while i was going through the archives of cineaste magazine earlier this week, i came across this excellent article about the role that repertory film programmers play in sustaining a vital film culture. i cannot overemphasize the importance of the legion of men and women who do this job for people like me. they spend long, thoughtful hours scouring the globe for films and curating programs, making sure films otherwise unavailable are there, the way they were meant to be seen, for us to discover, reconsider or evaluate in brand new contexts.
i am one of the lucky ones. i live in a town with more than its fair share of venues devoted to exhibiting films that fall far outside of what is available at the local multiplex. in the paramount theatre, austin has one of the few genuine movie palaces left in the united states. we have the eclectic offerings from the alamo drafthouses, the arbor and the newly opened (and very promising) violet crown. as if that weren't enough, alternative venues are just about everywhere you look. you can find something cinema-related going on in this town every night of the week on campus, in libraries and gallery spaces and in other places that become impromptu screening rooms on special occasions. at this point in my life, it's probably the main reason i still live here. it wasn't always this way for me, though. for the first thirty years of my life i was basically at the mercy of the multiplex. fortunately, my folks fostered my love of classic film by exposing me to saturday matinées and late, late shows on television. this was in the dear, dim past, though - before cable television came along - so the menu was limited. i got a little older and discovered siskel and ebert on our local PBS affiliate and that blew any number of doors wide open for me and you better believe i was running through them. even if i couldn't find these movies in my local theaters, i stored the things they told me about away for future reference. as just one example, i have had their discussion of a taxing woman (1987) rattling around in my head for many years before i finally tracked it down (and subsequently was able to share it with an audience) just this year. the next time you hear one of those "who needs critics?" arguments spring up, i want you to think about me. i needed critics, and so did a lot of kids just like me. they are a conduit to things a lot of us would have otherwise never known about.
thumbs up for that mustache, gener!
anyway, cable television came along a few years later and changed the whole ballgame, especially turner classic movies, in my case. outlets to find film have proliferated in the last few years to the point that just about anything you want, depending on how ethical you want to be about it, is available for the cost of a few keystrokes, twenty-four hours a day. if you had told me in 1978 that it would be this way, i simply couldn't have conceived of it. but here we are. now, just this week, i have seen this article and this one that suggest a sea change is coming in the way we partake of the moviegoing experience. i don't fear that all theaters will go the way of the dinosaur, as convenience isn't the overriding factor that dictates where and when film lovers see movies. in the years before i moved here, i traveled the length and breadth of oklahoma, digging up student union film schedules and going to converted exhibition halls of museums, to see the handful of things that were offered outside of the chain theaters. i know other people did the same. what i am fearful of, though, is that the filmmakers and audiences will suffer by extension. it's entirely possible, in the world of video on demand, that it will mean fewer screens for worthwhile films and shorter windows for them to find an audience, possibly resulting in a situation where practically everything that's not a blockbuster has no home in the first-run world, consigned immediately upon its birth to the world of niche/repertory houses. while that's fine for people like me who live in towns like this, it is far from ideal for the artists who make them and for the audiences who find themselves hamstrung by geography, as i once was. yes, it will be available on your computer or television but it's simply not the same. we all know damn good and well that baseball on television is nothing like a day at the ballpark. there is simply no substitute for experiencing a film in the lovely cold and dark of your favorite theater.
the confluence of all these articles this week has me thinking a great deal about how thankful i am for all sorts of things, some of them seemingly contradictory. i am grateful for the technology that puts so much film history at my disposal. i am confident that i won't take it for granted because i belong to what was probably the last generation that couldn't get everything instantly, the last generation that had to put in the time and energy to achieve competency. when you spend a good portion of your youth scouring 'zines, doing a lot of your record shopping via mail order out of handprinted/xeroxed catalogs and clinging to every bit of exciting word of mouth music/film news like a life preserver, you tend to treat these opportunities that are available to us now with more reverence and diligence. i just hope everyone keeps in mind that it's a tool. it's a fantastic instrument, but we should never confuse the availability of a wealth of trivia for having wisdom. let's keep doing the work and sharing what we find. to that end, i am also incredibly grateful for just the kind of people that are profiled in the aforementioned cineaste article that keep the discussion going and never stop trying to show us things we may have missed. i admire them and their work an awful lot, so much so that i attempt a minor league version of it myself with our starlite cinema series and i look forward to expanding those efforts with this upcoming series at the cedar park library. i know my programming efforts reside squarely in the amateur/hobbyist realm and that my film knowledge is in its infancy, but i thought it might be a fun exercise to go through and answer the series of questions they posed to the participants in the cineaste article and see what comes of it.
