Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian
A History of the Buffalo Film Seminars
When the twentieth series of Buffalo Film Seminars ends April 20, 2010, with Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004), we will have screened and discussed 286 films by 162 directors and prepared over two thousand pages of audience notes on those films—the Goldenrod Handouts. The first film in the Seminars was William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931), which screened January 19, 2000. The oldest film was D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) screened August 30, 2005; the youngest was Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Das Leben der Anderen/The Lives of Others (2006) screened November 25, 2008.
The idea for the Buffalo Film Seminars originated in late 1999 with Joseph Ryan, Buffalo’s Commissioner of Urban Planning, and Michael McCarthy, attorney for the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency (BURA).
McCarthy asked Buffalo News arts editor Jeff Simon if he could suggest someone who might teach a university film course at the city-owned Market Arcade theater and open it up to anyone who bought an ordinary movie ticket. The theater was then being leased from the city as part of the Angelika chain, and it was not doing very well. McCarthy thought such a course would draw to the theater filmgoers who would otherwise go to mall-based multiplexes in the suburbs, and that those filmgoers would then continue going to the theater for other films. Simon suggested the two of us.
The first session, in a screening room with 154 seats, was attended by a class of 40 registered University at Buffalo students and an equal number of ticket-buyers. Each week the ticket-buying group grew larger. By the fourth week—February 9, when we did Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will—the box office had to turn people away. The following week we moved across the lobby to the theater’s largest room, with a seating capacity of 324, where we have remained ever since. Our first film in the larger room was the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera (1935). The following year we shifted our screening nights to Tuesdays so we wouldn’t conflict with UB’s Wednesday evening poetry readings.
BURA gave us $5000 for the first season’s film rentals and printing of posters. Since then, ticket sales have covered all that and a great deal more. The University at Buffalo Department of English has allowed one of us to do the Seminar as part of our assigned teaching load each semester, provided a graduate teaching assistant, and underwritten the cost of printing the handouts we prepare for each film. Many other expenses connected with the series are covered by UB’s James Agee Chair in American Culture and by continuing grants from the Robert and Patricia Colby Foundation.
The Seminars are always scheduled for 14 or 15 films, depending on how many Tuesdays there are in that semester’s UB academic calendar, but three series consisted of only 13 films.
Our first series, in spring 2000, was supposed to have ended with Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, but Angelika’s New York booking office never ordered the film and didn’t tell their local manager that the print wasn’t coming until thirty minutes before showtime. The fall 2000 series was supposed to end with Joan Chen’s XIU XIU, The Sent-Down Girl (1998), but a blizzard closed the city that night.
Little Caesar was scheduled for September 11, 2001. We cancelled the Seminar soon after the second plane hit the second tower. A few people turned up at the theater that night, so they screened the film to a nearly-empty room. One of the people there, we later found out, was Don Schack, a UB mathematics professor and a regular member of the Buffalo Film Seminars audience who had cancelled an appointment in New York City early that morning so he could be back in Buffalo in time for the screening. The appointment he missed had been in the World Trade Center. “I felt no more like going to a movie that night than anyone else,” he told us, “but I felt as if Little Caesar saved my life so I had to go.” Little Caesar opened our spring 2002 series.
All Buffalo Film Seminars begin promptly at 7:00 p.m. The two of us spend 20 minutes or so introducing the film, we screen it, we take a short break, then we reconvene for a discussion with the students and anyone else who cares to join us. Usually about half the ticket-buyers stay for the discussion.
The handouts we prepare each week consist of details about the film’s production; images of original posters, photographs of the director and stars, and production stills; and quotations about the film from the directors, critics and historians. These began as one-page information sheets; lately they’ve they run eight to twelve pages of small type. We’ve always printed them on goldenrod paper—at first because that’s what the UB English Department had an extra case of in its xerox room, and then because the goldenrod sheets were what people looked for when they came into the lobby. All the Goldenrod Handouts are available online at the Buffalo Film Seminars’ website (http://buffalofilmseminars.com), or directly at http://csac.buffalo.edu/goldenrodhandouts.html.
We try to run the films chronologically, but booking problems sometimes require us to show one or two films out of sequence. We like to end with a film that is of particular interest, so six times we’ve finished with a film very much out of chronological sequence: spring 2002 (Wilder’s Some Like it Hot 1959), fall 2004 (Welles’s Citizen Kane 1941), fall 2005 (Visconti’s Il Gattopardo/The Leopard 1963), spring 2007 (Donen and Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain 1952), spring 2008 (Bergman’s Det Sjunde inseglet/The Seventh Seal 1957), and fall 2008 (Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssesy 1968).
