Losing the Light, Keeping the Inspiration: Vilmos Zsigmond

In January of 2011, I saw 2 films that changed the way that I think about masculinity and cinema: ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE (James William Guercio, 1973) & SCARECROW (Jerry Schatzberg, 1973).
Really, they became two of my favorite films in life. But that is a whole other story.
Looking back, my impetus to attend stemmed from two things: my friend Cathie’s love of the EGIB soundtrack (which we played all the time in the car) and my purchase of the VHS for Jerry Schatzberg’s SCARECROW when I was working at Amoeba in the early ’00s. I remember the cover –
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And I remember thinking: Hackman and Pacino did a movie together?? What???
So that story ends in a rather anti-climactic manner. I never watched the VHS. In fact, I no longer have the damn thing.
But I’m so glad. You can only lose your Movie Virginity for a film once and theatrically is the best way to do it.
This is the second time I’ve written on this screening. It had a heavy impact on me.
The first time, I wrote about ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE for the film noir blogathon. This night was one of the best film memories/screenings of my life. And considering how many movies I’ve seen….THAT’S saying something.
Retracing my steps to 5 years ago. I had originally had plans for the night but they fell through so I did what any normal, red-blooded, cinematically-charged girl would do: I biked over to the LA County Museum of Art and attended the series that I had (sadly) missed most of, entitled “True Grit: The Golden Age of Road Movies.” I had no idea that there was a guest that night. I was there to see these rare films that never screen. And I was really excited about SCARECROW. I knew nothing about it- was it a comedy? Drama? Thriller? Somewhere in between? I had intentionally done no exhaustive research on it because I wanted to go in fresh. To be fair, even now it is rare to find people who are that familiar with the film, even though I feel it is top quality, desert-island material.
My time-memory is not perfect, but considering that the photo I took of my ticket says the double-feature began at 5:00pm, I think that it would make sense that our man Vilmos took the stage post-double feature.
I could lie and say that I was highly educated on the man’s career. But why? I wasn’t. It was more educational and beautiful to be introduced to him in this manner.
It would be absolutely fair, however, to say that yours truly had a decent idea of who he was. While I couldn’t name any film titles off the top of my head, I had seen many by that time.  Mostly, I knew that there was this wonderful bearded signatory of the cinematographic community being welcomed gloriously to the stage, and…I just wanted to give him a hug. He beamed from ear to ear and I’m still not sure if I breathed during the Q&A or just smiled dumbly like I was high on drugs. Vilmos was infectious!!
He laughed and enjoyed the questions and discussion, thought it was funny that people were in such awe of his work. He shrugged so many times. “We just did it,” was his approach. A very classical no-nonsense approach.
He smiled, shook his head, told stories. He thought the whole thing was a gas.
All the things that he spoke about that night, I now treasure- as a professional in the film industry, as an archivist, preservationist, historian and film lover.
He spoke about coming to this country and working with Lazslo Kovacs, and how their relationship and Hungarian”ness” really added a new flavor to what was going on in film at the time.LazloVilmos
He even spoke about working on THE SADIST (James Landis, 1963) a little bit, where he was billed as William Zsigmond. This was pretty thrilling to me because I really love this film.SadistLobbyCard1963
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Vilmos was allowed to talk, mostly uninterrupted, about certain technical and narrative aspects of SCARECROW that he was involved in.
The film relied quite a bit on improvisation (not always a cinematographer’s friend) and yet Zsigmond rolled with it, going so far as to call this work one of the “better of my films.” Even though he admitted that it was quite dark- content-wise and visually, matching many European films at the time as far as lighting went.
An audience member asked about an opening scene in which there were tumbleweeds rolling by as Pacino and Hackman stand at opposite sides of the road. Was this planned out? Did they choreograph the tumbleweeds? Vilmos just laughed. “They were tumbleweeds! They were around. They do what those things do.” No, Virginia, there were no tumbleweed wranglers.
Vilmos Zsigmond spoke about the way the film was shot and their “cinemobile.” He said it was dreadfully hot inside the car and while it was certainly a communal experience, it was a learning opportunity and tough.
I felt like I was going to film school just listening to him reminisce. But it wasn’t in a sad-nostalgia way or “tough-guy-walk-up-the-hill-in-the-snow” way. He treated the audience as though we were friends.
Debra Levine quotes Zsigmond in her review of the evening‘s double feature at LACMA:

[Scarecrow] was a real road movie, made on a very low-budget, $800,000. We went to Bakersfield, we had to shoot in sequence. We were on the road. We sent someone ahead to find locations. There were no sets in the film. We used motel rooms and bars. We had a cinemobile [bus] that held everything, actors, equipment, crew. We had unusual crew, the smallest I ever saw, camera, gaffer, key grip, sound man, dolly man, boom operator. Everyone was helping; the driver of the cinemobile was pulling cables. We were traveling every day. At the beginning, in L.A., we went through the script and agreed on what we were doing. We settled in Denver, but we had no time to rehearse. [On the road] we had no time for rehearsal.

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Al Pacino and Gene Hackman in Jerry Schatzberg’s SCARECROW (1973). Courtesy Warner Bros./Jerry Schatzberg

Vilmos Zsigmond’s eyes sparkled as he spoke, he had passion in his voice and love for his art. But he was a relaxed and centered guy. I never met him one-on-one, but I met his movies. I met him that night when I saw him speak about the film that I have now had the privilege to see twice on a big screen- once at LACMA and once at the Turner Classic Film Festival (TCMFF).
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When you love what you do and you live for what you do, it’s hard to keep it inside. You exude that joy and dedication. That is the only way I can adequately describe Vilmos Zsigmond. He is so inspiring in that sense. Although he has passed away, he will always be inspiring in that regard. This is a man who filmed the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, escaped his homeland, and then shot films as diverse as HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS (Al Adamson, 1970), BLOW OUT (Brian DePalma, 1981) and REAL GENIUS (Martha Coolidge, 1985).
Aside from SCARECROW (obviously), I’m a sucker for BLOW OUT (Brian DePalma, 1981), THE LONG GOODBYE (Robert Altman, 1973), and MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER (Robert Altman, 1971). I consider these films to be part of my family. I will certainly admit to playing favorites on SCARECROW and BLOW OUT, however.
Tonight I will be watching SUMMER CHILDREN (James Bruner, 1965), another film that Zsigmond was credited on as “William Zsigmond” and lit by his pal, Laslo Kovacs. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve never seen it. There is very little written on it and I may pursue this more.
Wish I could see it in a theater, but them’s the brakes.
From what I have found, this film is another interesting addition to his oeuvre. It has been labeled “neo-noir” and American New Wave and all sorts of things. I’m excited because it features Catalina Island- one of my favorite places on the planet.summerchildren1965
I would like to do some more in-depth research on it (especially as to the actual restoration process) but my brief look came up with a reasonable synopsis.
It was thought to be a lost film (although it was finished) but elements (including original camera negatives) were found in the early 2000’s and sound elements were located in other vaults. Apparently (as it goes in a case like this, from my understanding) a restoration was completed using a combination of the best elements that they located from all of these vaults over time, and Zsigmond assisted on the creation of the final product, getting it back to some estimation of what it was to look like.
If you have Amazon Prime, you can watch this tonight as well. I’m greatly looking forward to it.
I consider myself lucky to have been so warmly gifted with his laughter and stories for one night. I am also lucky because I will be able to have his films forever. While I absolutely am not a binary “digital or film or die!” person, I will say this about Zsigmond: he knew how to use the format of film. And I hope that those working with digital instruments today will take that under consideration and experiment, perhaps, with film while it is still around because there is something different there. Not better, not worse, simply different. And it is what digital is based upon. And cinematographers like Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond built that machine. Let us try not to hire the wrecking ball too soon, eh?
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Eric Caidin: Los Angeles Legend, Hollywood Cultural Treasure and My Friend

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Got the stupid phone call earlier today. I had just woken up. My cats hadn’t even switched positions from where we went to sleep the night before.

I did the same thing that I did when I got the phone call that Sherman Torgan died. I was so dead silent that the person on the other end had to check if I was still there. In fact, it was the same person who told me in both cases.

I argued with my friend: “Are you sure? This isn’t a rumor or a mistake?” I knew it wasn’t. “You’re absolutely positive? This CAN’T be true. This is not someone we can afford to lose. We really need him.” Which was a mixture of the oral historian/archivist/scholar in me speaking but the Film Friend saying: I really need him. I’m going to miss this man so fiercely. He changed my life. Who will I see and hug now at film events? Who can I giggle with in that way we did?

