Feb 28, 2011

Dain Goding - 'Programming by Performer'

Programming by Performer

    I attended a screening of Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1973) at Film Forum.  The film only showed for one day, and even though there were four screenings scheduled throughout the day, the attendance at the earliest screening (2 pm) on a weekday was excellent; the house was more than half-full.  The film was part of the larger series entitled “Pacino’s 70s”, a one week long program featuring seven films.  For the most part, the series is simply programmed so that one film shows each day.  Interestingly, the films are not scheduled chronologically.
    The presentation was a projection of a decent 35mm film print, by no means a newly-minted print or one of archival standards, but a print that looked good and preserved the somewhat grainy, color-drained look of the film’s on-location-in-New York contemporaries from the 1970s.  The series was curated by Film Forum’s long-standing repertory director Bruce Goldstein, although “programmed” might be a more accurate description.  The series is arranged around the fact that each film comes from the same decade and features the same performer.  The entire “argument” of the program is summarized in the title “Pacino’s 70s” and the only thing the films have in common, at least on the surface, is Al Pacino and the 1970s.  The films are presented for the most part without a context or a mission statement; if there are connections between the films, it is up the viewer to find them.
    Of course, there are, and we will.  The series prominently features several well-known, well-regarded, canonized American directors, including two apiece from Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet.  These films could be organized in any number of programs that would be typical of Film Forum: “New York in the 1970s”, for instance, or “American New Wave” or some other reference to the independent-type ‘New Hollywood’ films made by New York-based auteurs in the era.  The fact that the program specifically invokes actor Al Pacino as the common link changes the way the audience views the films, however.  If Serpico had been framed as an example of New York in the 1970s, the audience might be more inclined to pay closer attention to the locations, to the documentary nature of some of the scenes and settings, or even to the ideology behind the depiction of the police force and political figures at the core of the story.  If the film had been framed within a Sidney Lumet retrospective, one might be inclined to be more aware of the director’s style and choices, or to find connections between the portrayal of corruption in this film and one like 12 Angry Men or Network.
    As it is curated, though, all of the attention of the audience is on the performance of the film’s star, Al Pacino.  The nuances and extremes of the performance are high-lighted, and I found myself more attuned than usual to the acting style.  When I normally might have accepted the character at face value and focused on the story, I was mentally comparing Serpico to the coldly measured Michael Corleone from The Godfather and the unraveling Sonny from Dog Day Afternoon.  The series as it was curated focused the attention on one aspect of a multilayered film.
    As far as the programming, their were several confusing anomalies.  First of all, only one film that Pacino made in the 1970s was missing.  Bobby Deerfield, from 1977, was not represented at all.  The omission of this film could have several explanations, including that the studio did not possess a print that was worthy of presentation of this fairly obscure film, one that is surely not requested for distribution very often.  Alternately, however, it might have been a curatorial decision to omit this film.  Possibly Mr. Goldstein felt that the film for whatever reason was not truly representative of Al Pacino’s work in the 1970s, or that the film was not “good” enough to warrant inclusion in the series, or maybe that it was not well-known enough to attract a repertory crowd used to seeing things for the umpteenth time.  However the fact that it is missing is unsatisfying, partly because the film was made by prominent director Sydney Pollack and presumably warrants some interest, and partly because it is the only film missing in what would have otherwise been a comprehensive retrospective of Pacino’s work in the 1970s.  As it stands, it feels somewhat incomplete, especially when several other fairly obscure films were included.
    The logic behind the order of the films is confusing as well.  It seems arbitrary at best, and a dedicated audience member who showed up for every screening would be jumping back and forth around the decade.  The only thing I can think of is that Mr. Goldstein organized it so that the films he knew would generate larger audiences were screened on days when that audience was available: for instance, the Godfather movies played on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, when he could anticipate that all of the screenings would be well-attended.
    As far as additional content other than the films themselves, most of the films had no context or additional material at all.  At the last night of the series, there was a discussion scheduled.  Jerry Schatzberg, the director of two of the films in the series, was to introduce his film Scarecrow on Thursday night and participate in a question-and-answer session after the screening.  The website reports that this event was sold out days before the screening.  I think this is very valuable, especially for a lesser known film like Scarecrow.  Most of what has been said about The Godfather has been said, and it is encouraging that the Film Forum was able to sell out in advance a discussion about a more obscure film by offering a chance to question the film’s director.  I wish I had been able to attend this event.
