Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Metro Classics Speak. An internet interview.

by Ryland Walker Knight


touch it!
[From tonight's film,
The Maltese Falcon]

As we wrote earlier, the impetus for Metro Classics began during my last stop-over in Seattle some fall seasons ago. It was a fun dream to cultivate. It's been yet more fun to see it materialize from afar since that time. And with each calendar my friends Sean and Mike put together, I routinely forget to make mention of it here on VINYL. Not so this time! I'm very proud of their pet project as I feel I have some kind of ancestral stake in its future and so I thought: Heck, why not ask these guys about it so far and, you know, blog about it? If we can throw some eyes their way, and perhaps some patrons, we would love to wield such a power. Also, this random-fire set of questions was a veiled excuse to correspond beyond the every-so-often note like, say, "I've been fighting through that Bolano book, too! It's great!" So, here's some Q'n'A with the twin brains behind the always-fun Metro Classics series...

dance it!
[From the final film of the calendar,
Pennies From Heaven, to screen April 29th @ 6:50 and 9:15 PM]

What's the first repertory film you saw in a theatre? When and where?

Sean Gilman: When I was a kid (mid 1980s), the independent art theatre in Spokane (there was only one) had a summer series of kids movies. The one I remember seeing was Yellow Submarine, but there were others, too. After that, there was nothing until one of the dollar theatres in Spokane played Casablanca in 1996 or so. In the spring of '98, while visiting Boston I saw Seven Samurai and Mr. Arkadin at the Brattle in Cambridge. That summer, I moved to Seattle and one of the first things I did was see three Kurosawa movies at the Varsity (Rashomon, Throne of Blood and The Hidden Fortress). I filled out my Landmark Theatres job application during the intermission of the Throne/Fortress double feature.

Mike Strenski: It was either The Wizard of Oz or Harvey, both of which I saw at the beautiful Stanford Theater in Palo Alto at a very young age. I remember them coloring the sidewalk out front in yellow chalk for Oz and sitting high up in the balcony. It was the first time I noticed a reel change because I could see the path of the light coming from the booth.

There's talk of the movies turning into a more specialist art with patrons, as with opera or with plays, as the home market continues to develop and improve. How do you see the movie theatre evolving into the next decade? Do you think thoughtful retrospective calendars may play a role in the continued success and interest in a movie theatre experience?

Sean: I don't really see any parallel with opera at all. Cinema is a mass entertainment. It's the cheapest, most convenient thing for people to do between dinner and sex on Friday night. HDTV doesn't change that.

What digital cinema (both projectors and high-quality digital versions of films) offers is the opportunity to show repertory films with very little overhead. Rep cinema died in the 90s as the cost of renting and shipping prints skyrocketed. With digital, you're not shipping anything, and the distributor doesn't have to worry about print damage.

Mike: Repertory totally has a place in the future of cinema, the current programming/cinema model just needs to change. With digital presentation the cost of exhibiting these movies is negligible and more theatres should look to turning one or two of their 20 to 30 screens into permanent rep houses. Show The Searchers for a week-long run in a hundred seat house. It will bring out a diverse (and more importantly) loyal crowd than using that 27th screen for another copy of Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

What films bring the biggest crowds at Metro Classics? Can you even answer that (legally speaking)?

Sean: I wish we knew. Our best weeks were Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz (which you'd expect) and The Red Shoes (which is a little surprising). Aside from the top two outliers, we tend to do best with films that are popular, but not too popular (think Blue Velvet or Purple Rain as opposed to The Manchurian Candidate or Notorious).

Mike: The tried and true "classics", hands down. Casablanca raked in the cash, as did The Red Shoes and Oz. At the onset of programming these calendars, I assumed people would be burnt out on these titles because they're so ubiquitous but their popularity refuses to wane.

Is there a target audience in Seattle you aim for? Who do want to see come out?

Sean: People who like movies. We try to keep the series diverse, with movies that appeal to all different kinds of people. The one thing that holds it together is they're all movies we think movie lovers would like.

Mike: Another assumption I was completely wrong on was the demographic of our audience. I thought we would be catering to the college crowd nearby, with a room full of film majors but our clientele is predominately older couples who live in the surrounding neighborhoods. I think if there is any target audience that Sean and I are aiming for it's ourselves. We're far too out of touch to know what people want to see, which is proven week in and week out at our shows.

How long does each calendar take to assemble? Do you have to narrow your dream list a lot? Or is it more pragmatic?

Sean: We kick around ideas for awhile at random times (we've been thinking about something to do with locations for the last year or so), but once we settle on the idea, we generally get the lineup set in a single evening. We've not yet been able to book every film we initially planned on. Such are the vagaries of print availability and tangled rights issues.