My friend on the phone, who had his own extremely intimate relationship with Eric, was good with me. But he assured me that it was not a mistake. I said that maybe we brought it on by talking about people we had lost over the weekend. Was it our fault? “No, Ariel, it’s not our fault. He had a heart attack. We are not responsible.”

I still feel responsible. If I hadn’t brought that topic up last Saturday, would Eric still be with us? I know I’m not responsible. But I also keep wanting to wake up from some stupid nightmare and have this be false information. However, after seeing an article already published in Los Angeles magazine…I guess it’s not somnolence-related.

I wish all of you could have met Eric Caidin. I’m sure many of you did, perhaps for more than 20 years. I can only claim to have been Film Friends with him for 13-14 years. But my first introductions to Grindhouse Cinema were through him. And I had no idea what the term meant. Like zero clue.

Original storefront for Hollywood Book & Poster

Original storefront for Hollywood Book & Poster

Eric Caidin owned and ran Hollywood Book & Poster in the very center of Hollywood for years. In fact, it was only within the last year that it closed (due to raised rents, go figure). The plan was for HB&P to relocate to a highly popular spot in Burbank for themed boutiques, certainly one that would have been well-suited to Caidin’s years of hard work and skilled curation of motion-picture themed collectibles. As a woman who has grown up in this city and watched as places like Book City, C.C. Brown’s and other signature Hollywood Blvd landmarks disappear, this was sad. But I was also excited for their new future since I believed in the “Caidin Touch.”

If you watched Eric at a Convention or at a Q&A, if you had him hand you a flyer for a Kiddee Matinee at the New Beverly or any of the umpteen thousand projects that he did aside from running that shopyou would see something that we are lacking in 2015: THE ULTIMATE SHOWMAN.

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Eric in his “milieu” at a convention! Always on & always “on it”!

He didn’t do a little bit of everything, he did a LOT of everything. And he knew about everything. While kids need google now and barely anyone remembers using real encyclopedias or card catalogs, Eric Caidin was a walking encyclopedia. And not just on horror films or exploitation- but on all kinds of cinema/pop culture. And on wrestling?? Expert!! And I. Love. Wrestling. Eric and I had so many conversations about the squared circle. In fact, almost every time I saw him- New Beverly, Noir City, running into him at random film screening- if there was some random wrestling thing (mainly Mexican Wrestling, but a good deal of other stuff too) that he was involved in, he would tell me about it and ask me if I wanted to go. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and I hate that it is, but I am sure as hell sorry that I never watched wrestling with Mr. Eric Caidin.

A favorite personal Eric Story:

Many years ago, I’m down at Comic Con to present on a panel. As usual, I go by the Hollywood Book & Poster table to say hello and chill out and have some laughs with Eric. The day goes on, and Caidin says:

“Hey- you wanna go to Mexico with me tonight and get some wrestling masks and go to a match?”

UM, OBVIOUSLY. So the hall closes, we get into a van, park at the border, get a cab into Mexico. The match was a bust, we spent about an hour driving around TJ with Eric, laughing and listening to him talk to the cabbie, trying to figure out where there might be some Lucha. There was none. We went to a stadium and there were some guys outside who talked to us, told us there was a bullfight? No lucha. We got back in the cab. We returned to the main drag.

“Oh well. So much for that. Got this GREAT place to eat though.” So Eric Caidin took us to a place called “Tacos Not Drugs.” Still the best molé I have ever eaten. I don’t know what happened to the pictures that we took, which is sad. They had a “Tacos Not Drugs” stand-up with places for you to put your face. What a night.

But Eric was a Los Angeles Film Community Raconteur, in the very best sense of the word. Every time I saw him at a film event, I was overjoyed at being in his presence and at getting to bask in his experience and knowledge. Because he was one-of-a-kind and he genuinely loved film.  I spent a few hours at the final party of the Noir City party in 2014 listening to him tell me great stories that just made my jaw drop. And I just kept hugging him and asking him: “How do you even exist? Are you writing these things down? These stories are so fantastic?” And he just shrugged and told me another, while patting his fabulous film-related tie. Another thing- I loved Eric Caidin’s ties. NO ONE COULD EVER ROCK THAT THREE STOOGES TIE LIKE CAIDIN. And no one should ever try. End. Of. Story.

This tie was the best ever. No one could wear this like Caidin.

This tie was the best ever. No one could wear this like Caidin.

We joked about gangster pix and decided to try to take a gangster picture together that night. It didn’t quite work, but we had such a great time.

Eric Caidin- the bandit!

Eric Caidin- the bandit! With another AMAZING Three Stooges tie!

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My Film Friend ❤

I suppose when you hear of someone close to you dying you need to process it in certain ways, right? I want to remember the times that I had with him and our fabulous personal relationship, but that was personal.

No one reading this will know the singular joy I felt when I saw him at festivals or events. And I don’t get to do that ever again. That’s fucking painful. He gave great hugs. I like good hugs.

I always brightened because I recognized a Fellow Traveler. And by that I mean someone who engaged in the world of cinema for the Right Reason (and yes, there is One Right Reason): because you love and enjoy it and it makes you happy. It entertains you.

Many people knew Eric without “knowing” Eric. He was one of the founders of the Grindhouse Cinema screening series at the New Beverly Theater where he would show up, always wearing that baseball cap and that jacket that he loved (which was probably one of the 10 ugliest pieces of clothing that has ever been invented), and introduced so many forgotten film titles with Brian Quinn. This much-loved film series still continues and was an education for many cinephiles over the years. Before there was Cinefamily and their cult-screenings, before Cinefile even existed with specialized sections, there was Grindhouse night at the New Beverly. The only thing in LA that was comparable was Mondo Video but….that’s a whole other thing and that was a video store.

Grindhouse night at the New Beverly was one of the most flavorful and unique things that Los Angeles repertory theater culture has ever had. Sherman Torgan knew that, Michael Torgan recognized it, and it remains there today, albeit in a slightly changed capacity. But Eric Caidin’s influence on the minds and eyes of so many audiences in the Los Angeles area is hard to gauge. It’s expansive. To give you a slight idea, here are a few images from past calendars:

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Speaking from a media archiving standpoint, Eric Caidin was an exceptional person. He curated ephemera in a remarkable manner for fans and special interest groups for many years and was a specialist in this area. His masterful ability to engage “lost” Hollywood personalities and recenter them within a space that made them feel special was a gift that not everyone has. Because of his own love, admiration and fandom for the work that he was presenting, he was able to show respect for the materials showcased and the people that he interviewed or who came to his booth during the multitude of conventions that he would attend. Whether it was Rowdy Roddy Piper, Vampira or Ann Robinson, Caidin was a scholar and a gentlemen…albeit in a Monsterpalooza baseball cap most of the time.  But really- who is the arbiter of what scholarly or gentlemanly aesthetics should be, anyway? The man was a rock star and we will always remember him as such.

In 2015, when fandoms seem to be more about the “haters” and which fan item is better than another, Eric Caidin never pursued such folly. Thus his cultural power and ability to gain love from us made him legend. This icon who celebrated media so brightly and spent his life sharing that adoration with others is gone. And that sucks.

Men like Eric Caidin don’t “just happen.” He programmed the works posted above and was completely jazzed about the recent slew of Kiddie Matinees that he had going at the New Beverly. He handed me a flier from one of them and talked excitedly about how I had to come. “All in 35mm! You’ll love it, Ariel. It’ll be a great afternoon!” and then started telling me about the other ones that he was planning.

Eric Caidin was the most joyful Talker I’ve ever met not standing on the ballyway.

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Eric Caidin attended the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival this past weekend and passed away after having what I have been told was a lovely meal with some of my other most dear and closest Film Friends. One of the things I have come to cherish about my years with Eric was seeing him at the Festivals- TCM, Noir City, AFI, you name it. We’d dish, talk about what we’d seen, who we thought was good, all the filmy things. It was good to talk to him because there was no ridiculous drama. It was great and I felt like I was talking to an adult. All we talked about was what was important: film content, quality of print, similarity to other films, quality/calibre of performance, things that are so very valuable in a conversation. He would inevitably bring up something I hadn’t heard of. I would inevitably forget it and have to ask him next time what it was that we were talking about the last time we talked. Sometimes he’d remember, sometimes not. But such is life.

Something in me says that “if he was gonna go, at least it was after a fabulous weekend of seeing film noir and Q&As with Norman Lloyd and Jon Polito, and being with loved ones. That’s exactly the way I’d wanna go.” The other part is saying, “dammit, what was the last thing/movie we talked about?” and is terribly sad that there won’t be a “next time” refresher for whatever it was.

Thank you Eric Caidin. I still can’t believe you are gone. This is going to take a while.

