When I heard that the 34th series of the Buffalo Film Seminars was to be shortly underway (16 years), I figured that I had to reach out to organizers/professors Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian. The film seminars are primarily for University at Buffalo film class students, but Bruce and Diane have always invited the community to watch the films and join the conversation. Not only do Bruce and Diane offer up some insight into the films, they also host an interactive post screening discussion. To get to know the ins and outs of the films that are screened, I asked Bruce to answer a few questions:
What was it like to curate this latest series of films?
For years we tried never to repeat a film. Then there were a few that were just so good—Visconti’s The Leopard, for example—we did it now and then. We’ve done well over 400 different films now. Recently, we realized that there were some great films we hadn’t done for 14 or 15 years. That’s long enough to warrant a revisit. So this time, instead of looking just for great films we hadn’t done before, we opened our search up to many we had done before. As always, the series has no overarching theme; we simply try to get a range of styles, using great films that let us talk, at various times, about the several arts that go into filmmaking: script, acting, adaptation, cinematography, editing, music, design, and so on. So by the end of the series, we’ve seen and talked about 14 great films individually, and we’ve also touched on the entire filmmaking process.
How do you determine which films get picked each time?
Diane and I are always making notes about interesting films we see or hear or read about. When it comes time to structure a series, we’ve got a pretty long list of films going back to the twenties. We try to have one or two films from each decade. We try to cover as many styles or genres as possible. We might have three westerns on the list; if so, we’ll opt for what we think is the best one, or the one that works with other films in the series. We might wind up with three films by one director on the list; if so, we’ll make the same kind of choice as with the three westerns. (Twice, I think, we did two by the same director in a single series.) So the first cut is one of elimination. Then we look at what we’ve got left and, inevitably some films scream: “You gotta include me!” Then we build the rest of the series around them. Sometimes, at that point, we realize we’re missing something important—-maybe a decade, maybe a genre, maybe an art—and we start looking in the film books around the house and the film sources on line for what we need. The films are screened chronologically, save for the final film. That has been, the past several years, a film we like in all regards from whatever period, whatever genre. We want to give the audience a film that will stay with them until we meet again.
There is one rule: we never do a film we don’t both really think belongs. We never try to argue one another into including a film. We’ll talk about why we think a particular film fits, but if either of us is cool to it, it’s out. Several times a film one of us didn’t want to do one year, we both wanted to do some years later. We’re always learning things, our tastes change, and it sometimes happens that a film that doesn’t fit one series is perfect for another.
How do you keep it fresh and interesting, other than showing the greatest films ever made?
We’re working with great works of filmic art. It’s as hard to get bored doing that as it is to get bored with great sex. It’s always fresh because it’s always different: the juxtapositions, what we’ve learned in the interim, what’s going on in the world, who’s in the theater. BFS isn’t just a screening series: the post-film discussions are critical, both for the audience and for us. I don’t think Diane and I have ever failed to learn something in those discussions. The audience sees things we missed, asks questions we didn’t, has information we hadn’t known. It’s a synergistic engagement, with the film the center of it.
We’d originally planned on doing it twice, at most. But it was fun, and has continued being fun. We’ve met a lot of interesting people through the series. Some of the conversations in the theater have been going on for years.
One thing more: Most of the films we show, we’ve seen in the past. Some are new to us. We watch all of the films at home at least twice before each screening. I don’t think we’ve ever had a screening where we didn’t see something we hadn’t seen at home. Part of it is size. More of it is focus: there is no way you can concentrate on a film at home when you’ve got a pause button on the table next to you, a dog wanting to go out, a glass you want to refill, a toilet break. In the theater, you concentrate because all those distractions are absent. Concentrating on something, focusing on something, has a delight of its own.
Any news when the series might be moving back into the city?
None. We loved being downtown at the Market Arcade. The series started because a lawyer for the city was casting about for ways to get people to come downtown at night. Remember: we’ve been doing this 16 years, long before the downtown residency boom. We’re happy at the Dipson Amherst. There’s a lot of easy parking and disabled spaces very close to the theater doors. Mike Clement, head of Dipson, has been wonderful to work with. We’ve been working with him since our second year. We’ve never had an argument; we’ve never had a problem. Mike makes the exhibition part of BFS happen.
That said, we miss the energy of being at the heart of the city. I haven’t seen any construction going on at the Market Arcade. Maybe the people who bought it will walk away and Dipson will take it over and we’ll all get to go home again. The city should have sold it to Dipson in the first place; a first-rate, hometown company.
Here is the screening schedule for the 34th series of the Buffalo Film Seminars. All screenings at the Dipson Amherst, 7:00 p.m.
Jan 31 Buster Keaton: The General 1926
Feb 7 Ernst Lubitsch: Ninotchka 1939
Feb 14 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger: The Red Shoes 1948
Feb 21 John Huston: The Misfits 1961
Feb28 Stanley Kubrick: Dr Strangelove 1964
Mar 7 Robert Bresson: Au Hazard Balthazar 1966
Mar 14 Bahram Beizai: Downpour/Ragbar 1972
Mar 28 Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones: Monty Python and the Holy Grail 1975
April 4 Nicolas Roeg The Man Who Fell to Earth 1976
April 11 Sergio Leone: Once Upon a Time in America 1984
April 18 Krzysztof Kieslowski: Double Life of Veronique 1991
April 25 Wong Kar-Wei: In the Mood for Love 2000
May 2 David Ayer: Fury 2014
May 9 Mike Leigh: Topsy Turvy 1999