On Curios, Classics and the Art of Archival Programming


Elliot Lavine: ‘I’m going to make your life a basket of tears with ‘Waterloo Bridge’ (1931), the Mae Clarke version with James Whale as director. It’ll break your head open.’

“Sizzling,” “sensational” and “sin-soaked,” the San Francisco Bay Area’s Elliot Lavine’s uninhibited pre-Production Code series opening March 1 celebrates “a time when films crackled with unbridled sexual energy and pulsated to the forbidden rhythms of larceny and lust.’” His “Hollywood Before the Code: Deeper, Darker, Nastier!!” program at the Roxie Cinema in SF provides a rare opportunity to watch 15 incredible Hollywood Pre-Code classics and curios—many presented in beautiful 35mm studio archive prints and most not readily available on DVD. As part of my ongoing suite of research interviews on archival film festivals, Lavine and I met for coffee at Valencia’s Four Barrel (where we admired that the coffeehouse was playing vinyl; “The Greatest Hits of Mama Cass,” to be exact). Pumped up on caffeine, Lavine and I launched into a meandering conversation regarding the history of San Francisco’s repertory scene, the marketing of film festivals, and his specific program for his upcoming Pre-Code festival.

Keyframe: As one of the key individuals in San Francisco’s repertory scene, can you speak to when it became marketable to program ‘classic’ films under the aegis of a film festival? Your Pre-Code and Noir programs at the Roxie are of sufficient length and thematic unity to be categorized as film festivals.

Elliot Lavine: Well they are. Sometimes I’m a little curious that more people don’t refer to them in that way, because they are. More than ever they are. I’ve limited my work at the Roxie to just doing festivals, usually three or four a year; the two main ones being, of course, Film Noir and Pre-Code. For me, the whole festival ‘motif’ started right away pretty much within my first year at the Roxie, which was 1990. There were people organizing shows like mine, but they didn’t seem to have a lot of media support. There wasn’t a circus that grew out of it. The theaters would maybe show a week’s worth of film noir but it was pell mell and scattershot.

The only reason I wanted a job at the Roxie was so that I could put on a Film Noir show. I argued for it with Bill Banning, who was the owner of the theater at that time. I said, ‘I think a couple of weeks of this would be just terrific.’ But there was some concern because, of course, if you commit yourself to the idea and it doesn’t work right out of the gate, the theater is dead for two weeks, which is a huge expense when you’re paying thousands of dollars worth of guarantees. If the media or—more importantly—the audiences are not there to support the programming, it can be a disaster. Never mind the fact that it’s embarrassing. From a financial standpoint it can be catastrophic.

What I did to convince Banning and the Roxie was—when I was putting together the calendar—to ask them for one night of Film Noir, a Thursday night, where I could put together two features to see what would happen. Bill said, ‘Fine, fine.’ So I programmed The Big Combo (1955) and 99 River Street (1953) as a double-bill on a lonely Thursday night in June 1991 and it packed the Roxie. It sold out even without there being any press on it. The only way people knew about it was from the Roxie’s calendar. Frankly, I was beyond pleasantly surprised; I was shocked that there were so many people there that night. It was a magical night. People just kept appearing. We had to stop selling tickets. It was unbelievable. And people were saying to me, ‘We’ve been waiting for more Film Noir. It doesn’t come around much anymore.’ For me this was an indication that interest was really high and—when Bill came in the next morning and saw the box office—he said, ‘Do whatever you want to do.’ So I said, ‘Okay, I’m mapping out the entire month of September for Film Noir, no ifs, ands, or maybes.’ He said, ‘Great! Go for it.’ That September program was a sensation. Different double features every day and triple features on the weekend. Everybody covered that thing. The first week was a box office bonanza and I thought, ‘How long can this go on? At one point won’t people finally say, ‘enough is enough’ and not support it through to the end?’ But they did! The crowds kept growing. From that point on noir programming became a regular staple.