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, et cetera? are the consequences entirely negative, or are there collateral benefits (i.e., new prints struck for video releases, more informed audiences, et cetera)?
i think there is absolutely a future to repertory programming. as i mentioned, the experience is something there is no substitute for. even with as much film as i consume in other ways, and it is a lot, my theater attendance has not suffered. i think the majority of the repertory audience is the same. they are devoted to the experience as well as the content. the fallout from video on demand may actually benefit repertory houses in some unforeseen ways. if it reduces the choices at the multiplex to nothing but blockbusters all those smaller/edgier mainstream films have to go somewhere. in searching for them, people everywhere may discover smaller arthouse theaters they didn't know existed. that will bring at least a few over to our side. i give repertory audiences a lot of credit, actually. i think home video just whets a cinephile's appetite. it allows for a lot of great discoveries to be made and the new availability of a title that has long been out of regular circulation is often like a breadcrumb trail to the theater. if people are clamoring for a title to come out on dvd it's not primarily because they want it in a convenient and portable format. it's because they want to see the movie. you put that same movie in the theater and those same people will come see it. i have no doubt. just one example: after picking up that budd boetticher box set a couple of years ago, had you told me that seven men from now (1956) was playing downtown, i would have bought a ticket on the strength of the films i had seen in that collection. restoration efforts and new prints are most definitely a positive side effect of the home video boom. an enormous opportunity is there for audiences to be more educated, so i know at least a fraction of them must be taking advantage of it. i think, much more than the average multiplex audience, repertory audiences enjoy and look forward to having their eyes opened.
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, et cetera), your attitude toward audience expectation, or other considerations?
up front, i have to say doing all this on the amateur level, as i do, relieves a whole lot of pressure that i think people who do this for a living must feel. since i don't have a venue, organization or business to support, i can afford to be a lot more idealistic about things. that being said, if you know me, you know that i wouldn't do it if i had to compromise the things that were important to me about it. my philosophy can broadly be described simply as encouraging cinematic discovery. i feel successful if i show you something new that excites you, something you've already seen that makes you consider it in a new light or something wholly familiar that simply encourages you to go out and find the next link in the chain. i have a tendency to lean toward much older films because i like to give audiences a foundation, an appreciation of where all those things that have since become convention first came from. i've done miniature versions of all the formats they mention, but my favorite thing to do is to dream up a ton of crazy lists and stretch a theme to its utmost. i have yet to really go as far as i would like with some of the starlite choices. i tend to favor a lot more confrontational film experience than a lot of people, so i have to rein those tendencies in a bit when i am choosing movies for public consumption. after a year of doing these, though, i think the people that usually come to starlite would give me the benefit of the doubt. in year two, i anticipate we'll move into slightly more complicated territory more often, but we've laid the groundwork for that now. they know i want the experience to be ultimately encouraging to them and that i wouldn't waste their time. we've established a good track record. the cedar park series will be a bit more tame, but no less satisfying, as i think i will still be introducing people to new experiences. it's a good time whether it's curtiz or cassavetes.
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?
i truly have no idea about the availability of prints and whether or not they'll continue to be struck and distributed. economics will dictate a lot of that. all i can say is that i hope film never becomes obsolete. i think it would be an immeasurable loss. the only option available to me at the moment is digital projection so i obviously have no qualms about using it. having said that, my ideal situation would be a theater that had the capability to project film, video and digital formats. film would always be the default position but i would never want what i exhibit to be limited by the availability of a good print of a title in a given format. nothing looks like film, though. that is undeniable.
if you've seen this, you know what i mean.
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?
again, my experience is terribly limited in this regard, but i think the audience for starlite is going to steadily grow once people come and realize what a good time and great environment it is for watching movies. i know that everyone that takes part always looks forward to those nights and it's such a communal feeling. it's the type of thing that we'll all look back on fondly a long time from now. i think we're all sort of evolving as a whole. as their film literacy grows so does my ability to put together things that will stimulate, entertain and satisfy them. the whole experience just gets better every time we do it. i feel like they're extremely receptive. people invite me into their home to turn their backyard into a theater and show anything i want and people come out every month. if that's not receptive i don't know what is.
a sight you will never see at starlite cinema.
5) what are some of your formative memories of repertory filmgoing? do you have stories of particularly unforgettable experiences, inspiring series, or legendary venues?
i have had a number of fantastic experiences. one of my earliest favorites was driving two hours to some weird little strip mall theater in norman, oklahoma to see sunset boulevard (1950). it was devastating to see hollywood decaying on such a grand scale right in front of my eyes. i still think about that trip on a pretty regular basis. i once was able to see the shining (1980) on the lawn of the stanley hotel - the hotel that inspired the book - in estes park, colorado. that was pretty great. the absolute number one experience i have ever had, though, was here in austin at the paramount theatre. a couple of years ago they screened buster keaton's the general (1926) with a new score performed live in the theatre and it is the single best time i have had at the movies. there is no debate. what i felt for that 75 minutes was true joy. i will never forget it. i felt like i was the only person on earth and the whole thing was happening just for me.i appreciate you indulging me, gang. those were interesting to think about. if there happen to be any programmers out there that would like to chime in, chide me for being naive or have a go at those five questions i would love to hear what you have to say. i would like to hear what any of you have to say, for that matter. thanks for reading.