The Greatest Films Of All Time: Free For All

A dialogue between curator/educator/artist Craig Harshaw and cultural critic/big weirdo Craig Harshaw.

One would think it would be easy to engage the press in covering an ongoing series of free film screenings held in a brand spanking new multi-disciplinary art center, but alas, Chicagoland journalists just aren’t that excited about celebrating access to the arts and humanities. So, what is a self-possessed curator/performance artist/educator/cultural critic/big weirdo to do but bite the bullet and simply interview himself? So without further adieu, and in the great tradition of Rupert Pumpkin, I present this interview with myself.]

What inspired this project?

Insight Arts has been collaborating with Evanston Arts Center for the past few years on several projects including an ongoing critical discussion project called DIALOGICAL COMMUNITIES that primarily discusses visual art and social practice. The discussions are led by EAC education director Keith Brown and myself and we have noticed that inevitably discussion participants reference film/television artworks as a way of understanding the visual and conceptual projects under discussion. It seemed to us like once conversation turned to moving image cultural work people became more comfortable asserting their own opinions about both form and content.

I am a true blue cinephile and much of my work references film theory and criticism. I love watching films and television work but I especially love watching work with other people. Actually, this isn’t limited to moving image work I love discussing literature, visual art, theory with other people. I find that in dialogue one’s understanding of work grows immensely and I think this is particularly true of film work that was always created with the idea of a shared audience experience. Netflix/YouTube/DVD culture has taken the film experience outside of the social context of the theater and this has been compounded by the massive expansion beyond the once limited televisual landscape of three networks and PBS. Now the choices seem limitless but watching is something one often does in private. Today watching films communally with strangers is becoming a more specialized experience. There are serious political consequences for this inevitable change in how we consume images.

So, anyway this idea of creating some kind of film project was in the air and Keith suggested I might screen some films once EAC moved into its new home. I thought of the Sight and Sound List right away because it is undeniably the most respected list of its kind. The media circus around Hitchcock’s VERTIGO unseating Welles’ CITIZEN KANE on the 2012 list is one of those annoying discussion points that mainstream media becomes obsessed with. Those blank looking reporters smiling and saying, “So, what is the greatest film of all time?” and then telling us that Vertigo “won” the coveted award. The list becomes a form for marketing DVD’s of the films that place in the higher end of the list. That doesn’t interest me at all. I don’t really care about a film “winning” first place. What I am more interested in is the way this project has over the past 60 years told us something about changes in moving image production and reception. So, I thought it would be an interesting challenge to curate films from among the 2,045 films that appeared on the 2012 critics list.

This is a collaborative project between Insight Arts and Evanston Arts Center. Insight Arts is an organization primarily known for community engaged art making, arts education projects and for producing artists that engage with progressive social justice movements. How does holding a weekly series of free screenings of films relate to any of the work Insight Arts has historically engaged in? 

Insight Arts always did free film evenings including screenings of “canonized” films. Part of the work always was about opening up dialogue. I can remember free screenings of everything from Renoir’s THE RULES OF THE GAME to Gaston Kabore’s WEND KUUNI to Maya Deren’s AT LAND happening at Insight Arts. One of the most recent forays into this kind of work was back in February 2011 when we offered free screenings of a “forgotten” film, BRIGHT ROAD, starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, in five different neighborhoods in Chicago. I think the major difference here is that we are hosting these screenings in Evanston rather than a working class neighborhood in Chicago.

Why have you chosen Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd for the first screening?

 Well it’s a great film made by a great filmmaker. It was the ninth film that Wilder directed and the fiftieth film that he wrote. He started writing films in Germany in the late 1920’s during the final years of the silent era. He fled Germany as the fascists rose to power and eventually ended up as Peter Lorre’s roommate in Hollywood! He quickly became one of the most sought after screenwriters in Hollywood and directed his first American film, The Major and the Minor, in 1942. So his take on Hollywood culture is a very interesting one.

I knew I wanted to start the series with a familiar American film because I felt this would attract a larger audience. I had initially considered beginning with Nicolas Ray’s IN A LONELY PLACE that was also released in 1950. It is a film I love and I thought beginning with a Bogart film might be a hook for many people. I wanted the first film I selected to lead into the next film so I started thinking about Ray’s film having a screenwriter as a protagonist and this made me immediately think of Sunset Blvd. I ended up dropping the Ray film altogether from this first set because I realized that Wilder’s film had so many elements that are perfect for a series like this; the ironic casting of silent era stars such as Gloria Swanson, Erich Von Stroheim, and Buster Keaton, it’s boundary pushing plot involving a “kept man” and mental illness, the way the various acting styles of the leading actors compliment and complicate the plot, and this idea of disposability within American capitalist cultural production. The film sets up our second screening of Francois Truffaut’s DAY FOR NIGHT wonderfully.

Truffaut’s film is also very self-reflexive about cinema production. Is this something that runs throughout the series?

 Well it is definitely how the series starts with a film set in Hollywood that looks at the way the industry has changed since the classic silent era. A film set during the making of a mainstream French romantic comedy follows this. The third film is Fellini’s classic 8 ½ about a film director who fears his talent is drying up. The fourth and fifth films feature a use of videotape that is central to their plots. So we have moved from filmmaking as a very specialized art form to something that has become accessible to the general public. The sixth film, Dziga Vertov’s classic MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (1929) sort of ends this section and it’s a double feature so the film it is pared with Danielle Hulliet and Jean-Marie Straub’s SICILIA (1998) also comments on the way experimental filmmaking has changed over the course of seven decades.

The next four weeks we will really look at explicitly revolutionary films from a variety of contexts including Soviet, Cuban, American radical feminist and French new wave traditions. Then I schedule three films inspired by Shakespeare’s great tragedy KING LEAR. The final three films more abstractly deal with translation; Senegalese director’s Diop Djibiril Mambety’s Hyenas is adapted from one of the greatest contemporary Austrian plays, Sergio Leone an Italian director is using the tropes of the American Western film but in a way that clearly comments on European politics and finally Ramesh Sippy’s remarkable SHOLAY references Leone’s film, many American films, Indian adventure epics, prison dramas, and Bollywood musicals.

Is there a particular screening you are most looking forward to? 

 I really want to see the audience reaction to Godard’s King Lear (1987). It is a very difficult and wild film. It has a cast that includes Molly Ringwald, Norman Mailer, Burgess Meredith, Woody Allen, the American experimental theater director Peter Sellers and Godard himself.

It seems like you are attempting to balance accessibility and difficulty? Everything from Hollywood classics to extremely challenging Avant-garde works.

Yes, I am trying to be truthful to the list itself. I am also hoping that some people will get engaged enough in the series to move outside their comfort zones at bit.

Any sneak previews of what films you might screen in 2016?

 I want to start with a film by Pier Paolo Pasolini and there will definitely be a martial arts classic. Expect Bergman, Satyajit Ray, animation and Hitchcock.