Archiving: The Personal, the Professional and the Unknown Experience

I don’t usually use this space for personal entries, but sometimes, in archiving, the personal and the professional mix. While that can be a death sentence on public space and social media (if used incorrectly), there are times when the connection of the two can lead to a fascination rumination on career choices, life choices and philosophies. You can make the decision about what I have done after you complete this entry.

A great many people in my life have inspired me with archiving & preservation. Starting with Laura Rooney​, Kristina Kersels and the AMIA organization, moving forward to the amazing Dennis Doros, the AMAZING Film Noir Foundation and Eddie Muller, and continuing with a list of a zillion people. These days, my amazing conversations that keep me afloat/sane are my Library Ladies, Eunice Y. Liu​, Rachel E. Beattie​ & Stacy Jyl McKenna​. Because they get stupid jokes that might start with “So three catalogers walk into a bar…” I can’t name everyone, but the issue is this: being an independent/freelance archivist is really tough. I have some really tough moments. I am trained. I am passionate. Sometimes those things don’t work well together. I’m well aware. I’m working on it. I’m also not ready to give up. I love what I do too much. And…it’s way too important.

My archive partner and colleague Adam balances me out. He’s my best friend. I’ve never been able to work with someone THIS WELL before. It may be due to the fact that he & I have been through hell & back together, but that’s another story for another time. Let’s just say this: it’s one of the best working relationships I have ever found and he is amazingly supportive of all the things that I get anxious about. Something I really need right now, in this delicate time. I think there’s going to be great things that will happen from this. My gut says so.

BUT….I digress. I have learned something INCREDIBLY important this week. I became an archivist to save moving image history initially. I thought (at first) that I wanted it to be something “larger,” something “big.” I think I was maybe really wrong. Like SERIOUSLY wrong. I may get more rewards from the exact opposite.

This last week I began helping one of my dearest friends for the last 20+ years Margo Stern​ begin to deal with her incredibly talented father’s film collection. What I realized is that this life that I have chosen is actually meaningful to me because it really makes people happy. See, Margo’s dad isn’t doing well.

I desperately desperately wish we could have assessed (& made digitally accessible) this collection when he was. I kept saying to Adam as we were playing and inspecting some of the commercial reels, “Goddamn, I wish we could’ve done this earlier when we could’ve enjoyed this with David (Margo’s dad) and had him tell us the stories behind these advertisements!”

See, much like 16mm educational films (something else that I focus on in my personal work), Adam and I are of the opinion that commercials are in this highly unloved/unappreciated category of film/film-making and should truly be revisited. In this way, David Stern was really a master. He had humor, he had art, he worked with the product, he SOLD it! Man. I was so hungry after some of those commercials!!

I am getting untold glee out of Getting To Know David Stern from his film work (I only spoke to him on the phone once). It means getting to know his daughter better (always awesome, because Margo is one of the most awesome humans on the planet) and it means looking at a space in time on the commercial spectrum in US moving image work (he did primarily commercial work), and so many other things.

Mostly, however, it has meant documenting every little thing, quality & condition, individual reels (some were lab new!!), and looking at a full collection basically in retrospect and finding things that are now considered complete treasures but in the 1970s were simple TV spots. I have learned about products that don’t exist anymore, underwear companies that used to play music for their employees at lunch time and how much time David Stern spent in Texas (a good chunk).

However, the most amazing part of this experience so far has been what I am calling my “Unknown” experience. If you are a film nerd or archive-y geek, you are familiar with the story of the Browning film, THE UNKNOWN and how the print sat for many years in a pile of “unknown” prints simply due to its lovely but rather unfortunately title. It was a lost film…until (luckily) it was found.

It was about 3am. We had completed the inventory of the single commercials and inspected and correctly documented (many of them were totally wrong) everything that was on Stern’s collection of compilations reels. There was one more 16mm film in a grey plastic can and it was simply marked “brazil.” We had initially put it with the stack of home movies in the corner (the “bad” corner, since many of those films are in early stages of vinegar syndrome, but we will be handling that next week! Stay tuned film fans!) but in a different area, since it was not vinegar (this gets complicated- but trust me- I have a large space and plenty of places to put/separate things).

We went to revisit this can since it was the same grey can as the rest of the compilation reels and the home movies were all in metal, so we were a little suspicious anyway. We opened the can and it said “Brazil 66.” Okay. So looking back now? I should have known. I did, in fact, know that there was a band called Brazil 66. But here is the thing: The Stern Family also traveled…A LOT. And the family films are actually labeled, too! And pretty well! But then we saw the soundtrack. And we knew that it couldn’t be one of the family films. So….onto my boyfriend Elmo (my Projector is an ELMO projector, I spend much time with it, thus…my boyfriend) we thread up the reel.

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Adam and I look at each other DUMBFOUNDED. Not only is this gorgeous footage, but it’s famous.

As I wrote to Margo, our initial thoughts on this reel, due to the “Brazil 66” label and due to the other elements in the collection were that this film was going to be:

a) industrial travel film, b) educational film that David collected, or c) ???
Turns out that it was d) OMGWTFTOTALLYAWESOME. This was a reel of Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66. AS IN THE BAND.

And if you would like to see a partial clip of what is on the full reel, some of it is on youtube. Here is the clip:

I immediately contacted Margo to tell her. It was kinda amazing for me. I was beyond myself. I don’t know if this is a “great” archival “find” but for the family it certainly is. Margo’s response was enough. “ARE YOU SURE HE DID THIS?” essentially was what I got back. And I was so so so happy to be able to say, with absolute confidence, “Yes, I am absolutely positive. We have several commercials that he made for Carnation from the Urie company during the same time period, and the Urie tag is on the heads and tails of the Brazil 66 film. Your father, David Stern, made this crazy psychedelic masterpiece of film & music.”

If you look close, Urie is scribed right near the Brazil 66.

If you look close, Urie is scribed right near the Brazil 66.

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So, the thing about the reel is that the song on that clip? “Mas Que Nada”? That’s not the only thing on that lovely bit of 16mm. The reel is about 5-7 minutes. It’s 2 music videos. And to further prove that David Stern created that? We watched the 16mm Turtles music video that he made that is in the Stern collection. Yes, that Turtles.

There are some pretty distinct similarities. Unfortunately, the Youtube version is not that great, but once again…the 16mm looks FABULOUS. Damn, I love film.

Adam has been great in being the neutral archive person for me & the one to assist while I document all of the elements in a central database so that we can sort it out and get it ready for digitizing. Our primary goal in this project is for the Stern Family to be able to enjoy David Stern’s work as we have been able to. If this sounds like it is all fun and games, it isn’t. You do have to watch the same bits and pieces of material sometimes 20 times in an hour (commercials are :30, remember, and not everything that was done for money was great and fun).

But I really love my job and this is best part of it. I do not envy my wonderful friend her situation. She is one of the best people I have ever known in my life and there is no doubt  in my mind that much of that comes from her dad. She’s a smart cookie, and this film work is smart as hell.

Finding a balance between the personal and the professional in a situation like this is very very difficult. There is nothing I can actually say with my mouth to make this family situation better for her. What I can do is try and help her family get some peace by doing what I am trained to do: archive, preserve, appreciate. I am honored to be working on the Stern Family Collection and appreciate this opportunity. It’s a real gift.

I hope that anyone who reads this can start to consider thinking about their own family collections and how they might begin to assess them before it gets to “that point.” Home movies, student films, commercial work, any of those kinds of items are valuable. This is valuable content. And there are many highly-trained and dedicated individuals like myself who find nothing but pleasure in assisting you and your families in the organization of that content into a manageable form. It may seem intimidating now, but, as I always say about film/archival work (and I do always say this, ask anyone) “Anything is possible.”

Why We Watch: Theatrical Attendance, Archiving and Individualism

It has been a whirlwind last few weeks. Things have been moving so quickly that I haven’t slowed down enough to be able to put both feet on the ground! Either that or I’ve been so thrilled by all the fantastic things that have been happening that I am in a permanent state of 5 feet above the pavement. I’ll let you know which one it is when I know. Which may (fingers crossed) be never…

Exciting things? A life-changing AMIA Conference in Savannah, GA which included meeting Ian Mackaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi. Participating in a truly kick-ass small gauge workshop where I learned so much. Attending a fabulous Home Movie Day recently, and a new archiving/metadata project that I’ve been busting my ass on. I’m loving EVERY MINUTE. The latter of these things was yet another case of a colleague in the archiving community reaching out, too. I swear to reels and sprockets if it wasn’t for film preservation and the folks I know and have met in the last few years? I would be lost. L-O-S-T.

