Remembering the Classics
Texas Film Hall of Famer Michael Barker reflects on Austin's film scene
Michael Barker would like to clarify a myth about himself. "I wasn't a graduate of Radio-Television-Film at UT," he said. "I have a bachelor of science in speech."
That hasn't stopped him from quietly becoming one of the most important figures in film to have ever emerged from Austin. This year, the UT graduate and co-president/co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics enters the Texas Film Hall of Fame as the first recipient of The Austin Chronicle Champion of the Arts award. He may not have the casual name recognition of his fellow honorees – Grey's Anatomy's Chandra Wilson; Rising Star award recipient and Friday Night Lights alum Jesse Plemons; and TV comedy legend Carol Burnett – but as a professional champion of independent and independently minded film, his impact on cinema is immeasurable. Starting with a lowly position at Films Incorporated in late-Seventies New York, renting 16mm prints to prisons and schools, he joined United Artists Classics when it first started dabbling in bringing foreign language and independent films to broader American audiences. After nearly a decade at Orion Classics, in 1992 he helped kick-start Sony's arthouse division. In that time, he has played a key role in bringing modern giants like Pedro Almodóvar, Michael Haneke, Wim Wenders, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Ang Lee, and dozens more to broader audiences. He said, "To be part of these filmmakers' growth, it's so satisfying. But it also gives us a discipline, both with the new filmmakers and the masters."
Barker's career seems contradictory to modern mega-budget, boom or bust cinema: A firm believer in the auteur theory, his crusade has been to give movies a life beyond opening weekend. He points to Haneke's The White Ribbon: Released in 2009, it was well received and lauded with awards. Yet a black-and-white, German-language meditation on the roots of evil will inevitably have limited commercial legs in America. However, it has already found a longevity and respect beyond its initial release. Barker said, "Even if the film doesn't do this huge box office, it still has a lot of life in it. I call them the evergreens, and our job is to make these films into evergreens."
His career championing underdog movies didn't begin in Hollywood, but in the less glamorous surroundings of the Texas Union. Back when he was an undergrad at UT, he was student head of the Texas Union film committee. However, his film education began as a kid raised on American Army bases in Germany. Barker said, "The theatre could be an aircraft hangar, and they'd have a turnover of films every day. I've probably seen every American film made in 1966 and '67, because I would go every night with my father." When he reached UT in 1972, it was a golden age of cinema on campus, and he got to be part of it, booking double and triple features at the Texas Union. Across campus, there was CinemaTexas, run by future Chronicle founders and stalwarts including Louis Black, Nick Barbaro, Marjorie Baumgarten, and the late Ed Lowry (without whom, Barker said, he would never have got into the business of film). Barker estimates there were around 100 campus cinema groups "in every kind place that had any kind of projector."
It was a unique era for cinema and cinema-lovers. Films were plentiful and diverse, tickets were cheap, and – most importantly – there was a hunger to be exposed to something new, to change the culture. Barker said, "Those were the years of student unrest, those were the anti-Vietnam War years. Those were years where students looked to films from all over the world to discover a worldview that was meaningful. These filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and Fellini and Bertolucci came on the rise. They were the new artists. Film was the pop culture that became artistically respected, but they also had great political importance. Movies like Battle of Algiers and Z, those movies played over and over again at the UT campus, not just for film reasons, but for political reasons."
Those years created a generation of cineastes, for whom films were more than just a diversion. Barker said, "People are amazed at the film knowledge that people who went to that school and devoted all their free time to seeing movies, and that film knowledge has stayed with them." That fixation and fascination permeated out beyond that vanguard: The first time Barker saw Richard Linklater's Slacker, "it was so obvious that the guy who directed this movie had seen Buñuel, had seen Max Ophüls, had seen all these great movies, and somehow had distilled that into an expression of what it was to be in Austin, Texas. It was almost like Austin was to him what Paris was to Balzac."
Of course, Austin's film scene has changed dramatically since Barker's undergraduate years. Campus screenings are a rarity, but there are more films being produced here than ever before. Barker described it as "a really important town as far as film is concerned, and I think the really fine filmmakers, the accomplished filmmakers, they've all become aware of it."
What's drawn their attention? The same facet of Austin film culture that defined it when Barker was an undergraduate. It's a place where people want to watch movies, in all their global breadth and diversity. He points to the success of the Austin Film Society, which he described as being founded by film lovers who "communicate with people that movies are at the level of the greatest literature, as well as a pop culture thing." Now he describes it as "one of the most important film entities in America" because of its dedication to keeping cinema a communal experience, and giving theatrical life to the classics and niche films and independent works that fall between the megaplex-hogging blockbusters and the limited experience that comes with digital streaming. Barker said, "We're in danger of hurting film culture, if all of our students and all the new people who see all these classics for the first time, if they see them on a small screen. Watching Citizen Kane on a tiny screen is nothing next to watching it on a big screen."
2016 Texas Film Awards
Thursday, March 10 at Austin Studios Stage 7, 1901 E. 51st. Tickets start at $600, tables from $6,000. Special guests include Maya Rudolph, Ellia English, Adrianne Palicki, and Mike Judge as master of ceremonies. Making a special appearance will be Richard Linklater and the cast of his latest film, Everybody Wants Some. Tickets are also available for the Texas Party after the ceremony, with DJ sets by Strange Country and Wooden Wisdom, aka Zach Cowie and Elijah Wood. Proceeds go to Austin Film Society programs, including AFS grants to filmmakers. More info at www.austinfilm.org/texas-film-awards.