San Francisco Cinematheque, the storied organization that began in Bruce Baillie’s yard nearly five decades ago, has weathered many storms—transformations in technology, funding, exhibition and distribution—that have left avant-garde film culture twisting in the wind at times. Through it all, Cinematheque could be relied upon to continue presenting the edgiest work in town to the edgiest audiences. After roughly two decades of guidance from Steve Anker, now a dean at CalArts, Cinematheque shifted leadership a number of times in the past decade, from Steven Jenkins, currently the San Francisco Film Society’s director of finance and administration as well as an author and cultural critic, to Caroline Savage. (An earlier version of this article neglected to mention the deep influence programmer Irina Leimbacher had on the institution.) It enters a new era this year under Jonathan Marlow, a filmmaker and former Board member who draws on his film industry experience in both the non-profit and for-profit realms, and is closely collaborating with Steve Polta (a ten-year veteran of Cinematheque) and new program director Vanessa O’Neill. SF360.org had the opportunity to join in on a conversation about Cinematheque’s past and present when Steven Jenkins lunched with Marlow at Caffe Centro last fall. (The conversation was subsequently amended to add in a few key details.) The spring Cinematheque season begins this coming Wednesday, February 4, with Ken Jacobs’ Razzle Dazzle.
Steven Jenkins: The announcement about your recent appointment to San Francisco Cinematheque as its new Executive Director caused quite a flutter and a stir….
Jonathan Marlow: Did it really?
Jenkins: I think people are excited and...
Jenkins: And pleased. As a former Executive Director of Cinematheque, I am naturally interested in some of your views on the organization. Where do you see it going over these next couple of years? What attracted you to the position? How do you feel about the transition from working with for-profit companies to a non-profit organization? Does it require a different mindset than one you would apply in Silicon Valley?
Marlow: On a certain level, I believe that life in the for-profit space is considerably less stressful! Granted, in the current economic climate, things are difficult for everyone.
Jenkins: You aren’t overly daunted by the finances?
Marlow: It won’t be easy. It will be challenging to convince institutions and individuals to part with their money and redirect their resources to activities that they may not believe to be essential. I suspect that things will get somewhat better with the new administration but it will still be a challenge, regardless. The work that we present is not exactly embraced by the masses and never will be. We need to give audiences a particular reason to care. The programming must not feel like an artifact of the past. There are new films that continue to challenge perceptions and expectations. We need to embrace work that’s pertinent to people today.
Jenkins: One thing I found in coming into Cinematheque is that it’s an organization with such a long and illustrious history as the nation’s premier proponent and exhibitor of avant-garde work. When you come into an organization that’s founded on a certain idealism and a set of aesthetics that were fairly well-grounded in past eras, you want to honor that tradition and also put your own particular stamp on it. How will you deal with that sort of tussle between the tradition of what we think of as ‘experimental’ or ‘avant-garde’ work and the way that it’s always been contextualized at Cinematheque with your own particular interests as a well-seasoned curator, critic and viewer?
Marlow: It can be problematic. Sometimes that history, if not treated correctly, can become an albatross for an organization. You become so beholden to your past that you’re not prepared to redefine the boundaries of the work that you want to present. If you look at the programs from the first twenty years of Cinematheque, the definition was much broader than the past decade. If we were to continue within those rigid parameters, I would be concerned about Cinematheque’s relevance. Conversely, the organization has been reluctant to devote much time to the celebrated works of the genre. That can also be dangerous. You can’t assume that your audience is entirely familiar with the canon. Many of the classical music institutions around the country are quite good at incorporating new with old. It’s something that Cinematheque needs to do better in order to make what we do of interest to more than merely the converted.
Jenkins: What would the broader curatorial vision look like?
Marlow: With the February-to-April 2009 calendar, we’ve expanded the variety of voices in the programming. We’ve looked to outside curators for a number of the screenings and then tried to find a balance in the slots that remained to be filled. Fortunately, our current staff — Steve Polta, Vanessa O’Neill and myself — consists of individuals with dual-experience as curators and filmmakers. Fortunately, it is that collection of various viewpoints that ideally creates a more diverse schedule. We definitely want more curators from other organizations to present their programs with Cinematheque. I’ve asked a number of individuals from around the country if they’d be willing to participate and many have already agreed but it’s something that we’re presently raising funding for, to make it function properly. I am a firm believer that people deserve to be paid for their efforts. We’re additionally relying on people in the local community by seeking suggestions, recommendations and advice from Tom Luddy, Susan Oxtoby and others. We also need to be willing to occasionally present films that appeal to a somewhat larger audience. Part of that process will be premiering contemporary films side-by-side with classic works to allow an intersection between new and old. Of course, there is still a significant part of the calendar devoted to individual makers. But unless you’re familiar with those particular filmmakers, those programs may not necessarily motivate the average person to leave their home.
