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UW Cinematheque leads a growing downtown film scene
Screen dreams

Jim Healy: Cinematheque is 'the way to see a movie.'
Jim Healy: Cinematheque is 'the way to see a movie.'
Credit:Timothy Hughes
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It's been a good year for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cinematheque, and also for its first director of programming, Jim Healy.

The organization has two gorgeous new venues, at the Chazen Museum of Art and Union South. Celebrated director Joe Dante just paid a three-day visit to screen Gremlins, as well as his personal favorites. Attendance for the summer series was up 70%.

"We're also, this fall, ahead of where we were last year - and we had record attendance last year," says Healy. He credits the entire team at the Cinematheque, but it's still been a busy time for Healy, who joined the UW in October 2010.

"It went by in a flash, considering that, at the outset, when I got here, I was looking at not seeing any of my program initiatives on-screen until July," he says. The schedule for much of the season had to be set before his arrival. "I've been pleased to see a lot of positive responses to the things I've been bringing in."

Healy, 42, previously programmed the Chicago International Film Festival and served as an assistant curator at George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., one of the world's most prestigious film archives. He grew up in Chicago's northwest suburbs. He doesn't remember a time when he wasn't interested in film.

"I think if anything drove my desire, it was that I grew up in a culture where not everything was accessible, and certain things were withheld from me, either through parental responsibility or whatever," he says. "There always was just this kind of need to discover movies. I saw it almost as a rite of passage."

From around the age of 10, Healy made multiple trips to theaters weekly. He had an 8mm camera and a projector, made a few films, and checked out more from the library. Back then you could borrow 8mm films - not videocassettes, not DVDs - as if they were books. Often they were Hollywood features edited down to nearly nothing.

"An Abbott and Costello feature condensed to 20 minutes," Healy recalls. "And that was tantalizing, too. There's another 80 minutes that I could see! It was always about seeing the next thing."

Authors and film critics led him into new directions: Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, Dave Kehr. "You got a lesson in good writing, and you usually got a lesson in film history, too," he says. "There was one movie you wanted to see right away - the one they were writing about - and then three or four more that they mentioned in their reviews."

Healy thought for a time about becoming a critic, and even tried it. "But I found that as I grew older it was more important to me to see as much as I could," he says, laughing. "Programming, I think, was the way to go. I found it much more rewarding."

His knack for programming clearly is benefiting UW Cinematheque. "We definitely are growing," Healy says. "People are becoming more aware, and the more people that come, they tell their friends and it becomes a regular destination."

UW Cinematheque is a coalition of UW-Madison departments and student film groups. It's also the screening facility of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, a partnership between the Department of Communication Arts and the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The name comes from the legendary Cinémathèque Franaise, founded by Henri Langlois in the 1930s. The Paris institution's name has since been applied to similar film archives in cities including Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Oslo, Montreal and Tel Aviv. Healy terms such organizations "repertory cinemas."

"What we do is a carefully curated program of the best in motion picture history, shown in the original formats, with the best attention to detail possible, in the best circumstances," Healy says. "It's the way to see a movie."

Only a handful of academic institutions have similar programs: the University of Chicago, Cornell University and the University of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles. "What's really rare is for it to be free," Healy says.

Funding for the Cinematheque comes from the UW's anonymous fund and the Brittingham Foundation. There are also departmental and civic partnerships from time to time.

Healy's position was created after the Chazen approached the Cinematheque a few years ago to discuss how to best use their planned auditorium. It became clear that programming efforts would have to be stepped up. "And it just so happened that Union South opened at the same time," says Healy.

The Cinematheque will continue to show films in room 4070 of Vilas Hall. That, and the two new venues, will allow vastly expanded offerings. In some cases, between Friday and Monday you could potentially see five or six films.

"I'm really excited about being in the Chazen," says Healy. "It's just such a wide-open, welcoming entrance. Having that wide courtyard that leads to the Union and other buildings and the lake - it's really nice. It feels like being part of an event."

The Chazen consulted the Cinematheque in the creation of its 160-seat auditorium. The projectors were custom-built by Kinoton. In this digital age, "projectors are quickly becoming Fabergé egg-type items," notes Healy. "These have a purr to them. They're really sleek machines."

