Harvard Square is said to have the most bookstores per square foot of any American city. But its density of art house movie theaters proves that the Square’s intellectuals are more than just bookworms.
The Harvard Film Archive, the Brattle Theater and even the Loews Harvard Square Theater cater to sophisticated viewers—those who crave big-budget fun have to make the trek out to Boston Common or Fenway. The people behind the movies at these institutions have little tolerance for exploding cars or Hollywood endings.
The Brattle—founded by Cyrus I. Harvey ’47 and Briant N. Haliday ’49 in 1953—was the country’s first art house film theater.
Deeply influenced by the movies he had seen in Paris while on a Fulbright scholarship at the Sorbonne, Harvey selected the films that would be shown at his theater with the care and expertise of a curator.
Harvey located the Eisenstein classic Ivan the Terrible, Part II—then thought to have been destroyed by Stalin—and premiered it at the Brattle. He was also responsible for introducing contemporary European directors such as François Truffaut, Michaelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman to America. When he won an Oscar for The Virgin Spring in 1961, Bergman even had Harvey accept the award for him.
When not influencing the course of movie history, the Brattle still found time to leave its mark on the Harvard undergraduate experience.
In the mid-50s, Harvey and Haliday began screening Humphrey Bogart films annually during exam time.
“That’s something alums always come here and talk about,” says present-day owner Ned Hinkle. “Classes in the 50s and 60s were always blowing off exams to come see Bogart.”
A nation-wide Bogie cult ensued among college students, who would come to theaters and shout, “I want my Bogie.”
Legacies of the trend survive in the Square—the restaurant and bar Casablanca, located below the theater, was named in honor of the Bogart tradition.
Today, co-owners Hinkle and his wife Ivy Moylan, who have run the theater for the last year and a half, continue to promote cultural films they believe are neglected by larger theaters. Audiences are receptive—for the most part.
At the start of their tenure as owners, Hinkle and Moylan showcased an African-American directors series and a Cuban film series, both of which disappointed at the box office, according to Hinkle.
Of late, Hinkle says the Brattle has adopted a successful “vertical” series format, with themed days, such as Film Noir Mondays and Recent Rave Wednesdays.
Hinkle says in a gleeful tone, “Our biggest prize was Pépé Le Moko. The film is beautiful and amazing, but we didn’t think it’d be that successful.”
The film calendar is created as a group enterprise, with all Brattle employees contributing—the Brattle hires only people “with a passion for film,” says Hinkle. The theater tries to ensure that new prints of classics get shown and tends to use directors’ birthdays as excuses to do series on them. Harvard students are specifically targeted when the calendars are drawn up.
“They’re a large part of our audience,” says Hinkle. “We feel it when school is not in session and during exams.”
But if students are no longer blowing off their finals for the silver screen, the school’s presence still gives the Brattle that all important je ne sais quoi.
“Harvard Square is the only location for the Brattle; we could do the same program somewhere else and probably do really well. But it’s about the spirit,” says Hinkle.
The Harvard Film Archive (HFA) was started in 1978 by Professors Robert Gardner and Vlada Petric, as a complement to Harvard’s visual and environmental studies (VES) department.
But with an Advisory Board boasting such names as Tommy Lee Jones ’69, John Lithgow ’67 and Liv Ullmann, the HFA has certainly come into its own since that time.
“Gardner and Petric believed that films should be shown to students in conjunction with a live audience, which is why the HFA is open to the public,” says Price. “You can play The Rules of the Game for a class of 15 students, but also have 100 people from the Cambridge public in the theater, as a way of experiencing the film the way it was released,” he says.
But Harvard affiliates can also come in and check out the Renoir classic on DVD to watch solo—“We’re also actively archiving and maintaining DVD and VHS collections,” Price adds.
But film is the main focus of the archive, which has about 9000 prints in its collection. Gardner, who was a non-fiction film-maker, ensured that the collection was extremely strong in its non-fiction films.
Today, as the film department in VES puts a strong emphasis on non-fiction films, this specialization is extremely helpful for Harvard film students.
“A TF or a professor can literally go through our collection and choose a film for the class, and simply have the projectionist put it up—which is very untypical for film classes in the country, who usually see things on video,” says Price.
But the HFA does not rest on its cinematographic laurels. Hardly a week goes by that some big-name director doesn’t come to introduce their work in person.
“Because we are subsidized by Harvard, we can do that. It’s a difference between us and other art houses, such as the Brattle,” says Price.
Last month, the HFA hosted Burkina Faso director Gaston Kaboré as its sixth Genevieve MacMillan and Reba Stewart Fellowship for Distinguished Filmaking recipient. The award honors francophone African directors and was established by the eponymous Cambridge residents.
MacMillan is better known to Harvard students as the resident who pushed successfully for Tommy’s to reduce its hours of operation.
Asked whether the award was at all an honor for him in an interview, Kaboré shrugs and replies, “I’ve already recieved the Official Jury Award at Cannes, and at the Venice Film Festival, so this was really just something for fun.”
He added that he knew MacMillan previously, as she had introduced herself to him a few years back when he presented one of his films in Boston. This personal connection pushed him to accept the award at Harvard.
The HFA isn’t always so lucky in getting the speakers it wants, however.
Famous Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami was to have presented his latest movie Ten on Oct. 7, as part of a tour begining at the Lincoln Center Film Festival, but was denied a U.S. visa following the Sept. 11 attacks. The HFA’s advocacy on Kiarostami’s behalf left U.S. immigration officials unmoved.
Despite the archive’s importance in the world of international film, however, its primary identity remains that of an academic institution, serving the VES department.
Films are shown only when Harvard is in session, and Harvard affiliates get in for a reduced $5, except for VES concentrators, who have a free ride.
The HFA also collaborates with a number of professors when determining their regular schedule so as to complement their curriculums.
The HFA will be showing a number of films from Foreign Cultures 76, “Mass Culture in Nazi Germany,” as part of their regular calendar, in adition to screening films for the class every Monday afternoon. Two of the films being shown are Münchhausen and Rambo: First Blood, the last of which Professor Rentschler believes portrays a jingoistic patriotism similar to Nazi propaganda.
At the Loews theater, artistic concerns do not determine what runs.
According to Loews spokesperson John McCauley, “The process of film allocation of theaters is based on demographics.”
Though the theater shows more “artsy” films than most Loews theaters, that is only because “artsy” films are what sell in the Square, according to McCauley.
At Loews, a number of film experts choose which movies will play at the theater, based on systematic explorations of what peoples in different regions want to see.
“They just know,” he says, “They watch tons of movies, they read reviews. They know who the customer is.”
And so, low-budget movies like Frida and Igby Goes Down tend to grace the marquees.
But profit is not the only motivating factor behind the movies that get played at Loews.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been playing at the theater every Friday for the last 20 years, according to McCauley. The tradition started when a high-ranking college official requested that the theater show it regularly.
“It has a following,” says McCauley. “Regulars will go to see it every couple of weeks.”
If viewers have their way, they’ll be going to the theater for years to come.