Admittedly, something has been bothering me. I have tried not to let it get to me too much because I have all these other things going on but… I can’t stop thinking about it. So here is me. Talking about some things. And I’m not going to bullshit. And I’m not going to beat around the bush. But I am also not here to trash-talk, get personal or nasty. This is not a gossip piece. With that said, let’s get the initial stuff out of the way so we can talk about the REAL issues.

By now many people have probably seen the blog written by Julia Marchese, former employee of the New Beverly Cinema. You may recognize the name of this theater as the one that I have written about several times . Without getting into details or reposting the blog (go ahead and find it yourself if you need to) her article discusses how she felt that she got the raw end of the deal in her recent “dismissal.” While I found her article problematic from a working professional’s standpoint, I think I found the public response even more disturbing. Much of the blind support and anti-theater sentiment came from people who had never met her and/or had never even visited the New Beverly. This felt weird to me.

Do I feel bad that someone, anyone lost their job? Absolutely. But did I think that it was news in the same time period that Home Movie Day was happening (a great film preservation event) or when such fascinating pieces are being written about Christopher Nolan and INTERSTELLAR‘s exhibition changes? Not really. So I was ready to just blow it off. But then it happened. Not once, not twice but over and over. Within the few articles that I read, Julia was referred to as the “heart and soul” and “public face” of the New Beverly Cinema, either by the author or within the comments. How an employee of 6 years could be either of those things for a theater that is 36 years old made me feel even more uneasy.

These phrases and this structure of characterization is what I REALLY wish to explore. I wish to center my discussion on what I see as a kind of posturing, and let me reiterate: it is not endemic to this situation nor to this person. I have seen it before in other situations. I’m sure we all have. But my issue is as follows: anytime someone is built up with their own personal importance emphasized before that of their institution’s or what their institution does, there is a major problem. Especially if that person is not considered to be a major figure within said institution. Not only can this cause unrest and poor work relations in a given work environment, it’s not a healthy way to present any company or team atmosphere. I can only speak from where I sit and this is why sharing credit and community recognition has always been one of the greatest assets to the moving image archiving community. It tends to prevent situations like this. But….not 100% of the time. As Billy Wilder wrote, “Nobody’s perfect.”

From my experience, it is antithetical to our primary goal as a film preservation community to peacock, especially if you have a significant attachment to a company- be it educational institution, regional archive, studio or movie theater. What I have seen within my own community (and yes, Virginia, there are politics in the most altruistic of film preservation worlds) is that those folks who see themselves as an archivist/preservationist first and then an individual are generally far more successful and usually become the central touchstones of this magical world I am part of. That has said worlds to me as I train to become the woman I want to become. Thus I get awfully suspicious when I begin to see any kind of cult of personality being built around someone who has stated that they are tirelessly working for the betterment of the film community on their own.

Now let’s get into wording and some basic reality. Here is a cold, hard fact: the heart and soul of a movie theater will always be the films it shows. It will never solely be a person. What a theater shows creates its personality, its individual culture, its ambience. A programmer is a good portion of that, which is why people like Michael and Sherman Torgan’s development and creation OF the New Beverly is SO VITAL TO BE RECOGNIZED. In addition, Phil Blankenship’s Saturday Midnight series at the New Beverly was a major part of its personality. Brian Quinn and Eric Caiden’s Grindhouse Series. The guest programmers. Hell, even my series added a little bit (I like to think). My point is: content creates character

When I go to the Heavy Midnights series at the Cinefamily, I’m not going specifically to hang with the programmer (sorry, Phil!). I go to see the incredible and rare off-beat movies shown. When I go to the American Cinematheque, I don’t attend the films because I want to chat with the folks I know that work there. It’s a nice perk, but I go to see the movies. There are some incredible programmers in this town. The film events going on are really unbeatable. But am I switching my schedule around and looking at bus plans so I can get to the Echo Park Film Center to be hip? Not even close. I’m doing it because that place is an amazing and dynamic part of LA Film Culture. I get to see cool shit. Really, isn’t it all about seeing cool shit?

Archives work in the same manner. What we collect, how we process and care for the collections, our rules and regulations and our interactions with other professional organizations (including locations of exhibition) help to define us. While we may all have our own individual identities as archivists, projectionists, exhibition specialists, I firmly believe that we are also part of larger systems. Not only are we part of the businesses or organizations that employ us, but we are also tied in through an umbilical-cord-like-network, an over-arching community called FILM. We answer to it as our primary boss. If Mama Film wasn’t there…neither would we be.

What we are not is regimes. If you’re curious, my stance on the New Beverly format issue has not changed. I’m not going to alter my researched and valid personal position that a theater should be equipped with everything from digital to 16mm. And I’m not going to change my opinion about the way in which the New Beverly transition was conducted. I don’t think it was professionally done nor was it respectful. But I highly object to the repeated use of the word REGIME, in reference to either the Torgan family or Tarantino.

Neither of them are tyrannical rulers or fascists. Let’s get real, people. This is a damn movie theater, not the Third Reich. Regime?? Just stop.

 

I would like very much for us to think about why we go to the movies at all. During the Depression, people went to get a sliver of happiness from the horrors of the world. As Hollywood legend Norman Lloyd notes, “They were a wonderful escape. People would go into the theater, in this darkened cavern, and it took them out of themselves. They could fantasize about what happened on the screen, about those beautiful stars that existed then.” I like to think that we still do that. I know that I do. It’s why I went into preservation work. So that the little babies that my friends are having right now can experience what I experience. Big screen magic of beautiful (or beautifully told) stories.

Yes, I returned to the NEW New Beverly last night. I went to go see the two George C. Scott pictures. And I had a great time.

I spent some time soul-searching this week. Clearly. I deeply explored ideas of self-promotion and individuality, love for the medium and exhibition landscape, ideas of preservation. I had major thoughts about the evolution of Los Angeles film spaces, too, since many of the theaters I attended as a little girl are now gone. Even the Egyptian Theater is itself a new iteration- it’s the American Cinematheque. At some point I got all Emma Goldman up in my head, angry at anyone who would try to personally claim ownership for a media environment when it should belong to us all…but that passed. I just put on some punk rock and remembered that DIY archiving is totally a thing and that calmed me down. I just started working on a database. It’s the Ariel Zen.

I had thought that boycotting the New Beverly was going to be my answer but it’s a really stupid answer. Here is where I stand. As someone who puts film above almost everything else in life (including many human relationships), I feel much more comfortable going back there now that I know that I will be able to be in a climate that is more film-centered than personality-centered. My biggest concern? What’re you playing, man? What’s on the marquee? Last night was pretty nice. I was able to breathe easy, enjoy the films, laugh too loud at the damn cartoon that no one else was laughing at (it’s a cartoon, guys!!), got to see some people who I genuinely adore, and watch some rarely screened pictures.

Also, as I was saying to someone in the lobby, one of my favorite things about being in the archiving/preservation field is that I get to learn about new media elements or historical facts on a regular basis. This also happens in exhibition. And that’s just a joy and a pleasure. I saw some trailers last night for films that I have NEVER heard of before. I must see MOVIE/MOVIE. That film looks awesome!!! 

The print for the first film, RAGE, was pretty gnarly, but as someone who’s familiar with 35mm, I know that watching them in this condition is important for me to do so I may learn more about analog and see what I can suss out myself. Is that discoloration due to film stock? Is that a base scratch? Is that due to bad printing? To be honest, this is great practice for me! RAGE does exist on Warner Archives and I’ll bet that their DVD is in better condition but….I’ll take big screen over DVD any day.  The audience reaction alone was worth the price of admission!!!!!!!!! And I’ve seen FAR worse prints. Definitely worth a watch so hey- there’s my plug for Warner Archives! Baby Martin Sheen! OMGZ!! The second print, THE SAVAGE IS LOOSE was simply gorgeous (and a much better film, I might add). I cannot stop thinking about it. Such an incredible, bizarre and eerie film. Absolutely loved it.

I can only speak for myself. But from what I have gleaned, I get the sense that the one thing that Michael Torgan and Quentin Tarantino share is the fact that they want films to keep playing at the New Beverly. They may have differing ideas on methodology, but I think that this mutual drive for exhibition and the strong desire for films to be seen is something that needs to be recognized in both men. This is something to be respected. I see this in my own field in the people who fight tooth and nail to keep their archives afloat. It’s not easy. And things are changing all the time. I don’t want to be prescriptive here. I’ve just come to some resolutions over the last week that may make me less than popular with friends but make me feel ethically better with my field of choice and with my self.