They're dual-gauge, meaning that they can show both 16mm and 35mm films, and they have variable speed control for silent films. Modern sound films are shown at 24 frames per second, but silents were often shown at slower speeds. Showing silent movies at "sound speed" gives them a comedic, jerky quality their filmmakers never intended.

Over at Union South, the Marquee theater features 350 seats and rebuilt projectors from the Memorial Union's Play Circle.

"The Marquee has certainly worked out for us," says Healy. "It's a space designed specifically for films, but also for the student body. They're going in there and enjoying popcorn and snacks and things like that."

The Wisconsin Union Directorate presents its own slate of films in the Marquee. "I think the collaboration between the Cinematheque and WUD Film is terrific," says Tom Yoshikami, a former Cinematheque programmer and currently the directorate's art and film advisor. He also helps curate the Spotlight Cinema series at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

"I, among others, have longed for film on campus to be more centralized, and with current collaborations like Marquee Mondays and Joe Dante's visit, I think we're taking steps to creating a cohesive yet diverse film culture," he says.

To accommodate the new screens, programming is "leaping by at least a third," Healy says. "I think we can only grow, in terms of our audience."

This means that, for the first time in a long time, downtown Madison has a wide selection of movie venues.

"It's important that people can come downtown and take a part in this culture, and enjoy themselves and have a night out," says Healy. "But more than just carrying on a tradition of 'downtown cinema,' I think what's more important to me is carrying on this specifically Madison tradition of repertory cinema."

The Cinematheque was born during the 1997-98 school year, but its roots go back decades.

As early as 1924, critic Gilbert Seldes in The Seven Lively Arts argued that motion pictures were an art form, but the idea wasn't widely embraced until the rise of the auteur theory of filmmaking in the 1950s. Motion pictures are almost by definition collaborative, but now the director's intent was parsed out and heralded.

With movies newly identified as celluloid canvases produced by master artists, in the 1960s campuses nationwide exploded with film societies to explore the careers of leading directors and to view seldom-seen classics.

At the UW, it was like throwing gasoline on the fire at the end of Citizen Kane. Countless classics (and occasional pornographic films) were screened on lecture hall screens into the 1980s. On any weekend, you could choose a movie from any film decade, from around the world. For many native Madisonians, UW room locations such as "B10 Commerce" are today still fondly recalled as inexpensive theaters.

It was a good time to be a film fan in the capital. An influential critical film journal was founded here in 1971, The Velvet Light Trap, which continues today. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Majestic Theatre was a revival house, setting aside whole weeks for retrospectives on Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Buster Keaton, Federico Fellini and 3-D movies. At least one local film library, or "exchange," was created solely to rent movies to the campus societies. The Madison Art Center offered classes in filmmaking to children.

Then the excitement subsided. Or, at least, it moved from social public screenings to private living rooms. The videocassette killed campus film societies - but their influence remains.

"I started the Cinematheque with a number of graduate students and faculty that were disturbed by the fact that the film societies were a thing of the past, and it was no longer possible to see a wide variety of films in 35mm on campus," says Lea Jacobs, director of the Cinematheque and a professor of communication arts. "It was several years before we were able to hire a professional projectionist, and not until last year that we were able to hire a professional programmer."

Plans for the near future include newly restored films from 20th Century Fox, the films of Josef von Sternberg, collaboration with the UW department of African studies for its 50th anniversary, and a series from Catalan, Spain. Joe Swanberg, a prolific Chicago-based filmmaker, will visit in February. A favorite from Madison's film society days, Jacques Tati, will be featured in December.

Madison so far seems very receptive to the expanded Cinematheque, despite the fact that today there are more ways to view more filmed content than ever. Healy maintains that the essential quality of cinema is an audience. Otherwise, it's just...well, film. Or a DVD or streaming video.

"The idea of a communal experience where there's a limited window of opportunity, and everyone gets together to see something and experiences it - in most cases for the first time - that's what cinema is for me," he says.

"Watching it in the dark, with other people; there's almost an inherent, physical cinematic quality to it, to the extent that a motion picture on 35mm film is told in frames - still frames - and there's black space in between them, and the image is all put together, making an experience.

"That black space is almost like the darkness that is with us in the theater, and allows us to both be together and by ourselves."

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