Wednesday, February 11, 2015

SFFCC: MARLON RIGGS AWARD—The Evening Class Interview With Joel Shepard

Congratulations were in order—Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) Film and Video curator Joel Shepard had been given the San Francisco Film Critics Circle's annual Marlon Riggs Award ("for courage and vision in the Bay Area film community")—and so we met for coffee at La Boulange on the edge of the Yerba Buena gardens.

It was an honor for Joel to receive the award, especially from a circle of critics he respects, many who are friends. "Programming can be a solitary, lonely thing sometimes," he admitted and so to receive such an award "was very meaningful."

As noted at YBCA's website: "Joel Shepard, Film/Video Curator, became YBCA's first full-time film and video programmer in July 1997, after serving as Associate Director for the San Francisco Cinematheque. Prior to that, Shepard was Assistant Director of the Minnesota Film Society in Minneapolis, and Film/Video Curator of Film in the Cities in St. Paul. He was named "Best Local Film Programmer" by the SF Weekly. He regularly attends the Rotterdam, Berlin and Pusan film festivals, and recently served on the jury for CineManila. Shepard is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago."

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Michael Guillén: There's so much talk these days about the changes in San Francisco, how its artistic environment is changing, and—with regard to film—how audiences are changing, how modes of projection are changing. When we spoke some years back, you affirmed that as YBCA's film and video curator you were committed to showing media in intended exhibition formats. However, it's my understanding that's not as easy to do anymore? Some studios simply won't release their 35mm prints and will only provide DCPs. Have you been running into that in trying to achieve your own programming?

Joel Shepard: It depends on the studio. Some of them are definitely more like that than others. Some of them are really trying to steer things towards DCP and some are not necessarily, like Universal. I don't know the inner workings of the company but they seem to still be very committed to keeping 35mm alive and well and we always get a great print from them. Warner Bros. has always been a little tricky to deal with, but they still keep a strong library. They're all a little different.

Guillén: So this rising trend towards DCP projection hasn't necessarily affected your programming for YBCA? And your policy towards screening media in intended exhibition formats is still the Center's working policy?

Shepard: I'm very ambivalent about showing an old title in DCP; something that originally circulated in 35mm and was made that way. I probably have done that, but I really try not to. It would depend on the situation. Having to show a 35mm film on DCP would definitely affect my programming choices. But there's reality too and, at a certain point, I have to face that. With new films, it's fine because that's all there is; but, with older titles, that's a fuzzy area. If you're showing, let's say, The Manchurian Candidate (1962) in DCP, you're showing a translation of the film.

Also, the quality of DCPs can vary a lot. There can be well-mastered DCPs, but a lot of times they're poorly mastered, the blacks veer towards grey, and the image is just "okay" looking. Though it has become a more stable format. There used to be a lot of problems with technical melt-downs but DCPs have now become more stable. If you have to have a non-film format, DCP is a good one. I've been doing this long enough that I've gone through ¾" tape, VHS, digiBeta, mini-DV, HD-cam, you name it. It seemed like every two years a new format came out and we would have to keep updating our equipment. We always had to buy two decks, the NTSC and the PAL version, and make all these incremental changes; but, DCP has eliminated all of that. It's become the one stable format for everyone.

Guillén: It also seems that audiences have become used to DCP projections. Monitoring audience reception has long been one of my preoccupations, which year by year changes, and seems more pronounced because I'm only in San Francisco now and again to observe. On this particular visit I was startled by the remarkable success of Elliot Lavine and Donald Malcolm's French noir series at the Roxie Theater. Audiences came out in droves for a festival that was adamantly and in-your-face promoted as a digital festival, with the offset being the rarity of the titles. Audiences embraced that offset.

Shepard: Nothing against Elliot, but the problem there is that the Roxie doesn't even have the capability for DCP projection. They must be showing DVDs or Blu-Rays?

Guillén: And yet, in their defense, the projections look good and, as I said, the audiences have embraced them.

Shepard: Blu-Ray is another stable digital format.

Guillén: My interest remains with the observation that there was a time when San Franciscan audiences—and it wasn't that long ago—were saying, "No way. We're not giving up 35mm." But there has been this gradual shift to accepting digital formats, sometimes shuffled in with 35mm at a festival, and it strikes me that all that people truly want at this juncture is transparency about modes of projection. "Just tell us what is the format we're watching, and we'll handle it from there." If that's all laid out in the program, then audiences can decide for themselves. Celluloid purists can stay at home. Cinephiles like myself who are more concerned with simply having access to rare titles are willing to adapt.