Jenkins: I was of a couple of minds on that point. During the period that I was there, we tried to have a fairly healthy mix between single-artist shows, dual-artist shows, theme-oriented shows and mix those with a certain number of historical programs where we’d show a silent film that hadn’t been seen in decades or an Alexander Kluge film from the mid-‘70s German new wave cinema. Striking that balance was always a challenge. You’re often showing works that a general audience — or even a specialized audience — hasn’t necessarily heard of with artists who are not necessarily name artists. For awhile, my thought was that if you build the brand of San Francisco Cinematheque and are successful in getting a large enough group of people to trust that name, the particulars of that evening’s program becomes less important. You know that you’re in good hands and that you trust this curatorial vision. You’ll try something even if the filmmaker’s name means nothing to you because you know the type of work that you’ll see. It’s a big challenge that I didn’t entirely accomplish. The balance also requires a couple of blockbusters per season. What constitutes a blockbuster in this little world? For me it turned out to be Gordon Matta-Clark. His work was of real interest and it seemed to reach out to broader and different constituents. That was the most successful set of programs we did over my couple of years.
Marlow: As an organization, San Francisco Cinematheque has very peculiar challenges. The name alone implies a physical space and yet Cinematheque has always been a nomadic institution. We show things wherever and whenever we can. As a result, we ask a lot of our audience. We ask them to follow us from one part of the city to another. Part of the plan is to take my experience in the technology space and apply it to the mission of the organization, supplementing our existing exhibitions with a new website that allows for access to Cinematheque’s archival materials. We have interviews, photographs, documents and audio recordings that are presently inaccessible. Presently, Cinematheque’s site leaves quite a bit to be desired. Even as a mechanism for informing people about our shows, it’s not entirely sufficient. That will change when the revised site debuts in the weeks ahead. We also want to provide a way for people to discover related screenings that other like-minded organizations are presenting, such as kino21 and Other Cinema. Pacific Film Archive has long been dedicated to showing this kind of work and we hope to collaborate with them on a handful of screenings this year. The only reservation at this point is how best to keep people informed of these activities without adding to the unnecessary clutter. We have many other notions but we presently lack the resources to make them a reality. I suspect that’s always the case with most organizations. Plenty of ideas but never enough capabilities to immediately realize them. We’re selecting the ones at the moment that seem best positioned to have the most impact.
Jenkins: Ideas have always outstripped resources.
Marlow: For 2009, we already have more work to present than available venues to screen them. We’re a healthy organization but not a wealthy organization. We can only do so much at any particular time.
Jenkins: When we talk about this kind of work...
Marlow: That’s pretty amorphous, isn’t it? You know it when you see it.
Jenkins: I think that’s a good definition. So what do we talk about? We throw around phrases like ‘non-commercial,’ ‘personally expressive,’ ‘non-narrative.’
Marlow: The latter, in particular, is a bit of a misnomer.
Marlow: To a certain extent. Once it begins, every film starts to form something resembling a narrative. Invariably, it’s ‘non-narrative’ only in the sense that it doesn’t subscribe to the three-act structure of a conventional story. If you look at the films that are attractive to people that regularly avoid those conventions, wouldn’t those films also have an appropriate place at Cinematheque? In its past, those films were also embraced by the organization.
Jenkins: Can you give some examples?
Marlow: In the first two decades, Cinematheque presented a number of silent films. Much as the Surrealists embraced Buster Keaton and accepted him as one of their own, I wager it is just as acceptable to look at Luis Bunuel and accept that his later films owe something to the same thread that we describe as ‘experimental.’ The work of Roy Andersson and Apitchapong Weerasethakul, for instance, fit within these boundaries as well, and Cinematheque has a rich history of presenting international work.
Jenkins: Keaton and Bunuel, I know, have both made numerous appearances on Cinematheque calendars over the years. But I think it’s been awhile.
Marlow: It has been awhile and, in a certain sense, I think that’s unfortunate.
Jenkins: What about funding. That’s inevitably a large part of the job you’ve taken on. Are you doing grant writing? Are you dealing with foundations? Are you looking to possibly expand the private donor pool?
Marlow: The grant-writing process is an effective collaboration between Vanessa O’Neill and myself and, unsurprisingly, it remains a substantial part of the day-to-day activities at the office. I am relatively impressed with the results thus far but we’ll see how the various foundations and organizations respond. With our relatively small budget, the task should not be insurmountable. Meanwhile, we definitely intend to increase the number of our individual donors but our expectations are realistically conservative in the present climate. We’ve already significantly grown our membership base since I started in September.
