Aspen film star: Jon Busch stays true to Wheeler Film Series |

Aspen film star: Jon Busch stays true to Wheeler Film Series

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesThe Wheeler Film Series, operated by Jon Busch, has returns to Aspen's Wheeler Opera House after being on hiatus since last spring.

ASPEN – “The Tree of Life” never opened in Aspen.

Let me repeat: “The Tree of Life” – Terrence Malick’s highly anticipated, enormously ambitious film, starring Sean Penn and Brad Pitt – despite having opened nationally in May, has never been shown in an Aspen theater.

Now before anyone can start arguing that audiences have largely shunned the film – its gross box office stands at a reported $13 million, certainly an impressive figure no matter how you spin it – let’s consider that “The Tree of Life” has won several significant awards, including the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival; that Malick’s film takes on as its subject nothing short of the creation of the universe and man’s place in it; and that Rolling Stone said, “No one with a genuine interest in the potential of film would think of missing it.” (And from the Village Voice: “Better than a masterpiece.” OK, need a view from closer to home? The Denver Post: “What a transcendent achievement.”) And even those who have quibbled with the lack of a linear story and the grandiosity of its reach have to confess that the visual element alone is reason to be awestruck. On top of that, Aspen likes to consider itself a place where middle-American tastes don’t count for all that much, and more esoteric artistic expressions are welcomed.

Despite it all, “The Tree of Life” has not had a public screening in Aspen. Sure, it’s been out on DVD for more than a month – but if there has ever been a movie not to see at home on a small screen, this is it.

Which is just one example (though one very strong one) of why local film lovers should give thanks to the cinema gods for Jon Busch. For decades, Busch has operated the Wheeler Film Series. It is not for financial gain; in recent years, the money Busch gets from the city of Aspen to run the program has not even covered his costs. It is not for glory – though Busch does take the opportunity to stand on the Wheeler stage before each presentation to give a few minutes’ talk about the film, the crowds he speaks to are generally small and are repeat customers, already familiar with Busch’s contributions to the local movie scene.

So where was Busch while “The Tree of Life” was playing in Peoria (and Grand Junction)? Forced to the sidelines since last spring by the renovations of the Wheeler offices (and by the Aspen Music Festival and School, which takes over the Wheeler each summer for its opera productions). “The Wheeler cut out most programming, aside from long-standing events,” Busch explained. “Films were not in the mix. Although I would have loved to say, ‘Well, we’ve been there a long time.'”

With the building’s renovations completed, Busch and the Wheeler Film Series are back, having re-started programming in early January. The January calendar is a full one, with eight quality features; Busch noted that he is playing catch-up, booking attractive films that might be on the older side, but have not been shown in Aspen.

And yes, “The Tree of Life” is on the schedule, showing Jan. 15 and 18. The spread-out dates are by design: “I think and hope it will be a movie people want to talk about and let it percolate,” he said. “And hopefully getting people wanting to see it.”

Busch wasn’t necessarily expecting to include “The Tree of Life,” which is just the fifth feature from Malick in a career that began with 1973’s groundbreaking “Badlands.” The Isis Theater, he points out, ran a trailer previewing the film – then never played the film.

“The bottom line is, the box office was disappointing. And they’re in business to make money,” Busch said. And while the public was staying away from the film in droves, those who did buy a ticket often found themselves bewildered to the point of leaving well before the credits rolled. “Theaters actually put in their ads that they wouldn’t give refunds.”

• • • •

Busch knows the feeling of making extraordinary efforts in service of cinema, with little financial reward to show for it. Decades ago, there was a clause in his contract that any profits the Wheeler Film Series earned would be turned over to the city. Some time ago that clause was removed; the series hadn’t turned a profit in years.

When the series was launched, it was a significant part of Aspen’s culture offerings. The series was started in 1965 by Don Swales. At the time, movies were just about the only events housed at the Wheeler, which had fallen into serious disrepair. Competition for the ticket-buying public was relatively slim; the Isis, exceptionally well run by Dominic and Kitty Linza, was a one-screen theater, as was the Playhouse (which later became Stage 3, and is currently a construction site with a mixed-use project of retail and residential to be completed … sometime). In 1972, Busch, a former Music Festival student, joined forces with Swales, and the program entered what might be considered its glory years.

“We did some really neat things in those days that I couldn’t afford to do now,” Busch said. “Festivals devoted to certain directors, certain actors – Marx Brothers, Fellini films, Truffaut films, Bogart, the best of Shakespeare on film. And in the summer we did a different movie every night, all summer long.”

Busch said attendance was strong, largely due to the absence of video formats and the infancy of cable TV. If you wanted to see a movie, you went to the theater.