Shepard: [Sighs] Me too. We have to accept these changes. They couldn't have done that French noir series on 35mm. Even if there were available 35mm prints, they would have had to have them all shipped from France and probably create new subtitles for them, possibly by projecting them onto the bottom of the frame.

Guillén: It would have been an enormous undertaking and exorbitant in cost. But as presented, I got to see some wonderful old titles and was introduced to a relatively unfamiliar pantheon of French stars. Irregardless of format, for me it was a fully satisfying experience.

I've talked to a lot of artists who have left San Francisco in order to survive and create. My friend Dolissa Medina properly identifies them as "economic exiles" and this displacement from the city proper is, without question, one of the most evident manifestations of how the civic texture of San Francisco is changing. I was, in fact, one of the first to be displaced, fortunately landed on my feet in Idaho, but still watch with a heavy heart as this exodus continues. Has this demographic shift in San Francisco affected attendance for your YBCA programming? Has it affected how you are, perhaps, targeting new audiences?

Shepard: It has. Programming is much more unpredictable than it used to be. Programs that used to be no-brainer choices—like a Tarkovsky retrospective or sex-themed film series—it was pretty easy to guarantee that you were going to get a decent audience. That's actually not the case anymore. It's harder to get audiences to come to theaters. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I think it comes down to how convenience trumps everything for most people. It's more of a pain in the ass to come to a movie theater. You have to take a bus or park a car or whatever, then buy a ticket and stand in line, when there are so many easier ways to access content. It may not be the same film, but maybe it's similar enough? So that the result is, "Whatever." It reminds me of how MP3s became so popular because of their ease and convenience, yet their quality was terrible; you lost 80% of the original fidelity.

On the other hand, we've been doing this new anime series and have sold out 25 consecutive screenings. So some programs do great. Being a programmer is an interesting state to be because I'm always in this unstable zone. I have no idea what works or not.

Guillén: And yet, this risk taking that you're expressing, is exactly what everyone admires about your programming. The success of the anime series underscores that you keep your finger on the pulse of culture to provide alternate programming. Within San Francisco's film landscape, you are one of the last true independent programmers. You'll often show what others won't, which is of inestimable cinephilic value. As far as I'm concerned, this is what San Francisco audiences need to recognize and support. This is what San Francisco's film journalists need to write about. I'm sometimes critical of my colleagues for being too tethered to theatrical distribution when there is so much else being offered in the Bay Area, too much of which I feel is taken for granted.

Shepard: I think of that with regard to all my friends and colleagues in the Philippines, all the relationships I've built up there over the years, and how they have no access to any of this programming. They don't have a single art house in the whole country! Without the pirate sites, the illegal downloading of torrent sites, they wouldn't get a film education. Is that wrong? I don't think it is.

Guillén: I remember the Malaysian filmmaker Amir Muhammad actually saying that when he was here for the San Francisco International—that pirated dvds were Malaysia's best film school. Speaking of the Philippines, and your groundbreaking New Filipino Cinema film series, will YBCA be continuing the series this year?

Shepard: Yeah! We're finishing it up right now.

Guillén: Excellent! I'm heartened to hear that New Filipino Cinema is becoming an annual presence on San Francisco's film landscape. This last year you also programmed the "Invasion of the Cinemaniacs" series, which I considered brave for boldly decentralizing programming. I was able to attend only one of the films: David Wong's presentation of Max Ophüls's The Exile (1947). How did the rest of the series go?

Shepard: Great! We didn't have huge audiences for it, but there was respectable attendance. Beyond that, it had so much meaning for everyone involved in it. Almost everybody selected came to everybody else's screenings to support the whole concept of the series. It became like a little community every week.

Guillén: It broke my heart not to be able to attend. That aesthetic of collegiality is so important to me and always has been from the moment I became involved writing on film. I've made a community of friends just from where I sit in the Castro Theater, let's say, which I've come to believe is a social phenomenon lost in most areas of the country, relegated perhaps only to its main urban centers. It's possibly exclusively an urban phenomenon?