I followed through and did the same thing with Pre-Code because I sensed that the nature of those films shared a lot in common with Film Noir, especially the crime films, but all of them actually because they’re cynical and driven by fate and circumstances beyond the characters’ control. They’re dark and moody films. Most of them are only seventy minutes long or less, which is a great running time for these kinds of films. We did our first Pre-Code show in 1993 or 1994 and we had the same kind of response. So we had two concurrent festivals going on every season every year with completely packed houses. But they’d never been addressed as a ‘film festival’ per se, like the Silent Film Festival, though I would like people to see them that way. The programming lends itself to the category of a film festival because it’s more curatorial. It took years to have people point this out to me—I wasn’t aware of it—but people would say, ‘Well, I really like the subliminal context between these two films’ and I’d say, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ They just looked good together. They sounded good together. But I said, okay, I’ll take the compliment and be done with it. But it forced me to look at it differently.

Keyframe: To set up the distinction between programming and curating?

Lavine: That’s right. Not just tossing up a couple of movies because the same actor was in them or they were made the same year by the same director, whatever. I wanted to avoid that because that seemed like an easy way to do something that, by nature, should be more complicated. If it’s interesting, it should be complicated. If it’s facile, then it’s boring. It’s just not interesting. There’s a big difference. It could be relatively interesting and people will respond to it, but—if it’s a little bit beyond that—the level of appreciation is greater and you’re more likely to be remembered as a better programmer or curator if you apply that type of thought to it. So that became my real focus: to try to create programming that had a night-to-night subtext to it, primarily through visual linkages.

Keyframe: I guess the trend I’m aiming to track is when the repertory houses of the seventies—like the Cento Cedar and the Richilieu, whose programs often consisted of films from the forties and fifties—became influenced (if at all) by nostalgic considerations and concerns? And at what point did this programming get grouped under the aegis of a film festival? And why? What is it that distinguishes repertory programming of Film Noir titles, let’s say, from a Film Noir festival? What turns it into a ‘festival’?

Lavine: Mainly, I think if you call it a festival, people will respond to it as a festival. When I put out press releases for my shows, I will use the word ‘festival’ in the text block even if I don’t cite it as a festival in the subject header of my email. A ‘festival’ connotes happiness and glee—even though many of these Pre-Code and Noir films are anything but happy and gleeful—and perhaps, in a way, that’s been my hesitancy with the term ‘festival’ as it relates to these films. When someone talks about the Noir City Film Festival, I think of it as the circus it is, which doesn’t reflect thematically on what these films are really about. That’s not to denigrate Noir City as a festival, but it’s to say that—if that’s what a festival is—I’d rather not refer to my series that way.

If we look at the literal meaning of ‘festival’—as an umbrella that arches over a group of paintings or statues or films that are thematically related—then perhaps it works? But then, why do they call it the San Francisco International Film Festival? Are those films thematically related to one another? Not necessarily. You have hundreds of films that are divorced from one another. They have nothing to do with each other except they’re grouped together in the same place at the same time. In that context, that constitutes a festival I suppose. So what does it actually mean to call a grouping of films a ‘film festival’? Is a thematic thread necessary? Do you say this is a festival of films about this or that? This is a festival of brand-new films by Nicaraguan directors or a festival of Technicolor films made in the ’70s, or whatever. It’s a loose reading.  But if you call it a festival, then theoretically it is a festival.

Keyframe: I think the definition of a ‘festival’ has shifted away from being just a happy event, as you’ve jokingly indicated, to something that plays more of a civic role in what a city culturally offers its citizens. In that sense, film festivals begin to uniquely inflect the cities that host them. San Francisco’s repertory programming and subsequent film festival culture further adds the allure of a specific location to cinematic and programmatic themes. In other words, though I attend the Toronto International Film Festival, I don’t think of it as a ‘film festival’ as much as I think of it as a film market, let’s say, or the starting line for the awards race. Which is also how I think of Cannes (though I’ve never been). That speaks to the size of the event determining—certainly influencing—the purpose of its festivity.

A year or two ago I played ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ (1955) for a closing night film and someone asked, ‘Are you sure you want to do that? It’s a famous film, it’s on DVD, and everyone’s seen it.’ ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘but it’s the perfect film to close down with.’ Sure enough, it sold out. I bet seventy-five percent of the audience had already seen the film before; but, they had probably never seen the film that it was paired with, which in that particular instance expanded the richness of Kiss Me Deadly and made the viewing of that film more meaningful for those who were there. The audience was yelling and applauding like they’d never seen the film before; yet, it was clear they had.

