Austin Cinematic Limits

Flashback to the spring of 1998 — yours truly is living in Philadelphia and desperately looking for another city to call my home. I am not ashamed to admit that I plan on basing a significant part of this decision on the quality of programming at movie theaters in each city. Austin is the clear favorite in this category. I fondly remember falling in love with the Alamo Drafthouse during SXSW 1998 (beer! food! movies!), but it is my virginal foray into the Paramount Theatre that remains emblazoned upon my mind.

Despite earning a masters degree in cinema studies, I never had access to a repertory cinema before. Sure, I studied the history of cinema but I watched all of the films on television. Now, I am finally experiencing those films in the way that they were intended to be seen! It might be hard to believe, but up until that fateful summer, I had never seen a film released prior to 1975 on the big screen.

Flashforward 14 years — I find myself at the Hideout Cafe sitting across the table from the Paramount’s film programmer, Jesse Trussell, on the eve of the official release of the 2012 Summer Classic Film series schedule.  Trussell hands a photocopy of the schedule to me. I scan it quickly. My jaw drops.

I scan it more intently. I am in total awe. I begin to think… This summer will be the first time I will see Shadows (1959), Heaven’s Gate (1980), The Grand Illusion (1937), World on a Wire (1973), Week End (1967), Stolen Kisses (1968), Cries and Whispers (1972), A Man Escaped (1956), Close-Up (1990), Sansho the Bailiff (1954), Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Mala Noche (1986), The Naked Kiss (1964), Shock Corridor (1963), Go West (1925), Seven Chances (1925), L’Atalante (1934), Zero de Conduit (1933), Summer with Monika (1953), Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), The Killing (1956), and David Holzman’s Diary (1967) on the big screen!

Holy crap! This summer is going to be amazing! It is bigger and better than ever — this is the first season that the Stateside will be utilized in tandem with the Paramount for the series. (The Stateside will only be screening films digitally, but that’s okay with me.)

Okay, I need to stop daydreaming and collect my thoughts. I have a job to do — I need to interview Trussell about the 37th season of the Summer Classic Film series (May 24 – September 9)…

What was your approach to programming this year’s Summer Classic Film series at the Paramount and Stateside?

There are two major purposes that I like to serve. One is the ability to see the great classics of film in their purest form. I feel like any film — no matter what — is better seen in a theater with a big screen and a great sound system surrounded by strangers. The other is to try to use those more famous films to get people who are interested in coming to see something like Cinema Paradiso (1988) to stick around for the second half of the bill, like Close-Up (1990) — an Iranian film by Abbas Kiarostami — that they may never have heard of before. So, I have the crowd pleasers but I also want to expose our audiences to some new gems and expand the idea of what we define as classic cinema.

What is your definition of classic cinema?

I have a fairly broad definition. The bread and butter of what the Paramount will always program is the golden age of Hollywood. It is staggering to think of the time period of American cinema between 1930 and 1960 or so, and how many amazing classic films were made. But the benefit of having a series featuring over 100 films is that there is room to do some other things. I think that finding obscure, under-known or under-seen, films that have that remarkable “wow” factor gives the opportunity to create the new “classic.” For the last few years we have been playing John Hughes’ films every summer; those films are certainly not Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) — which is a stone-cold classic — but they are classics in their own right, and they are films that are a lot of fun to see with an audience.

Do you feel like you have to cater towards certain audience favorites in your programming?

The key to programming is that just playing films that you like is not necessarily the same thing as good programming. To say that my personal tastes are not reflected in this series is wrong; but, at the same time, I want to serve a purpose beyond just having me sitting in the theater by myself watching all of these prints of films. If the films were totally just my own personal tastes, then I am certain that the program would be all dour, foreign films and I would probably be there by myself in the theater. That is no fun. I think about some of the Paramount’s traditional films — like I have seen Gone with the Wind a million times — there is something great about the tradition and the communal experience of screening a classic film like that one.

So what about Jesse’s favorites — which films are you most excited about screening?