Shepard: It is.

Guillén: Well, I'm glad you paid tribute to it.

Shepard: I really did want to honor San Francisco and the Bay Area's community of cinephiles. And there are still many more people I would like to include. We really need to do this again. It probably should be an annual series because there are a lot more than 10 cinephiles in San Francisco.

Guillén: Which I heard no end about from the 11th cinephile! [Laughter.]

Shepard: It was difficult choosing the first 10. It wasn't like these individuals were the most cinephilic. I wanted a balance of gender and different aesthetics. But I really wanted to honor these people. Someone like Lynn Cursaro who spends her life attending films, being in the audiences, showing up for everything, thinking about film....

Guillén: Lynn has a deep knowledge of film, more than almost anyone else I know, which can only be gained by being faithful to the moviegoing experience.

Shepard: So including her was like a gift. She deserved that opportunity. They all did. It was great to make that happen.

Guillén: So may we touch upon your upcoming calendar?

Shepard: Sure.

Guillén: You're doing a Robert Altman retrospective....

Shepard: It's not really a retrospective; it's an "Altmanesque" series. Have you seen Ron Mann's documentary on Altman?

Guillén: I haven't.

Shepard: It's really well done and a good overview and Altman's in it; he participated in the making of it, so it was a long process. Altman is kind of your guide through his own body of work. Once I scheduled that, I felt it was an opportunity to show a couple of Altman's films that don't get shown much, like Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982).

Guillén: I adore that film!

Shepard: Not everyone likes it, but it's a very important film in Altman's career. It was a transitional film for him and UCLA has done a superb restoration of it, so we're showing that. Then there's Corn's-A-Poppin' (1956). He didn't direct, but he's a writer on it during his early career in Kansas City. This little group in Chicago, the Northwest Chicago Film Society, found a print of it and did a restoration themselves. That will be shown with some of Altman's early shorts that have never been released.

Guillén: So—just to give folks a sense of how you work—was it the UCLA restoration of Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean that inspired this series? A restoration print is always something of a jewel piece in a series.

Shepard: Yeah, all these little things came together at the same time. I always want to do something a bit different than what you might expect, so I'm not showing The Long Good-Bye (1973) or Nashville (1975); I'm taking a different approach to his work.

Guillén: Also coming up is the traveling series "In Case of No Emergency: The Films of Ruben Östlund", whose recent film Force Majeure (2014) was one of my favorites this last year. Can you speak to the value of incorporating traveling series into your ongoing programming for YBCA?

Shepard: The series was developed by Irena Kovarova, who's been around forever. For a long time she curated Czech films that traveled, and now she's broadened her scope. She developed this series on her own because she got excited about the director. She saw that Force Majeure was a big step in Östlund's development and in a relatively short period of time put together this retrospective. Originally, it was only going to show at Lincoln Center, at YBCA, and Cinefamily in L.A., but it's expanded to about 15 cities now. People became interested and jumped in. But I like scheduling traveling series into my programming. Except for Force Majeure, the other films aren't in distribution in the U.S. Scheduling a traveling series is a way to gain access to films, other than having to pay for them myself for a single screening.

Guillén: A quality about Östlund that appears to have surfaced is his strange sense of humor, pronounced in the scene in Force Majeure where the male lead breaks down crying like a baby. That scene reminded me of an earlier series of yours "Masculinity and its Discontents" some years ago.

Shepard: Right. The unpacking of masculinity is definitely a big theme in Östlund's work.

Guillén: You had mentioned to me that with the shifts in San Francisco's art landscape, and new management at YBCA, that the film and video department might be doing more multidisciplinary programming in the future? Did I understand you correctly?

Shepard: The different disciplines at YBCA are trying to collaborate more. We've always done that, it's not a new thing, but we're trying to do it in a more focused and intentional way. Instead of everybody being off in their own world, doing the PR for their own programs, we're hoping to make our offerings stronger and to build connections. It's not good to force connections, of course, but we believe we can make a stronger impact on the community working together.

Guillén: I ask, I guess, because—though slow on the uptake—I've recently become interested in the use of film in installation work, such as what we see going on with figures like Chantal Akerman, Isaac Julien, Agnès Varda, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Has YBCA shown much of that work?

Shepard: Yeah, we did a big Isaac Julien installation in the galleries about 10 years ago. I've shown Chantal's films, but we've never shown any of her installations.