Though I’ve sampled various film festivals in different locales, what I’ve long considered unique in the San Francisco Bay Area is its literacy about film on film and the experience of watching films projected as they were meant to be seen, on film stock in-cinema. It seems to me that celluloid purism, if you will, has taken on a particular significance in the Bay Area (though I trust it’s equally appreciated elsewhere); but, local audiences at your Roxie series, at Noir City, at the Silent Film Festival, at the Pacific Film Archive, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts have been taught year after year program after program to appreciate films on film and—in the case of the Silent Film Festival—with appropriate musical accompaniment. In this educational respect, I would again argue that film festivals fall within a civic duty to acculturate.

Which leads me to the further distinction of an ‘archival film festival,’ under whose aegis your Roxie series, Noir City, and the Silent Film Festival certainly fall. Much can be said, in fact, about the culture that has arisen from the acquisition of the best available prints secured from archival sources or private collections through circuitous evolving negotiations. You, Eddie Muller, Anita Monga, the curatorial staff at PFA (Susan Oxtoby, Kathy Geritz, Steve Seid), Joel Shepard at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and one-off event programmers like Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, Marc Huestis and Peaches Christ have all had much to do with the San Francisco public becoming increasingly aware of shifting trends in film exhibition, restoration and preservation. Can you speak to what it means for you as a programmer or curator to create programs of archival prints?

Lavine: The main appeal for me is access. If you’re a spectator who’s devoting two weeks of your life to watch a certain group of films at a festival, that’s one thing. But if you’re a programmer, add on several months of detective work, research, and ongoing negotiations with studio representatives. If you’re programming on a regular basis, then you can expect there to be a finite number of movies that you can work with unless you’re willing to uncover every rock that you come across to look for films you didn’t expect to find. I’m perfectly happy to play a handful of classics that most people have seen before because—within the context of this kind of series—that lends itself. A year or two ago I played Kiss Me Deadly (1955) for a closing night film and someone asked, ‘Are you sure you want to do that? It’s a famous film, it’s on DVD, and everyone’s seen it.’ ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘but it’s the perfect film to close down with.’ Sure enough, it sold out. I bet seventy-five percent of the audience had already seen the film before; but, they had probably never seen the film that it was paired with, which in that particular instance expanded the richness of Kiss Me Deadly and made the viewing of that film more meaningful for those who were there. The audience was yelling and applauding like they’d never seen the film before; yet, it was clear they had. That tells me that the thinking that goes behind making a decision about whether or not you want to go see the film or not reveals that it’s no longer germane to say, ‘Well, I don’t want to play that because it’s been played out on DVD, people can rent it.’ That used to be an issue but it’s no longer an issue. I used to avoid programming films like that as much as I could in favor of films that were oddball or obscure and films I knew people had not seen before. But now a liberal sprinkling of each creates a much richer show.

As far as the ongoing conversation surrounding 35mm, that’s an exciting component. On the one hand, I’m thrilled to get great archive prints whether they’re coming from UCLA or wherever. But I’m just as thrilled to get collectors’ prints. I’m even more happy with collectors prints because they’re generally scarcer. But I’m also one hundred percent comfortable with projecting digitally.

Keyframe: You are?!

Lavine: Yeah. I mean, I would prefer to run film one hundred percent ,if I could; but, I know that I don’t have the resources or the clout necessary to go busting into certain studio vaults and demand they fork over their prints. I can do that with some studios….

Keyframe: But aren’t some studios refusing to even loan out prints anymore?

Lavine: One in particular: Warner Brothers. It’s frustrating because their library is vast. It’s unbelievable. It’s Warner Brothers, it’s RKO, it’s MGM, it’s Monogram, it’s all the subsidiaries they’ve bought out over the years and have absorbed. They have millions of films! A huge library. But they’re stingy about letting their prints out.

'Fog Over Frisco' (pictured). Lavine: 'I would rather have the right movie in the program than have it just because it's available on film.'

‘Fog Over Frisco’ (pictured). Lavine: ‘I would rather have the right movie in the program than have it just because it’s available on film.’

Keyframe: How about DCPs of their films? Are they letting those out?

