Programming at the George Eastman House

On Film / Features — Sep 7, 2011

The Dryden Theatre—the exhibition space of the renowned George Eastman House film archive in Rochester, New York—is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary this year. And its recently hired programmer: Lori Donnelly, is thrilled to be there for the occasion. “It’s a privilege to be able to do what I’m doing at the George Eastman House,” she says. “There’s a real sense of history and love for film here that you might not find in other, even bigger, cities.”

Donnelly arrived at the George Eastman House in November 2010 after four years as associate film programmer at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland (she replaced Jim Healy, who moved to the University of Wisconsin Cinematheque after almost ten years at the Dryden). Her new post has things in common with her old one—“I still maintain emphasis on classic American films, peppered with world cinema and occasional premieres of smaller foreign and independent work,” says Donnelly—but it also comes with quite the not-so-secret weapon: one of the oldest and largest film archives in the United States. The George Eastman House holds approximately 30,000 prints, with silent films and American titles of the thirties and forties its greatest concentration. It’s also one of the few venues in the country able to project nitrate prints, and tries to do so at least once per bimonthly film calendar.

Such a collection makes possible upcoming screenings like Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 The Shop Around the Corner and Ray Enright’s 1936 Sing Me a Love Song, as well as the Silent Tuesdays programs, which will in the near future include the Rudolph Valentino vehicle The Eagle; The Whistle, a 1921 indictment of American factory conditions, starring William S. Hart; and the Victor McLaglen action melodrama The River Pirate. A recent initiative by the organization makes some of its films available not only to Rochester theatergoers but to everyone: a selection of rarities from the vault are available to stream for free on the theater’s Web page, including such famous titles as Harry O’Hoyt’s 1925 The Lost World and William Wellman’s Nothing Sacred, as well as oddities like Dudley Murphy’s 1922 mixed-media avant-garde short Danse Macabre and Out from Tobaccoland, U.S.A., a 1949 celebration of Chesterfield cigarettes.

Despite how accessible films have become online and on demand, Donnelly remains committed to promoting the theatrical experience, which she realizes can be a tough sell sometimes. “How do you convince someone that seeing The Maltese Falcon in a theater is much more fulfilling than watching it online? What if younger audiences dismiss classic films as cultural homework?” she asks. The best approach, of course, is to present as diverse a slate as possible. “A particular challenge is how to balance classical Hollywood filmmaking with the rest of film’s ongoing history—the avant-garde, new foreign cinema, films by neglected auteurs, and so on,” she explains. “If you fill a calendar with esoteric work, you risk alienating your audience, but if you screen a repetitive cycle of popular favorites, you’re neglecting your duty as a curator.”

Donnelly has overseen recent Dryden slates as varied as a nostalgic eighties series and the heftier Deux Tourneurs, which spotlighted father and son directors Maurice and Jacques Tourneur. She is looking forward to this fall’s Halloween-appropriate tribute to Vincent Price in honor of his centennial, and, a program she holds especially close to her heart, a series on director James Gray. “This will be one of the first retrospectives of this criminally underrated director. And he’ll also be acting as guest curator, with two interesting picks: I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Richard Fleischer’s rarely screened The Boston Strangler.” It’s just the sort of idiosyncratic programming that keeps repertory house culture vital.