This is the first in a new series of articles and interviews about cinema spaces and events in Sydney. If you know of a space, event or program you think we should cover, please get in touch here.
For almost five years now, I’ve been a regular attendee to the Monday evening Cinémathèque screenings at Paddington’s Chauvel Cinemas. Here, films from all over the world and all throughout the history of the medium are played: silent, sound, black and white, colour, fiction, documentary and everything in between. A real cinephile’s dream, it is without a doubt one of the most crucial havens of film culture in Sydney, and I owe much of my by now quite unhealthy obsession with movies to these weekly screenings. It was my pleasure to catch up with Tim Mason, who is the curator of the Chauvel Cinémathèque program.
First of all, let me just say that I’m incredibly jealous of your job! How did you get to be the programmer for the Chauvel Cinémathèque?
I was just the right person at the right place at the right time, I guess. I had been working at the Chauvel Cinema for a number of years and when the position became available I had the enthusiasm, skills and film knowledge that the role requires. It’s a job that I really enjoy. I’m absolutely obsessed with discovering and hoarding as much information about film and film history and now I can finally put that obsessiveness to some good use.
Was film always the line of work you were interested in?
Pretty much. The first film I can remember seeing is the Errol Flynn The Adventures of Robin Hood (probably on TV) and I think from then on I was hooked. That addiction was cemented after I saw Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. After that I wanted to find out everything I could about those films and that led me to discovering the films that inspired them, which led to discovering the films that inspired those films and then the films that inspired those films and that cycle is continuing to this day. I’ve studied film production but most of what I know has been through independent study.
Tell us a bit about the Cinémathèque’s link with the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) and the National Film and Video Lending Service (NFVLS).
The Chauvel Cinémathèque has always been associated with the NFSA and has used the NFVLS to source the majority of their prints since as long as I can remember. It’s an association we are very happy to continue as long as we can. They have always been very easy to deal with and have been very supportive.
The Cinémathèque screenings are unique in that the large majority of films are projected from celluloid prints that come from one of these two institutions, making it one of the last places in Sydney that you can watch a movie on celluloid. However, there are instances when digital copies are played, though I’m guessing that’s just a matter of availability. How important is it for you to play films on celluloid? Do you see yourself as a bit of a purist?
No, I wouldn’t call myself a purist, though I do recognize that a lot of our patrons might consider themselves to be. Since I started programming the Cinémathèque in February we have only played celluloid, but I am not going to rule out playing digital in the future. I wouldn’t want to not play a fantastic film purely because it was only available on digital and not print. I would rather play the film because it’s fantastic, no matter what format it’s on. This might be a controversial opinion but I go to a film to appreciate its storytelling, direction, performances and the way it reflects the culture it was made in and for, not for whether it’s on a plastic ribbon or not. There have been some instances when I decided not to play a film because I knew that playing a 16mm print would be detrimental to the film’s visual splendor and other instances where I felt the digital format’s quality as inadequate for big screen projection. It’s a decision made on a case by case basis depending on the film. Digital projection does have the benefit of making classic films more available for theatrical distribution, since it lessens the costs of distributing and exhibiting them. Not that it’s perfect. I still believe that celluloid is the best format to preserve films for example, considering the limited shelf life of digital formats. The whole debate about digital vs. celluloid totally misses the point, in my opinion. For me, the fact that we still have these films at all (the majority of George Melies’ films were melted during WW1 to use their silver to make boots for soldiers) and the fact that there is still a market to play them theatrically in our current internet obsessed age is a miracle and the only debate worth having is how best to preserve this valuable heritage for the future.
A slightly political question here… The recent budget cuts to the NFSA, have they impacted at all on the Cinémathèque?
Well, I think it’s important to state that, unlike most Cinémathèques, the Chauvel Cinémathèque is not a not for profit enterprise. It is a commercial enterprise and has been fully supported by Palace Cinemas ever since Palace took over ownership of the Chauvel Cinema when it ran into financial hardship in 2005. Palace Cinemas have been extremely supportive in continuing the Cinémathèque and keeping the very accessibly priced Membership ticket prices. I don’t know of any other commercial cinema that has a Cinémathèque and since Sydney does not have any official government supported Film Centre/Cinémathèque, such as the Melbourne’s ACMI, I think Palace Cinemas should be commended for their support. As a result I don’t believe the budget cuts will have any immediate impact on the Chauvel Cinémathèque, but I do worry about its impact on the NFSA. As a result of the cuts they have had to downsize their staff and are potentially going to focus more on online distribution. How this affects the Chauvel Cinémathèque remains to be seen. I think film preservation is extremely important culturally and the NFSA deserves the full support of this current and any future government.
Historically, the Chauvel Cinémathèque programs have been marked by total diversity, films from wildly different times, places, genres. Cocteau one week, Glauber Rocha the next, Buster Keaton followed by Robert Bresson etc. I remember picking up the new programs and always trying to figure out what was going on, they were all over the place! (In a good way of course). Your most recent program, which runs until the end of August, seems to be a little more obviously structured: a look at the western, followed by mini retrospectives on some fantastic directors (Rossellini, Wajda, Harold Lloyd amongst others). Was there a conscious decision on your part to pull things more into focus?