Many of the films we’ve selected were suggested by our students and other members of the audience. The entire spring 2007 series, “BFS Redux,” consisted of films we’d shown previously, all of them voted by the audience as their favorites. Except for that spring 2007 series, we’ve only repeated seven films: Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (fall 2001, spring 2010), Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (fall 2001 and fall 2008), Visconti's Il Gattopardo/The Leopard (fall 2001 and spring 2006), Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (spring 2001 and fall 2007), LeRoy’s Golddiggers of 1933 (spring 2001 and spring 2009), Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, (fall 2001 and spring 2009), and Keaton and Bruckman’s The General (fall 2001 and spring 2010). The General was also in the spring 2007 audience choice series, making it the only film we’ve screened three times.
The two of us read a great deal of film criticism and history, and we visit the major film sites on the web regularly looking for films that might work in the series. When we come across a film that seems appropriate, we watch it once or twice on DVD, sometimes with other people. Then, midway in the current series, the two of us sit in our kitchen and work up the list for the following series. If after our preliminary screenings and discussions, we don’t both want to include a film, we drop it; there are enough superb films we can agree should be included in the seminars. On a few occasions, we have revisited a film we rejected, changed our minds about it, and included it. We’ve never shown a film we didn’t both think was terrific.
We never organize the Seminars thematically, but we try to make sure that over the fourteen or fifteen weeks we have films that provide occasions for discussion of each of the key aspects of filmmaking: directing, camera work, editing, writing, acting, genre, context, music, sound, and set design. We often begin the series with a silent film. Almost all moviehouses in the pre-soundtrack years had a pianist or organist and the larger ones had full orchestras, so we usually have the great Philip Carli accompany the silent classics on his electronic piano.
Sometimes there are problems of availability: many great films are not available in film or DVD format, or no one seems to know who controls the public screening rights to them, or the rights are blocked in anticipation of a new major release or because of a family squabble. We regularly go back to our list of films we wanted to show but could not get permission for previously to see if they have come back into circulation.
We have, for example, repeatedly tried to get permission to screen the original release version of Apocalypse Now.The answer is always, “No. If you want to show it you have to show Apocalypse Now Redux.” We always decline because Redux, released in 2001 at 202 minutes, is a flabby and indulgent thickening of the original, released in 1979 at 153 minutes. Coppola added a tangential scene on a French rubber plantation that puts the narrative on hold for a very long time, a scene where the Playboy Bunnies seen earlier are stripped naked in a helicopter and pimped for a barrel of diesel fuel, and a slapstick stolen surfboard hunt that turns Robert Duvall’s Col. Kilgore into a clown.
We have also tried several time to get permission to screen John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday, released in 1980 and starring Bob Hoskins as an upwardly mobile Cockney gangster, with Helen Mirren as his upscale companion, a young Pierce Brosnan as an IRA hitman, and Eddie Constantine as a Mafia negotiator. But we’ve never been able to discover who controls the public screening rights.
The heart of the Buffalo Film Seminars is our University at Buffalo English Department Contemporary Cinema (Spring 2000—Spring 2007) and Great Directors (Fall 2007 on) classes, now fixed at 45 students each semester. We’ve had requests from the University to increase the class size, but we think the current mix of a medium-sized class and lots of room for everybody else works very well.
The registered students are required to keep notebooks in which they log their reactions to the films, the discussions, the book of readings we prepare each semester, and the online documents we send them via a listserv. We continue to be astonished at how smart many of those notebooks are. Much of the pleasure for us in doing the series comes from how much we learn from those notebooks and from the discussions. We’ve included a few of the students’ notebook comments here.
Some members of the audience have been attending the Seminars since the beginning. Some come for a single film in which they have particular interest. The first time we did Visconti’s The Leopard a man emailed us from Florida: “Are you really showing The Leopard in film in Buffalo?” We wrote back that indeed we were. He responded, “See you next week.”
People often tell us that after a screening they went home and continued talking about the film and things said in the discussion for hours. The two of us do that every week as well.
Film & DVD
Our mentor in film was James Card, who developed the film program at George Eastman House in Rochester. Jim always insisted that films were meant to be seen on a big screen in the company of other people, and that the kind of concentration and focus that come naturally in the theater is impossible to achieve watching a television screen. We are more and more convinced of that. People regularly say to us, “I’ve seen this on television but I never realized...” or “I’ve watched this at home three times but until tonight I never saw....” (The New Yorker published a long article by David Denby on this subject in its January 8, 2007, issue, “Big Pictures.” With Mr. Denby’s kind permission, that article is included here.)
The two of us always watch DVDs of each film once, and often twice at home a day or two before the screening; before that, we had looked at the films when we were programming the series. Nonetheless, after every screening at the theater we tell one another about things we’ve just seen or connections we’ve just made that we never saw or comprehended before.
At home, watching a film on DVD, however big the screen and however fine the sound system, there is always the possibility of pause, and the mind knows it. You can, at any moment, stop the action while you go let the dog in or out, get a drink, go to the toilet, make or respond to a telephone call. You can, likewise, and for those same and similar reasons, back up and watch again as much or whatever parts of the film you’ve seen before.
