How to Get an Education in Film

Austin Film Society Projections

by Marjorie Baumgarten

Certain things we

take for granted -- like movies and their perpetual motion. But filmmaking has existed as a business, a science, an art, and an alternate reality, for a scant 100 years. And as people around the world prepare centennial celebrations of the invention of cinema, here in Austin, another milestone is being celebrated: the 10th anniversary of the Austin Film Society.

The 10-year-long continued existence of the AFS has been no small feat in itself. Born in 1985, the group's genesis was the desire to see some movies they had never seen before. The society was spearheaded by Richard Linklater and Lee Daniel, who would go on to make the movies Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise together. These two had met at a now-defunct Super-8 club in Austin and shared, among other things, the desire to see some of the experimental and more obscure films that rarely made it to Austin screens. Instead of griping, they took it upon themselves to organize these screenings.

The first public AFS screenings were midnighters at the Dobie Theatre. Over the years, screenings were held wherever space could be found: at the old Varsity Theatre, Austin Museum of Art at Laguna Gloria, ACC, UT, Continental Club, Chances, Dobie, and between 1988 and 1990 at their own venue, Austin Media Arts, a cleared-out space above Quackenbush's on the Drag that also doubled as a staging area during the shooting of Slacker. Daniel describes the space in the comprehensive program book compiled for the 10th anniversary. "In 1988 we renovated a space on the Drag above Quackenbush's Coffee Shop and we called it Austin Media Arts. The space formerly housed a psychedelic ice cream parlor called `Nothing Strikes Back.' Well, we struck back that spring with an onslaught of Godard films, plus new films from `edgy' directors such as Jon Jost, Willie Varela, and James Benning. We didn't make any money, but we sure had a bitchin' time.... I loved the challenges and risks of trying to get an audience to sit through home movies, or Pasolini's Salo. I loved projecting those films, because I wanted to be right where the magic takes place. In that ramshackle lean-to of a projection booth, I must have projected a couple of hundred movies for the Film Society."

The screenings were constant, irregular, and eclectic -- everything from Kenneth Anger to Robert Bresson, Vincente Minnelli to Michael Snow, Chantal Akerman to Ingmar Bergman, and much more. The viewing of one film would inevitably lead to the desire to see some other. The programming was idiosyncratic yet diverse, a self-programmed film education. Linklater, who never had much formal film training, has commented, "I always thought that in a real film program you should just watch films. You should just spend four years watching every film and then get busy making them."

In another sense, this tenth anniversary is a celebration of passion -- movie passion. The AFS works because the people of Austin support these screenings. It has always been an all-volunteer effort. Through the years, a vast number of people too numerous to mention have donated their time and energies to the AFS. However, a few whose contributions have been critical to the organization's survival must be mentioned: Denise Montgomery, one of the driving forces of the Austin Media Arts center; Katie Cokinos, who managed AFS from 1990-1995; and George Morris, the former Austin Chronicle writer and ACC professor whose death from AIDS in 1989 only reinforces his role as a guiding light. Screenings and appearances by visiting filmmakers have also been supported by funds from the Texas Commission on the Arts and the City of Austin, as well as exhibitors and distributors, though primary support comes from the people who attend the events.

That passion is captured by Denise Montgomery in her description for the anniversary program book of the Austin Media Arts center. "There were couches, bean bags, folding chairs and a bring-your-own-drinks atmosphere... It was our playground. It's how we lived and what we did with all our time. The films were the center of the space, but the experimental music and art happenings gave the space a glimmering edge of freshness and vigor: a collective energy of people pursuing their passions.... Through our endeavors, we grew into a cohesive group of flickers and artists."

That growth still continues and at this 10th anniversary juncture, the AFS is reaching for new challenges. The form of their celebration is practically unprecedented: a year-long retrospective, that began back in August, of 42 free screenings of some favorite programs from the past 10 years. These screenings are funded by membership contributions and two benefit screenings held in the last year: the Pulp Fiction premiere with Quentin Tarantino in attendance and the Before Sunrise premiere at the Paramount. Additionally, a handsome and elaborate program book has been organized for the occasion. Included are fascinating, first-person remembrances, a complete listing of everything they've ever shown, program notes on all the films on the anniversary schedule, information about AFS membership, and reproductions of all the cool posters and flyers produced through the years. Program books are available at the screenings and several other locations around town.

One of the most notable recent changes in the Film Society is its concretization. With offices housed in Linklater's Detour Film production complex, it is also staffed by two new, talented, part-time employees, Elizabeth Peters, the managing director, and Jerry Johnson, the director of programming. Their presence brings a regularity to the organization, as well as a fresh surge of commitment and knowledge. They both are available for general advice as well. "We're not really set up staffing-wise to do that," says Peters, "but we'll make appointments with people and sit down with them and give them advice about where to find things locally and available resources."

The project they're most excited about is their new program of administered grants to independent filmmakers. Established in 1987 as a non-profit organization, the Austin Film Society plans to serve as an umbrella organization for individual funding efforts. This activity is all the more important in light of the draconian budget cuts to arts organizations throughout the country. Linklater stresses that the AFS-administered grants and sponsored projects program "came about in lieu of the demise of the regional NEA grants. That was a real loss to local filmmakers. We're hoping to pick up the slack." Peters can point out fistfuls of figures that show how the federal budget allots 5/100ths of one percent of its funds on the arts. Furthermore, numbers show that the NEA actually worked to draw money out of the public sector and that for every dollar the NEA spent, $12 of private money followed it. Using their grants to attract money from private and corporate sources is something the AFS hopes to accomplish.

Ambitious projects such as free screenings and grant-giving require money, however. Toward that end, the AFS will be staging another benefit in the near future (details to come later) and they are actively seeking new membership donations (which are tax-exempt). These are the funding sources that keep these programs in operation. Some people have come to regard the 10th anniversary screenings as weekly Tuesday night meetings. You can count on seeing an interesting film with an adventuresome crowd. "I honestly think I'm as, or more, proud of what the Film Society has accomplished and been able to do over the years as I am any of my own undertakings," comments Link-later. "It feels natural to make films, but showing `difficult' films that don't even register with most of the population, has always seemed a bigger struggle."

You can stop by any Tuesday night to say thanks. n

The Austin Film Society may be contacted by phone: 322-0145; e-mail

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