Guillén: If there's a filmic element involved—as there often is in those installations—are you pulled into that at all? Is this one of those areas of collaboration you're talking about?

Shepard: I consult with them but we still are working in a kind of "turf" way. The galleries are the province of visual arts and the screening room is more my thing; but, that's all breaking down a lot more. I tend to actually work more with performing arts. A month or so ago they did two nights of classic hiphop performance and we paired that with a program put together by two curators out of Chicago of radical, Black shorts. We worked that into the mix with performing arts and it really benefited the film program, which would have been a little tricky to promote on its own as a stand-alone event unrelated to anything else. By working together we sold out the screenings. The audiences spilled over both ways. We're trying to do more of that.

Guillén: Good to hear. Looking a bit down the pipeline without giving away too much before official announcements, you mentioned New Filipino Cinema is returning toYBCA this year. Anything else you can hint about?

Shepard: Sure, that's okay. In March, we're doing "Cracked Actor: David Bowie on Screen". There's a huge art exhibition of Bowie's costumes and sets and all kinds of Bowie ephemera that is coming to Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. It's not coming to San Francisco, I don't know why, but I still wanted to do a film series to accompany it. Bowie had such a weird film career. He has some really great films and some oddball films, so we're going to do a Bowie on screen series.

There's so much noir programming in San Francisco that I've always avoided it as a topic because I feel other venues have that covered; but, one thing that always gets skipped over are the noir westerns—which a lot of people would even question that a western could be a noir—but, as Eddie Muller showed this year at Noir City, almost anything can be a noir! Or at least contain noirish qualities.

Guillén: [Laughter.] That's funny. But, honestly, as I talk to audiences at these events, "not necessarily noir" holds a genuine fascination, particularly because especially here in the Bay Area audiences are educated in noir, we know the classic titles and have been been shown them repeatedly, so that it's now become more interesting to watch a film with—as you say—noirish qualities, films that are not necessarily noir. Not only Muller, but Elliot Lavine has certainly capitalized on this. So I'm two thumbs up on a series of western noirs!

Shepard: We're going to do four double-features on consecutive Sundays in April: Blood on the Moon (1948), The Tall T (1957), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Pursued (1947)—which is the classic noir western—, Ramrod (1947), The Gunfighter (1950), The Searchers (1956)—there's a good restoration of that available now—, and the Jimmy Stewart film Winchester 73 (1950).

Guillén: That's a great series and I'll actually be in town to take advantage of it!

Shepard: They're all 35mm and most of them are archival prints.

Guillén: And when will New Filipino Cinema return?

Shepard: New Filipino Cinema will be June 11-14 of this year; but, I'm fussing with possibilities for that series. I'm thinking of doing it as a four to five day festival, as we've done before, but then repeating it the next week because so many people get killed by trying to see everything. I'm actually thinking, "Maybe we should just do it twice for two weekends?" And—though it's not going to be officially part of the festival—we're going to end with Lav Diaz's new film From What Is Before (2014), which won the Golden Leopard at Locarno. That's confirmed.

Guillén: Nice!! And?

Shepard: Coming much later in the year in the Fall, we're going to do a large design and architecture film series. I did one about a year ago and it was an amazing success. There's a huge community interested in these films and it's a good way to network with them.

We're also going to do a residency with Nick Dorsky where we'll do a whole bunch of programs over a three-week period, a mid-career retrospective with premieres of some of his new work.

I'm also working with the Japan Foundation to bring a program of kabuki cinema, which are not really films; they're actually recordings of kabuki plays performed in the most famous kabuki theater in Tokyo. They're impossible to access in the U.S. and the Japan Foundation in Los Angeles is organizing this big program. It's really complicated because the recordings need new subtitles and I can't do it alone. We're working together, partnering, and will have some of that up here.

Guillén: Well, my goodness! Thank you for that! What a wonderful year of programming you have lined up for San Francisco. I'm especially excited to realize I can take advantage of the western noirs on 35mm!

Shepard: These 35mm prints are becoming a real treat to see in theaters now because we're witnessing that there's going to be less and less opportunity as time goes on, not more and more, and so it's become important to see these prints. For some of these films, this might be it for a screening in San Francisco. This might be the last opportunity to see them on film.