In a theater, the action goes by once. If you miss it, you will not catch it again unless there is another screening and you sit through that other screening to the point where your attention wavered or flagged.
You know this. You don’t have to think about it. You’ve spent a lifetime experiencing narrative events in different environments and by now you know instinctively how to respond to them, what attention you must accord them. The reason so many characters in television shows like “Seinfeld” shout at one another when they are in the same tiny room isn’t because the characters worry the other characters won’t hear them unless they shout; it’s because the producers know that you, with all the distractions of home viewing, won’t pay attention to them unless they shout. If actors behaved that way in a film shown in a theater, the audience would flee.
Until 2008, almost all Buffalo Film Seminars presentations were in film, but when a classic film was no longer in 16mm or 35mm distribution or when the available prints were in poor shape we used DVD versions instead. On two occasions—Fritz Lang’s Metropolis 1927 (September 2, 2003) and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc 1928 (January 18, 2005)—we chose to use DVDs so the audience could hear the excellent orchestral scores written and recorded for those films included on the DVDs. The digital equipment and a DVD saved us the night we were scheduled to screen Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (January 27, 2004) and the distributor delivered instead You Only Live Twice, a James Bond film. We used DVD for our screening of The Red Shoes (September 28, 2004) because no prints were available anywhere in the United States. The shoes were a little less brilliant than they would have been in a fresh print, but they looked good enough for the audience to have been delighted with the presentation. And we used a DVD of Mikhail Kalatozov’s Letyat zhuravli/The Cranes Are Flying (1957) when the film print of Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent (1976) didn’t arrive at the theater for a scheduled April 19, 2005 screening. (The print arrived a day later, so we showed it that Sunday, and as part of our regular schedule on March 31, 2009.)
We realized we would have to have an alternative to film projection when we received a terribly faded and scratched print of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for our October 18, 2000, screening. The soundtrack on most films is optical, so when the image is degraded, the audio is degraded as well. It’s the same for an older analog soundtrack with its squiggly lines beside the frames or a modern Dolby soundtrack with its information encoded between the sprockets: prints that look awful usually sound awful. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor performed Edward Albee’s script for Virginia Woolf brilliantly (earning her a best actress Academy Award and him a best actor nomination), but our audience made out hardly a word they said. The two actors sounded as if they were underwater or in another room. If we received a print in such poor condition now, we would project a DVD.
Our DVD screening of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in the fall 2004 series turned a great western into a comedy of errors. The DVD we had seemed to contain only a pre-release version of the film, several minutes longer and different in some important regards from the version the studio released, which had been edited by producer Darryl Zanuck after John Ford was through with it. We told the audience about some of the differences in the two versions, then started the DVD. Everything was fine until about 15 minutes before the end when there were glitches and flashes, then freeze-frames while dialog continued, then visual and aural gibberish. Then everything froze while a character was being operated on for a gunshot wound in the saloon: the sound stopped, she stopped. For a few seconds we couldn’t tell if it was a long hold on a character who had just died or if we were looking at a still picture. We were at the movies but we were looking at a still picture. When the audience realized that the image had frozen, a moment of pathos turned into a burst of the giggles. The rest of the disk was completely unplayable.
It was the only time after the Virginia Woolf disaster taught us that we had to have DVD backup that the two of us hadn’t previewed a DVD before going to the theater and the only time we had a DVD that was broken. Someone in the audience said, “Play the other side, that’s got the release version on it, maybe that will work.” We said there was nothing on the other side. We knew that because there was no label on that side and the box said nothing about two versions. “It’s there,” the man said. One of us said, “Maybe on the version you have, but not on the one we have.” He shrugged. Someone else said, “Just tell us what happens in the rest of the film,” which we tried to do. We also said that we’d try to find a DVD that worked properly and would show the ending of the film before the start of the following week’s presentation.
Afterwards, someone in the audience said he had the DVD and he would lend it to us. He did. We watched this one at home and found that it malfunctioned in exactly the same places and exactly the same way as our disk. They were all broken. We turned it over and put the other side into the DVD player even though there was no label on it. And we watched, from start to finish, a perfect DVD print of the release version of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine.
The following week we played the last ten minutes of that disk for the audience. We asked if the person who had told us about the other side was there. He raised his hand. We thanked him for his advice the previous week, apologized for not having taken it, and said we’d learned several things. One was, be sure to listen carefully to what the audience was telling us. Another was, check everything beforehand. And a third was, no matter how good the technology, sometimes you wind up telling the stories the old-fashioned way.