There is a bunch of really cool stuff. My baby is definitely the foreign cinema weeks that we do. I think those are incredible. We are showing Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s lost science fiction film World on a Wire (1973) on 35mm! We are showing a new 35mm print of Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End (1967), which I have never been able to see in a theater before! In our anniversaries series, we are screening a brand new restoration of Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion (1937), which is one of my favorite films, so to see a pristine print of that is going to be really amazing! I am really excited to be showing Rebel Without a Cause because I love Nicholas Ray. It is so often thought about as a James Dean film, but as a Nicholas Ray nerd I think of it as a film by one of the greatest CinemaScope directors of all time! The gorgeously lurid 1950s color is just so great!

One of the most fun aspects of my job is making up lists of what I would like to see projected on the Paramount’s screen. I am also diligent about which films have not been available to be seen in a theater in Austin recently. I tried to make sure that the line-up this year is about 80-plus percent turnover, so the program is not getting stale and there are lots of chances to see new things.

If I ever had any one criticism about the Paramount’s Summer Classic Film series it was that a lot of the same films used to screen year after year. That definitely changed when you came on board last season.

I am the first full-time person that the Paramount has had in the film programming position, so I have a lot of time to dedicate towards finding prints and thinking through very extensively what people would want to see in these theaters. I am trying to give as many options to people as possible.

What are some of your dream programs that have yet to come to fruition?

Well, my favorite film is Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965). I tried to get it last summer and I tried again this year. I really don’t understand why I can’t get it! One company tells me another company has the rights, then the other company tells me that they don’t have the rights. That is such a frustrating thing. Like, last year I tried to program Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) and it just so happened to be during a six-month window when the rights lapsed from Warner Bros.

As we move forward with having year-round programming at the State, I would like to do spotlights on local filmmaking talent. I think Austin has such an incredible filmmaking base and to be able to showcase that at the State would be great. I would also like to do more long form series that explore specific topics or filmmakers. There are a lot of amazing filmmakers whom I would like to do retrospective series on. I am a huge fan of Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. After I saw Villeneuve’s Incendies (2010), I hunted down everything else he’s made. He is based in Montreal and mainly makes French-language films that are very odd little dramas. When I discover a filmmaker that I don’t know, but I really respond to, I immediately seek out every film that they’ve made. It is very interesting to watch a filmmaker’s works in dialogue with each other.

Can you talk about the difficulties of programming in the 35mm (and 70mm) format?

It is getting steadily more difficult. I am a big supporter of Julia Marchese’s (New Beverly Cinema) Fight for 35mm petition. For me, to see films projected on film is a particularly magical experience. The idea that it is slowly going away is very sad to me. That is what is important to note about our summer series — please come see these films now because I really don’t know what will be available for me to program next year! Even when some new restorations come out, they only make one print available and it immediately gets completely booked up. Or sometimes the restorations are digital only. It is a crazy situation.

One advantage we have at the Paramount is our classic reel-to-reel projection system. There are a lot of prints that are not getting loaned out to anyone other than theaters with reel-to-reel projection systems. They have no intentions of making more prints, so they are not going to send their prints somewhere that they could be damaged. That is not affecting me yet but it really limits which other venues can screen these films. It just breaks my heart that things are winnowing down in this way.

This summer I was able to get the vast majority of what I wanted, but there were a few things that I couldn’t get. For example, we traditionally open with Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942), but this year it is on moratorium for its 70th anniversary digital re-release. I was also trying to book Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952) — I love Singin’ in the Rain — and that is also on moratorium. I just found out that the big 60th anniversary Blu-ray re-release is coming out later this year. Every time I get turned down on something like that, I know that they must have a special re-release in the works.

This Week’s Austin Movie Events:

5/22 – Alamo South Lamar – AFS’ Essential Cinema Series — SEEFest Austin: Films of Southeast Europe — continues with Frantisek Cáp’s Vesna. (More info)

5/25-26 – Alamo Ritz - The Late Show presents Fight Club, just don’t talk about it afterwards.  (More info)

5/27 – Alamo Ritz - Cinema Club presents Kiss Me Deadly and Touch of Evil with punk rock icon Richard Hell in attendance to discuss the films. (More info)

5/28 – Alamo Ritz - Mondo and the Alamo Drafthouse present a Film Foundation screening of King Kong (1933). Richard Hell will be in attendance at this screening too. (More info)


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