There was a time when Laura Thielen was just your garden variety movie buff. As a teenager in Palo Alto in the 1960s, Thielen was more committed to the counterculture – “much to my mother’s quiet horror and my father’s more vocal horror,” she says – than she was to the movies. Palo Alto, thanks to Stanford University, had a lively film culture, with repertory houses and small art theaters that changed their bills every few days. Thielen, now executive director for Aspen Filmfest, took advantage of that scene. But there were bigger issues than the foreign films and underground movies that flickered across those northern California screens.”We ruined many a family meal discussing the Vietnam war,” said Thielen, the oldest of six children born to an engineer-turned-businessman father and a stay-at-home mom. “I was very into women’s issues by seventh grade. Berkeley and the Black Panthers were just across the Bay, and on the evening news all the time. I was 40 miles from Haight-Ashbury, the epicenter of the counterculture, and fascinated by it. Those were the times, and we were exposed to a lot of things.”As much as she participated in the political, Thielen was also drawn to the artistic and cultural sides of the ’60s. She was an organic gardener through her high school years and remembers, with more amusement than embarrassment, the outfits of granny glasses, Indian dresses and sandals that were standard for her. She has a precise memory of being in eighth grade and getting a copy of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Dj Vu” in her Easter basket. But before she got distracted by the extraordinary confluence of politics, culture and arts that was the ’60s in the Bay area, movies were of increasing importance to Thielen. Before the emergence of hippies, acid rock and the protest movement, there were drive-ins, double features. And movie memories. `Cinema Paradiso’At Aspen Filmfest, Thielen oversees a 24-year-old organization that operates year-round and reaches an audience of some 30,000 film fans annually. Apart from the dozens of feature films and shorts films presented at its two annual festivals – Filmfest, which began in 1979, and Shortsfest, the 12th edition of which is currently running – Aspen Filmfest’s programs include the Academy Screenings, which bring Academy Award hopefuls to Harris Hall in early winter; the SummerFilms series, a collaboration with the Aspen Music Festival; Screen Club, which presents the occasional obscure film; and an in-school outreach program that operates from Aspen to Glenwood Springs. Through all that, Thielen remembers her first movie experience with great clarity, considering it took place 43 years ago. “It was a drive-in. `Pinocchio,'” she said, rattling off the information with the exactitude of detail reserved for momentous occasions. “I went with my mother; it was in the Bay area. I wasn’t 5 yet, but I remember it very well. It was my mother; her friend; her friend’s son, Ted. We had blankets in the back.”And I remember being absolutely terrified by the whale sequence, when the whale swallowed Pinocchio. That was terrifying.”After my expressions of amazement and amusement over her total recall, Thielen gives me a “that ain’t nothing” look. She then proceeds to run down a similar set of statistics about her first indoor movie theater experience: age 5, a friend’s birthday party, “Babes in Toyland,” starring Annette Funicello. “I remember going into the theater, seeing the proscenium. I thought it was magical,” she said. The tie to cinema actually dates back even further than Thielen’s first movie. Her parents, avid moviegoers themselves, named their oldest child for “Laura,” a 1944 Otto Preminger mystery that earned an Academy Award for best cinematography.”It’s sick,” said Thielen of her literally lifelong connection to the movies. “It’s so perfect.” `Obsessed’The 25 years she has worked in the distribution and presentation ends of the movie business – including seven years as head of Aspen Filmfest – haven’t tempered Thielen’s enthusiasm for film. She calls her introduction to Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, when Thielen was working for the San Francisco International Film Festival, “like meeting God.” She says she was “heartbroken” when she missed seeing the 1996 film “Breaking the Waves” on the big screen, and had to settle for watching it on video. The bookshelves in her office in the Red Brick Center for the Arts are packed with volumes like “Film as a Subversive Art,” “Spanish Cinema: 1896-1983” and a section devoted to Sergei Eisenstein; none of them are there for show.Work and joy are intertwined for Thielen.The Filmfest job keeps her inundated with films. In the months leading up to the organization’s flagship festival, held in Aspen every autumn since 1979, Thielen watches movies four or more nights a week. For Aspen Shortsfest, those four-plus nights of screening movies turns into a steady five or six nights a week, with screening sessions running two, three, four hours. The intensive movie-watching is as much a necessity as a pleasure: For Shortsfest’s 12th edition, currently under way, Aspen Filmfest received some 1,400 submissions, and Thielen saw about as many as she could. Those few nights not consumed by job-related movie-watching, Thielen devotes “to just my pleasure.” If she were still the mere film fan of her teen years, that pleasure might be found in some activity having nothing to do with screens and popcorn. But Thielen’s current pleasure is to watch yet more movies, of her own choosing. When their 11-year-old daughter Caelina was away for an Outdoor Education weekend, Thielen and her husband, George Eldred, spent the time not catching up on reading or household chores, but renting an armload of videos. Thielen’s present moviegoing habits represent a step down from the past. When she lived in big cities and college towns, and before Caelina came along, Thielen and Eldred – a part-time Filmfest