The world of 16mm has evaporated: few distribute 16mm films any more, few services the projectors. A few years ago, schools and libraries were giving the projectors away to anyone who would come and get them. It has become almost impossible to get good 35mm prints of older films. In our fall 2009 series we projected one more DVD than film prints, a first. We have only three 35mm prints for our spring 2010 series; all the rest are DVD. That trend is not going to change. Distributors of classic films are going out of business, those that remain have ever smaller lists, and the films they deliver are more and more often in terrible condition. (Manohla Dargis discusses the larger implications of the digital transformation in her article, “Floating in the Digital Experience,” pp. 109-112.)
At the same time, more and more interesting older and recent films are appearing in high-resolution and Blu-Ray DVD. Many of the reissues, such as those from Criterion, are remastered, with remarkably clean images and rich soundtracks. Our theater has a long throw from projection booth to the screen. A few years ago, we could get by with black and white Academy ratio films on DVD, but color ranged from a little to very washed out and wide-screen showed its pixels. DVD projection then was an option of last resort. That is no longer the case.
With the higher quality digital recordings, and disk reading and projection systems now available, we can project digital versions of most older films with an image quality far better than 16mm and any but the youngest 35mm prints. They look good and they sound good. Not as good as a newly-struck 35mm print, but as good or better than nearly everything that has been available to us since we began this series ten years ago. What’s happening now is not unlike what happened when CDs displaced vinyl audio recordings: Our programming options are now greater than they have ever been.
We despaired when we first realized that if we were to continue doing the Buffalo Film Seminars we would be doing most of our screenings using digital rather than film media. Then we realized we’d missed the point. What makes the Buffalo Film Seminars work isn’t the system we use to deliver images to the screen and sound information to the speakers. It’s that we’re showing these movies in a dark room where people watch with full concentration. It’s that we’ve got an audience committed to the experience, people who turn off their cell phones, laugh and gasp but don’t talk, and eat their popcorn as quietly as possible. People watching big pictures in dark rooms without pause in the company of others: just as it has been since movies started.
The Market Arcade Film & Arts Center
The Market Arcade Film & Arts Center (MAFAC) is the only publicly-owned eight-screen theater in the United States. The theater shows regular first-run features, but its primary purpose is to provide the area’s citizens and community groups a high-quality venue for film series, screenings and festivals, as well as for other appropriate events.
The Market Arcade Theater had been operated for the city of Buffalo by General Cinema, but the opening in 1997 of the Regal Cinema multiplex on Elmwood Avenue cut into ticket sales and, at the end of 1998, General Cinema pulled out. (It would go into Chapter 11 shortly over a year later.) The city then formed an operating alliance with Reading Entertainment, an entertainment and real estate firm based in New York City. Reading changed the theater’s name to the Angelika Film Center and Café (a name used by several of its other theaters in Manhattan and elsewhere), and spent a good deal of the city’s money redoing the walls and putting a new oak floor in the lobby. Angelica began exhibiting films in July 1999.
They didn’t stay long. Angelika quit its Buffalo operation entirely in July 2000, leaving the city with the possibility of owning a darkened theater in the heart of town. The theater’s name reverted to the Market Arcade, and the Dipson Theater Corporation, which operates the only other movie theater in the city of Buffalo (the North Park on Hertel Avenue), agreed to operate it on an interim basis. On November 19, 2000, Mayor Anthony Masiello announced that the theater would thenceforth operate under the direction of a non-profit corporation with a volunteer board to direct its operations. The board soon negotiated the current long-term arrangement with Dipson. To make the theater more attractive to film-goers accustomed to the easy parking at the mall-based theaters, the M&T Bank generously agreed to provide free parking in its fenced Washington Street lot.
The Market Arcade has 35mm and digital projection capability in all eight screening rooms. The room used by the Buffalo Film Seminars has a new digital sound system. Generous grants in 2002 from The Margaret L. Wendt Foundation and The Baird Foundation, and another grant from the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation in 2007, permitted MAFAC to acquire a high-quality digital projection system that permits exhibition of disk and tape material in all of the international formats. The digital projection equipment greatly expands the theater’s ability to present classic and experimental films, as well as new video and digital productions.
Various community groups utilize MAFAC's facilities, among them Squeaky Wheel, The International Women’s Film Festival, the Western New York Black Film Festival, the Polish Arts Club of Buffalo, the Jewish Community Center, and the Museum of disABILITY History. Road Less Traveled Productions, a Buffalo theater group, now makes its home in one of MAFAC’s smaller screening rooms.
When the Market Arcade board was first organized it talked about giving the theater a new name to mark its new role in the community. There was another reason for changing the name: “Market Arcade” is the name of a landmark E.B. Green and W.S. Wicks office building fifty yards down the block. Why have two buildings with the same name on the same street? But the board never quite got around to considering alternative names, so the working name—Market Arcade Film & Arts Center—became permanent. For now.
for further information and all past Goldenrod Handouts visit our website: http://buffalofilmseminars.com