Tag Archives: Programming

Taking Auteurism Too Far: The Short Films of Jacques Tourneur

The mythos of Jacques Tourneur often begins with his innovative and atmospheric horror film Cat People, the talent fully formed from the very beginning. Of course, when Cat People arrived in 1942, Tourneur was thirty-eight and had been working in movies for the better part of his life. He began as an assistant to his father, the distinguished French director Maurice Tourneur, and subsequently to David O. Selznick. The younger Tourneur directed features in France shortly after the coming of sound, as well as several ‘B’ features in the US before the feline breakthrough. He made some twenty short films between 1936 and 1942, which constitute one of the most underappreciated runs in the annals of American movies.

The shorts are not entirely unknown. Chris Fujiawara’s singles out these one- and two-reel M-G-M films on the second page of his critical biography Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, and goes so far as to cite no less than seven of them as masterpieces. That designation might sound faintly ridiculous when applied to titles like  “Killer-Dog” or “What Do You Think? Tupapaoo,” but the challenge in evaluating Tourneur’s shorts ultimately speaks to broader problems in getting a handle on the genre as a whole.

It’s one thing to celebrate short films that premiere in festivals and tour the country in packages, like the annual Oscar shorts programs or the Spike and Mike animation showcases of old, but it’s another thing entirely to elevate the hundreds of shorts that filled out theater programs in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Upon reviewing a Chuck Jones retrospective offered by the Gene Siskel Film Center in the Chicago Reader, Fred Camper highlighted the basic credibility issue: Continue reading

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Saying Something New: In Defense of the Topical Film


Museum of Modern Art / Film Stills Archive

Is there any more dismissive response to a film than slagging it off as “dated?” Does a film lose its relevance merely because its clothing and hair styles are passé, its slang forgotten, its topicality turgid, its passions yoked to a particular time and place?

It’s a charge related to, but ultimately distinct from, the realization that a beloved film’s attitudes toward gender or race are indefensible. It shouldn’t be controversial to acknowledge that The Birth of a Nation (1915) advocates white supremacy, that Gone with the Wind (1939) puts a positive spin on marital rape, or that casting Mickey Rooney as a Chinese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) is an act of thermonuclear indifference. It’s legitimate to view those films as products of the culture that produced them, as failures of empathy and imagination that reflect the limitations of their social horizons. Continue reading

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Don’t Trust Your Local Film Programmer

devils-insertWhich version of The Devils are you going to show on Monday?

We’ve been asked this question over the phone, in person, and on social media since announcing we’d be screening The Devils at the Music Box. And it’s a perfectly reasonable question, as there are at least four versions The Devils commonly cited: the 111-minute X-rated British theatrical cut; the 108-minute X-rated American theatrical cut; the R-rated American version (either 106 or 109 minutes) released on VHS decades ago; and a spectral cut that re-integrates footage discovered by the critic Mark Kermode.

Adding to the confusion, Warner Bros. prepared a digibeta transfer of The Devils over a decade ago and commissioned several DVD extras but never released a disc—bowing, at least in the imaginations of fevered Ken Russell fans, to a Vatican conspiracy or the resurgent Evangelical stirrings of the Bush era. The studio eventually licensed the transfer and extras to the British Film Institute, which released a Region 2 DVD that runs 107 minutes—but that’s not a new iteration, just a slightly sped-up version of the 111-minute British cut because the video is encoded at the 25 fps PAL standard.

So, which one are we showing?

The fact is, film programmers frequently operate in the dark about these matters and have limited means of seeking clarification. The print arrives at the venue a week before the show (at most), and long after calendars have been printed and disseminated.

