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Aspen Times Weekly: Wheeler Movie House

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado
Photo by ThinkstockCover design by Afton Groepper
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ASPEN – Has Movieland opened a second location in Aspen? Not quite. It’s the Wheeler Opera House doing its best impersonation of a multiplex – but in a downtown setting and without the sticky floors. (No popcorn, alas.)And the selection of movies is far removed from what you’ll find at the standard multiplex. The Wheeler is bringing back its Monday Docs series, which focuses on provocative documentaries about the state of various corners of the world, for the third edition. A new series, Roc Docs, zooms in on one specific piece of the globe: music. Both documentary series are presented by the Wheeler in conjunction with Aspen Film and Mountainfilm in Telluride.In addition, with the Wheeler set to transfer in the fall from film projection to digital, the Wheeler Film Series, and its longtime director Jon Busch, again in partnership with Aspen Film, bid adieu to film itself. The series Farewell to Film will present, between now and late spring, a handful of movies screened from 35mm, and possibly even 70mm, prints. And if you’ve ever wanted to be a film programmer, here is your chance: They’re asking for the public’s input on what movies to show.

Most everything about the movies is dynamic. When there’s new technology, filmmakers are some of the first to get their hands on it. Social trends and upheavals are reflected in the ways films are made and what films are about; witness the rebellious indie-film movement of the ’70s, followed by the safe blockbuster era that took hold by the ’80s. Fashion styles and looks are updated through the medium of the big screen. The public cycles through movie stars and genres and techniques, moving on to the next big thing. And then there’s that small, dark corner of the film universe known as documentaries. For decades, they seemed to lie there, undisturbed, existing in more or less the same form as they always had.”There was a way documentaries had to be made,” Laura Thielen, the artistic director of Aspen Film, said. “You had to be fair and balanced. You had the voice-of-God narrator. They weren’t about characters; they were about processes, sociology.”The result was that documentaries were not only staid – they weren’t very popular. Seeing a documentary wasn’t like a night out at the movies; it was like sitting through a junior high social studies class.”It was a collection of facts with no story to it,” said Gram Slaton, the executive director of the Wheeler Opera House. “It was the school-film experience.””Those airless documentaries, the ones the teacher would put on Friday afternoons and everyone would fall asleep,” Thielen said.But Thielen noted that there were always people “chipping away” at that foundation. Most notable were the cinema verit filmmakers of the 1960s, including D.A. Pennebaker, who made a pair of documentaries about Bob Dylan, “Don’t Look Back” and “Eat the Document”; and Barbara Kopple, who earned an Academy Award for “Harlan County, USA,” a 1976 film about a miners strike in Kentucky. Instead of employing a scholarly distance, these movies captured their subjects up close, in as natural a setting as possible.For Slaton, and for many filmgoers, the landscape didn’t show a noticeable shift until 1989, when director Michael Moore emerged. His debut, “Roger & Me,” injected Moore himself, heavy, confrontational and funny, into the story of General Motors closing several plants in Flint, Mich. Not only was Moore himself in the frame, but he drew Roger Smith, General Motors’ CEO, into the documentary. The film was thus given an element of characters who had particular points of view and something at stake.”Suddenly that myth of the documentary as truth was blown up, and the medium became a way of telling personal stories,” Thielen said.Over the past two decades, documentaries have become increasingly vital, entertaining and ubiquitous, and the form still seems to be in acceleration mode. The Wheeler’s Monday Docs series, which starts its third edition this month, makes a jump in size, with nine evenings devoted to documentaries. The Wheeler also debuts another series, Rock Docs, devoted to films about music and musicians.For Slaton, another big stepping stone in the progression of documentaries came a year after “Roger & Me,” when “The Civil War,” a nine-part, 10-hour TV series was broadcast on PBS. The series introduced a visual style, which became known as the “Ken Burns” effect, but even more significant was the way Burns put faces to the War Between the States.”He stepped outside and told a real human story, with these characters who change over the course of the four-year war,” Slaton said.Other landmark documentaries followed. Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” from 2004, a critical look at President George W. Bush and the war on terror, earned the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. “An Inconvenient Truth,” featuring former Vice President Al Gore issuing a dire environmental warning, earned nearly $50 million in the U.S.; “March of the Penguins” took in $77 million.”Super Size Me,” which followed Morgan Spurlock’s 30-day all-McDonald’s diet, and “Religulous,” Bill Maher’s mocking of religious practices, revealed that there was a sizable appetite for documentaries with a pointed sense of humor. “Waiting for Superman,” about American public education, and “Hoop Dreams,” about high school basketball players, found broad audiences for more serious subject matter.Monday Docs encompasses this wide variety of documentary types. There are tales of overpopulation and the criminal justice system that are bound to disturb. There are uplifting stories – about war-scarred Africans and about a man who ministers to Los Angeles gang members. There are two films about well-known individuals made by their offspring.”It’s a lot of layers of the cake,” Slaton said. “It’s not all doom and gloom. You can come every week and get a different kind of experience.”Rock Docs, a series of four films, adds music to the mix. It’s worth noting that a handful of the highest-grossing documentaries are music-oriented: “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” and “Katy Perry: Part of Me.”Slaton believes that Internet institutions such as Facebook and YouTube have allowed the most compelling true stories to gain momentum: a producer sees a short YouTube clip go viral and sees there is an audience for a feature-length movie. Thielen said reality TV “has created a curiosity about authentic stories. Not that what we’re showing is reality TV.”And Slaton aired another thought about the current popularity of documentaries.”My guess is that people are just tired of movies where things blow up or young love is experienced in the same way for the thousandth time,” he said. “People want to see something real, stories that actually impact them.”