Lavine: They’re slowly coming around to that. I have a handful of Warner titles in my upcoming Pre-Code show, which I have to include because it wouldn’t be as interesting of a show without them. And, sure, I could get 35mm prints of films that maybe aren’t so good or not as interesting; and, in such instances, I would rather err on the side of digital (if that’s an error). But the judgment is that I would rather have the right movie in the program than have it just because it’s available on film. That’s a decision that’s not always easy to make. So I go to Warners and I say, ‘I want Lady Killer (1933) and I want Fog Over Frisco (1934) and yadda yadda yadda’ and they’ll say, ‘Well, we’ll be happy to book them for you as long as you’re willing to play Blu-ray or DVD.’ And you have to provide your own material—you have to go out and get the DVD yourself—but they’re still charging you as much as they would if they rented you the film. The only thing the exhibitor saves is shipping because, admittedly, it’s a huge save on shipping. But that’s not the issue. The issue is access and availability.

Keyframe: In terms of access to archival material for festival programming, I can see how that then qualifies a series as an archival film festival; but, what else is involved in defining an archival film festival? What necessary role does education play into an archival film festival? You say that—when you screened Kiss Me Deadly—seventy-five percent of the audience had seen it; but, I’m concerned with the remaining twenty-five.

Lavine: I’m always concerned with the remaining twenty-five percent!

Keyframe: I guess what I’m trying to say is something that came up in conversation the other day when I was waiting in line to go into Noir City. A friend of mine proposed that a festival like Noir City can only survive for so long because they’re going to run out of titles to play; but, I countered that they will never run out of audiences to play to because—just about the time they have to start repeating themselves—fresh new faces will be staring up at the screen. That’s the twenty-five percent that will always make up the seed audience of an archival screening. Do you have a sense of how much time has to pass from when you’ve first shown a film to when it’s time to show it again for the twenty-five percent?

Lavine: I tend to favor those who reside in the twenty-five percent zone. It’s thrilling to show a historically interesting film to someone who’s seeing it for the first time in a theater with a crowd. That’s a blessing. As opposed to their watching it in a living room by themselves. That’s a curse. It does the film no favor and it does the viewer no favor because they won’t come away with the same experience; not even close.

Keyframe: Without question the in-cinema experience is superior; but, I’ve been forced into a portfolio approach when it comes to watching movies because—having just moved to Boise, Idaho where they don’t have the repertory programming or the range of in-cinema experiences available to San Franciscans—my thirst for access has had to necessarily shift to subscription streaming services that I watch on my 55’ high-definition SmartTV. As much as I resented that in the beginning, I’ve since come around because—let’s say in terms of Latin American cinema, which I primarily cover—many of those titles never came to San Francisco as in-cinema experiences anyway, either through festival screenings or theatrical distribution, but are available on HBO Latino or Hulu Plus Latino, shortly after I’ve seen them at other festivals such as Toronto, Palm Springs or the Panama International. So I’ve changed my mind a bit about the importance of access and its impact on my cinephilia, though I would maintain that access to an in-cinema experience of an archival print remains of prime import and the allure of the archival film festival offsets at-home access.

Lavine: How these festivals function—with regard to their responsibility or obligation to their audience—well, it’s a huge one simply because it’s a rarefied area. Very few people actually take the time or energy to do these kinds of shows because—with notable exceptions—they’re not very profitable. To commit the kind of energy to do it right and then live with the consequences of what happens if it doesn’t work is a difficult juggling act. It’s a scary proposition that’s not conducive to a lot of enthusiasm, especially from the people paying the bills. But in terms of the archival festival and its obligation to its audience, it’s a strong obligation. Yet it’s not a fundamentally necessary obligation. I’m of the belief that people should be willing to discover these films. They shouldn’t necessarily be led to them, as if to say, ‘This is good for you and you must come to take notes and study it and think about it and discuss it with your friends afterwards.’ I would rather avoid that. Even though I teach film classes, what I try to impress upon my students is, ‘Let your eyes do the work for you. Don’t worry about meaning and subtext until later after you’ve had a chance to absorb your experience of the film. Some of these films will have no meaning for you whatsoever. And some of the least suspecting films are going to change your lives. Some little B-movie from 1939 is going to make you reappraise everything you’ve thought about art, whereas you’re going to sit through some acknowledged classic and fall asleep.’ So I would rather not be put in the position of educating audiences about film.

