There’s no stubbornness quite like New York City’s. Eulogize a scene only to watch another one rise. Expect old institutions to die and instead they thrive. You’d 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 years—years in which other media have effectively collapsed. “It’s 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, Anthology’s archivist. “People are doing things with nothing. There’s 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 York’s 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, today’s arthouses aren’t clustered in the Village or Upper West Side. “The cultural geography of the city has evolved,” says Thomas Beard, Light Industry’s co-founder and director. “There’s no center of gravity.”
There might not be a center, but there’s always a median, and at some venues the core audience is getting younger. Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 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 today’s 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 Center’s Scott Foundas), but it’s safe to say this is no longer your uptown uncle’s 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 he’s 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 York’s cinemania with inventive programs like BAM’s mini-retros for fledgling filmmakers (Brad & So, the Safdie brothers), or Anthology’s playful and pointed “Anti-Biopic” series. But today’s 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 city’s 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 it’s a guaranteed money loser, a guaranteed time loser. It’s 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 don’t want to say that a certain film [by a director] isn’t worth showing because we happen to not like it. We’re 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 retro—like Billy Wilder’s films. But they’re not all good. And it doesn’t do his reputation any good to show them all. That’s curating. If you’re just showing everything, it’s not curating.
Florence Almozini, program director, BAMcinématek: I don’t want to wait 10, 20 films to make a big career retrospective. I think it’s more encouraging to focus on someone who’s younger in his career, to develop a relationship with the filmmaker and take a chance on someone who hasn’t done so much yet.
Perlin: There’s 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 Jarmusch’s] Dead Man—which was DOA when it was released—we get a huge audience. Many of these people were maybe nine years old when it came out, and now it’s an accepted masterpiece of ’90s cinema. We can also get a full house for Tango and Cash.
Goldstein: I’ve also noticed that people have expectations for [what belongs at Film Forum]. That’s fine, but I don’t want to be so inflexible. Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t 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. We’ll put something on the calendar and expect nobody to show up, and more often than not, it’ll surprise us. That’s 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. It’s something we actively question. Something that people like about Light Industry is that it maintains a human scale. I wouldn’t 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 that’s the aesthetic we’re 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 week—that’s 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 aren’t being released, maybe films without a movie star or an easy hook. 60 seats gives me the freedom to take that risk. It’s easier to fill a one-screen intimate little theater tucked inside a bar than it is to try to pack Film Forum. It’s a little unorthodox here. It’s a movie theater, and it’s not a movie theater.
Lampert: I also think there’s something to be said for not showing great movies—where “great” isn’t the key determining factor. We have programs where different film collectors come and show medical films. It’s 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 it’s communal and these people come to support one another, and that’s been a part of building the feeling of the place. For sing-alongs, I’ll even ask the audience what they want to see. And I’ll have people write titles. It’s like, “OK, if you want this, we’ll 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 there’s some kind of enhanced viewing experience—IMAX, 3-D, etc. In our small way, we’re 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. It’s theater. We can’t just show movies. There’s too much competition.
Foundas: There’s something to be said about the context in which you show films. Whether it’s having someone to talk about the film, or the filmmaker in person—which is very hard to replicate on your iPad.
Harris Dew, director of programs and promotions, IFC Center: Not to get too [Walter] Benjamin, but it’s nice to make it not so chemically reproduced once in a while.
Livia Bloom, guest curator, Maysles Cinema: It’s really nice to be able to use what’s unique about each venue to its advantage. You could say that Maysles Cinema only has video projection, only has 50 seats, but that’s 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, we’re state-of-the-art. And I’ll go toe-to-toe and say that if I play a Blu-ray on my 12-foot screen, it’s going to look better than half the movie houses in New York, playing on a bigger screen. Even multiplexes show things digitally—you’re not losing the magic of cinema.
Halter: We don’t show 35mm. But that puts us even stronger in the cinematheque tradition of video, 16mm, Super 8, and performance. There’s something about the intimacy of the space that serves that kind of work.
Goldstein: I don’t think it’s worth doing something if you’re going to show a really bad print. I’m proud of the fact that we still have a lot to do with the higher standards. There’s still something to seeing a new 35. There’s a segment of the audience—it may be shrinking—who appreciate that. I always say we have a commitment to 35 until the last projector part is made.
For the film poll results, go to villagevoice.com/filmpoll
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 22, 2010