I’m not going to be an apologist for anyone or their actions. In fact, I’m staying wholly clear of that. But I also want to examine the idea that maybe we should be deciding for ourselves the ways in which we consume moving image media. And I do believe that it is important to support local theaters, and 35mm and 16mm exhibition. What I am absolutely sure of is that I would not go to a movie theater simply because it is owned by someone famous. I would not go there simply because it is run by a friend or one of the most amazing folks I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, although I admittedly did do that on more than one occasion so….yeah.  Point being, I WOULD go there because it has movies I want to see. I know my reason for attending the theaters I attend.

But at the end of the day, I guess it really is a personal question to be answered: why do you watch?

Of Silver Screens and Family Dreams: Michael Torgan and the New Beverly Cinema

In seeking truth you have to get both sides of a story.

-Walter Cronkite

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There has been a bit of a shake-up in the Los Angeles repertory cinema scene recently. As detailed in a previous article on this blog, the beloved New Beverly Cinema, a LA institution and a treasured touchstone for cinephiles everywhere, has had a rather surprising change of management. According to reports from Deadline, the LA Weekly and others, the Torgan Family, owners of the New Beverly Cinema since 1978, will no longer be running the show. In their place, Quentin Tarantino, landlord since 2007, will be taking control of the theater as his own.

In looking at all of the press surrounding this, the one thing that has been conspicuously absent is the voice and perspective of the owner of the New Beverly Cinema: Michael Torgan. While the more eagle-eyed readers of these articles may have noticed that Michael reached out in order to correct comment inaccuracies, he was previously hesitant to speak to anyone or discuss some of the major issues that the film community seems to be most concerned about in this transitory time.

As readers of my blog may know, the New Beverly has been a significant feature in my film education and career path. Without this theater, it is unlikely that I would be so passionate about the two things I work the most with: 35mm film and classic cinema.  As a result, I tracked Michael Torgan down and begged him to sit with me and discuss some of the issues that are being confused in the press and get a handle on what being the owner of the New Beverly Cinema has really been about for him.

If you have ever been to the New Beverly, you will know that Michael may not be the most outspoken person but he is unquestionably knowledgable and above all, kind and inviting. What Michael and I agreed upon for this article was that it would consist of two things: written statement and approved transcribed interview. When you see the italicized words, those are from the written statement that I received from him. It summarized many of his thoughts on the theater’s changeover in a way that he preferred. I will actively say that the difference between the words that I took on my recorder in answer to each question and those which he sent me were minimally different if at all.  So with that, I would like to state once again, this article was my idea and any words written by me are mine and do not reflect my employer’s or any organization that I happen to be involved with.

Thank you for reading.



So, Michael. There seems to be a bit of a misunderstanding about the way in which the New Beverly Cinema works as a business entity in relation to Quentin Tarantino as a landlord. I think many people may think that owning the building means owning the business as well. Could you explain this a little bit?

 

Well, it’s a concept that gets confused often. And it gets frustrating for me because I can’t go out there and yell, “No! That’s not how it is!” because it is more complicated than a simple landlord/tenant relationship. But basically just like your apartment, you don’t actually own the building that you are renting your apartment from but you do own your apartment. In a sense, you are the tenant of your apartment and that’s the way it was with the theater. There was no co-mingling of our funds; there was no sale of the business at all. The ownership of the theater didn’t change at all; the only change was that the president of the corporation who ran it passed away [referring to his father, Sherman Torgan, who passed away in 2007] and his son assumed that position as the president. But nothing changed. We always had a landlord. We had a landlord in 1978 and that landlord changed in 2007 but the business didn’t change hands.

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There has been discussion about how the entrance of Tarantino as the new landlord in 2007 may have had an effect on the financials of the New Beverly and your ability to support yourself as an independent repertory house. Can you discuss this a bit?

Sometime in 2006, maybe 10 months before my dad died, Quentin got word that the New Beverly was struggling.  Business really had dropped considerably around 2002 as DVDs and home theaters became more and more common.  Back in the mid 90s, business was actually very good. Attendance typically hovered in the 85 to 200 people-a-night range, and it was pretty easy to get over a 100 people a night.  By 2006, we could still pack the theater with the right film, but so many other films that used to be sure things were suddenly getting audiences of under 50 people, often dipping into the very troubling 25 range.  It seemed that audience tastes and viewing habits had definitely changed, seemingly overnight.  This was the same time that record stores and book stores saw precipitous dips in their business and started closing in record numbers.  The digital age had changed things. 

Quentin didn’t want the New Beverly to close, so he approached my dad with an offer to help us meet the shortfall.  My dad determined that the theater was potentially losing around $5,000 a month under the current circumstances, and Quentin very heroically and generously offered to make up this difference behind the scenes.  This is not to say my dad was by any means broke.  The theater had provided him a nice living for over 20 years, my mom worked full-time all those years, and my parents had a house, and savings in the bank. Quentin gave the theater a new lease on life, and his $5,000 monthly contribution was enough for us to pay the theater’s rent and a little bit of its additional expenses, say, the electric bill, which averages $1,000 a month.

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When my dad died suddenly, I quit my job and decided to keep the theater going.  Within a few weeks of my dad’s death, our landlord of 29 years received an offer from a real estate investor to purchase the building.  By the time my landlord informed me of this, the building was already in escrow.  Sensing that the new buyer had eyes to redevelop the property into retail space once my lease was up, my mom and I informed Quentin’s office of what was happening, and, without going into specifics, Quentin was willing and able to buy the building to save both my business and the building’s use as a movie theater.

I inherited my dad’s arrangement with Quentin, and Quentin continued to supplement the business with $5,000 checks every month.  I essentially used that money in the same way as it was being used before, except now the rent money was going to Quentin, so basically he was letting us occupy his building rent free, which of course took a huge load off of the business and allowed it to operate without losing large sums of money.  We were extremely lucky.

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Without in any way trivializing Quentin’s very substantial financial contribution to the theater ($5,000 a month over the course of 7 or 8 years is a HUGE amount of money for a single person to donate to any cause, and I actually felt very guilty and funny accepting it), I do want to make clear that the theater was still substantially surviving on its own.  It costs at least $30,000 to keep the theater open, probably closer to $35,000 or more (film rental fees, film shipping, employee payroll, taxes and fees, permits, costs of goods, and all kinds of miscellaneous expenses), and, short of Quentin’s considerable donation, I was footing that monthly expense entirely on my own as the business owner.  I was not relying on any other funding like membership fees, membership donations, corporate or government grants or anything else.  The theater still very much was an independent family business, very much reliant on its nightly box office grosses.

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And the box office prices have pretty much stayed consistent over the years, right?

 

Yes. I raised the prices maybe once in the last seven years but they’ve stayed the same: $8 for a double feature, which is kind of crazy. It’s unheard of really. What people may not understand is that the cost to rent repertory titles has gone up so tremendously in the last 7 years. So a double feature can cost, at the low-end, $250, but more likely is that the double-feature that you’re seeing costs somewhere between $5-900 and that doesn’t include shipping. It’s a very expensive proposition. Having the subsidy from Quentin Tarantino probably partially allowed me to keep the prices low, but not by much.

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So let’s talk a little bit about what seems to be ruffling some feathers. The idea that since there had been digital equipment bought, the New Beverly Cinema was going digital as a preferred method of projection. First of all, how was the digital equipment financed? It’s not cheap to buy that kind of stuff.

 

I paid for it myself. I basically had cleared a very huge portion of my personal savings and I bought it. I didn’t have the energy to go through Kickstarter like a lot of theaters have…similar theaters in our same position have raised large sums of money through Kickstarter but I didn’t have the energy and I just felt funny about doing it so I just did it. I just bit the bullet. I figured that over 5 years it would pay for itself through rentals. A lot of people want to rent the theater for private screenings of their independent films so that combined with what it opened up the theater for just in terms of general programming? I figured that it would make sense over the long-term. It was a very substantial amount of money to spend at once.

Can you expand a little bit on what your intentions were in regards to bringing it in for general programming needs? I think there has been some confusion about that.

 

In April of this year, I came to the conclusion that to in order to survive I had to add a digital projector to my booth alongside the 35mm projectors.  More and more, I was finding that the kinds of newer films the New Beverly always played alongside the usual mix of repertory titles simply were no longer being released in 35mm.  Distributors like Magnolia, IFC, Rialto, etc., etc., stopped making 35mm prints for their new releases last year.  Magnolia told me that TO THE WONDER would be their final 35mm release; IFC told me that FRANCES HA would be theirs; the restoration of ALPHAVILLE was digital-only; Paramount was the first major studio to announce it had stopped making 35mm prints for major new releases; and so on and so on.  I was also constantly getting requests from filmmakers and film festivals to rent the theater, and I was having to rent a digital projector at $500 a night to accommodate these rentals, and repeatedly having to help lug a very heavy piece of equipment up and down those booth stairs. 

