Distribute the Wealth

Death gave Donald Krim his first big break as a film distributor. In 1977, Kino, his fledgling company, had just acquired theatrical rights to Charlie Chaplin's films when Chaplin passed away; within months, images of the Little Tramp filled repertory screens in tributes across the country.

But Krim is no mere necrologist. In the past 25 years, Kino (whose staff now numbers 17) has helped launch the U.S. careers of vanguard foreign auteurs Wong Kar-wai and Aki Kaurismäki; championed landmark American independent films like Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991); and stuck faithfully by both madcap surrealist Raul Ruiz (most recently with Time Regained, his lush 1999 adaptation of Proust) and ex-radical Volker Schlondorff, whose film The Tin Drum (1979), when released on video, was nearly banned in Oklahoma City as child pornography. All of the above titles are screening in this 24-film series, the fruits of a career shaped by independence, great taste, and courage.

"Is it good, is there an audience for it, and can we afford it—those are the three key questions we ask ourselves when choosing pictures," Krim says. The surprise, given Kino's limited budget, is just how many A-list films they've acquired: from this year's unexpected hit The Piano Teacher (not included here) to The Match Factory Girl (1990), Kaurismäki's sublimely morose and hilarious proletarian comedy, set in a bleak Helsinki, about an assembly-line drone (Kati Outinen) who finally takes revenge on her indifferent mother, her callow ex-lover, and the other architects of her misery.

Sticks figure: from The Tin Drum
photo: Courtesy the Film Society of Lincoln Center
Sticks figure: from The Tin Drum

Kaurismäki's film shares an expressive economy with silent cinema, a reminder that Kino is also the leading distributor of early film classics. This series features G.W. Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), in which Louise Brooks radiates high-wattage star power as the doe-eyed daughter of a prosperous pharmacist. Seduced by her father's assistant, she's confined to a hideously punitive reform school, but later escapes to a swinging brothel. Pabst's glowing portrait of decadence extends to the furthest reaches of Weimar culture.

Kino's library of more than 300 film titles (including video and DVD releases, the financial backbone of their business) is home to such rarely screened jewels as Souleymane Cissé's Yeelen (1987; from Burkina Faso), which melds ancient Bambara rituals with West African surrealism in a tale of conflict between a hoary shaman and his son, who wants to test his own magical powers. And though it was made before the first intifada, Wedding in Galilee (1987) traces tensions—between an Arab patriarch intent on celebrating his son's wedding through the night and the Israeli authorities who've placed his village under curfew—that lie at the root of the current crisis. Palestinian director Michel Khleifi's startlingly sensual film explores the fractures that occupation has wrought in Palestinian society.

Another noteworthy discovery, Michelangelo Antonioni's The Cry (1957) provides a missing link between Italian neorealism and the director's later work. A factory mechanic loses his moorings when the woman he loves abandons him and their daughter; he and the child drift aimlessly through a nearly empty, semi-industrial landscape. The camera's spare, stunning compositions and the tone of loss and disaffection anticipate Antonioni's later, brilliant explorations of bourgeois anomie.

"You can't stay in business by just taking cinematic gems," Krim admits. "The field is brutally competitive." Still, he adds, "anyone can do it. Find a film that you like and you think you can sell. Of course, you have to weather the storm; you have to have some volume and some luck."

 
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