Theres no stubbornness quite like New York Citys. Eulogize a scene only to watch another one rise. Expect old institutions to die and instead they thrive. Youd count on Anthology Film Archives, with its 60s radicalist roots and creaky old schoolhouse situated on prime Second Avenue and 2nd Street real estate, to go the way of Mars Bar, its recently shuttered spiritual sister a block south. But instead, like resilient film repertory houses throughout the city, it still stands. In fact, attendance at Anthology has gone up by 35 percent in the past two yearsyears in which other media have effectively collapsed. Its really a down time in New York, and has been for a number of years, but cinema culture is at a high, says Andrew Lampert, Anthologys archivist. People are doing things with nothing. Theres more going on than ever before.
Anthology is not the only arthouse to defy the economy, Netflix, and a plague of pocket video machines. There are seemingly as many rep screens and series as ever before, and more are on the way, with the Film Society at Lincoln Center and the Museum of the Moving Image opening ambitious theaters in 2011. Not only do New Yorkers continue to venture out of their apartments to see everything from Bernardo Bertolucci retros to Labyrinth sing-alongs and vintage gay porn, but they trek farther and farther afield to do so; from venerable institutions like Film Forum to more recently established fixtures like the IFC Center, from Midtown museums to small screens in Harlem (Maysles Cinema), Williamsburg (UnionDocs), Dumbo (reRun Gastropub Theater), and beyond. Nothing embodied New Yorks rippling cinephilia better than Light Industry, an eclectic, three-year-old weekly film series that spent the tail end of 2010 couch-surfing at kindred establishments all over town while scouting for a new space. Unlike rep heydays in the 1960s and 70s, todays arthouses arent clustered in the Village or Upper West Side. The cultural geography of the city has evolved, says Thomas Beard, Light Industrys co-founder and director. Theres no center of gravity.
There might not be a center, but theres always a median, and at some venues the core audience is getting younger. Brooklyn Academy of Musics BAMcinématek says that 50 percent of its audience is under 35, while a whopping 75 percent is under 45. Not every venue is so well-positioned for todays post-collegiate, outer borough manifest destiny (If you show an old Italian or French movie on a weekend afternoon you can almost sell out the theater, but everybody there is over 50, practically, says Lincoln Centers Scott Foundas), but its safe to say this is no longer your uptown uncles picture show.
The over/under is even more drastic for another crucial demographic: rep cinema programmers. As the influential and iconoclastic Bruce Goldstein continues to hit cinema-lovers sweet spots at Film Forum, where hes been for nearly 25 years, a next wave of curators is trying out new tricks at most every other institution. Younger programmers are helping to re-energize New Yorks cinemania with inventive programs like BAMs mini-retros for fledgling filmmakers (Brad & So, the Safdie brothers), or Anthologys playful and pointed Anti-Biopic series. But todays programming challenges are as eternal as they are contemporary. What to screen and how? How to make screenings into a special event? Is film projection what defines rep cinema, or is it the gathering of kindred spirits in a dark room, be they illuminated by 35mm or Blu-ray? Addressing these questions and more, the Voice met with a selection of the citys programmers to take stock of this dynamic moment in the local repertory scene.
Andrew Lampert, archivist, Anthology Film Archives:Film programming has always been, a total act of passion, because its a guaranteed money loser, a guaranteed time loser. Its borne of a compulsion.
Jake Perlin, associate curator, BAMcinématek:We want to be able to point people in the direction of the films that we think are significant, that they may not know about. But we also dont want to say that a certain film [by a director] isnt worth showing because we happen to not like it. Were not going to cut down a career in that way.
Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming, Film Forum: At first, I felt I had to show everything in a director retrolike Billy Wilders films. But theyre not all good. And it doesnt do his reputation any good to show them all. Thats curating. If youre just showing everything, its not curating.
Florence Almozini, program director, BAMcinématek: I dont want to wait 10, 20 films to make a big career retrospective. I think its more encouraging to focus on someone whos younger in his career, to develop a relationship with the filmmaker and take a chance on someone who hasnt done so much yet.
