Tuesday, February 12, 2013

SFSFF 2013: SILENT WINTER—The Evening Class Interview With Anita Monga

Anita Monga first came to my attention when she was summarily discharged as the programmer from the Castro Theatre after 16 years of devoted service. As Johnny Ray Huston wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian at the time, her dismissal sent a shock wave through San Francisco's cinephilic society and raised concerns over the future of repertory programming, let alone the loss of the Castro Theatre as a community gathering place. At the time I had just started to write about film, and hadn't yet given much thought to the art of programming, but was undeniably riveted by the controversial community boycott that ensued against the theater's owners, demanding Monga's reinstatement. It was then I grasped just how beloved she was in San Francisco (and environs beyond) and—once I began to profile programmers in the Bay Area—she was high on my list of individuals I wanted to interview, especially as she rose above those disconcerting events to reach even more accomplished heights as programmer (along with Eddie Muller) of the Noir City film festival and eventually as the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, returning to the Castro Theatre at both festivals with programming that can only be described as triumphant.

Somehow my desire to speak to Monga never happened until just last week when we finally sat down in the offices of Larsen Associates to discuss archival film festivals and the upcoming Silent Winter event (earlier profiled by Michael Hawley). My thanks to Karen Larsen for setting us up. Photo of Anita Monga courtesy of Lea Suzuki, San Francisco Chronicle.

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Michael Guillén: It's become quite clear to me in the near to 10 years that I've been covering film in the Bay Area that you are a seminal personality in the establishment of repertory film programming in San Francisco. I'm intrigued by at what point the commodification of nostalgia began to play into repertory programming? Or did it ever have any impact for you?

Anita Monga: Explain what you mean by "nostalgia".

Guillén: Well, movies in the '40s and '50s were just the movies they were, and then it seems to me that sometime in the '60s into the '70s people began to look back on these movies nostalgically and a market was created for these back titles, which were reintroduced to a public yearning for Hollywood's yesteryear. Entertainment memorabilia took off. But, again, I'm not sure if any of this influenced how you chose to program at all?

Monga: It's so interesting because I never thought of the repertory scene in San Francisco as being nostalgia-based. I do understand what you mean by that, but of course there was movie memorabilia happening from the very beginning of the industry, with regard to fans collecting things. I am not a collector so it's hard for me to speak to that urge to collect. Sometimes I think people also collect experiences. We'll get people who come to our programs not because they're particularly interested in the film itself but they're interested in collecting every filmgoing experience, though videotape and DVDs have made that easier for people to accomplish.

By no means was I here at the beginning of the repertory scene in San Francisco, which was in full bloom. My husband Peter Moore was one of the founders of the Roxie Cinema. There was a booming repertory scene at the time because, again, at that time people didn't have videotape or DVDs and the only time you could see these images—which were important, people remembered that there had been these images, people wrote books about them—was at a repertory cinema.

Guillén: I remember when I arrived in San Francisco in 1975 that there were several repertory houses, which have since bitten the dust.

Monga: Ah yes, the repertory scene was tremendous at that time. I became involved with the Roxie in 1979. Then I started programming the York Theatre in 1984 and then the Castro in 1988. My approach was to put together the most interesting programs and plumb the kind of history of films for ones that I felt people needed to see to be—I never thought of this as an educational process, but—there are films that people need to see. Everyone needs to see Citizen Kane. To be a well-rounded human being, and to understand Western culture, you need to see certain films, as well as read certain books. So I guess that was my approach. I don't mean to sound like I was thinking didactically at the time; but, definitely for me it was a process of sharing films with people.

Guillén: So repertory programming took off, it was in full flower when I arrived, and then unfortunately one by one we began to lose our repertory theaters. But then a kind of morphing happened. Repertory programming of these older titles became grouped under what would officially be called a film festival. So instead of just having noir programming, we now had Elliot Lavine's noir, "not necessarily noir", precode and film maudit series at the Roxie, or Noir City currently at the Castro. Instead of just showing silent cinema here and there, the Silent Film Festival came into being. Can you speak at all to that transition? Under the aegis of a "film festival", did your programming shift in any way?