employee and program coordinator of Shortsfest – made an art of moviegoing.”What George and I used to do in San Francisco and in school together is plan what we’re going to see Friday night, what we’re going to see Saturday matinee, what we’re going to see Saturday night,” said Thielen, who can still recite specific double bills she saw 30 years ago. “It used to be fun to plot our own minifestival, see five films over a weekend. “In Paris, there are over 300 cinemas. We could go every night – except Friday and Saturday, because the student discount wasn’t in effect. I remember seeing an Ernst Lubitsch retrospective, seeing `Taxi Driver,’ a lot of old Truffaut and Renoir. I was your basic film society film freak. It’s more temperate now, because I have to look at so much new work for the festival. My appetite hasn’t been dampened; it’s sort of been redirected. As a curator, I’m looking for work that hasn’t been released, rather than going through the old stuff.” `Working Girl’Thielen’s ample appetite for movies is matched by a thirst for knowledge about film history. As a freshman at the University of California-Berkeley, Thielen wasn’t focused on film. She was a student in the rhetoric department but, surrounded as she was by aspiring lawyers, she felt miscast. When a friend informed her there was a film course in the comparative literature program, Thielen jumped at the chance to enroll. “We thought, `Watch films and get credit for it – how bad could that be?'” she said.Expecting to sit back and enjoy, Thielen got more than she expected from the film course. Learning about films and how to analyze them captivated Thielen, and sent her on her career path.”That was a turning point,” she said. “Because I’d always liked movies, but I never knew why I liked movies. In that course, I started to understand the language of movies, how a director tells a story in image and sound, how meaning is constructed. Having the tools to know why a movie was powerful, or why it didn’t work, that was amazing to me. I suddenly had the tools to say why things affected me. Before that, I was just a movie buff.”There was no film major in Berkeley in the mid-’70s; that would come a few years later. So Thielen scouted out other departments – English, comparative literature, French – that offered film classes. Even away from the classroom, she gravitated toward the movies. Volunteering at the University Art Museum bookstore, Thielen discovered the Pacific Film Archives, a small theater downstairs from the bookstore. As much as her classes, the time spent in the Pac Film Archives opened her eyes to the big world of the big screen. “I sort of stumbled upon the archives, and ended up going to see a lot of movies. I loved the ambience,” she said. “Not only was it screenings, but it was a mixed bag and the people who made the films were there. I saw `Only Angels Have Wings,’ and Howard Hawks came to talk about it. A very elderly Douglas Sirk came with a series of his films, and Wim Wenders came to introduce Sirk. “That’s when I started to realize what I wanted to do. There was something about seeing a film and having someone talk about it – it’s like living history.”After graduating in 1978, Thielen took a job with Audio Brandon, a company that rented films to schools, church groups and prisons. The pay was small, but the perks were huge: “We could check out anything we wanted,” said Thielen. She bought a 16mm Bell & Howell projector and began throwing parties, centered around screenings of Kurosawa, Buuel and Fellini films. Thielen then took a job at the Pac Film Archives. It was an entry-level position, but Thielen calls it a dream job. She wrote program notes and rubbed elbows with northern California filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. And when Archives head Tom Luddy – who would later go on to found the Telluride Film Festival – left to work for Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios and was replaced by Lynda Miles, Thielen saw her future open up.”The career `aha’ came when they hired Lynda Miles, who had been director of the Edinburgh Film Festival. And her associate director was a woman named Edith Kramer,” said Thielen. “Suddenly I saw two women doing what I wanted to be doing. The world of film curating – introducing a film component into a museum setting – was a recent phenomenon. And the curators tended to be men. And suddenly I was working with not one, but two women doing it. That was huge for me.”I thought I wanted to write about film, be a film critic. But I saw what I really liked was the interaction you saw in a theater, and bringing artists and speakers into the mix.”Thielen opted to further her education. The University of Wisconsin’s graduate film program had a lofty reputation for theory and criticism. The offer of a full scholarship and an assistant teaching position clinched Thielen’s decision to enroll. She sailed through the program, then beat a path out of Wisconsin as soon as she grabbed her diploma. “Me and the Midwest didn’t see eye to eye,” said Thielen. “People told me it was the Berkeley of the Midwest. But it was a big transition for me, coming from the epicenter of the counterculture.”But the Wisconsin years would have a lasting impact. It was in Madison where Thielen met Eldred, a Missourian studying film production who would become her husband and partner in moviegoing.Thielen intended to continue eastward to New York. But her father died in an accident, and the responsible oldest child in Thielen came out. She returned to California to be close to her mother and siblings. With jobs in the film industry hard to come by, Thielen took work curating a film series at the York Theater, a rep house, and writing magazine stories, mostly about experimental films. After a stint at Zoetrope in production – a side of filmmaking that never much interested Thielen, and, she believed, one for which she had little aptitude – she went to Europe for several months. Upon