Perlin:Theres a new canon. There are films that, since BAMcinématek opened in 1999, have come out in first run that are now canonical works. By Olivier Assayas, Wong Kar-wai, Claire Denis. Every time we show [Jim Jarmuschs] Dead Manwhich was DOA when it was releasedwe get a huge audience. Many of these people were maybe nine years old when it came out, and now its an accepted masterpiece of 90s cinema. We can also get a full house for Tango and Cash.
Goldstein:Ive also noticed that people have expectations for [what belongs at Film Forum]. Thats fine, but I dont want to be so inflexible. Twenty years ago, I wouldnt have shown a film from 1980, but now I would.
LESS IS MORE
Jed Rapfogel, film programmer, Anthology Film Archives: We pride ourselves on never showing things specifically to draw a large audience. Well put something on the calendar and expect nobody to show up, and more often than not, itll surprise us. Thats our market identity, I guess. People respond to it.
Thomas Beard, founder and director, Light Industry:Growth can be a presupposed ideal for a not-for-profit organization. Its something we actively question. Something that people like about Light Industry is that it maintains a human scale. I wouldnt want it to be larger than what we along with interns can accomplish.
Ed Halter, founder and director, Light Industry: Just like an experimental filmmaker might not say, I have to go up to the next level and make a feature with a crew. We realized thats the aesthetic were going for. Rarefied is what we want. Our purpose is not to serve a large audience in that way, the way that most cinemas do. We do one show a weekthats it.
Steve Holmgren, programmer, UnionDocs: We can seat 45 people, and it never seems like more than a living room.
Aaron Hillis, programmer, reRun Gastropub Theater and Voice contributor: There are great films out on the festival circuit that arent being released, maybe films without a movie star or an easy hook. 60 seats gives me the freedom to take that risk. Its easier to fill a one-screen intimate little theater tucked inside a bar than it is to try to pack Film Forum. Its a little unorthodox here. Its a movie theater, and its not a movie theater.
Lampert: I also think theres something to be said for not showing great movieswhere great isnt the key determining factor. We have programs where different film collectors come and show medical films. Its not even avant-garde. Just another territory.
Rapfogel: A lot of places have achieved this thing where people go to get some culture. God knows we want people to come here. But we want it to be about the work.
Cristina Cacioppo, film programmer, 92YTribeca: I want it to have a family feeling, because then its communal and these people come to support one another, and thats been a part of building the feeling of the place. For sing-alongs, Ill even ask the audience what they want to see. And Ill have people write titles. Its like, OK, if you want this, well try it.
REELING THEM IN
David Schwartz, chief curator, Museum of the Moving Image:These days, a programmer has to put together an experience. You need to have great prints; the architecture of the room has to be great. It needs to be an immersive and social experience.
Scott Foundas, associate program director, Film Society of Lincoln Center:Now it seems that people are more inclined to go to the cinema if theres some kind of enhanced viewing experienceIMAX, 3-D, etc. In our small way, were trying to think of a way to show old movies that have an enhanced component.
Goldstein: I brought back [horror huckster] William Castle, The Tingler. Everyone took part in it. There were a couple of ushers that played victims. Its theater. We cant just show movies. Theres too much competition.
Foundas:Theres something to be said about the context in which you show films. Whether its having someone to talk about the film, or the filmmaker in personwhich is very hard to replicate on your iPad.
Livia Bloom, guest curator, Maysles Cinema: Its really nice to be able to use whats unique about each venue to its advantage. You could say that Maysles Cinema only has video projection, only has 50 seats, but thats an advantage for a lot of reasons. There are a lot of films that are only available digitally, and look better on that screen and in that setting.
Hillis: Oftentimes, bartenders serve as projectionists here. But at the same time, were state-of-the-art. And Ill go toe-to-toe and say that if I play a Blu-ray on my 12-foot screen, its going to look better than half the movie houses in New York, playing on a bigger screen. Even multiplexes show things digitallyyoure not losing the magic of cinema.
Halter:We dont show 35mm. But that puts us even stronger in the cinematheque tradition of video, 16mm, Super 8, and performance. Theres something about the intimacy of the space that serves that kind of work.
Goldstein: I dont think its worth doing something if youre going to show a really bad print. Im proud of the fact that we still have a lot to do with the higher standards. Theres still something to seeing a new 35. Theres a segment of the audienceit may be shrinkingwho appreciate that. I always say we have a commitment to 35 until the last projector part is made.
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