I was tired of doing that, and I determined that it would just make sense to finally bite the bullet and purchase a digital projector of my own.  Every single repertory venue in the entire country had already done it, and I didn’t see why the New Beverly should be any different.  So I made the tough decision to take a major portion of my life savings out of the bank, and I purchased a Christie 4K digital projector, server, and the required digital cinema sound processor.  The projector was installed on May 5th, coincidently the theater’s 36th birthday.  The cost of the projector was a huge sum of money, way more than I’ve ever spent on anything in my life.

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In no way was this digital projector meant to replace 35mm exhibition at the New Beverly.  I love and prefer 35mm, most of the repertory titles we screen only exist in 35mm and probably never will exist in DCPs, and I was going to continue to run primarily 35mm for as long as it was possible to do so.  Without 35mm, in fact, the New Beverly wouldn’t be able to exist and would really have no reason to exist.  Why and how would a repertory cinema exist without 35mm?

It just couldn’t and I’d say shouldn’t exist without 35mm.  The price to rent 35mm prints has gone through the roof in recent years (in the case of one studio, the minimum cost to run a double feature suddenly went from $400 to $900, a just-about-impossible-amount-of-money to contend with for a 2-day run), but thankfully most of the studios were not taking any of their prints away as has often been misreported in the press.  With the exception of one studio, the same 35mm prints that were available to rent in 2009, when most theaters were still 35mm, are still available to rent to this day.  In fact, a couple of the major studios are even occasionally striking new 35mm prints of select repertory titles even though I believe there is only one lab left in the entire U.S.

 

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The New Beverly Projection Booth, credit: Robyn Von Swank

So Michael- can you address the rumors that the theater is in a somewhat rundown state or that the prints that are shown are in a less-than-decent condition?

 

Well, as for the state of the theater it is certainly not rundown. We have spent a great deal of time and energy keeping it together. It’s been a combination of Quentin and myself. He spent a good amount of money to give us a new marquee and resurfaced the ceiling. On my end, as a tenant, I put a new screen in, put new speakers behind the screen, upgraded to Dolby sound, bought new projector heads (different newer ones), and put in newer seats. In 2009, we were able to get new seats from the Mann Festival in Westwood, which was shutting down. They weren’t new seats but they were newer than the ones we had. They were being offered free of charge, I just had to pay $5000 to install them in our theater.

Quentin probably spent hundreds of thousands of dollars improving the building when he bought it, but I do want to make it known that all the technical, equipment-type improvements made to the theater over the past 7 years were paid for by me as the tenant (as it should be, as those are definitely the tenant’s responsibility).  I purchased the new screen, the new stage drapes, the new carpet, the upgraded Dolby Digital sound, the new speakers behind the screen, the newer seats, brand new, top-of-the-line lenses., etc., etc.  Before the digital projector, I put tens of thousands of dollars into the place on my own. 

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And print quality at the New Beverly?

Well, we are on the trusted list; we’re a reel-to-reel venue. We run everything on 2000-ft reel changeovers, we don’t ever platter prints or build them up in any way, so we’re generally able to get the very best prints from the studios. Some of the studios (not all of them, but some) have a separate set of prints. These are prints that go to platter theaters and the other set go to theaters that will not be plattering them- the museums, the archives, and most of the repertory theaters. So we get the set of prints that run at most of the top venues in the country. I mean, I see those prints, I see the labels, and they’re the same prints. Actually, in the last 15 years, the prints have been better than ever, which is a great irony considering. You know, there’s hundreds of thousands of titles that are not available on 35mm, which has nothing to do with digital, they’re just not available anymore. But it seemed like the studios were refreshing their inventories just within the last 15 years so suddenly titles that used to only be available in faded, scratched prints were suddenly available in beautiful prints so…

What were your responsibilities as the owner of the New Beverly Cinema? Besides the obvious things people may have seen you do, like working the box office or the concession stand?

 

*Laughs a bit* Short of projecting? I guess a bit of everything really. Picking up prints. I put a lot of miles on my car picking up prints. It’s one of the ways we were able to survive is because we didn’t use a courier service. I just did a lot of things myself. So buying supplies for the concession stand, programming the calendar, payroll, changing the marquee, bills and paperwork…so it was a full-time job. I was probably there or spent about 60 hours a week at the theater.

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Thank you so much for speaking with me, Michael. The New Beverly Cinema has been a very special place for so many of us, and it wouldn’t have been without you!



There were some things that we couldn’t discuss and I didn’t press him on them. That’s the way it goes, right?

But the last thing that I want to say about Michael Torgan is that he is one of my Film Heroes. Let me tell you why.

I programmed a fundraiser film series at the New Bev during grad school that celebrated 35mm film, specifically. Michael was kind enough to make sure that my Student Film Archivist group raised a good amount of money. By allowing me to have this series and guiding me,  I was trained as a film programmer, event planner and social media “person.” I have always been very outgoing but in doing this and engaging with Michael, I learned about print availability, pricing and many other critical exhibition details.

While most people in my Archival Studies Program had internships at film and audio labs, I would argue that I interned at one of the best places in town: the New Beverly Cinema. Did I get credit in my program for it? No. I didn’t think about submitting my experience for credit. That seemed so inconsequential when I thought about how much Michael Torgan taught me about exhibition. It’s the one thing I can babble about in the morning before COFFEE and that’s saying something!

I knew Michael on a training level. While I was looking to learn about exhibition, he would instruct me. He would shake his head and smile gently, “No, Ariel, I don’t think we can get that, but that might be possible.” This was a whole different level than the movie pal that I had known up to this point and now afterwards. And yet, he was really good at counseling me in my choices and discussing the ins and outs of what it takes to run an independent movie house and why certain things were not doable.

This was one of the most valuable experiences of my life aside from actually seeing films there. Michael Torgan, once again, thank you and thank you for my New Beverly Cinema experiences. I will miss them most of all.

What Price Hollywood?: The Finale of a Family-Run Movie House

***PLEASE NOTE: ALL OPINIONS IN THIS PIECE ARE MY OWN & NOT THOSE OF MY EMPLOYER OR ANY ORGANIZATIONS WITH WHICH I AM AFFILIATED***

I remember the first time I went to the New Beverly Cinema. I was 15 years old, I was a few months off from leaving the country to go to high school in Israel, and I was smack-dab in the middle of a “party-all-the-time” summer with my best friend Nanette and her two older sisters.

I felt nervous because we were sneaking snacks in and…YOU DIDN’T DO THATNOT EVEN CARROT STICKS. Which, by the way, is exactly what we snuck in.

We were watching Reservoir Dogs at midnight.  I remember bits and pieces of the experience: where we sat, that there were guys in the theater, that they were…”t-shirt guys.” You know, the kind of sloppy dudes who were older than me but might listen to the kind of music that I had been slowly getting into, now that my hair metal and grunge days were petering out- The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Mary’s Danish….T-SHIRT GUYS. I remember the dimly lit lobby. The sticky floor of the theater. The film itself.

That was 21 years ago.

In that 2 decades of my life, I have gotten 3 degrees & 1 special certificate in cinema studies from 4 different Universities. I have studied critical theory, feminist film theory, US film history and all different kind of film preservation and moving image archive studies. I am currently the Nancy Mysel Legacy Project recipient for the Film Noir Foundation in training (hopefully) to be their official preservationist when the time comes. I work almost exclusively with 35mm film. Digital was not very popular in the 1940s, I’m afraid.

Movies are my boyfriend.

I love film more than almost anything on earth. I have spent most of my adult life studying it, sitting in dark theaters, orgasmically grinning at that dark screen, feeling goddamn lucky that I, Ariel Schudson, get to see moving images on a big screen!!!!

But if it was not for the New Beverly Cinema I would not have had the inkling of a desire to become a film archivist. The fact that I have assisted on two restorations this year makes my toes curl with joy. These films are saved for the future. I owe this to the HOURS I have spent with the beautiful people in the dark on Beverly Blvd.

I knew Sherman Torgan.  He was the man who took the New Beverly Cinema and made it the welcoming cozy movie house that I fell in love with. I grew so attached to the theater that I got into a GIANT screaming match with my step-dad about why I thought Blade Runner was totally appropriate for my 9-yr-old brother. That argument was NUTS. Sherman was the greatest guy. I got to the theater after that fight, my face puffy with tears. Sherman just let the sniffling teen girl in.

Sherman Torgan, relaxing on the New Bev stairs

Sherman Torgan, relaxing on the New Bev stairs

I wish I had a picture to show you of what he looked like during the time that I knew him, but he was really the first guy that I remember understanding the idea of film community. When I moved into the New Bev area after college, he only charged me student prices (I was no student). One night we had a blissfully wonderful discussion about the audience that came for his Billy Wilder double feature.

