The Bay Area has a long history of creative film programming. Although the rep-house/film society circuit probably isn’t what it was in the days when Pauline Kael got her start programming Berkeley’s defunct Fine Arts Cinema, there are still plenty of fiery aficionados trying to get you to the theater for a little taste of the unusual, forgotten, and sublime. One such film-freak is Jesse Hawthorne Ficks whose all-out “Midnites for Maniacs“ bills have aired out curiosities from the ’80s and ’90s to adoring crowds at the Castro Theatre. Despite being abroad for Cannes, Ficks took the time to consider the enduring appeal of midnight movies over email. His new Midnites series opens June 9.
SF360: When did you become interested in film programming? What’s your history in the field?
Jesse Hawthorne Ficks: When I was 15, I was living in Salt Lake City, and my first job was at Trolley Corners Cineplex Odeon. My boss and film mentor asked me what films should be in the midnight series. I immediately responded with ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘Wild At Heart,’ which had just come out that year. He programmed both, and they were huge successes. I was totally blown away at how many people would come out in Salt Lake City, no less to a midnight film. [Those screenings] showed me that there were tons of people looking for something to do other than go to a bar or keg party.
SF360: What was the first film program you put together?
Ficks: In 1998, Frank Lee at the Four Star Theatre allowed me to put together a bunch of ’80s and ’90s Hong Kong classics for the theater’s first midnight series. It was quite a hit with that neighborhood….So much was happening out in the Richmond district back then.
SF360: The Bay Area seems like one of the few places where creative programming is really appreciated, but it’s obviously become difficult to sustain this kind of showcasing. Have you run into difficulties finding theatres to get behind your programs?
Ficks: Alternative programming is tough anywhere, and San Francisco is no different. The best part of SF is how supportive the audiences are — nowhere else in the world could you pack a movie palace for an ‘aerobicize’ triple-feature! I pitched the series [‘Midnites for Maniacs’] to many theaters like the Roxie and the Red Vic, but it’s a risk playing many of the films I want to screen. I’m not sure if people are ready for some of my choices, i.e., ‘Baby Geniuses.’
SF360: How do you see programmers needing to adjust to stay competitive with the likes of Netflix and GreenCine?
Ficks: In my opinion, it’s very important to screen films unavailable on DVD. This includes films that are only available on VHS. Many of my friends don’t even have working video cassette players any more, which means they can’t watch hundreds of films from even the past two decades! GreenCine and Netflix are definitely cool in the respect that they have enabled people to watch more films. I do have a problem with the whole ‘queue’ thing. Some peoples’ lists are so long that by the time they get the film, they might not even remember why they wanted to see it. If you really want to see a film, go watch it. I fear that people might be getting lazy with films being delivered to their door.
SF360: In your write-ups of the films you show, you often take care to tout how rare a given movie is: in the case of a Mormon-produced short named ‘Cipher in the Snow,’ how the ‘ultra-rare’ 16mm print is in very brittle condition.’ How important is rarity to your selling a movie?
Ficks: Screening movies on film is definitely a dying breed — many places just show the DVD now, and it really breaks my heart. I have no problem if the movie was made on digital formats or if the intention of the filmmaker is to show their film in digital. But again, so many movies were shot on glorious film and are losing so much in the transfer to digital. Look at what happened to records! The ‘Cipher’ print, or something like ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains,’ are one-of-a-kind prints. Without those prints, those films would not be seen. Personally, I love scratches on the film. Each scratch was from a screening, and you as an audience member get to be a part of that history.
SF360: Many of the films you show, from ‘Heavenly Bodies’ to, say, ‘Baby Geniuses,’ can get pretty campy. Do you try and strike a balance between films that are totally silly and those that you think have really been underrated because of the era in which they were made? Do you see some of the campier films as being the kind of fun ‘trash’ that Pauline Kael extolled or something more?
Ficks: ‘Trash’ or ‘good-bad’ movies are constantly being misunderstood. There are two kinds of good-bad films for me: the studio disaster and the low-budget confusion. Screening a big-budget disaster film should inspire audience members to enjoy a film for being ridiculous and/or embarrassing. Not all studious disasters are good-bad films, though. They need to be passionately bad. Take the Coen Brothers’ ‘The Ladykillers.’ That thing is so lackluster, it’s completely unwatchable. But then, you can take Costner’s ‘The Postman,’ where he’s trying to outdo ‘Dances with Wolves’ in every single shot, and you’ve got maximum pleasure!
Screening the low-budget confused film is a very sensitive issue. You should be enjoying the film for creating something that’s either way ahead of its time or way ahead of this world entirely. Many people mistakenly beat up on these films as if they were studio disasters and become bully audience members. Classic midnight films like ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ ‘Eraserhead,’ or ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’ seem to have set an incorrect standard over the years. These films are not to be laughed at. These films are revolutionary. Yet every time I go to see these films with a contemporary midnight audience, people are making fun. Poor Ed Wood has been rolling over in his grave for decades because many of the people who supposedly love his movies are not enjoying them at their purest; they are laughing at them. All the films I play, I genuinely worship. There is not a single drop of irony in the reasons why I play Rodney Amateau’s ‘Garbage Pail Kids: The Movie.’ I totally respect that film just as much as I respect Coppola’s ‘Rumble Fish,’ or Kurosawa’s ‘Dreams,’ or Truffaut’s ‘The 400 Blows.’ For different reasons of course….
SF360: What are your hopes for the ‘Midnites for Maniacs’ series now that it’s running at the Castro?
Ficks: I hope that people make sure to keep going out, not only to the Castro, but also to all the other theaters that program alternative movies on the big screen. You can’t make your new best friend if you stay inside and re-watch your ‘Meet the Feebles’ video for the umpteenth time!
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