Sunday, June 04, 2006

PROGRAMMER PROFILE—Jesse Hawthorne Ficks


Earlier this year at the press conference for the San Francisco International Film Festival where the program line-up was announced, I was genuinely surprised to see the bellyaching begin hardly before the conference was over. Granted, some of the immediate complaints had valence—not a single true African film in the bunch, a low representation of women directors—but, what struck me more was the general disgruntlement about everything that was absent, and everything the programming team had not done right. Which led to the question of what is it exactly that programmers do—wrong or right—when they're organizing a film festival for the Bay Area? I realized I really didn't know. Up until now it's always been a kind of taken-for-granted magic.

Reporting from the San Francisco International Film Festival afforded the welcome opportunity to mingle with many individuals behind the scenes, allowing me my first chance to see how a festival is not only put together but run. I decided I wanted to give the programmers a chance to defend their choices and to speak for themselves so I approached Graham Leggat about doing a series of profiles of the programming team. He seemed amenable enough to the idea but the programming team then skillfully avoided any interviews during the run of the festival. Such a protean bunch! That proved disappointing, but—ever the old dog who worries the bone—I decided that if for whatever (I'm sure, valid) reasons they had for not granting me an interview, I would find other programmers who would and have been conducting a series of interviews which I will be sharing on The Evening Class in the months to come. Hopefully that will help all of us gain a deepened appreciation of the art and hard work of programming.

I considered that—perhaps because the San Francisco International has such a high profile among festivals—they're necessarily tethered to a public relations protocol that I am wholly ignorant of. So I turned in the other direction, to "smaller" though no less important programs and their respective programmers.

To start with, I decided to interview Jesse Hawthorne Ficks whose upcoming Latch-Key Kids Quadruple Feature will be screening at the Castro Theatre come Friday, June 9 as part of their MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS series. This series has had a popular run in San Francisco, long before it was adopted by the Castro Theatre. Jesse took time from screenings at this year's Cannes Film Festival to answer my questions.

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The Evening Class: Jesse, you've been entertaining San Franciscan audiences for several years now with your MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS series, which have graced various venues, including the 4Star, the Red Vic and most recently the Castro Theatre. Can you tell me where this brainchild was conceived?

JHF: In 1991, I was 15 years old, living in SLC punk (Salt Lake City Utah). I acquired my first job at Trolley Corners Movie Theatre by lying about my age. My manager (and immediately my cinema mentor) Mark E. Johnson let me program David Lynch's Blue Velvet and Wild At Heart as part of the summer midnight series. The blurb for Blue Velvet was my first published piece, "It's like Twin Peaks, only moreso." Johnson (who was 23) and I began watching films after closing time and at his house video on the weekends. His poor wife must have hated having a teenager hanging out, talking all night long about Chantel Ackerman, The French New Wave, Orsen Welles, and David Cronenberg.

In 1998, Frank Lee at the 4Star movie theater trained me to be the projectionist. He and Uncle Lam not only mentored me through the technical aspects, but they opened my eyes to dozens of unknown Kung-fu, wu-xia, and action films from Hong Kong and Mainland China (emphasizing on the 1970's, 80's and 90's). I began hosting an HK film series Kung-Fu Kult Klassics every Thursday as well as the more insane HK films at midnight. Everything changed when I tracked down a print of The Garbage Pail Kids Movie. The owner of the print had given his other print to Sean Astin (Lord Of The Rings) because his little brother Mackenzie stars in the film. I screened this lost film (it had been dropped from theatres after barely a week) as part of my series MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS and the poor little 4Star Theatre didn't know what hit 'em. We sold out so hard that we had people sitting in the aisles, having come all the way out from Oakland. After that, I was allowed to program much more obscure stuff: Bo-Dacious B-Movies, Slumber Parties and a series devoted to Chang Cheh.

EC: What were the Slumber Parties at the 4Star all about?