Jenkins: How were your audiences for the recent shows?
Marlow: Nearly every show was better attended than our initial expectations. This is work that is not easily approachable for most audiences. As we begin to establish new boundaries for the type of work that we present, I believe it is possible to find a place for video artists like Douglas Gordon and Doug Aitken in our schedule. This work is fairly well represented by local galleries or museums such as SFMOMA and YBCA but a handful of pieces are occasionally missed. If we can find a way to incorporate them into our program, this work seems like a reasonable extension of the organization’s path thus far.
Jenkins: I encourage you to go in that direction. That’s where a lot of the most interesting work is happening and it allows you to work with other organizations in the city.
Marlow: You will definitely see an increase in the number of programs that are co-presented with other organizations. For instance, the forthcoming Takahiko Iimura series originated as a number of programs coordinated by Adam Hyman at Los Angeles Filmforum. We decided to bring him to San Francisco as well and, thanks to the coincidental timing, asked the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival if they would be willing to co-present the event. Fortunately, Festival Director Chi-hui Yang liked the idea. Working with them has been a pleasure.
SF360: How and when was Cinematheque founded?
Marlow: The organization was essentially founded in 1961 by filmmakers Bruce Baillie and Chick Strand in Canyon, California. Canyon Cinema evolved as a film distributor out of those initial screenings. Canyon and Cinematheque, the exhibition arm, were initially the same organization until they amicably split into separate entities several decades ago. One of our 50th anniversary ambitions, in collaboration with Melinda Stone and Liz Keim, is to go back to Canyon and present a screening where it all started.
Jenkins: Recreate the original?
Marlow: Much like they were able to do with A Trip Down Market Street. It would be ideal to present the first Cinematheque show as closely as we can and additionally commission works where different filmmakers create films. It’s an embrace of the history of the organization and the history of those legendary filmmakers.
Jenkins: Does your own work as a filmmaker play a part in your role at Cinematheque?
Marlow: I’m not certain how much of a component it really plays. I’ve made ruthlessly uncommercial work for more than a decade and I understand something of the environment that most of the people that present work at Cinematheque experience. Which is to say that they create this work of potentially limited appeal because they are compelled to make it. If you venture to Park City in January, you are surrounded by a very different type of filmmaker that sees the work they’re doing as some kind of potential career path. For most, it is illusory at best and will likely never come to pass.
SF360: Are you committed to film as a theatrical experience?
Marlow: I’m particularly committed to film as a communal experience. In other words, theatrical exhibition, in some form, will remain a significant element of Cinematheque’s efforts. Whether that’s a dwindling form of the film experience as a whole and regardless of whether the concept of going out to see a screening becomes a smaller and smaller part of our culture, I’m going to keep doing it until people stop attending. Part of our transition is to supplement that experience with short clips or entire films delivered digitally through the site.
SF360: The landscape has changed so much.
Marlow: Basically, this ‘digital initiative,’ for lack of a better phrase, is in recognition that a certain portion of our audience will never come to a show regardless of the day or time. Audiences for esoteric works just don’t go out like they used to. Whether it’s financial or familial, many folks just have other obligations that don’t allow them the luxury of arriving at a predetermined time to see a film. Unless we provide some added incentive beyond the film itself, they’re not likely to attend. Therein, we’re trying to move away from ‘two-dimensional’ events to focus more on presentations that include the filmmaker, guest curator or a guest lecturer as often as possible. We want to have people present in order to discuss the work.
Jenkins: So what does the event look like? Is it a panel discussion? Is it an artist in-person?
Marlow: At this point, it tends to be an artist in-person. Whenever possible, it includes a performance aspect as well. On any given Friday in San Francisco, perhaps ten or more different films will open. Many of them will make very little money. For most, that might be the last that you’ll hear of them. This is also a concern for Cinematheque. Over the years, many of these films can be found in the Canyon Cinema archives or the Film-makers’ Cooperative. A few of these works may only reside in the filmmaker’s closet. If there is no way to satisfy the curiosity of the audience, there is no way to grow an audience. It is difficult to interest audiences in this work without providing the proper context. Our pending restoration programs should help. Mark Toscano from the Academy Film Archive and Jeff Lambert from the National Film Preservation Foundation will present programs that indirectly reflect works presented at Cinematheque over its nearly five decades of existence. We have to change from a passive organization that merely presents programs and hopes that an audience appears to an organization that proactively educates and informs audiences about this work. Admittedly, that’s not easy. It’s not easy for any organization.
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