    To offer a bit of contrast, I attended another series that was programmed based on the film’s performers.  I saw a screening of To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, 1944) at the Landmark Loew’s Jersey in Jersey City, New Jersey.  The film was part of the series called “Bogie and Bacall: Back on the Big Screen” that took place over one weekend.  Interestingly, the series is also missing only one film that fits the series’ description, as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall starred in four films together.  However, this is due to the scheduling at the Loew’s Jersey, in which three films are shown every month, one on a Friday and two on Saturday.  Only able to select three out of the four films, the theater’s director, Colin Egan, explained to the audience on Friday night that Dark Passage was selected over the more well-known Key Largo exactly because fewer people had seen Dark Passage and the theater wanted to offer the audience that opportunity.
    In contrast with the Film Forum, the series at the Loew’s Jersey offered a more varied array of content in addition to the scheduled program.  First, as a means of presentation, the screening was preceded by a musical performance on the theater’s magnificently restored pipe organ.  The organ performance, which precedes every screening in the theater, is a means by which to remain faithful to the way in which the film’s might have been shown in their original run at the time of their release; the theater seeks to act as a time machine to preserve what it would have been like to see movies at the theater before it was modified and ultimately closed down.  After the organ overture, the theater’s director, Colin Egan, came out to provide introductory remarks, telling the audience a little bit about the theater and offering a bit of an introduction to the film we were about to see.
    Secondly, the film was also preceded by a cartoon short, a surprise to the audience that was not listed on the program or any promotional materials.  Slick Hare (Friz Freleng, 1947), a Warner Bros. “Merrie Melodies” cartoon short featuring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, was shown without introduction.  The cartoon featured a caricature of Humphrey Bogart as a main character, with a voice impressionist mimicking Bogart’s famous drawl and the story parodying his “tough guy” image.  In the final scene, it is revealed that Bogart is having dinner with Lauren Bacall, and the last shot features a caricature of her as well.  This pleasant surprise continued the tradition of emulating what it would have been like to see the films at the time of their release, with a cartoon short preceding the feature, and the fact that they curators found a cartoon from the time period featuring a parody of Bogie and Bacall was very appropriate (and well-received by the audience, who laughed and applauded).  The feature itself, presented in front of an ample crowd of well over one hundred, featured spontaneous applause and audible reactions from the audience several times.
    Again, placing the film in a series called “Hollywood at War” or “The Free France Movement on Film” or even “Ernest Hemingway Adaptations” would have focused the audience’s attention on very different aspects of the film.  Any of these descriptions would have been apt for a program that could have included this film.  Framing it as a series centered around actors, however, narrowed the audience’s focus on the chemistry evident in the relationship between its two stars and changed the experience of watching the film.  The audience was very attuned to the subtleties of the on-screen romance, audibly reacting to simple aspects of their performances such as glances and pregnant pauses in conversation.
    Following the feature, Mr. Egan introduced a friend of the theater, an older man from the area whose name I did not catch who offered some context to the film.  His brief discussion was mostly concerned with production history, elaborating on how the film came to be made and its subject material selected by Hawks, and describing the details of the beginning of Bogart and Bacall’s off-screen relationship, which began with this film.  His comments were slightly unfocused and tended to wander towards tangents, but much of what he said was information that I did not know before and was valuable.  In addition, he briefly fielded questions and comments from audience members following the discussion.
    At both screenings, the audience mostly trended older than some other programs, with quite a few elderly people in the audience at each film.  This is perhaps inevitable when screening films from the 1970s and 1940s, respectively.  In both cases, this type of film presentation is probably closer to “programming” rather than “curating”, as the relationships between the films are very obvious and only contain the most basic form of curatorial “argument”.  The minor curatorial choices in film selection (in both cases, choosing to omit one film that would have fit the category) do little to affect the ultimate integrity of the series.  However, the extra care to program additional content before and after To Have and Have Not offered a more fully satisfying and engaging program.

Additional Material
Cartoon short Slick Hare (1947): http://tinyurl.com/4nx8nwq

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