JHF: The Slumber Parties were something I had always wanted more of when growing up. A theater in SLC, the Villa, did a couple of nights like this (the Star Wars trilogy beginning at midnight and ending around 7am, the entire Star Trek series 1-6 from 10am till 2am). I fell in love with the cinephiles around me, even if they were wearing Spock ears and Stormtrooper helmets.) The three Slumber Parties at the 4Star are some of the greatest nights of my life.

EC: I'm intrigued by your tenacity at keeping the MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS series alive. How did your association with the Castro Theatre develop? What lured you away from the Red Vic, and before that, the 4Star?

JHF: The 4Star had run into some legal issues with the building and Lee was putting most of his time into The Presidio. So I moved on.

The Red Vic series was the first thing I set up after moving back from a year in New York. The Red Vic was very nervous about doing a midnight series there because—like all the other theaters (4Star, Castro)—they had never done one. They were very excited but very tentative. People need to support the Red Vic or they won't be around much longer. I needed more financial support than the Red Vic could offer. I keep this series alive through sheer enthusiasm (and insanity of course.) The Castro developed out of the years at the 4Star. A small following of devoted kids (16-69 year olds) helped by consistently coming out over the years, so when I pursued the Castro Theatre, the extremely supportive Bill Longen and Brian (last name?) gave me an amazing amount [of] reinforcement, especially due to the fact that the theater had never done a midnight series.

EC: Have the various venues altered the tenor of your programs? Have they created different audiences? Or have you found that your core audience is traveling with you from venue to venue?

JHF: Yes. Different theaters will bring out different audiences. Yet a main core of cinefreeks have followed the series around from place to place. I don't think any theater in the country would have sold out as strongly for the rollerskating disco films Rollerboogie, Xanadu, and Skatetown USA. Yet, where else would you want to host a series but in a 1400-seat movie palace where a live organ performance precedes each screening?

EC: You've spoken about the all-night slumber parties at the 4Star whereas at the Castro it seems they're more evening programs crossing over into midnight. Any plans to do a slumber party at the Castro? Would they allow that?

JHF: I pitched the Slumber Party idea to [Bill and Brian] and we reinvented [it] into the Freeky Friday night: A series of thematically similar films from 7pm-2am, once a month or so. This way more people could come out as opposed to ONLY the totally awesome freeks who would come dressed up in their pajamas to the Slumber Parties and yet keep the concept there.

EC: Any Castro Theatre experiences of note?

JHF: Two of my favorite moments at the Castro performances so far: (1) During Xanadu, Olivia Newton John sang "Suspended In Time", one of the most lackluster songs ever filmed. And suddenly instead of going to the bathroom, dozens of audience members pulled out there modern day lighters—the cellphone—and methodically waved them back and forth, singing each and every word throughout the entire song. (2) Two guys had answered the correct trivia question before Flashdance. Both were just about the shyest people you have ever seen. So I decided to have them have an aerobicize-dance off. I don't think they had ever danced in their life before, much less in front a packed movie palace!

EC: You're rough! Remind me to never be shy around you. Googling you revealed you have worked in various capacities with the Sundance Festival for over nine years, that you've served as box office manager for several years for the SF Asian-American International Film Festival and have even been a publicity intern for the Jewish Film Festival. Further, you've worked as a production assistant and recordist on Scumrock. Aside from MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS, what other projects are you currently involved in?

JHF: Recently I began teaching Film History 2 at the Academy Of Art University. Interacting with 18 to 24 year olds of 2006 is so important to me for my programming. You can love a film all you want, but is it the right time to be screening it? I enjoy midnight series that show contemporary fad films, but what interests me most is finding the forgotten, the overlooked and the dismissed films of decades past and helping them reach a new audience. Some of the films [are] receiving more viewers now, than they ever had before!

EC: Why the particular emphasis on the 1970s through the 1990s? What do you seek to recover?

