The ultimate movie theater

Where else but at the Pacific Film Archive could you find: A cinema which shows 75 times more films than the average American movie house -- but forbids popcorn?

A loyal audience that includes film critic Susan Sontag, directors Francis Ford Coppola ("Apocalypse Now"), George Lucas ("Star Wars"), Phillip Kaufman ("Invasion of the Body Snatchers"), and four-year-olds from the Snuggery and Graham Crackers day-care centers?

A lecture on Fred Astaire's footwork in his 1943 musical "The Sky's The Limit?"?

The world's largest collection of Japanese films outside of Japan?

Answers to such film trivia as "Where can I find a copy of Alfred Hitchcock's 'Rope'?" And "Who was really playing the piano in that film about Chopin?"

What began as a student film series on the University of California at Berkeley campus in the '60s blossomed in 1971 into a full-grown film center in the basement of the university art museum, founded on the "utopian view that movies should be available to everyone." Today it is ranked together with the Cinematheque Francaise and London's National Film Theatre. Le Monde's film critic Louis Marcolles calls PFA "one of the world's most distinguished centers for the art of film."

While there are other regional film centers in the US, notably at New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, Eastman House in Rochester, and the Rocky Mountain Film Center in Boulder, Colorado, there is nothing quite like the Pacific Film Archive. Ironically, perhaps, not even in Hollywood.

Why PFA sprang up in northern California and not in Los Angeles, the heartland of the motion picture industry, is no mystery to any film buff. Hollywood treats movies as a business; San Francisco reveres them as an art form. By the late 1940s, San Francisco had already established itself as the high pantheon for avante-garde, experimental and independent filmmakers. In 1952, Pauline Kael, who recently retired as film critic for the New Yorker, opened one of the nation's first repertory art cinemas (complete with program notes) on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. The San Francisco Film Festival remains the nation's oldest, years ahead of New York. America's first serious film magazine, Film Quarterly, was published here. Distinguished directors like Coppola, Kaufman, Lucas, Michael Ritchie ("The Candidate") and John Korty ("The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman") commute to Hollywood from their homes in the San Francisco area.

In the last decade, leading American filmmakers have made the Pacific Film Archive a regular port of call. PFA has also become an important showcase of directors from Europe, Asia and Africa, and has shown the works of Italy's Lina Wertmuller, India's Satyajit Ray, France's Jean-Luc Godard, Senegal's Ousmene Sembene, the Soviet Union's Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, and Germany's Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog.

For foreign filmmakers, getting on PFA's prestigious program is an important entree to art theaters throughout the US. In 1975, PFA invited Herzog, one of Germany's most brilliant new directors, to show his film "The Mystery Kaspar Hauser." Francis Coppola, in the audience that night, went to phone and called Cinema Five, a major art film distributor. He asked the distributor to sign on Herzog, and he offered to write a check for any losses from the venture. At that time, Werner Herzog was largely unknown in the US. He has since become a bona fide box-office success in this country and a cult figure in "new cinema" circles.

Thus, the archive does more than screen old films that TV and second-run movie houses overlook. It "gives the edge of what's coming in film," says Sally Aberg, one of PFA's nine full-time staff members. "Filmmakers want to show here first because there is prestige in a scholarly sort of place. Our audience comes to watch films, not eat popcorn."

Ms. Aberg manages the staggering logistics of handling the more than 1,500 films shown each year. Many of the films are rentals shipped from all over the world. When she isn't packing 35mm films, she's on such "errands" as shuttling Hollywood directors to the airport or picking up old movies from the Russian consulate. "We get everything here, world premieres, West Coast premieres, sneaks."

PFA's 199-seat theater, said by many to be the finest film viewing facility in northern California, is small, simple and pristine. Seats are extra wide with metal stripped backs, so moviegoers can kick up their feet. Eating, drinking and smoking are strictly forbidden. ("Someone's been having sunflower seeds in his seat for the last four months but we haven't caught him yet," says Abert.)

The notable exception to the "no food" rule are screenings of Les Blank's films. When the local filmmaker showed his "Always for Pleasure," about the cuisine and music of the Mardi Gras, the PFA staff was simmering red beans and rice laced with garlic, and frantically circulating fumes through the audience. The screening adjourned to the Archive offices for a party complete with New Orleans jazz.

The Archive's unpretentious cluster of windowless offices, screening rooms and vaults are anonymously tucked behind the university art museum's gourmet cafeteria, the Swallow. The entrance to PFA is easily mistaken for the kitchen door to the restaurant. If you care for lentil salad, spinach souffle or the house pate, grab a tray and follow the corduroyed graduate student in front of you. If your diet dictates Russian 'silence' or East European animation, politely navigate through the lunch line.

Inside PFA's front door you will find the week's research screenings listed on two scribbled blackboards that could pass for train schedules at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station. It makes perfect sense to find the staff busier than conductors on the Paoli local.

For some, the term "film archive" conjures up subterranean vaults of celluloid classics like "Phantom of the Opera" and W. C. Fields comedies. Ah, that life at the Pacific Film Archive were that uncomplicated. Among the 6,000 prints in its permanent collection are: 800 Japanese films acquired by PFA founder Sheldon Renan (now an independent) filmmaker-producer in Los Angeles), Soviet Georgian films, animated films from Eastern Europe, five pre-war Chinese nitrate films, and several hundred reels of Nazi films which the Library of Congress seized after World War II.

