Grad students bring films ranging from iconic to unorthodox to IU Cinema
“Le Moulin” is an experimental Taiwanese documentary that chronicles the lives and work of poets for the avant garde literary magazine of the same name.
Media School doctoral student I-Lin Liu had already seen it twice — and even written about it — when he programmed it to be screened at the IU Cinema last spring, though his first viewings were under suboptimal conditions (on a laptop and in a school auditorium). But seeing it at the cinema prompted him to reinterpret entire sequences of the film.
“Seeing the film being projected properly on a big screen was like watching the film for the first time,” he said.
The IU Cinema programs dozens of films every semester — short and long, old and new, black and white and color, American and international, narrative and experimental. For some of them, the cinema enlists the help of Media School graduate students like Liu.
Graduate students are behind two ongoing film series: the City Lights film series, which screens classic films from the Lilly Library’s David S. Bradley collection, and the Underground film series, which screens experimental, non-commercial and other often-sidelined modes of filmmaking.
Other opportunities for student work are more ad hoc, said the cinema’s founding director Jon Vickers, but the cinema’s organizers work to create partnerships where they can. As part of their Creative Collaborations program, they welcome proposals from undergraduate and graduate students for film series. They invite students to introduce visiting filmmakers and attend master classes taught by them. They accept graduate student projectionists, giving students experience in archival and digital cinema projection. And sometimes, they enlist graduate student assistance for other series programming, as well.
“There are lots of opportunities for students to engage with IU Cinema in a meaningful way,” Vickers said.
Once upon a time
The City Lights film series, named for the 1931 Charlie Chaplin film, predates the IU Cinema. It started in 1997 or 1998, recalls associate professor Joan Hawkins in a Q&A for the cinema’s blog that recounts the beginnings of the Underground and City Lights series, as the university’s film studies program was preparing to shift from the Departments of Comparative Literature, English and Telecommunications to the (at the time) new Department of Communications and Culture.
Started by a pair of students from the Comparative Literature department, the series screened 16mm films from the film studies program’s collection of some 200 titles in Ballantine 013 on a projector with a lens that had to be held on manually.
Once the university acquired the David S. Bradley collection — an assortment of classic American and European films that spans many decades and includes some of the most iconic and influential works of the medium — the series began to expand its programming to draw from it and the Harry Gleim Collection.
In 2004, after years and years of weekly City Lights screenings, a group of graduate students petitioned the department to create a second series. Where City Lights celebrated classic, landmark achievements in 20th-century film, this one would spotlight the avant-garde. Hawkins became its advisor and has been ever since.
Both series belonged to the film studies program, carried by the work of dedicated graduate students, until they were inherited by the IU Cinema upon its opening in 2011. That meant a decrease from the weekly screening format to three screenings per semester. But it also meant that the films would be shared in a world-class theater and with bigger audiences.
“We wanted to make sure that those continued in an even more robust way,” Vickers said. “We’ve embraced those programs but also continued with the student programmers.”
Keeping graduate students in charge of both series was important for preserving what the cinema had inherited, but also for giving students valuable opportunities and experience. Programming for a cinema is a lot more complex than programming for a student-run, classroom-housed screening series. The programmer must secure the rights, identify the best possible quality print of a film and contact distributors to get it.
Programming gives graduate students a peek behind the curtain at the world of studios, distributors and archival film prints.
Bringing City Lights to the cinema
For doctoral candidate Cole Stratton, programming the City Lights series is a way to keep in touch with his film roots.
Stratton came to The Media School five years ago with an undergraduate film degree from Colorado University and a master’s in media from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His undergraduate studies introduced him to the world of Hollywood cinema, the formal qualities of film and the production of culture through mass media. His subsequent research stepped away from film to look at television, radio, smartphones and the internet.
But he missed film, so he reached out to City Lights’ student programmers and found a position on its curation board.
A semester’s programming process looks something like this: Stratton and the other two student programmers, Caleb Allison and Joanna Chromik, sift through the list of titles in the Bradley collection for films that haven’t screened at the cinema yet — once a title from the list has played, it’s crossed off until all of the films have been screened.