When I introduce shows at the Roxie, I’ve had people complain, ‘Well, I want you to go into the background of the film. You should be telling people what the movie means and what the director had on his mind’ and I said, ‘Fuck that. I don’t want to do that. This is the Roxie. These audiences don’t want to be told what they’re going to see. They know what they’re going to see. Either they’ve already seen it or they’ve been dying to see it. They don’t need me to tell them. They just want me to come up to them and say, ‘Thanks for coming and I hope you like the show.’

Keyframe: You’re reminding me of that well-known Joseph Campbell quote where he said everyone’s looking for the meaning of life when what they actually want is the experience of life. That could apply to how one watches film.

Lavine: Absolutely! I’ve never heard that quote before but it’s apt. I’m not a real educated guy with regard to film. I mean, I’m a smart guy but I’m not an overly-educated guy. I barely went to college and anything that I ever developed an appreciation for was because I looked at it and said, ‘This interests me. I’m going to pour myself into it.’ I saw a lot of people around me doing the same thing so I was motivated by group participation, especially here in the Bay Area. Back in Detroit, forget it.

Keyframe: That’s what I was saying earlier. That’s what’s so unique about watching film in San Francisco. Even though you and Eddie Muller and Anita Monga and Susan Oxtoby are all doing your individual work at your respective venues, a collaborative spirit presides over the Bay Area film scene.

Lavine: I feel I have to be respectful of that. When I arrived in San Francisco, I loved movies but I didn’t have a cohesive sense of why I loved them or what it was about them that made me stay up all night thinking about them and making lists. I just did it because I assumed that’s what people did if they become obsessed with something like movies. But once I moved to San Francisco, I began to understand what those obsessions were about because it was laid out for me in such an overwhelming amount of availability, as you know. We both came out here about the same time in 1975. At that time I was in a movie theater six or seven days or nights a week for a long time. It supplanted any notion of a social life. It was just movies movies movies at every rep theater. I had every calendar stapled to my wall. It was incredible. A lot of those calendars I still have. Sometimes I look at them and they give me ideas about movies to put together. I’ve accidentally come up with gems of genius that way. Remember the Times Theatre on Stockton?

Keyframe: Funny you should mention The Times. It comes up so often in conversation among a certain generation here in San Francisco.

Lavine: The Times was my college. I was there every night practically.

Keyframe: In terms of access, I recall how affordable it was.

Lavine: A dollar!! At all times!

Keyframe: And I turned on to that because in those days I could pick up the Bay Guardian and it would have a little star next to any listing where the cover was a dollar or less. As a poor boy, I scoured those listings for free or cheap diversions.

Recently I’ve become interested in how a film festival shapes itself. Once you’ve selected your films, how do you decide which will be the opening night, centerpiece, and closing night films?

Lavine: That’s the most fun part!

Keyframe: Can you give me a sense of how you do it?

Lavine: What I do is have a huge hunk of paper in front of me and a pencil with an eraser on it. I won’t do it on a word processor because I need the visceral aspects of it to play with. I’ll keep writing titles down that I’m interested in showing for the particular series. The most vivid example I can explain to you was when I wanted to play Phantom Lady (1944). I hadn’t played it in a long time and I knew Universal had a new 35mm print. At that time Phantom Lady wasn’t out on DVD yet. I thought, ‘Perfect. I want that film—It’s key, it’s essential, and I haven’t played it in years.’ But the problem is: where do you go with a film like that? What do you put with it? Do you put another Cornell Woolrich film with it? No! Because that’s what anybody would do. Do you put another Robert Siodmak film with it? No! Because that’s what anybody and everybody would do. So then the dilemma becomes: well what the fuck do you put with a seminal film? A film that means a lot to people? A film that carries specific meanings with respect to imagery and themes and everything else? What do you do with it? You don’t want to denigrate it by putting it with a crappy film just to get it up there. And you don’t want to dull the effect of it by putting it up against another film so similar that you’re confusing the audience such that—when they’re home later—they’re not quite sure which film they’re referring to.