“Sherman,” I told him, “I came alone to this double. Like I do to most films here.” I was probably 23 at the time.

He nodded, ok, so?

“I felt like I was FAMILY  with every single person IN there. Wall to wall people! That was genuinely the best movie experience I have ever had!” (I was overemphatic and excited as I still am about everything)

Sherman was a man of few words. But he said something to the effect of, “Well, they’re good movies. They’ll do that!”

I was so high off cinema that I practically flew home.

When Sherman died, it was crushing. But I watched Michael build the theater into something special. He worked hard. EVERY DAY. He never took vacations. The New Beverly was his life. Except for occasional post-screening dinners with regulars. Those were always fun. His cat passed away which (as many pet-owners know) is devastating but Michael took very little time off and dove right back into the New Beverly. He is his father’s son. Being a New Beverly Regular meant I got to see that Michael Torgan’s blood, sweat and tears were the things that drove the very organs of the New Beverly Cinema.

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Old School New Bev Regulars from 2009, RIP Jen Roach

That cinema could not run without him.

He slept there to wait for prints. He stayed until 2am to change the marquee. All the things that you do as a theater owner. Except…he didn’t own the theater. Quentin Tarantino does. So fast-forward to now. Houston, we have a problem. Houston, we have a lot of problems.

OK. One quick step back and some background- when Sherman died, the theater was in danger of closing. Tarantino stepped in and bought the land, becoming, in effect, the landlord. This was FANTASTIC!! Let’s be 100% clear about this: in no way, shape or form was this a bad thing. In fact, this was wonderful. Without Tarantino’s immense generosity, we would have lost our brilliant New Beverly Cinema 7 years ago and countless screenings, historical Q&As, and nights of 35mm brilliance. Thanks to him we have had Edgar Wright’s festivals, Patton Oswalt’s programming, festivals by Diablo Cody, Eli Roth, and Joe Dante,in addition to a film series I programmed that raised $3000 for Moving Image Archiving Students. Make no mistake about it, Quentin Tarantino’s purchase of this land was, as they say in the Fairfax ‘hood, a mitzvah!

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So skip forward to the official news that was made known today through the LA Weekly. Mr. Tarantino has decided to rescind the terms of the contract with the Torgan family. His statement, as published in the LA Weekly reads as follows:

Sherman Torgan opened the New Beverly [in 1978] and had been running it for decades. I had been going there forever. And somewhere in the last four years of Sherman running the theater, word got to me that it might close. So I started supplementing him, started giving him about $5,000 a month, to pay his bills, and meet his expenses. He never had to pay it back. I love Los Angeles, and I love the New Beverly, and I didn’t want to see it go. But then, unfortunately, Sherman died [in June 2007]. And the people who owned the property wanted to turn it into a Super Cuts. So, working through Michael, I was able to buy the property. And Michael’s been running the theater ever since. I could say, ‘Hey, Michael, can we do this, can we show that?’ but basically it’s been Michael’s baby. He’s really done a Herculean job. But after seven years as owner, I wanted to make it mine. (italics & bold mine) – LA Weekly

The Torgans have run the New Beverly for 36 years. In a highly corporate economy and city like Los Angeles, the New Bev is a well-loved family-run-business. And Quentin has had a great deal of control up to now. Basically anything he wanted to do or have, he could do or have. It was his theater. He could program anything he wanted, and have the theater anytime he asked. Any of this talk about trying to make it his is bizarre to me. I have been to several of his 2-3 month-long programming residencies and they were wonderful! The man has good taste. So what is he actually doing?

To quote Michael Torgan himself, in response to Quentin’s article (in the comments section), he states:

An important clarification to this article: like most business owners, my family did not own the physical property from which we ran our business.  We leased it since 1978, so we did not literally own the physical theater.  However, we did own the business known as the New Beverly Cinema 100%.  In addition to being the manager/chief programmer, I was also the owner of the business entirely.  This point has often been misunderstood, so I felt a need to make this statement even if I chose not to be interviewed for this piece.

So, this means that what QT is doing is relieving the Torgan Family of the New Beverly Cinema, of which they have owned for 36 years. Does this seem right to you? I can’t swallow that. Not even a little bit. There are far more decent ways that this could have gone. Destroying a family business not being first on the list. As I’ve read the comments today, people have talked all about the programming. “We’ll see what happens to the New Bev,” they’ve said, “Maybe it’ll be fine! We have to see what the programming is like.” WAIT. GUYS. Have you been living in a bubble for the last seven years?? Where have you been when QT took the entire month of March 2011 to program his birthday month? Or in 2007 when he programmed 1-2 months up until the release of Grindhouse? *insert puzzled expression here*

In the Weekly article, Quentin continues and says, “I want the New Beverly to be a bastion for 35 millimeter films. I want it to stand for something. When you see a film on the New Beverly calendar, you don’t have to ask whether it’s going to be shown in DCP [Digital Cinema Projection] or in 35 millimeter. You know it’s playing in 35 because it’s the New Beverly.” The New Beverly already DOES stand for something. This is also what makes me uneasy about QT wanting to toss out the people who have been running the theater for 36 years and “make it his own.”

I realize that many people are getting incredibly excited about the idea of a filmhouse that will be all-35mm-all-the-time, but my question is at what costWe have been talking about the loss of projectionists and 35mm theaters due to digital, but are we going to turn around and do the same exact thing to one of our own?? Does taking out a Digital Projector that is only used when it is absolutely necessary somehow diminish what the New Beverly Cinema has stood for all these years?

To this film preservationist, this decision is not in anyone’s best interest. I realize that there are a lot of emotions around this, but within my profession, I try my best to look at things critically, not emotionally, and from that perspective (shifting gears a bit) I don’t think this is a good idea. Not for the New Beverly, not for Los Angeles cinephiles, not for the continued discussion of why 35mm film is important.  886965_10200439778213465_146334779_o

Of course, we all know what this situation is really about don’t we? Sure we do. Let’s just come out and say it: digital. Everyone has been beating about the bush and mentioning the silly Wrap article as the cause of this. Let’s stop blaming The Wrap. It’s not their fault. The facts: Quentin had already made his thoughts on 35mm known. The problem is that there is no happy medium here. And there is a high level of format fetishization over film appreciation.  Ask yourself a question: would you rather watch a 35mm print for its last time ever before it falls apart forever or be able to watch a DCP of the same film? Some people will say 35mm. Simply due to the format. This is the unhealthy landscape that we have created for 35mm appreciation. A place where people aren’t aware of why Michael Torgan bought the digital system for the New Bev and how it was being used.

So let’s clear this up. I was able to get a statement from Michael about the addition of digital to the New Beverly and I think going to the source is healthier than conjecture. Provenance, y’all.

Michael states,

I installed the digital projector on May 5 of this year, so I imagine [most people] would have seen 35mm on [their] visits. The majority of our programs remained 35mm even with the new projector, and 35mm would have remained the preferred format always….I just have to say that was NEVER my intention when I made the decision to add a digital projector to my booth. 35mm would have always been the preferred format, with the digital projector there to allow us to continue the newer films we’ve always screened (but suddenly were no longer able to) as well as the occasional digital-only restoration. As a theater that runs all 35mm prints on 2,000 ft reels via reel-to-reel projection, the New Beverly thankfully still had access to lots of repertory 35mm titles from the studios, and I intended to book those prints as long as possible.

The comments that are turning up on the QT article are not unexpected but they are sad-making. Much like the digital technology changeover, these comments are favoring 35mm over human experience and that weirds me out since it is analogue we are choosing in this circumstance. Are we doing this because it’s Quentin and it’s his star power? Is it really a kind of format fetishization and intense nostalgia that will relieve us of the ability to see the time and energy that a family has spent a lifetime building? What does it REALLY  mean when a fancy filmmaker says, “After 7 years as owner, I wanted to make it mine,” and yet does not know that the New Bev already stands for film community, film devotion and film education? If it wasn’t for the Grindhouse Festival that he programmed in 2007, I wouldn’t have gotten into that genre! And the IB Tech films that he programmed were truly spectacular! I was in heaven!473764_4108270061541_2000490191_o

We are headed on the wrong track here if we allow things like this to continue. There is a necessity for both 35mm and digital in the film community. Not one nor the other but both. A friend said that he believed that 35mm theaters should show only 35mm film. Well, in my experience, those theaters may end up suffering great financial loss. Unless (as Tarantino noted) they have large collections like he does. It is extremely exciting to me that he is installing a 16mm projector. I LOVE THAT. That (again) showcases the necessity for these formats and the materials that exist (possibly) ONLY in that format!! There are films that may not have been able to be saved without a 35mm blow-up of a 16mm. My Film Saying is: never say never. But looking at this situation critically, I would never choose a format over a human. It defeats the purpose of what I do as an archivist and preservationist.

