on this, but that was ten years ago, which I figure is now past the statute of limitations. If any condom makers out there are reading this; you’re welcome. Not only does everyone want to touch Oscar, it’s also a big social event on par with Super Bowl parties, and for a lot of people these screenings of the nominees in the shorts categories will be their only chance to see them before the festivities.
We now reach the half-way mark of my schedule with: Enemies of the People, Korkoro, Blue Valentine, and The Third Man. Enemies of the People (dir. by Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, 2009) takes a look back at the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge and won the World Documentary Special Jury Prize at Sundance and is also a front-runner in the Oscar Forecast. I could have programmed it earlier in my schedule, but obviously I’m hoping that it nets an Oscar nomination and that the added exposure gives it legs. If it wins? That’s gravy. Korkoro (aka: Freedom, dir. by Tony Gatlif, 2009) follows a Gypsy family on the French roads of WWII. Gatlif is well known to my audiences for such previous films as Latcho Drom (1993), Gadjo dilo (1997) and, most recently, Transylvania (2006). Gatlif’s ability to convey the passions of a tribe via music and dance defy normal narrative structures and tap into passions so genuine that they often make you feel like you’re watching a unique documentary. Blue Valentine (dir. by Derek Cianfrance, 2010) just had it’s big city premiere last week with the Weinstein Company eager to cash in on its many accolades (2 Golden Globe nominations, etc.) and is clearly also hoping for some Oscar nods. It has made many Top 10 short lists for last year, and was one of my favorite films at Sundance. Of course, I’m biased, as Derek is a friend, and so I’m bringing him and his film here for a free screening to give our boy a hero’s welcome. The local newspaper recently put him on the cover, and I feel the following excerpt from the article by Alex Stein (Wild “Blue” yonder, Daily Camera, 12/24/10) speaks volumes about Derek as a filmmaker:
Topping off the week is Carol Reed’s much (and rightfully) beloved The Third Man (1949). I picked this classic to top off the film noirs for a simple and elegant reason that dovetails in with the preceding screening of Blue Valentine. Speaking about The Third Man, Derek’s says “that final shot was an inspiration for Blue Valentine.” For my next post I’ll finish off the second half of my programmer’s Crib Notes with more eclectic fair – but this time the Sunday night black-and-white films switch from noir to titles that veer a bit more toward fantasy.
In the interest of providing closure to those who read my opening paragraph, made it all the way down here, and don’t want to wait around for my second post to hear the response as to why I didn’t bring Biutiful, Inside Job, and L’illusionist – the answer is simple. Roadside Attractions distributes the first. Sony Pictures Classics distributes the other two. Neither will return my phone calls. Why? Because I only show films for a day or two, don’t charge very much, am a non-profit, and in their eyes belong to a non-theatrical ghetto. That’s a long topic that should be reserved for some other post. Keeping it simple for now, suffice to say I’m the low man on the totem pole and it’s all about money, honey. Which is ironic, really, when you consider the subject of Biutiful and Inside Job.
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