For Jon Busch, movies aren’t just the images you see on the screen, nor are they just the stories, the acting performances, the score or the visual effects.For Busch, movies are also the film itself, the strips of celluloid packed in metal canisters. Busch’s first job, as a teenager in Portland, Ore., was changing the marquee lettering at the Victory Theatre. At a storefront theater in a nearby town, he graduated to the role of projectionist, learning the art of splicing films together, the smooth changing of reels and making necessary adjustments to the light source. He went on to work at a theater that specialized in triple features of horror films. Film has become his profession: Since living in Aspen – first in 1964 as a bassoonist at the Aspen Music School and full time in 1969 – Busch has co-founded the Wheeler Film Series and has been projectionist for Aspen Film. He was also technical director of the Telluride Film Festival for 30 years and continues to serve as technical director of the Hawaii International Film Festival.A traditionalist in many ways – he oversees the massive pipe organ at the Aspen Community Church – Busch isn’t about to let the movie business slip into the digital realm without a proper goodbye to film itself. As the Wheeler plans to replace its film projector with a digital system, the Wheeler Film Series, along with Aspen Film, is presenting the Farewell to Film series. The series opens Jan. 20 and 21 with Frank Capra’s 1937 fantasy classic “Lost Horizon.” The series is likely to return once a month through June, with the remainder of the lineup still to be determined. The programmers are looking for input; film lovers can post suggested titles – along with the reasons behind their picks – on Aspen Film’s Facebook page. (Suggestions also can be sent to dgreen@aspenfilm.org.)”I’d like to see people think about, What film do they want to see because it’s film? Would it look any better or be more meaningful on film?” said Busch, who typically comes onstage to give an enthusiastic introduction to films at the Wheeler.”There are the obvious classics – ‘My Fair Lady,’ ‘The Wizard of Oz,'” said Laura Thielen, the artistic director of Aspen Film. “But it will be interesting to see what out-of-the-box choices people come up with.””Lost Horizon” was chosen in part because it is a story – about a utopian mountain village – that should resonate with Aspen audiences. The print, coming out of the studio vault, includes a 32-minute segment that had been lost over time. “Lost Horizon” nods to the past, down to the look of the character actors who play supporting roles.But Busch was thinking of the look of the film when he selected it. “It’s a black-and-white film. And black-and-white looks so gorgeous on film,” he said. Busch added that, while digital has its attributes, its major drawback is that the subtleties of black get lost. All black tones look the same, and any dark-looking film – he cited “Lincoln” as a perfect example – loses a lot when shown digitally.”We lose a look, a soft lushness,” he said. “Digital doesn’t have that film look. I think film, well-projected, can look much better.””Digital is a colder look,” Thielen said. “There’s a handmade quality to film.”Busch and Thielen noted that digital has several advantages over film. Shooting digitally costs almost nothing, allowing directors to try things they might not if they had to consider the expense of film. “You can do as many takes as you want, experiment,” Busch said. “On film, everything’s got to be blocked out, smooth.” Shipping costs for digital are far smaller; Busch noted that freight on a 70mm print of “Lawrence of Arabia” – a title that invariably comes up when talking about movies that benefit from being screened from film – costs around $300. Film degrades over time; after a print has been through just a few screenings, scratches are visible. For the studios, digital makes storage easier and cuts down on piracy.Passionate moviegoers are starting to miss more than just the look of film. Film itself contributes to the old-fashioned cinema experience in a way that digital does not.”This is probably romantic and old-fashioned, but there’s an exchange between the booth and the audience,” Thielen said. “There was a sense of presentation. Now it’s automated. It’s the flip of a switch. It’s the end of an era. Films are being made in a different way.”Thielen said that in the Farewell to Film series, she would like people to think in terms of the old, communal ritual of going to the movies.”I want the audience to think: ‘What would I want to see in an audience, with other people laughing and crying and sharing that experience?'” she said.