The Torgan Family is what the New Beverly Cinema stands for. And I stand behind that statement.

Still Here – World AIDS Day, 2013

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I’m 35 years old and I’ve been a HIV/AIDS activist since I was old enough to walk the AIDS walk in Los Angeles in the late 1980s. I think my first AIDS walk was around 1986-1987.

We met at Paramount Studios, up the street from my house, and I walked a 10K with my godfather, his friends, my family and thousands of others. I did this every single year. Including the year where I made absolutely sure that I made enough money that I could go to Disneyland with the rest of the people who raised enough money to go to Disneyland. My friend Elana and I, both 9 or 10 years old at the time (if you think that I try to enlist people into my work NOW, you shoulda seen me as a chunky little kid!!) each raised at least $1000 dollars so that we could go to Disneyland. At night. By ourselves. With hundreds of awesome gay men. Buying up all of the princess costumes and fairy wands. And yes, that was REALLY what they were doing. Also? They were the most excellent babysitters you could ever ask for, by the way. We had more fun that night than…who knows. I remember that night so well. It was 25 years ago.

The adult me remembers the laughter. The adult me also wonders how many of those amazing men and women who asked us, “Who are you here with? NO ONE? By yourselves? Wow!” are still alive. HIV/AIDS became a much more serious thing in my life than something you walk for as I got older.

A few years after that fabulous (in every sense of the word) Disneyland night, I became a HIV/AIDS peer educator for Peer Education Program Los Angeles (P.E.P.L.A) and beganpepla spending time speaking at a variety of youth institutions, educating kids my own age about HIV/AIDS. I was about 13 years old. I went to all-girls-private schools where girls were given SUVs for their 16th birthdays. I went to places like Children of the Night where kids were pimped out by their parents from the age of 9. I went to homes for pregnant teens, drug rehab centers in east L.A., elementary schools (yes, we had to completely restructure our discussion for the under-10-years-old-set), and a school where they knew that we were bringing a HIV+ speaker with us, so parents came and sat in a special section, wearing latex gloves and medical masks. Because the disease is AIRBORNE.

My mother let me skip Real School sometimes to go to do P.E.P.L.A events. It was pretty amazing. I met some of the most amazing people there. Some friends that I still maintain today. The structure was an amazing one: a few teens to talk to other teens about how they specifically are at risk. Because, well, teenagers are well-known for that whole “we’re gonna live forever” thing. So condoms, protection, diseases? Yeah, none of that really comes in. And in the 1990s? Fuggetaboutit.

PEP/LA changed my life. Before that, I had one experience with AIDS. I grew up in a highly gay/queer family landscape. My godfather is gay, a HIGH population of our family friends are gay, so on and so forth. I think I had more queer people around me when I was little than straight people, come to think about it.

So while my father died in the early 80s from a car accident, we were still very close with his musical writing parter named Marc Trujillo, and his “friend” named Frank (this was my interpretation. I was so very young). I have two very specific memories of these important men in my life: Marc and Frank passed away, and they were the first men I knew who were taken due to HIV/AIDS. And my mom told me this. My mother never lied to me and she was always very honest with me. I don’t remember who passed first, how it went, it’s fuzzy. But I do remember having this knowledge. And I recall going to the memorial with my mom. Marc’s family owned a flower store on the corner of La Brea and Fountain. And I think that’s where it was. I have no idea how old I was. But I could also  be mixing memories. What I am not mixing up is the fact that they were the first people I remember being close to me and being part of MY HIV/AIDS world.

Years later, I became such a heavy-duty advocate for HIV/AIDS education that I would start arguments with people (me? no, never!) in my all-girls-Catholic school after ACT-UP was handing out condoms outside one day about how great they were and so forth. I made sure that I always attended the PEP/LA events at Children of The Nightchildren_of_the_night_logo

This was always one of our most difficult events. Many of these kids didn’t stay there and protection on the streets isn’t always an option. Sometimes we would have to talk about how to “fool a trick” into using protection or things like that. WITH YOUNG KIDS. I was 13 and they were my age. And white. And privileged. With a supportive loving family. What right did I have? Except that I cared. Also, some of the kids were already positive. So did it matter at that point? YEAH, it did. We had the information to talk about how the hell to take care of yourself and that there is HOPE. The idea that AIDS is not a death sentence was pretty damn revolutionary in 1994.

I remember the weddings and the funerals. The weddings were amazing. The funerals were fucking crushing. I had more dead friends before I was 16 than any of my other friends in school. But why count? It’s not a competition. I’m just SO MASSIVELY lucky that I got to know them before they left. And for the record, they were not all gay. My first friend who died when I got to PEP/LA was Gary- a gorgeous guy that I had a huge crush on. He had a model-type girlfriend. I used to carry the picture of him & his girlfriend around for a long time. I think that in all my moves it may have gotten lost. But I think I still have the invite to the memorial. The church is in West L.A. He was great.

However, I am deeply grateful to have been a part of my friend John Scott’s life. I was there when he married his beautiful partner, way before legal gay marriage seemed a possibility in anyone’s mind. When he did so, I was a freshman in high school, and all I remember thinking was, “I’m going to an awesome wedding,” and….not even knowing that there were things about getting married THAT WERE ILLEGAL.  My mom drove me all over town when he got sick. I visited him in the towers in Century City, at a few different other places, and at a hospice somewhere too.

But he kept coming out and speaking with us. And he was the “no-bullshit” artist. He would talk about what it was like to end up at the corner near a stoplight and not remember where you needed to go. He would talk about what it was like to always carry an extra pair of underwear with you in case you shit your pants without any warning. He would do this to little spoiled girls at Marlborough school or gangbangers in East L.A. With a smile on his face. Because he would also talk about the fact that these kids had the power not to be in his shoes. tcell1

He spoke with us on a regular basis. I spent so much time with him. I remember his laugh. His smile. These things ring on my ears, my eyes. My John Scott. He was devoted. Until he got really sick. To give you an idea of who my beloved friend was, I need to tell you one more thing. One of the things that I loved the most about John Scott is the fact that he named his T-Cells.  tcell count By the very end, he was going down from 7 to 5 to 4. He would say, “Oh, well!  We’re down to Marlena, Joan, Bette and Judy, now! But they’re tough gals! They can handle it!” I may be a little off on the names, but I am 100% certain on Marlena and the idea that he chose tough film stars to name his T-cells after so they could fight for him. John Scott. I have yet to meet his equal in my lifetime. That was 20 years ago.

I left to go to Israel for high school in the spring of 1994, and that April I got a phone call from the head of my program, Wendy.

“John Scott died this morning, Ariel,” my body went cold. He was supposed to wait until I got back so we could talk about cute Israeli boys. I didn’t know what to do with this. I was a world away with people who I didn’t know and who didn’t know me, even if we had been climbing mountains together and traveling through deserts for months. “Hey Ariel, did you hear me?”

“Yeah, Wendy, I heard you.”

“I was there with him at the end and he wanted me to tell you goodbye. Specifically.”

“?”

“John wanted me to say goodbye to a few people. He said to say goodbye to Erin and to you. So I want you to know that. You were important to him.”

My 15-year-old-self was numb. My now-35-self still doesn’t know how to process that kind of statement. I mumbled thank you, that I would write (there was no email or cell phones…Imagine THAT, y’all!) we both knew how expensive the phone call was, and hung up.

So here we are, and I still feel a responsibility to my dear friend to remind the rest of the world that AIDS still exists. It may be a more manageable condition here in the US and North America, but it isn’t in many places in the world; places where sex education is a privilege not a right; places where protection isn’t even an option. There are many places in the world where masculinity, war landscapes and other ugliness takes precedence over health concerns. In addition, in any country (our own included), anal sex still leaves women “virgins” in many cultures and anal sex is the most at-risk sexual activity when conducted in an unprotected manner. Think on that. So this is most certainly not a gay disease. It is blind to color, race, sexuality and age.

It doesn’t care. But I still do.

AIDS hasn’t gone away. And it’s not like migraines or a bad knee, either. This is still here and it still needs to be attended to. Because I spent most of my young adult life watching my pals die and speaking to kids about it and hoping that someone listened. Because I have friends who still are HIV+ for 20 or 30+ years. Because we want to stay happy and healthy and we don’t want to be the last name on someone’s lips before they are really really really old. Because this is a subject that requires our continual attention- for our health and for the health of those we love. So that next year we will ALL be Still Here.