Each programmer selects a pair of films — a first and second choice, in case rights or a good quality print can’t be secured — to pitch to the cinema’s staff. Then, higher-ups at the cinema do the heavy lifting of tracking down rights owners. Sometimes, that’s easy. Other times, it can take dozens of emails. And even then, sometimes the cinema simply can’t show a film. That’s what the programmers’ backup choices are for.
When Stratton, Allison and Chromik choose the films, they’re not just thinking about choosing good titles from the Bradley Collection list, but also about how those titles might be relevant in a modern context. Where his co-programmers tend to choose classic movies befitting the City Lights name, Stratton said he’s often drawn to dystopic science fiction. In past semesters his programming choices have included “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” “Soylent Green” and “Westworld.”
This semester, he went with the 1937 film “Lost Horizon,” about a group of plane crash survivors who find themselves in the mythical land of Shangri-La.
He got the idea from an informatics lecture about the internet and regulation of technology. The lecturer referenced the book the movie is based on, and Stratton wondered if there was a movie and if it might be a part of the Bradley Collection. Double yes.
“I thought, here’s an opportunity to take a movie with concepts that people are familiar with, like Shangri-La, but also with deeper themes that clearly are relevant today if there’s a professor studying the internet using this book as a metaphor,” he said.
“Lost Horizon” screened at the cinema Feb. 8. Allison and Chromik’s choices for the semester are “Yojimbo,” which screened Jan. 25, and “Leave Her to Heaven,” which will screen April 11.
With each passing semester, the City Lights series grows one title closer to exhausting the full Bradley Collection list. There’s no set plan for what happens after that and no guarantee that the series won’t peter out before it’s made it all the way. But Stratton hopes the series will keep recycling the list ad infinitum.
“The greatest of cinema history is worth watching more than once,” he said.
From underground to the big screen
It might take just three programmers and one list to pull the City Lights film series together every semester, but its sister series is more amorphous.
Underground, which also puts together a trifecta of screenings each semester, has nine programmers: Liu, Hawkins, Carmel Curtis, Matt Lutz, Ruth Riftin, Pragya Ghosh, Richard Jermain, Anthony Silvestri and Joseph Wofford, and no set list to draw from.
Instead, the programmers all compile their own list based on personal knowledge and fascinations. In past semesters, that’s brought films like 1980’s “Demon Lover Diary,” Pier Paolo Pasolini’s controversial “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” and various experimental and avant garde shorts to the cinema.
This semester, the programmers chose “Unstrap Me,” a 1968 George Kuchar film about an uncle’s racy road trip shenanigans; “Speaking Directly,” a Jon Jost documentary about American radicalism; and a program of Ken Jacobs shorts on 16 mm film.
“The Underground series offers a good starting point for people who are interested in seeing non-narrative kind of films, or films that are a bit eccentric, on the big screen that they wouldn’t get the chance to see in a lot of other venues,” said Silvestri, a third-year doctoral student whose research focuses on the post-war American avant garde movement.
You probably won’t come across many of the Underground films outside of the cinema. Some of them, like “Unstrap Me,” are rare and inaccessible outside of certain formats. Others, like “Chelsea Girls,” which screened last spring, require special projection techniques. More still are worth seeing at the cinema because they’re artistically engaged with qualities inherent to the film they’re made and projected on, like the way it interacts with light from the projector.
Programming the Underground series can be nerve-wracking, Silvestri said, because not everything the programmers choose is likely to appeal to everyone. But regardless, it’s important to screen them to give people a chance to view interesting and unorthodox films the way they were made to be seen: on a big screen and with an audience.
“It’s always helpful to be able to see things with other people around you,” he said. “Watching things alone doesn’t have that same sense of community or camaraderie, especially when you read about the old kind of situation of seeing avant garde films at the cinematheque in New York and how much that’s based around a group of people with shared interests coming together.”
That sort of coming together is vital, both behind-the-scenes and in the cinema. Liu said it’s valuable that the Underground series is programmed by such a large and diverse cohort of students, researchers and cinephiles, because they each bring their own ideas and understanding of what constitutes underground and experimental cinema to their work.
“It’s interesting to see how different programmers have their own interpretations of what ‘underground’ should mean,” he said. “It makes me think more about the history of the term and how might we expand the canon in the future.”