Wednesday, July 29, 2009

NOIR CITY: CHICAGO—The Evening Class Interview With Eddie Muller

As announced in Eddie Muller's introduction to this year's edition of Noir City, the festival's traveling road show—already situated in Hollywood, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.—will include Chicago to its roster of cities, come Friday. Venued at the Music Box Theatre, Noir City: Chicago will give Muller an opportunity to once again share the stage with Foster Hirsch—who Eddie once quipped has forgotten more about noir than he'll ever know—as well as the legendary Harry Belafonte (in conjunction with a screening of the 1959 film noir Odds Against Tomorrow). By phone, Eddie Muller and I discussed this upcoming event.

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Michael Guillén: Eddie, let's talk a bit about your taking Noir City on the road. Are these programs one-shot events or are they annual?

Eddie Muller: There's no contract with these people to say Noir City must be an annual event. Quite honestly, Michael, repertory cinema these days is not only a year-by-year thing; it's a month-by-month thing it seems. The economy of the festival circuit is such that you can't really count on anything at this point. Noir City has been fortunate in that—in Los Angeles for example—we've been one of the biggest-earning festivals at the Egyptian Theatre each year. Whenever we bring Noir City to a new city, we go in on a trial basis and see how it does. So far, so good. All the venues definitely want Noir City to become an annual event.

Guillén: Speaking of venues, you host Noir City in San Francisco at the Castro Theatre, the Egyptian in Los Angeles, and the Music Box in Chicago. Can you speak to the importance of "fitting" the festival to its venue?

Muller: Certainly. The reason the festival is so hugely successful in San Francisco—and that one far outpaces all the others in terms of attendance—is because of the perfect match between films and venue. In addition to San Francisco being a great film community where people actually believe in going to the movies, there is one main thing required of a venue in order for Noir City to work and that is that they be able to properly present archival films. On the technical end, that is a requirement. One of the things we do—as you obviously understand—is that we show films you can't see anywhere else. A big part of the draw for Noir City is you can't see most of these films on DVD or even in many cases on broadcast TV or cable TV. You need to come to the theater to see these movies; but, in order for that to happen, the venue itself must be certified to show archival prints because in many cases we are showing the only existing print of a movie. When it turns out that the theater is also a wonderful vintage theater like the Music Box in Chicago, that's a bonus. We can market that. We can say, "See these films the way they were originally screened, in a vintage theater that's as close to the movie going experience of 1948 that you can possibly get." We love it when that happens. I'm aware of the venues when we do this because—part of what you have to do to make a festival successful—is to make it a communal experience that people will leave their house for. It has to be something they cannot get at home.

It's so funny, Michael, I feel at times like I am actually living through the exact predicament that the movie business faced in the original film noir era, right? In 1948-1949 they were asking, "How do we make people come to the theater when they can stay home and watch that newfangled damn television?" It's exactly the same thing going on now.

Guillén: So along with adding Chicago to Noir City's national road show, you mentioned in your introduction to this year's San Franciscan edition of Noir City that you're also considering taking it to France?

Muller: That's definite. I'm going to France in October. But that's not technically a Noir City event. I was invited by the
Lyon Film Festival to come over and present a rare noir series as part of this year's festival. We're not marketing it as a Noir City event; but, there's a fine distinction. I will certainly be there as a representative of the Film Noir Foundation to advocate that the French come to San Francisco.

Guillén: I think it's great that you're strengthening the axial conversation between France and San Francisco. As a film historian, can you speak a bit about the relationship between film noir and its influence on the nouvelle vague?

Muller: Especially in cinema, and in the genre of literature that I enjoy, there's always been this wonderful relationship between France and the United States. It's not breaking news that the French in many ways understand noir and American hardboiled fiction better than the average American; that's a given at this point. Part of the reason that I've made these in-roads in France—I'm delighted to say—is because the French have embraced my fiction. My two novels [The Distance and Shadow Boxer] have been published in France to some acclaim. What's interesting is that in France I'm known primarily as a novelist and then—what a surprise! Look!—I'm also into film noir and the director of a foundation that promotes film preservation, which is gravy. Whereas in the United States, it's the other way around. Here I'm known as the guy who restores the films and all that and: "Oh, he wrote a novel too? That's interesting!"

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