JHF: The MiDNITES FOR MANiACS series has two major purposes for me: I have always wanted somewhere to go after hours that wasn't just a place in which getting fucked-up was the only goal. There are so many people wandering around, looking for something different to do. And many nights, it feels like a bar is a last resort. My other goal is to create a place to honor films that high-brow and uninspired critics dismissed.

EC: In his write-up of one of your programs Bay Guardian critic Dennis Harvey distinguished between movies that "remain bad, as opposed to so bad they're good." What do you think makes a movie so bad it's good?

JHF: Dennis Harvey's quote "films so bad they're good" is a great subject. I truly love those "bad" films. Many of my friends and family have complained that I have horrible taste. And it may be difficult for them when I drag them to the opening of Son Of The Mask and love it. (Don't get me started on my digitally enhanced baby genre obsession.) So a lot of times, audiences come out to laugh at a bad film because they think they are better than the film. That's not my goal as a programmer. In fact, quite the opposite. I believe there are no guilty pleasures at the cinema. If you love something, you love it. It's fucking hard to make a good bad film. There's plenty of bad bad films to prove it.

EC: What do you think makes a movie so bad it's good?

JHF: "Bad movies" are very difficult to make. There are two kinds of bad movies: Big budget and small budget. They both need an amazing amount of passion, either by the makers or often by even just one actor. Many truly bad films are just plain lackluster. There's nothing worse than a half-assed movie. Most importantly, there needs to be no irony. This is why so many Saturday Night Live films are unwatchable. A great big budget bad movie is one that truly attempts greatness. And my main view is that those films [that] fail so miserably—Costner's The Postman, Singleton's Higher Learning, Friedkin's Jade—truly transcend to greatness. A great small-budget bad movie is one that attempts to achieve something unimaginable (often times sci-fi or horror). Many people don't understand what the film's rules are and end up passing the film off as crazy or so horrible they can't even explain it. These are the masterpieces of the film world for me. These are some of my most favorite movies, ones that I constantly get into fights over. (Troll 2, Ghost Of Mars, She Hate Me). People need to destroy the term "guilty pleasures." I know it's difficult to confront yourself. I just ran into a Reality TV show that I have no clue why I like it.

EC: Troll 2, eh? I didn't even know there was a Troll 1!

JHF: Most recently, R. Kelly's egomaniacal Trapped In the Closet has reached this level of greatness for me. If you've never watched this, you are in for one helluva a treat!

EC: Recently I was at the Castro for their mini-Minnelli retrospective and was disappointed to find out that the last existing print of Tell Me You Love Me, Junie Moon was found to be unplayable. For some reason this totally took me by surprise. You hear all the time about silent features being restored and preserved but I wasn't expecting the films of my own adolescence to already be falling into disrepair. With film preservation an acknowledged necessity, choosing which will be preserved will undoubtedly be a daunting, thankless task. If it was up to you, what movie from the 70s-90s would you definitely want to see preserved?

JHF: Many of the films that I play at midnight fall into this category. The most important film for me to get preserved is Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. It has never even been officially released in theaters, much less been distributed on video or dvd. Everything about the film is important. It needs to happen. Seriously.

EC: You've worn many hats: intern, projectionist, cinematographer, recordist, box office manager, and programmer. Regarding the latter, what is it you look for when you're planning a program? How do you go about choosing and securing your films? Are there enough films from the 70s through 90s to keep MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS alive for many more years, or do you want to venture into other time periods of film history?

JHF: All of the films I program are personal favorites from my lifetime. Some of the films, people might not have ever heard of and some, others may have watched dozens of times. [Having] curated films for five years now in SF, I hope that I have gained the trust from audiences who have made the trek all the way out to the 4Star and The Castro Movie Palace.

It's always been important for me to be on the pulse of the community around me. When I was younger, I would sluff school just to watch films with the older kids. For the past 15 years I have been working at film festivals such as Sundance, New York Underground, Telluride, Toronto, Cannes and the half a dozen festivals that inhabit San Francisco every year. Basically I grew up at film festivals and the impact of seeing alternative films thoughout my life has really made me one happy guy.