Monga: What I can tell you is that cinema going has morphed. People can see films in their homes. As special theaters have closed, as theater going for archival films has decreased, there's a necessity to package these films in a way that gets attention. I can tell you this too: in programming the Castro for 365 days of the year, I would be astounded when someone would come along with a festival and suddenly people would be like, "Oh! I never get to see this film! Let's go to the festival." And it really was a matter of packaging. Suddenly you focused their attention. You said, "Come this two weeks, we're doing a series, and this will be the time you get to see it." But the same programming that we would be slogging away 365 days a year suddenly became extremely special. Packaging films within festivals became a necessity. When you live in a city like San Francisco that has a lot of cultural events, and specifically a lot of film cultural events, there becomes a lot of competition for people's brains and you have to find a way to break through that.

Again, with classic film programming you can pretty much program your own festival in your own home—depending upon how fast your internet connection is—at any time of day or night. However, the Silent Film Festival is a little different because we're doing something you can't really do in your own home; but, other festivals—like Noir City for instance—what makes that festival so special is because it has such a huge amazing audience that comes together.

Guillén: You're defining the celebratory—in fact, "festive"—aspect of a film festival?

Monga: Eddie Muller is a great showman. He combines erudition with showbiz and it's a killer combination. Plus getting these films in the best possible prints, which we take great care to project properly in the Castro Theatre. We're working with the great Jeff Root, the Castro's projectionist, to make sure that every print is projected well and—not only that—but not built up on the big reel so we can bring these films in from archives from around the world. They go out in the same condition that they came in. That's what's really important and why the Castro and the Pacific Film Archive and the San Rafael Film Center are such important venues, because they still maintain 35mm projectors reel to reel. Also, the Castro has DCP presentation so as studios are making classic film DCPs, the Castro can show these in the best possible way.

The point I was making about the Silent Film Festival that audiences are unable to duplicate in their own home is the live musical accompaniment, which is impossible at home. You can find a lot of silent films out on the internet but they're not necessarily good-looking, neither framed right nor at the right frames per second, and often with excretable music. What the Silent Film Festival offers is a different approach.

Guillén: The Silent Film Festival is a jewel in the festival landscape; one of my all-time favorites that I anticipate each year in both its winter and summer sessions. I brag about it to everyone I know and thank you for your generosity in allowing me to attend each year.

Monga: It's a magical thing. And thank you too for getting the word out. One of the difficulties the Silent Film Festival faces is that these films are not as easily accessible. People can't educate themselves at home as readily. Often they've been shown silent films at the wrong aspect ratio and at the wrong frames per second, such that they play to all the creaky aspects of the silent era. People make commercials that use overwrought acting that stands in for silent cinema so that moviegoers think the films from the silent era are all herky-jerky movement, overacted, or acting that's not recognizable to contemporary tastes. There's a whole part of the history of film that they have no idea exists and the point is that the silent era was incredibly influential to filmmakers working today. If you're at all cognizant of what happened in the silent era, you can watch movies now and see how clearly some filmmaker was influenced by German expressionism, or a comic turn. Comedy hasn't … well, I'm trying to put a plug in here for Buster Keaton.

Guillén: Please do!

Monga: Keaton was an absolute genius of cinema. And I'm not talking about silent cinema, I'm talking about cinema period. No one has surpassed Buster Keaton in intellectual, physical, or technical prowess. He was a genius at film itself. He understood that form of storytelling. Keaton happened to be making his masterpieces at a time when sound could not be married to the film print; but, that doesn't mean his films don't live forever. That's why virtually every festival we put on has a Keaton program included. People need to know.

