The Last Picture Show

I've had an interesting streak going as of late, and it's been fodder for a good bit of introspection: for many months now, probably more than a year, I haven't seen a single movie in a first run theater that I've enjoyed.

Clearly I've got a problem of vast proportions on my hands. And yet it's hard to know who's to blame: is it the industry? Have the folks in the film business, like those running television news, responded to market pressures by dumbing down their product, sapping it of whatever originality and intellectual vitality it used to offer?

Or is it me? Has my taste been infected by all the theory, criticism and analysis I've spent the last three years digesting and regurgitating? The answer is, as one of my professors is fond of saying, far from obvious. So I decide to pay a visit to John Gianvito, the guest curator at the Harvard Film Archive, hoping that he'll be able to help me make sense of the situation.

It wasn't until my sophomore year that I first found out about the Archive, and given its location, it's not hard to figure out why. Harvard's movie theater, sits in the basement of the Carpenter Center, a building whose appearance is enough to scare away anyone who doesn't have important business to take care of inside. What's more, the Archive's publicity rarely consists of anything more than its serious-looking schedules, Which are stacked inconspicuously in various locations around Harvard and the Square.

If its soft-sell advertising campaign doesn't entice the average student, its films aren't exactly typical popcorn fare either: in terms of the eccentricity, the sheer 'foreignness' of many of its movies, the Archive puts theaters like the Brattle to shame. Although "The Shining," "Blade Runner" and even "Robocop" have popped up on its large, cinema-quality screen in recent weeks, the vast majority of its offerings are not in English, a similarly high percentage are more than a decade old and about half its films tend to be in black and white.

I arrive at Gianvito's office and we start talking about his interest in film and his involvement with the Archive. "I'm an obsessive filmgoer," the soft-spoken young-looking man confesses right away, going so far as to guess that most of his life has been spent in the dark.

He tells me that he splits his time between an assistant professor position at UMass Boston and the Archive, and notes that while films that run from Monday through Thursday are generally Harvard course tie-ins, the weekend schedule is his to program as he wishes. I ask how he goes about picking films and he explains that his decisions are based on "a whole host of ingredients." But he makes sure to impart that he sees film as "an artistic means of expression, a personal means of expression."

This is part of the reason for the scarcity of popular American titles, he explains. "True art can surface anywhere...you can see a TV commercial that's a work of art." But he hastens to add, "I find commercial film-making akin to drug peddling." Switching metaphors, he continues, "it's like eating cotton candy--it might be nice once a year...but you're not getting a real meal, you're not getting real sustenance."

"We can't even produce a postage stamp that's beautiful," he laments, and he seems genuinely upset. "People grow up without seeing art as something necessary for the human spirit."

His frustration gets me down, and I feel somehow implicated by his criticism. I realize that I shouldn't have let my friends drag me (or my eight bucks) to the utterly dismal "Contact" this summer; I shouldn't have complained "I don't want to read a movie tonight" that time a friend was bent on renting a subtitled, Japanese-language video.

Gianvito and I get to talking about where the Archive gets its funding and he explains that the University pays for overhead costs and the salary of the tiny staff while course budgets take care of week-night films. But when I press him, he concedes that this is the extent of Harvard's support. There is no fountain of funds set aside to finance his weekend film series; he is more or less bound to take in enough in receipts over the course of the week to pay for his Friday and Saturday programs.

I'm surprised to learn that even the Harvard Film Archive, indifferent to the sway of popular appetites, uncompromising in its commitment to noncommercial films, can't escape fiscal pressures. And it dawns on me that it's a lucky thing there's a market for the sort of films that get shown in a setting built around that kind a commitment. It's a lucky thing that the unpopular films the Archives show are as popular as they are.

Because if they weren't...well, who knows?

Finally, it comes out that Gianvito has been working on a film for the last several years, using "small grants and 12 credit cards." The movie has been shot and its first 70 minutes have been edited in a room adjoining the one we are sitting in.

It's about the Persian Gulf War, he tells me, and right away I become terribly curious to know what kind of film he's come up with. But he warns that because of his responsibilities at UMass and the Archive, it will probably be some time before it gets finished. Even when it is done, he observes, it's not likely to show up at the Sony Harvard Square. And while he doesn't mention it, we both know that after it makes its way around the festival circuit, chances are it won't show up anywhere at all.

Dan S. Aibel's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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