Thirty Years of the Austin Film Society: An Interview with Richard Linklater
In 1985, six years before the release of Slacker, Richard Linklater's iconic portrait of a generation, the Texan filmmaker founded the Austin Film Society. The group began as a small band of cinephiles eager to see classic, independent, and art-house features not readily available at video stores or the local multiplex, with Linklater renting prints and arranging screenings across the city. Thirty years on, the Austin Film Society has become the cornerstone of Austin’s thriving film scene—the organization has grown to include more than 1,900 members and founded the offshoot production facility Austin Studios—supporting a community of filmmakers and cinema lovers devoted to AFS’s mission of film appreciation.
To celebrate its anniversary, the film society will present “30 Years of AFS Programming,” a series curated by Linklater, which begins November 5 and runs through December 22. The series will showcase six features, alongside a program of shorts, and will include some of the most beloved features shown during the Film Society’s early days, including Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin féminin, Luis Buñuel’s Los olvidados, and Nagisa Oshima’s The Ceremony. In anticipation of the series, I spoke with Linklater about AFS’s modest beginnings, his nostalgia for celluloid, and achieving film nirvana.
Looking back on the past thirty years, how has the film scene changed in Austin?
If you’re a person under thirty right now, you almost wouldn’t be able to recognize the film environment of that era because every film wasn't available. Video had just started, but the hit titles weren’t available and you couldn’t see a film anytime you wanted. I remember taking vacations from work, staying up until 2:00 a.m. to watch a film on TV, or traveling and driving to another town to see a film that was showing. It was an effort, but that made it very special and kind of a sacred thing. Once I settled into Austin, I noticed that the campus program would show the same two films. It would be Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal, then the next semester it would be Wild Strawberries and The Virgin Spring, and I realized the classes were just showing the same ones over and over. Those are great, but I wanted to see the other thirty films by Bergman.
So there was a greediness to see a bunch of movies, and once I realized that you could rent films for $150 and pay shipping, you could show these films and get an audience. I did the math in my head and was like, hey, you know, if we get fifty or a hundred people to show up and pay two dollars, we could see anything we wanted. We were successful right off the bat—Austin was hungry for it. It was the perfect town to do it, and the film scene has done nothing but grow since. At that time there weren’t any film festivals in town and now they have, like, four. So that tells you a lot right there.
Were you eager not only to have the chance to see these films, but also to share and build a community around them?
Yeah, it was a wonderful vibe. Texas at that time was in a real buzz cycle, economically, and everything was cheap. So people were just hanging out, and that community was also a filmmaking community. A lot of these people wanted to make their own films or were working on films, so our production community was growing parallel to our cultural community. The people who ran The Austin Chronicle were film freaks, and there’s a big film school right there at the University of Texas, so there was a lot of film energy around—it just needed some destination.
Do you enjoy getting to be both a filmmaker and a programmer?
I was programming films before I was making them, so I’ve always loved that, and it’s still something I do. I’m in the middle of a multi-year eighties retrospective where I’m showing films from the decade and talking about each one and what it meant to me personally. So I realized that now, all these years later, I’ve sort of lived through a certain segment of film history. I’ve never really thought of it that way, but you realize a lot of time has gone by, and I do kind of have perspective as someone who’s been in love with films for thirty years and has seen a lot. It’s been very satisfying. As I always say—and I’m not kidding—the film society means as much to me, and I’m as proud of it and what it’s been able to accomplish, as any of my own films. I really am. It’s a big part of my life, and I have a different relationship to it now. We’re such a huge organization compared to when we were working out of my bedroom thirty years ago. And yet, we’re still doing the same thing: just trying to show films and have an audience come and appreciate them.
For this series you chose canonical films, such as Godard’s Masculin féminin and Bresson’s Pickpocket, alongside rarer works like Ulrike Ottinger’s Ticket of No Return. How did you go about making your selections?
Thinking about the films that made an impact, they were usually part of a bigger series we were having. We did a lot of director retrospectives, and those are represented by one film. I remember doing a seventeen-film Godard series—that was me completely geeking out for the whole spring of 1988, because when you do that you get to watch them at home additionally, so you see each film three or four times. It was kind of film nirvana. But I feel that way about all the directors we did. I had a German New Wave series, and that’s where Ulrike Ottinger’s Ticket of No Return played. It really struck me as a wonderful tone that was surreal and beautiful and different. She was even more crazy and avant-garde than the men of the New German Cinema. But it was also a practical thing, because we were able to find a print. We still believe in showing film on film, when it’s available. My eighties series is all prints. We only have one program of shorts, and those are even more difficult. A lot of them are on 16 mm, so we’re going to pull out the projector and go way back in time.
And watching these on film, you also get to share the experience of seeing them in the way you first fell in love with them.
Yeah, it’s important, and when you’re programming films and showing films you really have a love of a good quality print. When a print shows up you’re not always sure what you’re going to get. When a beautiful print happens to show up, you’re just so in love with it. And even if the print’s not great, you still love the movie and you appreciate the age of the print, the wear and tear. So you get to know these prints, and that’s a relationship that’s completely lost in the DCP/Blu-ray era. But that’s just personal nostalgia, I guess. I just love the feel of it. I don’t know if that’s going away or if it’s going to be preserved. We’re in the balance right now, but I still love the idea of prints, and we try to do that as much as possible.
All of the screenings in the series will be followed by a discussion—is it important to you to have that dialogue with the audience?
It’s a fun opportunity. It isn’t academic; it’s my own exploration. This is my own search for my feelings about what these films mean to me, how they’ve changed, and if they’re better or worse. I’m finding that, almost universally, the films are even better than I remember, and I find myself more moved. So yeah, it’s just kind of fun to revisit these—it’s like a trip to the museum. I’m trying to hit different genres and different directors, but we’re merely scratching the surface. We have New York, New York, which I’m excited to see on film. We’ve had some great musicals series over the years. I’m a big fan of musicals, so I’m interested in seeing that again. So this is about how new audiences respond. If you’re twenty-three, you might be seeing these films for the first time, or certainly the first time in a theater or on the big screen, so I’ve enjoyed seeing how a new generation responds or doesn’t respond to a film.
Do you have a favorite series that you’ve programmed at the film society?
There are so many, but one that I really put everything I had into was a Robert Bresson retrospective in the fall of 1987. I even wrote him a letter when it was over. He wrote me this wonderful letter back about the power of cinema and how here is this little town in Texas showing all his films and what a powerful medium we live in to communicate around the world like that. It was just kind of special. At that very moment I was really ingesting his kind of rigorous cinema and it meant so much to me. This core group that was working with the film society, we would watch those films in our living room over and over, so some of those films I’d watch five, six times, and then show them to the public. It was super special, at that time. It almost felt like you were a missionary, you know? Often you’d open with one of the more commercial titles—for Bresson it was Lancelot of the Lake—just because it had to do with the King Arthur myth. So we showed that, and people were like, “Oh, that’s kind of odd,” but we’d get a hundred people in our little theater. And even if it would be thirty-eight or forty, you’ve really bonded with those forty people—who came to see every film—and you realize that’s who you were doing it for.
Check out more vintage flyers from the Austin Film Society here.