Guillén: To backtrack just a bit, you mentioned your husband Peter Moore started the Roxie Cinema and that you started programming there. Had you had any previous experience or training before then? Did you study film programming in university?

Monga: No. There were four original partners at the Roxie: Peter, Tom Mayer, Dick Gaikowski, and Robert Evans, who was my friend Curt McDowell's boyfriend. Robert and Peter worked at the old Mitchell Brothers together and then Robert researched the idea to start the Roxie, which had been an old burlesque house.

Guillén: When I first moved to San Francisco I lived in an apartment on Sanchez Street where I paid $100 for a top floor flat, which dates me….

Monga: I paid $70!

Guillén: [Laughs.] Anyways, the Roxie was a few blocks down 16th Street and—since I didn't have a television at the time—I was really happy when it was converted into a moviehouse because I could use it as my "television" each evening.

But returning to this "transformation" of repertory programming into film festival programming, it's now being distinguished even further as archival film festival programming with an attendant focus on film preservation and restoration. From what you're telling me, you have basically gone through all these transitions and learned about each one of them on the job?

Monga: Yes, I guess you could say that. Again, my whole modus operandi is to share the films that I love with other people. I came to the Roxie through Curt McDowell who was a filmmaker in the '70s. He was at the Art Institute and worked with George Kuchar. They were in a relationship before he met Robert Evans. Curt and I had worked together and decided to throw a midnight show. We came to Robert, his boyfriend, and my future husband Peter and asked if we could do a midnight show at the Roxie. They said sure. Curt and I put together a program of Curt's short films. We did the advertising. The Roxie gave us a spot in their calendar. I designed that. Then it was kind of like, "Oh, I like this."

Guillén: I bet! I've long argued that film programming is a creative cultural act and that's why I've enjoyed interviewing programmers over the years. The craft and art of programming fascinates me. In terms of the "archival film festival"—providing programming by dipping into film archives and securing 35mm prints—were you negotiating with archives from the get-go?

Monga: No. Originally it was all from the studios. In fact, even before I began programming, these were films that sat on the shelves in film depots that were considered useless. Then programmers got the idea to show these in cinemas because it was very inexpensive to do so and they could get flat deals with the studios. Then the studios suddenly realized, "Oh, people are making money off these films" so then they started insisting upon percentage. But for a while there was quite a use for old prints, before video came in and put a lot of theaters out of business.

There was a time in the early '80s when that kind of repertory programming became really difficult and audience attendance dropped. So we had to do some rethinking and that was in my heyday. Part of what I brought to the scene at that time was the idea of approaching the studios and suggesting, "If you make a new print of this film from your original materials, we'll show this for a week at the Castro Theatre as a kind of first run film" and that was quite successful. We would program night-by-night series but then run a new print of Citizen Kane or Rebecca for a week with media playing along to help draw attention to it. Now it's common for the studios to do that and make a big deal about certain titles in their archives; but, yeah, how I've negotiated securing prints for programming has changed a lot.

Guillén: I respect how you characterize your programming as the wish to share films you believe should be seen and distinguish that it's not directly an educational impulse. When I recently spoke with Elliot Lavine, he pretty much said the same thing. He doesn't feel a need to educate his audiences; he simply wants to show them the films and have them come to their own conclusions through their own experience. He doesn't want to be out in front before the movie starts telling audiences what they should be looking for or anything like that. He wants the films to speak for themselves. By contrast, Eddie Muller at Noir City promotes a valuable and distinct literacy through his introductions. What for you is the value of the archive as it is understood for programming today? Is it important for you to show films that are not on DVD or available in any other medium?

Monga: I have to tell you that has always been a funny thing between Eddie and me because I could care less if a film is on DVD or any other media. There remains a value for people to come to the cinema as an experience aesthetic. When you're watching a film in a big room with other people, it's very different from seeing it on your computer at home. I watch films on my computer at home. In fact, I get irritated when I can't watch a film because it's not available by streaming—I want it and I want it now!—but, it is no substitute for the in-cinema experience. A film that is worthwhile is meant to be seen again and again.

