Venues for repertory film programming in the United States generally fall into one of three categories: revival houses, museums, and university cinematheques. It seems like you hear the least about the latter, but college campus theaters are undoubtedly helping to keep cinephilia alive across the country. The University of Wisconsin Cinematheque in Madison, for example, is about to embark on the summer series Mondo Belmondo, a selection of films devoted to the French New Wave icon, including Breathless and Léon Morin, Priest. Reaching an audience beyond the university community is a challenge being taken up by the theater’s recently hired director of programming, Jim Healy. And the 160-seat theater certainly seems like the perfect forum for educating the general public about cinema culture: it is often used as an academic space but holds screenings that are open to all two or three days a week, and all of its screenings are free—most university film societies charge admission.
Healy moved to the UW Cinematheque after more than nine years in Rochester, New York, as a curator at the George Eastman House’s Dryden Theatre. It has been a major change for him—the Dryden seats 500 and is open six or seven days every week—but a welcome one. “There are no limits or directives on programming,” he says. “One of the advantages of working for a large and heavily supported institution like UW, as opposed to a smaller, independent, not-for-profit museum like George Eastman House, is not having the pressure to deliver audiences and revenues of a certain size.”
And because the university’s programming isn’t as beholden to what’s available from an on-site collection (the George Eastman House has one of the country’s largest film archives), Healy feels freer to weight his programming toward the vanguard of contemporary cinema; one of the missions of the theater is to bring films to Madison that might not be financially viable for local art houses. This summer, Healy has scheduled, with the help of programmer and projectionist Mike King, such first-run international art films as Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg and Denis Coté’s Curling. He is looking forward to an upcoming Nicholas Ray retrospective, to coincide with the filmmaker’s centennial; he’s hoping the series will be of special interest to denizens of Wisconsin, where Ray was born and raised. And expanding audiences’ definitions of art cinema, Healy says, is also something he wants to do: “While I don’t have to cater to popular tastes, on the other hand, there remains the challenge of getting those who are maybe a little too high-minded about cinema to broaden their tastes and come to see things like martial arts action movies and so-called exploitation films.”
Healy has been gratified in the past few months to see strong turnouts for repertory offerings like Sweet Smell of Success, an Anthony Mann series, and even a program of Austrian avant-garde shorts. He seems particularly excited about some summer Saturday matinees geared toward family audiences, a sort of art house for beginners that’s happening in collaboration with the Madison Children’s Museum and that includes classic fifties kid flicks like Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon and Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive, as well as silent and stop-motion films. Philosophically, this is a crucial program for Healy, whose own daughter is soon turning three. Says the programmer, “Part of what this is all about is creating new generations of cinephiles.”