Cinematheque for the people

Gary Burns’ voice clearly perks up when the conversation turns to a Calgary Cinematheque screening of John Cassavetes’ neo-noir The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. “On 35 [millimetre]!” he emphasizes. “For me that was like the cinema event of the decade.” The screening brought out the diehards but didn’t pack the house as expected a reminder that for all the convenience of home viewing and video-on-demand the wonder of movie-going as a shared revelatory experience threatens to be lost in the digital shuffle.

Fostering that magic is a driving force behind Cinematheque and while its work is centred on seasonal programming it remains firmly grounded in a profound and palpable love of the art: It’s the difference between showing a film for audiences and sharing a film with them. As the organization enters the final stretch of its banner eighth season — with a thrilling “Documentary Detours” instalment of its Focus series (see sidebar) — we took the opportunity to catch up with Burns the organization’s past president and current board member and current president Brennan Tilley to speak about the organization’s genesis and its increasingly vital role in the Calgary film scene.

A filmmaker as well as cultural arbiter known for 2011’s The Future is Now! and the cult classic waydowntown (2003) among other films Burns co-founded Cinematheque in 2007 with Donna Brunsdale and Dave Christensen. Outlining the cinematic landscape of the era Burns remembers with chagrin that essential films — both classics and new releases — simply weren’t finding their way to local screens. “It just seemed like Calgary didn’t have a cinematheque and all the other big cities did” he said. “We didn’t have an organization that played historical stuff and archival films but then we were also missing contemporary films because there would be stuff that would go to the festivals but then others that wouldn’t. You’d hear about these films but we were just too small of a market it just wasn’t happening.”

In the time since Cinematheque has arguably established itself as the foremost champion of thought-provoking film in Calgary. With its current season the organization has both expanded and solidified the six pillars of its curatorial vision: Spotlight an effort to highlight under-seen gems; Masters dedicated to a single filmmaker (with French auteur Agnès Varda as this season’s honouree); Focus an in-depth look at a movement or genre; Salon Cinema a series that partners with other speakers to present lectures with films; Christmas Interlude; and Contemporary World Cinema. It has also expanded its community outreach while advancing productive relationships with two key venues The Plaza and Theatre Junction Grand.

Tilley and Burns admit that while a dedicated building is a long-term goal for Cinematheque its current nomadic existence is far from a hinderance allowing the venue to serve as an extension of the curatorial practice. “I do think that part of what we do is this shared experience of going to the cinema” says Tilley adding that the intimacy of the Grand can better serve the organization’s more niche selections. “In some ways having a proper size venue is appropriate for that.”

For all of Cinematheque’s noble work Burns and Tilley note the difficulties of getting people out to the cinema. Burns highlights the challenge of competing with festivals uniquely able to render art accessible. “People love going to festivals” he says. “Say maybe film scares them art film scares them or dance scares them or whatever it is. So what people do is group it up and then it’s a festival.” Fostering that curiosity and sense of accessibly on a seasonal basis is a challenge. “One of the things we’ve sort of suffered from is that we’re all the time. We’re showing a film here a film there. Getting people to go to an Agnès Varda film next week instead of ‘The Agnès Varda Festival’ is something you kind of fight against a bit.”

Presenting films at the Grand with its downtown location and proximity to the burgeoning East Village arts scene is one way in which the organization is advancing connections between the film world and the larger art world. In addition it has established screenings as special events as unique as a concert play or live performance. The Salon Cinema series new this season is an extension of this ethos.

Burns notes the organization’s long-standing efforts to encourage a broader appreciation of works through speakers and written material furthering that “the Salon Cinema series is kind of an effort to get the conversation going. People stand around the lobby and talk but it’s nice to have more people stand around and talk.” Extending a carte blanche to local cinephiles the series recently partnered with Calgary’s design lecture series D.Talks to present city planner Stanley Rollin on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) parsing the urban design intricacies of Toontown. The final instalment will feature a screening of the sci-fi gem Moon (2009) on March 21 selected by Calgary poet laureate Derek Beaulieu. “He’s got three other poets they’re going to come and recite poems they’ve written to the film” says Burns clearly thrilled to be expanding audience engagement without overshadowing the work itself. “This is poetry inspired by the film.”

With the past season’s increased productivity and expanded programs Cinematheque has helped develop a sense of routine as well as community but Tilley emphasizes the importance of vibrant programming. This is especially true in an age when almost any film is a mere click away and everyone with a Netflix queue is a de facto curator. He highlights the importance of “building confidence with our audience and developing an audience that will come out to everything.” Beyond individual screenings the team clearly have the big picture in mind working to craft programs that culminate in something greater than the sum of its individual parts.”The only way the Cinematheque can keep rolling is to have an audience move from one film to the other” says Tilley adding “we really need to have every film be top-notch.”

They also have to be unique. With a quick search a mere three titles from this season are available to stream online . The chance to see them at all — let alone projected — is rare. The Spotlight series routinely serves as a testament to the Cinematheque board’s deep knowledge. For this year’s edition the organization presented a five-film series of rediscovered and restored works from Milestone Films in Los Angeles. “Milestone is doing all this great work restoring films releasing them on 35mm — which is so rare right now — and we really wanted to shine a light on what they were doing and bring some of it in“ says Tilley.

Though the name “Cinematheque” might invoke images of dusty old film reels the team remains equally attuned to and invested in contemporary works with this year’s Contemporary World Cinema highlighting essential films from Mexico to Ukraine to Taiwan to Iran to Quebec (which can often feel as far from Calgary as the previous four). For films that may not fit into the lineup for one of the city’s festivals or that may not be able to justify a full-week theatrical run these curated screenings provide an important conduit for new films at risk of slipping through the cracks.

It’s without any sense of ego or self-congratulation that Tilley and Burns emphasize how without an institution like Cinematheque certain films simply wouldn’t show in Calgary. The constant sleuthing for prints and film rights often extends beyond Cinematheque’s season with collaborations between it the Calgary International Film Festival and the Calgary Underground Film Festival (where Tilley sits on the programming committee). For example Tilley says CUFF’s Alejandro Jodorowsky tribute in 2014 may not have happened if Cinematheque hadn’t presented it and brought in the 35mm prints. “I mean they’re still very much films CUFF is choosing to program but then they come to the Cinematheque to ask and make it work to ship insured prints from New York” he explains.

They also let it slip that they’re working on a similar retrospective for this year’s CUFF that promises to be a major event but won’t provide details.

Both Burns and Tilley say a Cinematheque venue is a long-term goal but that groundwork needs to be laid first including establishing their reputation in the local scene and nurturing the accompanying audience. “The first step is to prove we can show a lot of movies” says Burns. He may have neglected to include the adjective “exceptional” though at this point in Cinematheque’s brief legacy it’s already a given.