I believe in the curated experience. I like to listen to Bonnie Simmons on KPFA, for instance, who has a Thursday night show where she takes you through music that you might know, might not know, but it's the way she puts it together that's interesting. That kind of curation is what archival festivals are doing. I wouldn't call my approach educational but I do think that's what we offer. There's a reason people are going to see Elliot's programs: it's because Elliot put it together for some reason, which is a curated experience, whether or not he stands out front and tells people what the film is about. I agree. I don't like someone saying, "And this is what this means in what you're going to see." But I do find that introductions of Eddie's sort put the film within context and allows you—ahead of time—to look for something you might not have known before as the film is unfolding.

Guillén: In recent years I've been much interested in the distinction between programming and curation. Are you saying that curation is personality-driven? That audiences are choosing certain films by way of curatorial taste and not just the films themselves?

Monga: I have no idea. I can't enter into that discussion. I don't call myself a curator; I call myself a programmer, which sometimes causes people to say, "Oh, you work with computers?" I do think programs bear the personality of the person who programs them, or—if you prefer the term—curates them. Not everything within a program is there because it's a personal favorite; but, every film is there for a reason, to either fill out the program or to bring people in who you really want to see other films in the program. The selection process is not willy-nilly and—when you're doing it well—I don't think audiences necessarily know that the programmer / curator is shaping a program; but, it has been shaped.

Guillén: I'd like to talk to you about the structural rhythm of a film festival and how you situate your selection of films within the festival in a certain shape—as you say—or rhythm by which the spectator experiences (even without knowledge) the feeling of how the films flow. Let's say you've decided upon your program, you've chosen your films, how do you then decide which film to use to profile or promote the festival, either for the festival poster, advertising, or opening night? If a larger festival, your centerpiece and your closing night film? How much thought do you give to that, or is it something of a magical process?

Monga: A lot of thought goes into that, of course, and there are many different reasons for making particular choices. A lot of times the film we choose to highlight has just been through a major restoration. But, yes, I guess it is also a magical process because I can't even put it into words. With regard to the Silent Film Festival, we're conscious of how the music flows. I wouldn't program Faust as the first film in the morning, for instance, and that's why it's showing at night. There are certain audiences you have in mind for specific films, which you realize fit well. Sometimes it's just expedience sake; but, again, it's hard to talk about this because it's intuitive for me as a programmer. Where The Thief of Bagdad and My Best Girl are placed in the program could have been easily interchangeable and flipped, except for the running times. Also, with The Thief of Bagdad we wanted to make sure that families with children are able to come and experience it in the afternoon without it being too late. Yet another factor is that certain musicians have to be taken to the airport to be flown out on specific flights. So there are all kinds of expedient reasons for situating the films the way we do. For our summer festival, it's more a process of rhythm than the winter event.

Guillén: I guess this is on my mind because of something Eddie Muller said on stage this past Monday when he breathed a sigh of relief and said, "We've made it through the weekend and now it's Monday and these films are for you, the diehard fans." I liked that recognition that there's a rhythm to reception.

Monga: Of course. There's no reason to put the new restoration of Sunset Blvd. on a Monday. No matter how many times people have seen Sunset Blvd., a restored version is going to be a big draw so you schedule that on a weekend so that everyone can come and experience that. At Noir City there's always a San Francisco noir night, a Bad Girls night, and there always B-movies that are for the diehards and those get programmed on the weekdays.

Each day has its own flow too. My intuitive sense is that Monday was stronger than Tuesday, but it's not if you look at the box office reports. It took a long time for that to drive home to me because it was a sense that came from my own personal body: I would rather go to a movie on Monday night than Tuesday night. There's not a lot of difference between a Monday night program and a Tuesday night program, but—you do this long enough—and it becomes apparent that Saturday night is bigger than Friday and on Sunday night people don't stay out late.

