All the riches of the screen

Library professional and Film Forum member Bill Kennedy talks about arthouse cinema going in Seattle and the journey of a film lover. . .

Growing up in the Assemblies of God, movies were prohibited to me. I didn’t care much about the other prohibitions (dancing; “mixed swimming”) but very early on became obsessed with seeing movies. (A surely formative event was being told I couldn’t go to see 101 Dalmatians, because it wouldn’t be acceptable in the eyes of the Lord.) I quickly located where the movie reviews were in every magazine, and because those were the days when experimental film was newsworthy, I was aware of filmmakers from Warhol to Scott Bartlett before I was a teenager. There was a great essay in the 1969 World Book Year Book that was basically about “What the hell is wrong with movies today?” packed with scores of tantalizing stills from exploitation, sexploitation, and avant-garde movies, making me long for the dream land where I could have the opportunity to experience these riches.

A few years later, upon entering middle school, our family finally got a television so I could finally see what some of the fuss was about. I had a regular date with KING 5′s 3:00 movie (which included dubbed versions of 400 Blows and Ugetsu), as well as Saturday afternoons with the Marx Bros./W.C. Fields and Sunday afternoons with Toho monster movies. “Why don’t you go outside and do something?” became a cry in the wilderness.

When I moved to Seattle for college in 1980 I found myself in the last days of the repertory theater paradise of the ’70s. Dennis Nyback’s Rose Bud Movie Palace was showing King’s Row the day I got off the train, in ironic tribute to some presidential candidate. My first night in Seattle, I walked a half-dozen blocks to see a double bill of La Dolce Vita and Le Notti di Cabiria. Within the month, another theater started a month-long series of samurai double-features, changing three times a week. The UW film series featured everything from Russ Meyer to Straub-Huillet (Jim Emerson may have been a programmer there.) 911 offered the opportunity to see experimental film, classic and new. Many of the independent theaters would suddenly announce archival programs of Shakespeare/ballet/AIP/beach-themed films. Seriously, I have no idea how I graduated with decent grades, as I saw movies nearly every free moment.

Even as film societies and series began to disappear due to the video boom, there was a lot going on. SIFF continued to get bigger and better, The Grand Illusion—always home to clever programming—was briefly taken over by Philip Wohlstetter who spent nearly a year putting together the best run of features (pre-NWFF) ever seen

Pike Street Cinema, photo by Dennis Nyback.

in the city. In the late ’80s, Dennis Nyback again started exhibiting amazing programs of ephemera at various pop-up cinemas, followed closely by Erick Larson/Mike Phelps’ Shining Moment Productions, specializing in silent film. But the daily repertory schedules were slowing, and 911′s screenings became ever more rare. Nyback put in a couple of years with the Pike Street Cinema, and then things were quiet until Northwest Film Forum showed up.

I don’t remember the first film I saw there (maybe Woman Under the Influence with special guest Ray Carney—I bought his book) but I do know I became a member the first time I visited, and I’ve never let it lapse. That first year’s programming was good and varied, and it’s only gotten better. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to see films by Warhol and Scott Bartlett (thanks also to Spencer Sundell’s Sprocket Society, based at both the Film Forum and The Grand Illusion), and exploitation and sexploitation and avant-garde film of all stripes. The different characters of the programmers have brought wonderful idiosyncratic annual programs, some of which (like Jaime Keeling’s First Person Cinema series) have disappeared with their curator, and some (like Peter Lucas’ ByDesign) have outlived their curator’s tenure. Current programmer Adam Sekular may be my favorite programmer since Wohlstetter—there’s hardly a screening I miss, and almost never an entire week where I don’t visit. I’ll miss his eye for film, but I look forward to seeing who comes next, and what kinds of film they may help Seattle discover.

Still from Yasujiro Ozu’s "I Was Born, But..."

The four screens belonging to Northwest Film Forum over the past two decades have played nearly all my favorite films at one time or other, but one particularly memorable moment was taking my 5-year-old godson to see Ozu’s I Was Born, But…, the first non-cartoon I’d seen with him. He loved it, and the next time I asked him if he wanted to see a film, he said, “I hope it has intertitles!” Later he took several filmmaking classes at Northwest Film Forum, another great community resource. Now in high school, he’s just moved to South Bend IN, and told me that one of his regrets was that there was nothing like Northwest Film Forum there. My response: “There aren’t many cities in the country with something like the NWFF.”


Bill Kennedy catalogues feature DVDs for the Seattle Public Library. A former actor, he was the body double for R. Hamilton Wright in Lynn Shelton’s We Go Way Back.

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