Mike: Sean and I usually toss around theme ideas during the final weeks of the current series until we stumble on something we are both excited about. Then we spend another couple of weeks refining it and creating ever more intricate subsets that strait jacket our film options. I like working in boxes within boxes within boxes which makes the programming ever more difficult. How many Shakespearean adaptations fit into the adventure/sci-fi/musical category? We then sit around biting our nails for a good fortnight while the booking department secures the films or tells us to go back to the drawing board. All in all, I spend my whole life planning this malarkey.

Where did the idea for Adaptations come from?

Sean: I honestly don't remember. We'd done decades, directors, genres, countries and families, source material seemed like a natural next step.

Mike: I don't remember. Sean I think. I know I came up with the Page/Stage/Image line. I'll totally take credit for that. And Pennies from Heaven.

Sean: I'm pretty sure I came up with "Page, Stage, Image". . . . If not, I approved right away.

Mike: Dream on, I came up with that shit. I remember you were in the manager's chair and I was sitting on the other side of the table. You came up with pretty much everything else this go around.

What's your dream double bill? Have you programmed anything approaching that?

Sean: I don't know about a dream double bill, how about The Gang's All Here and Chungking Express? I liked our Nosferatus double feature, with the Murnau and Herzog versions. But really we haven't had a chance to do as many as we'd like.

Mike: My dream double bill would probably be something like City Lights and WALL*E. Good luck on that one. The Nosferatu double feature was pretty slamming. We've only done a couple double bills because we have to find a public domain film that fits the bill to keep costs down.

What's been your favorite program?

Sean: The genres series last Spring was our most successful, and was also a lot of fun (it was three Gershwin musicals (Shall We Dance, An American In Paris, Funny Face) three Westerns with scores by folk rock legends (Pat Garret & Billy The Kid, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Dead Man) and three movies about musicians with colors in the title (The Red Shoes, The Blues Brothers, Purple Rain).

Mike: Going back to my themes within themes idea, I am most proud of our nine week music series with three films each in the following categories: Gershwin Musicals; Westerns with Scores by Folk Rock Musicians; and Movies about Musicians with Colors in the Title. We got to play Purple Rain!

Your favorite particular night on a program?

Sean: It's always fun when a bunch of people show up to a movie you love and have a great time with it. The Red Shoes was great because I was surprised at just how many people showed up. But other nights, with fewer people, can be just as fun, if the crowd is really enjoying the movie.

Mike: There have been a few. Duck Soup on the 4th of July was fun, The New World the day before Thanksgiving. Did I mention Purple Rain?

I haven't been able to attend any of these evenings of course but my other Seattle friends tell me you two have trivia to go along with the shows. What is a sample question? Do people get the answers correct ever? What do they win?

Sean: I try to make the questions pretty hard to start with, but I've a number of them that get progressively easier as people fail to guess them. I think we only ran out of questions once, we managed to make something up though. The most complicated was something along the lines of: what 5 (pre-Departed) films was Martin Scorsese nominated for the Best Director Oscar, who and for what films did he lose each of those years?

Mike: Oh god, Sean comes up with the most convoluted questions in the world. They're like seven parts and involve naming the gaffer on the third film of the director's that was released only in Poland for one week. . . I am getting accustomed to standing in front of a dead silent auditorium.

Where would you like to see Metro Classics go to next?

Sean: I'd like us to have a regular, year round, 7 days a week program. But that's probably not realistic for the near future.

Mike: It would be awesome if it was a permanent institution playing every night in a small auditorium for three weirdos, one of which is me.

I often think that rep calendars prove that film history (like all history) is not a to b linear—that we organize our thought in wildly tangential ways, often around themes. As anybody who watches a lot of movies is a student of movies, what can you say you learn from watching these movies like this in this order?

Sean: I don't think we have any kind of educational intention in mind, other than "these are great movies and we think you should watch them". You can learn things with the contrasts sometimes, for example, we specifically opposed three Herzog movies to three Malick movies, because they seem so opposite in their view of the natural world. But generally, the themes have been organizational and not pedagogic.

Mike: Perspective is everything. Hearing "Das Rheingold" crop up in Herzog's Nosferatu and then again three weeks later in The New World. New angles, man.

What do you think your job is as the programmers?

Sean: I just like giving people the chance to see movies I love. My job is to program it in such a way that we'll draw enough people to let us keep going.

Mike: To waste the company's money.

winter09 classics calendar
[click to enlarge]

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