her return to the States in 1985, Thielen got an offer to work for several months with the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF). She parlayed a temporary “program assistant” position into another dream job, as program director, which she held for 10 years. At the SFIFF, Thielen took a particular interest in foreign films. She programmed Asian films to cater to San Francisco’s large Asian population. During her tenure in San Francisco, Indian and Chinese films were getting increased international attention, and there was a resurgence in Iranian cinema. And perestroika unleashed a trove of unseen Soviet films.”A lot of films had been stuck on shelves in Prague, Budapest, and because of the thaw, a lot of the films were becoming available,” said Thielen. “There was a sense of the connection to history. All these national cinemas became available to American audiences. It was like discovering treasure with these beautifully made films.”At the SFIFF, Thielen discovered the thrill of using cinema to help build community. The notion of community would form a large part of the guiding philosophy she later brought to Aspen.”To be in an audience with people who spoke those languages was powerful,” she said. “San Francisco is such a polyglot culture, and there were a lot of people coming to see films in their native language. What I liked at SFIFF was creating community events, whether it was for 200 avant-garde film lovers or 1,000 Farsi-speaking people coming from the East Bay.” `Changing Lanes’By the end of her decade with the SFIFF, Thielen grew weary of the wild ups and downs of the festival. The two-week affair, which offered 150 films on a dozen screens, required months of gearing up, and more months of coming down. Thielen had also become a mother, and because she had a steady job, she remained a full-time worker while Eldred, who had done freelance production work, was the stay-at-home parent. But Thielen didn’t actively seek to leave the SFIFF. “There’s not that many jobs that come available,” she said. “People stay in their jobs forever in the film programming world. You don’t open up the classifieds and see five jobs coming open.”In 1995, though, Thielen got word of one job coming open. Ellen Hunt, who had founded Aspen Filmfest, was stepping down as executive director. It was a chance to be the head of an organization, and with two annual festivals and an opening to add programs, Thielen saw an opportunity to level out her workload. Just as significantly, Aspen represented something completely different.”What was important was that it was a different environment for me,” she said. “I was an ocean person – sea level, humidity. The small-town aspect appealed to me, because both the schools I’d gone to were enormous, and I’d grown up around San Francisco. I wanted to shake things up – why not? I had just turned 40.”Taking over the director’s chair, Thielen came into a situation with a solid foundation.”Because it had a history of 17 years, it wasn’t a startup,” she said. “Everything was there – the finances, the community support. I didn’t have to create anything from scratch, which was huge.”Thielen’s arrival marked a profound shift for Filmfest. The organization had been led from the beginning by Hunt, who headed a mostly volunteer staff. Filmfest now has seven paid employees. Hunt praises Thielen for building on the foundation while maintaining the principles on which Filmfest was created. “Laura understood who we were,” said Hunt, who remained president of Filmfest’s board of directors for several years after Thielen’s hiring. “There were a lot of pitfalls we could have fallen into, and we did not. To have an organization go through a transition like that successfully, I’m so proud of us.”Thielen arrived in Aspen loaded with ideas. She quickly instituted children’s screenings, educational components and a membership program, and extended the reach of Filmfest downvalley into Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. To expand the sense of community, she brought in filmmakers to discuss their work and interact with audiences; she created the Independent By Nature Award – named for Filmfest’s longstanding motto – which brought to Aspen such recipients as William H. Macy and Anjelica Huston. Working with her contacts among distributors and producers, Thielen multiplied the number of films screened at Filmfest’s Academy Screenings, turning it into a marquee, Christmastime event.”These were all dreams we had, and she’s realized them,” said Hunt of the programming expansion.From the beginning, Thielen saw Shortsfest as the primary vehicle for her energies. First presented as a stand-alone festival in 1992, Shortsfest was a small event when Thielen arrived in Aspen in 1995. By 1998, Shortsfest had grown from three days to five, and was bringing in a horde of filmmakers from around the world. This year’s Shortsfest, which runs through Sunday, April 6, features some 60 films from a dozen countries. Thielen is expecting 75 guests, from top feature film directors to film professors, to talk movies. `Coming Home’It took some years before Thielen began feeling as though she were not a guest herself in the Roaring Fork Valley. Prior to moving here, she had been in Aspen once. “It took awhile to get integrated into the community. It took awhile to feel like this was home,” said Thielen, who lives in Carbondale. “We moved for a professional opportunity, not for the lifestyle. We didn’t know anybody, and it was really lonely. And we were working all the time.”Now it seems like that was a really long time ago. It’s home, and now it seems like it would be very hard to go somewhere else.”There is just one adjustment Thielen would like to make to her life, if she could. It seems impossible and preposterous, but there it is. “I wish I could go to more movies,” said Thielen. Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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