Programmers rely on distributors, archives, and private collectors to supply film prints for public exhibition. We interface with studio bookers, who almost always have no physical access to the prints they send out. At best, they have notes about the prints, but not always. The prints are usually in another building on the studio lot or located in a storage depot hundreds of miles away, operated by a third-party logistics firm in Sun Valley or Long Island City. To verify the condition of a print, let alone the specific version it represents, bookers can order an inspection from the depot (which costs money and often overstates a print’s deficiencies) or they can rely on scattered remarks from previous venues. Of course, some venues fail to report prints that have been torn in half, while others phone in a detailed assessment of every scratch and speck of dirt (and expect a price adjustment for their trouble). In an era when some studios are eager to junk prints, every condition report is a provocation and potential death sentence. Continue reading

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What Makes a Print Archival?

Early on in my career as a film exhibitor, I fielded a straightforward and slightly irate question from an audience member. The night before, my college had screened a rare Maurice Tourneur film in a soft, middling 16mm print, which we had advertised, correctly, as an ‘archival print.’ Shouldn’t an archival print look better than that, he wondered? Shouldn’t it look, if not wonderful, at least good?

The answer I fear I gave this man, tautological but also correct, was that an archival print simply meant a print obtained from an archive.

Film Vault

Archival prints are special, but if programmers hope to train audiences to salivate at the mere words, they have another thing coming. The fact that a print can be described as archival doesn’t necessarily translate into a more luminous or detailed image, a scratch-free print, or, for that matter, a better movie. In truth, the real distinction comes down to the fact that the programmer probably had to negotiate for the right to screen the print, document the venue’s film handling workflow, attest to a sterling record with borrowing similar artifacts for peer institutions, and sign an intimidating loan agreement. This compared to the relatively simple process of booking a film from a studio or an indie distributor, which can often be accomplished with a simple phone call. It’s an inside-baseball commendation, a process-oriented triumph whispered about by fellow connoisseurs. Continue reading

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Chicago Cinema and the Glass Ceiling

Talmadge_SimplexMacho Criticism (From the Seat of His Pants)
Last week WBEZ’s Alison Cuddy interviewed our Executive Director Becca Hall about ‘Chicago’s stunning lack of female film critics and abundance of female film programmers.’ This disparity should be readily apparent and familiar to any sentient person, but its roots and effects merit further discussion.

For better or worse, the dialogue undergirding film culture, here and elsewhere, is usually set by men. It’s something that you can feel acutely when reading a rave review of Nicolas Winding Refn’s hateful exercises in macho posturing or watching the contrived critic’s roundtable on the Pulp Fiction Blu-ray. (In the latter, Stephanie Zacharek provides a voice of reasoned dissent as the middle-aged boys club recites their favorite quotable moments from Tarantino’s anal anxiety breakthrough.) When critics try to address these issues head on, they often make matters worse, as when Mike D’Angelo stuck a blow against “robotic objectivity” in a recent Cannes dispatch. D’Angelo proudly attributed his preference for Blue is the Warmest Color over Behind the Candelabra to the fact that he’s “a straight male who’s indifferent to guy-on-guy action but had to keep adjusting his pants during the lesbian picture.”

The world of film critics (and film enthusiasts generally) suffers for its gender imbalance, much like related subcultures like record collecting. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, where the insular atmosphere discourages many women from participating in the first place. Continue reading

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From the Bottom Up: Mostly About Subtitles

Aparajito SubtitlesAside from Pulitzer-winning source material or a dose of Merchant-Ivory patina, subtitles are often judged the surest indication of a movie’s pedigree. Dialogue that would provoke guffaws and catcalls in its native tongue, the truism goes, reads profound and poetic in subtitled subterfuge.