Monday Docs:”Ethel” (Jan. 28): Rory Kennedy points the camera at her mother, Ethel, widow of Robert F. Kennedy, and gets an insider’s view of one of America’s most interesting families.”The Central Park Five” (Feb. 4): Ken Burns, along with his daughter Sarah, revisits the 1989 case of “wilding,” when a woman was attacked and raped in Central Park and five young men were basically marched straight from interrogation room to courtroom to prison. Except none of the five was involved, and “The Central Park Five” becomes a lucid, incontrovertible statement about race and justice.”Terra Blight” (Feb. 11): What happens to the latest electronic device when it is no longer the new thing and is ready for disposal? “Terra Blight” follows all that plastic, wire and metal into the waste stream. Also showing is the short “Stuff Everywhere,” which asks, “How much is too much?””Fambul Tok” (Feb. 18): The perpetrators and the victims of Sierra Leone’s long civil war gather to talk about their experience and pain.”Rising From Ashes” (Feb. 25): Pro cyclist Jock Boyer introduces bicycle racing to Rwanda as a way to relieve the trauma of the country’s tribal genocide. Instead of dwelling on their memories, the bikers dream of the Olympics.Rock Docs:”Beware of Mr. Baker” (Jan. 30): Ginger Baker was possibly rock’s greatest drummer – Eric Clapton, Baker’s bandmate in Cream, is visibly offended by the idea that anyone else was close – and a scoundrel of a person. (The film opens with Baker attacking a filmmaker with a cane, drawing blood.) Exquisitely researched and assembled and oddly touching when Baker talks about his drum heroes.”Big Easy Express” (Feb. 6): Three folk-tinged rock bands – Old Crow Medicine Show, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros and Mumford & Sons – get together to ride the rails from California to New Orleans and make a few concert stops along the way. Director Emmett Malloy gives a distinctive visual flourish, the train metaphor never goes over the top, and the focus stays where it belongs, on the music, which is quite powerful.”The Zen of Bennett” (Feb. 13): A respectful profile of 85-year-old singer Tony Bennett as he records with John Mayer, Norah Jones, Andrea Bocelli and the late Amy Winehouse.”Under African Skies” (Feb. 27): An illuminating look at the making of Paul Simon’s 1986 album “Graceland” and the controversy surrounding Simon’s decision to record in apartheid-era South Africa. The lesson: Political storms come and go; phenomenal music endures.”Decoding Deepak” (March 4): Gotham Chopra follows his father, Deepak, for a year to get a better understanding of the spiritualist.”Critical Mass” (March 11): Filmmaker Mike Freedman goes back to researcher John Calhoun’s experiments with mice to examine the globe’s overpopulation by another species, humans. Freedman touches, not too convincingly, on the subjects of obesity and homosexuality, and the film itself is overpopulated with a huge cast of academics. But “Critical Mass” moves fast, the graphics lighten the tone, and the message is significant: We might be dumber than the mice.”Chasing Ice” (March 18): Photographer James Balog is driven to obsession in trying to precisely document the disappearance of glaciers in Greenland and Alaska. The film is awe-inspiring, beautiful and scary. Nominated for an Oscar – strangely enough, in the Best Original Song category.”G-Dog” (March 25): A feel-good portrait of father Greg Boyle, who runs an ambitious intervention program for Los Angeles gang members. “G-Dog” was co-winner of the Audience Favorite Award at Aspen Filmfest last fall.stewart@aspentimes.com


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