So I was sitting around thinking, ‘What can I put with Phantom Lady? What can I put with Phantom Lady?’ Then I was talking about this and that on the phone with a friend in Chicago and we were talking about something totally unrelated but film-related and he says, ‘What do you think of Dementia (1955)’ and I said, ‘Dementia? Dementia?! I think it’s the perfect match for Phantom Lady! I’ll call you back!’ I knew I had a copy of it on tape somewhere so I dug it out, slapped the VHS into the player, and as I was looking at it—I hadn’t seen it in years!—I thought, ‘Oh my God, there are so many references in this film that relate—not only casually—but in a hardcore specific way to Phantom Lady.’ There were all these sequences that mirrored each other. Both films had extended scenes in jazz clubs. Both had scenes with women walking aimlessly through the night. Perfect. Absolutely perfect.

I was so happy with that decision that it made my week! I felt like I could take two days off and not think about anything else. That became my opening night program. I felt those two movies defined what the following two weeks were going to be all about: that demented inner struggle that characters have in Noir, which was mirrored in the way both films were made. Woody Bredell, of course, shot Phantom Lady and William C. Thompson shot Dementia. Thompson was this ancient guy who was born in the 1880s and actually shot Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), as well as a handful of bizarrely interesting and important films and Dementia was one of them.

Watching Phantom Lady and Dementia back to back was a deep experience. The gratification came for the opening night of the festival when the house was packed to the rafters. Nobody had seen Dementia. They’d all heard of Dementia, but they’d never really seen it and they’d certainly never seen it in a theater. This was a 35mm print that I had to chase down but it was totally worth it. It made for an incredible night.

So that’s the essence of it, to answer your question. It’s about devoting as much time as you humanly can. For example, the Noir show happens in May every year but I start working on that the preceding October. That’s when I sit down and start taking notes and try to come up with at least two or three double-features that reflect some idea that will make the whole two-week package seem like a festival, or a coherent, cohesive group of films that are not arbitrarily arranged. Arbitrariness is an unappealing thing to me. In life, it’s fine; but—in terms of trying to put something together like a festival—the idea that somebody might think of it as arbitrary is offensive! [Laughs.] Well, no, not really offensive but I feel like I’ve done something wrong.

Keyframe: You’re trying to be more creative?

Lavine: Yeah, exactly. But you don’t want to tell people that because a lot of people think, ‘They’re just movies for God’s sake; you’re just putting up movies’ and I don’t want to argue the point with anybody when people say something like that because I don’t want to cast that kind of light on what I do. Between you and me, I don’t take it so seriously; it’s too enjoyable. If I take it too seriously, I’ll get all fucked up with it and I’ll make wrong decisions and I’ll overthink it. I try to underthink it as much as I can because—more often than not—my gut reactions completely supersede anything else that I might apply additional thought to. So many times I’ll come up with what I think is the perfect opening night double-bill, and then a couple of weeks later I’ll relegate it to the second Wednesday, going ‘Nah, nah,’ but then ultimately at the end I’ll put it back where I had it. It makes that journey.

Keyframe: Thanks for that glimpse into your creative process as to how you curate your films and how you find an essential kernel that provides the basic idea of the festival; for wont of a better term, its bass beat. Once you’ve settled on that, how do you then go about deciding how you’re going to market it to media? How do you structure your press announcements to highlight or showcase certain films? How are those decisions made? You say you don’t want people to know what you’re doing, but you have to kind of let them know what you’re doing, right?

Lavine: I want them to figure it out.

Keyframe: So you’re not providing hints or clues within your press announcements?

Lavine: I try not to. When I send out press releases, it’s generally to the same fifty-sixty people at each time, and a good number of those people are folks that I’ve been working with in this capacity for years; in some cases over twenty years. I know that if I’m going to send out press releases for my Pre-Code show, my approach is to not go into anything too explanatory—’These films are very important, blah blah blah’—other than using a lot of expressive adjectives and adverbs and exclamation points!

Keyframe: [Chuckles.] You are a master of alliteration.

Lavine: I like doing that because it’s part and parcel to the show itself. Like you, I grew up during the time when William Castle would place garish ads that ha

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