EC: Regarding your upcoming Latch-Key Kids program, I realized these were movies I never saw when they were in the theaters, I saw them first on video, and now I find myself excited to experience them projected on the Castro's large screen. I saw the trailer for Rumble Fish the other day and it looked beautiful! There's a lot of testosterone in this particular selection. Are you catering to your Castro crowd? Can you synopsize the four films?

JHF: The Latch-Key Kids Quadruple feature is a program that begins with a young boy in the early 70's with Cipher In The Snow. I've been trying to find this film since I was young. This student film was made at Brigham Young University, a Mormon-based college in Utah. The Salt Lake City school district used to show this film to our elementary classes every year. Heartbreaking and totally terrifying, the film exaggerates what happens to a kid if he is neglected or overlooked. I can't wait to traumatize a whole new generation. The main difference is that the Castro audience will know why they are watching the film.

Rumble Fish was a very difficult booking. I am very thankful to Brian and Bill at the Castro for getting Francis Ford Coppola to allow the screening. The film was made at the same time as Coppola's other S.E . Hinton adaption The Outsiders but for some reason never received the glory it most definitely deserves.

The Warriors not only just came out in a new revised director's cut, complete with lame modern animation, the film has been adapted into an amazing interactive video game as well as being remade by Tony Scott later on this year. I feel it is important to accept all versions of the film's journey, I just happen to prefer the original OG version. It's also important for audiences to know about all versions so that they can choose as well. (Seriously, I love many of the new remakes . . . Zack Snyder's Dawn Of The Dead is fucking brilliant!)

And lastly, Streets Of Fire, which is probably the most unknown film of the bunch. A few years following The Warriors, director Walter Hill designed this gang-infested comic book world that explosively combines the greasers of the 50's and the New Wavers of the 80's. Epic in concept, the film was years ahead of its time and with the exciting combination of comic book elements in campy big budget cinema (Miller's Sin City, Raimi's Spiderman 2) this little obscurity should blow more than a few minds away.

EC: I know you're currently enjoying the Cannes Film Festival, have you seen anything that you think 20 years down the line, 30 years down the line, might serve for some future programmer's MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS?

JHF: What new cinema will be good for future programming is a very important issue to stay up on. Just like that guy who is still only listening to The Pixies and Nick Cave and The Smiths, you have to adapt with [the] times. And be filing them away for when audiences will connect with that time period in [a] reminscent way (as opposed to hating the film due to it being a product of everything that's wrong with the society!)

EC: Any hints of future programs in the works?

JHF: On Freeky Friday August 25th I have a Digital Sex: 80's Style including John Hughes Weird Science, Andy Kaufman's Heartbeeps and Greydon Clark's Joysticks. September and October are both being confirmed as we speak. I am happy that these late 70's/early 80's events are connecting with so many people and I hope that The Castro allows me to host my events there as long as possible. It will probably be a long while before a Uwe Boll program of Video Game adaptations will be programmed (Alone In The Dark, Bloodrayne) but I can hint that the late 80's/early 90's are due for their limelight. Can anyone say the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Part 2!

EC: Do you have any recommendations for young upstarts who want to do programming? Any tips on how to enter the field? Any advice?

JHF: Watch the movies that you yourself are passionate about and make sure to talk to people about them. A lot [of] times, I meet fellow movie lovers and they've obviously been keeping the information to themselves for much too long. Don't be afraid to somehow bring up Mac & Me in a conversation with strangers. Don't keep all of these treasures in your heart. And who cares if someone yells at you later for hailing White Chicks as brilliant. In 15 years, those same people will have transcended their scenester clique and probably be attending some midnight series where they can finally appreciate great "bad" movies

EC: Well, Jesse, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.

JHF: My pleasure.

06/05/06 ADDENDUM: Great minds think alike!! Dave Hudson at the Greencine Daily advised that SF360's Max Goldberg likewise interviewed Jesse.

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