In 1981, the Wheeler shut down for three years for a massive renovation. When it reopened, in 1984, the Wheeler attempted to do the film programming in-house; Busch remembers it as a lackluster effort.

“Maybe they just didn’t have the knack. They lost money every year,” he said. “I’d go to the Wheeler board every year and say, ‘Give me a chance, give me a chance.’ Finally, in ’89 or ’90, they said all right.”

With the rise of VCRs and cable TV; the Playhouse turning into the three-screen Stage 3 and the Isis being converted into a four-screen ‘plex; big-screen TVs, flat-screen TVs, video on demand, Blue-Ray and video games, the Wheeler audience has been steadily chipped away at.

“I have a sort of loyal following of people who come to everything I play. But it’s small,” said Busch, who nevertheless makes sure that racks around town are loaded with Wheeler Film Series posters each month. “I think people appreciate it, but not in all quarters.”

Along with technological changes and the expansion of the Isis have come shifts in the local demographic. The Wheeler crowds used to be made up of flocks of young people. Busch has seen Aspen age significantly, and with the aging has come a less adventurous spirit. Compounding matters, after the rise of independent and foreign cinema in the ’70s, Hollywood and its mainstream films became more overwhelming. The small films presented at the Wheeler were further marginalized. Much of the Wheeler’s audience now are holdovers from an early generation, who seek out independent, foreign and documentary films.

“My audience these days is much older,” Busch said. “Young people these days have little patience for subtitles. Which is too bad, because the more you see subtitles, the less you know they’re there. It becomes subconscious. But you’ve got to see subtitles.

“There are still young people in town. They go to Belly Up. But they don’t want to see foreign films. And it’s a loss for them. Because independent film and foreign films often portray things out of the ordinary, that you don’t see in Hollywood films, perspectives from foreign lands. If people give them a chance, they broaden their minds.”

Busch is a little reluctant to admit it, but romances and costume dramas do reliably well at the Wheeler. Action films and crime dramas are not particularly good draws. Still, Busch, who is in the second year of a three-year contract with the city, won’t stop bringing in films like “The Tree of Life” and other more commercially risky titles.

“The program is more of a service than anything else,” he said. “And I’m very committed to it, out of a commitment to Aspen. There are a lot of small resort towns, but I’ve always thought Aspen is special. It offers a lot. We’ve seen catch-up from other resorts doing film festivals, music festivals, trying to emulate Aspen. But the one thing they haven’t done is film. It’s important to me that Aspen gets films that big cities get – and sometimes big cities don’t even get them. All these films have good reviews, but not necessarily great box office. Fortunately Aspen supports them. Otherwise it becomes less special a town.”

The Wheeler Film Series’ January calendar opened this past week with the French comedy “The Women on the 6th Floor,” the winner of the Audience Award at Aspen Filmfest 2011. The series continues with seven additional titles through the month. All films show at 7:30 p.m.; those on Saturday and Sunday have an additional 4:30 p.m. matinee.

A look at what’s ahead on the January schedule.

• “The Trip” (tonight): This British buddy/road movie, directed by Michael Winterbottom, follows Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as a comically flaky, snide, bickering pair, on a tour of northern Britain’s most couth dining establishments.

• “Beginners” (Sunday and Monday, Jan. 8-9): Ewan McGregor stars as a man shaken by two big pieces of news about his father: that he has terminal cancer, and that he has a young male lover. Christopher Plummer, as the father, as racking up awards and nominations for best supporting actor. “Some people think he’s a shoo-in for the Oscar,” Jon Busch said.

• “The Skin I Live In” (Tuesday and Wednesday, Jan. 10-11): A change of pace for Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, who has usually centered on female protagonists. This dramatic thriller stars Antonio Banderas as a surgeon who perfects a synthetic skin. His guinea pig is a volatile woman who is mysteriously linked to his past tragedies. The New York Post called “The Skin I Live In” “an eye-popping and genuinely shocking gender-bending twist on Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo.'”

• “The Tree of Life” (Jan. 15 and 18): Terrence Malick’s film of a 1950s Midwestern family – and the origins of the universe – has puzzled audiences, but been a hit with critics, who praise its ambitions, cinematographic beauty and spiritual depth. It stars Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn.

• “Winter in Wartime” (Jan. 22 and 25): This Dutch World War II film centers on a 14-year-old boy who becomes involved with the Resistance after coming to the aid of a British soldier, and learns about the various faces of heroism.

• “Margin Call” (Jan. 26-27): A financial thriller that takes place over 24 hours at the outset of the economic collapse of 2008. First-time director J.C. Chandor is earning acclaim for handling a cast that includes Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons and Demi Moore.

• “Young Goethe in Love” (Jan. 29 and 31 and Feb. 1): A look at the romantic young bohemian German who would become Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

– Stewart Oksenhorn

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