In 1978, Wolf Donner, director of the Berlin Film Festival, flew in to peruse the PFA collection in hopes of finding particular footage from the early years of the Third Reich. Much to his delight, Donner discovered a film he never knew existed, "Das Stahltier" ("The Iron Beast"), commissioned by the German National Railway but never shown. Thanks to PFA, the German people saw it for the first time in the Berlin Film Festival two years ago.

PFA's collection does not attempt to encompass the entire history of cinema. The Archive has little money for acquisition -- most of the films it exhibits are rented. Its permanent collection is "not a matter of choice but of circumstance," says Edith Kramer. She is acting as curator of PFA until Lynda Myles, director of the Edinburgh Film Festival, arrives next fall to replace Tom Luddy, who has been the indefatigable curator and guiding spirit of the Archive since 1975. Luddy left PFA in mid-January to work for Francis Coppola on a number of projects including the distribution of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's seven-hour epic, "Our Hitler". Luddy says he may eventually establish a San Francisco cinemateque,m as a counterpart to Berkeley's PFA.

Luddy had a way, among other things, of luring the movie stars to the Archive. One of the stories often told of the Luddy regime recalls a night three years ago when Liza Minnelli and director Martin Scorsese were in San Francisco and drove over the Bay Bridge to PFA to see Herzog's "Aguirre, The Wrath of God," and the 1929 version of "Four Feathers." Minnelli later thanked PFA with a $10,000 check.

Such tales of turning glitter into gold seem to be the exception to the PFA rule. More than two-thirds of PFA's $400,000 budget comes from selling tickets to its evening films ($2.50 for one movie, $3.75 for a double feature) which change every night. Discounts are given to students and museum members. Though PFA remains a "museum of cinema," the selection of the films it exhibits can never become overly esoteric without feeling the pinch in box office sales. The archive makes sure to mix in a few popular westerns, vintage Hollywoods, MGM musicals, Chaplin comedies, and political films with the new Hungarian, Polish and avante-garde films.

At the moment, PFA is experiencing what business manager Tom Schmidt calls an "audience slump." "Student values have changed since the '60s when they were more film starved," he says. "It has been discouraging over the last couple of years to have our attendance falling off but see films like 'Animal House' packed night after night."

With shipping costs going up (round-trip air freight from New York for a 60 -round 35-mm film runs around $200), grant money drying up, and university support dwindling, the task of increasing box office receipts becomes imperative. That is Edith Kramer's job -- putting together a monthly program which is both creative and popular, two traits often mutually exclusive.

The day I met Edith Kramer she was scheduling the month of April and had just gotten off the phone with the Polish Embassy. "The poles. . . the Poles. . . how can they do this to me? They won't let me have the 10 films they promised. Even the Embassy can't help," she said, making a new series of X's on the calendar in front of her. Her anguish slowly dissolves into a grin. "Well, maybe that will make room in the schedule for Kurt Kren (an Austrian filmmaker living in the US) and those two filmmakers from England."

Displayed on Edith Kramer's bulletin board is a quote from Gertrude Stein which seems to epitomize the pioneering spirit of the PFA staff: "If a thing can be done, why do it?"

Perhaps the most innovative of the "untried things" the archive has taken on is its public service program. Funded largely by the Louis B. Mayer Foundation (endowed by the late Hollywood filmmaker and head of MGM), the program offers research screening, a "ready reference" hotline for questions relating to film, and film programs for local schools. Every month the archive has over 350 information requests and nearly 80 research screenings.

Linda Atel, a former elementary school teacher who is now PFA's film consultant, is in charge of the public service program. She has taken calls from a pregnant woman looking for Leboyer's birth film and a man who wanted to send Fred Astaire a birthday card. She once helped someone searching for the old "Amos and Andy" television series and later a private detective who wanted to subpoena a Rolling Stone documentary film to use in his client's court case.

Anyone with a "legitimate research need" is eligible to use PFA's research facilities: its 1,500-volume library, 10-person screening room and the 16mm and 35mm flatbed editing tables. Film critics and historians like William K. Everson, James Card, and Susan Sontag have made regular pilgrimages to PFA.Other researchers have included a screenwriter looking for films of Italian neorealists, a drama student writing a paper on funerals in the movies, an architect in search of movies with rooftop scenes, and a ballerina studying films of classical Russian ballet.

PFA may not have the films you are looking for, but it knows where to go to find them and can rent them through a local distributor for a fraction of what it would cost retail. Linda Artel can tell you, for instance, that most of Katherine Hepburn's films must be ordered from Los Angeles and only one company in New York distributes "The Maltese Falcon." PFA will show any film in its archive without rental charge. Most others can be ordered for a charge of $5 a film from a local distributor. Renters pay postage from other distributors.

Sheldon Renan, the PFA founder, once said nothing would please him more than to have a noted film scholar arriving to do advanced research on the theory of montage in Russian cinema and have him run into 80 schoolchildren who had just seen the films he was seeking. No doubt such a dream has come true since the archive began. Every year 20,000 schoolchildren -- from teenagers to pre-school -- file into PFA's theater for special film programs. Elementary school students might see "The Great Train Robbery;" a history class could see "All Quiet on the Western Front;" deaf children might be shown a Russian film about a deaf dancer; Samurai films go over well with high school dropouts.

PFA takes pride in being a "public archive." Says Linda Artel: "We loosely define the term 'researcher' and answer almost any question we get."

By the way: for those of you film buffs in the audiences still wondering where to get that copy of Hitchcock's "Rope" and who played the piano in that film about Chopin, there is no distributor for "rope" because Hitchcock personally withdrew the rights years ago. And Jose Iturbi happens to be the pianist in "Song to Remember" (1945).

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