The snobbism cuts both ways, of course. “It’s already possible to determine whether someone is middlebrow or upperbrow,” Hollis Alpert advised his Saturday Review readers in 1959, “depending on whether the word Bergman suggests Ingmar or Ingrid.” Snarkier still was Mike Rubin’s contention in the Village Voice in 2001 that “the Osama bin Laden videotape was, for most American viewers, probably their first experience watching something with subtitles.” (Grant Rubin the courage of his hilarious convictions, at least; he went on to compare the aesthetic strategies of the terror tape to recent work of Jacques Rivette and Mohsen Makhmalbaf.) Continue reading

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IB, Therefore …

Between fuzzy adolescent memories and Amazing Dreamcoats, getting a real fix on Technicolor has always been difficult. A dizzying example of total branding supremacy, Technicolor was not just a process but cultural shorthand for a certain kind of overripe, retina-scarring engagement with the world around us. (It was a Hollywood fantasy, and an irresponsible one.) With the name used as adjective to describe anything from a candy store to a brilliant automobile, it’s time to husk away the shades of grey. Continue reading

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More on Programming: Not on Video

Our sixth (and best?) season starts on Wednesday at the Portage with Hands Across the Table. The occasion affords us an opportunity to talk about a programming issue that’s usually not critically aired in public—the impact, presumed or otherwise, that a film’s presence on home video has on its viability in a repertory slot.

Programming a calendar is always a multi-dimensional balancing act, and the availability of the films in other formats is a central factor in that equation. Present a calendar where every title is available on DVD and Blu-ray and your audience is likely to shrug it off—the titles are familiar, perhaps over-familiar, and there’s no sense of urgency in seeing them again. If you miss the screening, you can just pull out the disc from the shelf in the family room. A Casablanca or a Psycho feels omnipresent anyway, and a programmer can’t reasonably expect folks to approach such screenings as anything other than business as usual. (After all, you’ve owned a VHS, a DVD, a special anniversary-edition DVD reissue, a Blu-ray, and if there’s another edition with specially-branded shot glasses or an umbrella, you can’t deny you wouldn’t be tempted…)

Of course, one of the foundational, but often implicit, ideas behind repertory cinema is that its offerings are unique. You can flop into any multiplex and be reasonably sure there’s another showing of The Dark Knight Rises or The Expendables 2 starting sometime in the next 45 minutes. You don’t even have to check the showtimes beforehand. Rep, by contrast, forces people to plan in advance, jot down titles in Moleskines, sometimes change their social plans to accommodate a one-night-only screening. Continue reading

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Who Wants To See Old Movies?

Last week the Los Angles Times published an unusual op-ed about young peoples’ attitudes towards movies from Neal Gabler, the writer responsible for such insightful social histories as An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.

I call the article unusual not because its topic is especially exotic (more on that in a moment) but because it reads with such befuddled contempt for an entire generation. Withholding any constructive solution to the supposed problem, Gabler seems less interested in fostering film appreciation than in griping about kids these days. In other words, it calls to mind the class of knee-jerk sociology which Empire of Their Own or Gabler’s more recent Walt Disney biography studiously avoid. Here’s a representative paragraph:

Young people, so-called millennials, don’t seem to think of movies as art the way so many boomers did. They think of them as fashion, and like fashion, movies have to be new and cool to warrant attention. Living in a world of the here-and-now, obsessed with whatever is current, kids seem no more interested in seeing their parents’ movies than they are in wearing their parents’ clothes. Indeed, novelty may be the new narcissism. It obliterates the past in the fascination with the present. Continue reading

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What Reanimated Russian Dog Heads Can Teach Us About Programming: The Legacy of Amos Vogel (1921-2012)

Last week’s news of Amos Vogel’s death, at 91, brought the expected—and deserved—tributes for the enormous influence of two ventures that he co-founded: Cinema 16, the New York-based film society that ran from 1947 to 1963, and the New York Film Festival, which Vogel programmed from 1963 to 1968.  (In these ventures, equal credit must go, respectively, to Amos’s partner Marcia Vogel and the critic/curator Richard Roud, both deceased.) The lineup of filmmakers whose work Vogel introduced to New York audiences is certainly imposing: Polanski, Ozu, Brakhage, Anger, Cassavetes, Bresson, Resnais, Rivette, Varda, Naruse. The list could go on. Continue reading

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