Guillén: Can you speak to the reasoning behind using the winter event to market the summer event, and how much of the summer program you decide to announce?

Monga: Well, as opposed to having an audience every day of the year, the Silent Film Festival has a captive audience, people who we know are interested, so we … well, do you mean announcing the dates for the festival? Or announcing the actual program?

Guillén: Both, actually. In terms of media relations, I'm intrigued by whenabouts you start announcing? I'm aware that sometimes a program isn't fully in place yet so there are some things that just can't be announced, but I'm interested in how you start enticing your captive audience to mark their calendars? I consider the San Francisco Silent Film Festival a destination event and—especially, let's say, with last winter's Napoleon screenings—people were drawn in from all over the world, necessitating airfare and lodging way in advance. So how do you come up with a marketing plan to entice your targeted audience?

Monga: Well, we're going to be announcing something quite exciting at the winter event. [Anita then shared the news with me, but for purposes of enticement I leave it to the festival to announce.] This development has made it a heavy year for us at SFSFF because that special event will be in June, and then we'll have our summer festival in July, which—even as we talk—I'm lining up films for that program. We tease the event, but we don't tease the individual films. We'll do that at an individual press conference in May. We try to engage the media and keep the event fresh. We unfold certain news to our membership before we offer it to the general public, as an effort to make it special to be a member of the festival.

Guillén: That's interesting how the role of membership plays into the rollout of a program announcement.


Now to wrap up here, let's focus a bit on Silent Winter. I was intrigued by your including J. Searle Dawley's Snow White (1916). This has clearly been the year for Snow White with two big studio productions (Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror Mirror), as well as what I consider to be the most beautiful of the bunch: the Spanish production Blancanieves. Can you talk a bit about why you programmed the early silent version of Snow White?

Monga: J.B. Kaufman of the Walt Disney Family Museum contacted me about a restoration of the Dawley film in the last few years. The film had been thought lost but was found in an archive in the Netherlands. One of the organizations that pushed for that restoration was the National Film Preservation Foundation, which is located here in San Francisco. The Walt Disney Family Museum is celebrating the 75th anniversary of Disney's Snow White with an amazing exhibit. The 1916 silent is, of course, not a Disney picture, and it's live-action with Marguerite Clark as Snow White.

Guillén: But it was the inspiration for Disney's version, wasn't it?

Monga: It was indeed. And that's why we're showing it. That's our modus operandi and why the Walt Disney Family Museum is co-presenting the screening. It was a film that Walt Disney saw in Kansas City when he was a young man. It was a magnificent event actually at the Kansas City Convention Center where they mounted four screens and thousands of people all around the auditorium watched this huge exhibition of Snow White. Disney was there among those thousands and it left a big impression on him. Although Disney's version is very different—animated for one—I think Marguerite Clark's portrayal of Snow White made a huge impression on him. There are elements of Disney's Snow where you can see Marguerite's performance.

Guillén: With audiences becoming more literate about silent cinema—largely through the efforts of the Silent Film Festival, but also the appearance in recent years of films like The Artist, Hugo and Blancanieves—would the SFSFF ever consider a "continuity of image" series that profiles some of these more recent efforts alongside the archival material to show the influence on silent cinema on contemporary films?

Monga: What we do in that regard and how we approach the subject is that each year we have what we call the "Director's Pick", where we invite a filmmaker to choose one film out of our series and talk about how that film has had an influence on his or her career (we haven't had any hers yet). What we're trying to do is to let people know that these images aren't just set in the distant past that has no relevance to our contemporary world; but, that the cinema we see today has an indirect or direct connection to the silent era. I get why people think that watching a silent film is going to be boring, antiquated or an "old-timey" experience, but the Silent Film Festival is trying to do as much as possible to reverse that presumption. People still go see Shakespeare's plays or listen to symphonies of classical music or read Dickens' novels. True art transcends time.

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