To a certain extent. I do try to present these films in more of a context than previous programs, but I still want to make each program as diverse as possible. I think there is just as wide a diversity in the upcoming program as there have been in past programs, even in just the four westerns that begin the program. Rio Bravo is as relaxed and casual as an old pair of shoes, Silver Lode is tense and paranoid, Rancho Notorious is like a fever dream of the west fantastically divorced from reality and The Iron Horse has the sweep and grandeur of the best epic films. How these four different directors each responded to the mythic quality of the western is fascinating to me. I also try to highlight connections between films that might otherwise escape notice. For example Rio Bravo and Silver Lode are both rebuttals to High Noon and the McCarthy politics of the era. This might sound weird but I feel a good program should be like a tasting platter of a particular directors work, not a full meal. I hope these screenings give audiences enough of a taste of these director’s work to inspire them to go out and discover more about their other work. That’s part of the appeal of being a classic film fan, that Indiana Jones, treasure hunter feeling of discovery you get when you stumble upon a new rich vein of work from the past you weren’t aware of before and that’s just waiting to be experienced.
I notice that you have a tendency to supplement the better-known works by directors with films that have otherwise been largely neglected. Ulmer’s Detour played at the Cinémathèque a couple of years back, but you also recently programmed Ruthless, which was pretty revelatory. Do you see it as your obligation to bring attention to these lesser-known works, or again is it a matter of availability?
I wouldn’t describe it as an obligation, more like a bonus. I try to balance my programs with enough higher profile titles to attract new audiences, enough foreign language films to represent worldwide diversity, a range of different genres to keep it interesting and as much as possible try to include films and directors that have recently been rediscovered or reappraised. For example, Allan Dwan (who literally made hundreds of movies) is a director that has recently gained new interest in film scholarship and festival circles (a retrospective of his work was included in last year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival which is one of the major film restoration festivals) which influenced my decision to include Silver Lode and Harold Lloyd’s work which has only recently become widely available so he is only now gaining the exposure and attention he richly deserves. I am also very influenced by film historians/critics that I admire. I first became aware of Ruthless from a blog post by David Kalat on the MovieMorlocks blog and as I am such a big fan of his audio commentaries, his recommendation of Ruthless was enough of a reason to track down Ruthless, be amazed by it and include it in my first program. And I’m glad I did. And I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Do you see programming as a creative activity?
About as creative as creating a great mixtape, which my job is essentially the filmic equivalent.
I’m writing this to you from Paris, where it has be said the film culture is incredibly rich, especially in terms of the number and sheer diversity of films that you can go and see in cinemas. How do you think Sydney measures up to other major cities in this regard?
Now it’s my turn to be jealous. I think comparing Sydney to Paris is slightly unfair, though. Considering that historically France was at the forefront of not just the invention but also the exhibition of cinema through the work of the Lumiere brothers and the fact that France was the dominant nation in the film industry until WW1 allowed the US to take over, makes it almost inevitable that cinema would play a larger role culturally there than it would here. Paris was where the first Cinémathèque was created by Henri Langlois and Georges Franju, plus Paris was always been at the forefront of film theory, history and criticism so it’s only to be expected that their film culture would be richer and more integrated into society than Sydney. Don’t get me wrong. Australia has a film heritage it can be proud of, especially considering the amount of pressure it has had brought to bear on it from the US film industry. But any country that does not have as strong a film heritage as countries such as France and the US are inevitably going to suffer in comparison, though. Historically, film has just not been as important to Australians as to the French, possibly because we don’t have that sense of ownership over the medium that history allows the French and the US to have. The Australian film industry’s lack of adventurousness and showmanship does sometimes disappoint me but what can you do? It’s an historical and cultural thing. But it’s slowly changing. Almost every cinema in Sydney now has a classic retrospective program, of some type or other which wasn’t the case a few years ago, and that’s a good sign that there could be potentially more of a market for classic films than originally expected.
Last question, which film(s) from the new program are you most excited about putting on?
All of them of course! Rio Bravo which could just be the most perfect and effortless piece of entertainment ever crafted with John Wayne at his most iconic and some mighty fine crooning from Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson to boot. Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious has to be one of the most bizarre and fabulously nutty westerns you will ever see. I’m also really proud to be able to include Lionel Rogosin’s Come Back Africa and On The Bowery. Two of the most powerful and audacious films from one of the most powerful and audacious independent filmmakers of the fifties and sixties. But if you had to twist my arm I am most excited about the two Harold Lloyd films, The Freshman and Why Worry?. Lloyd was just as great a comedian as Buster Keaton and Chaplin in my opinion but way more accessible and with way more and better gags. If you are a fan of silent films or comedy films in general, but you haven’t yet seen a Harold Lloyd film, you will be blown away. Plus he did all his incredible daredevil stunts with two fingers missing (They were blown up when a prop bomb he was holding exploded)! He is simply amazing.
The Chauvel Cinémathèque screenings are every Monday night at 7pm at the Chauvel cinema in Paddington. Their latest program can be viewed here.