EFS Spotlight - Q&A

Q&A – Richard Herskowitz, Cinema Pacific

Q&A – Richard Herskowitz, Cinema Pacific

Sean Hanson

October 7th, 2014


Richard Herskowitz has been programming for more than 30 years — not computers, but film festivals.

Since 1982, he has curated exhibitions at Cornell University and the University of Virginia. Now, he’s an instructor at University of Oregon, where he founded the Cinema Pacific Film Festival in 2010, and the artistic director of the Houston Cinema Arts Festival.

Herskowitz’s latest series, which begins with a screening of Pip Chodorov’s Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art on October 8 at 7 p.m., will begin a two-year exploration of American experimental film.

In an October 7 phone interview, Herskowitz discussed the series, his passion for cinema, the role of technology in experimental film, and a little-seen Halloween favorite of his.

EUGENE FILM SOCIETY: You’ve worked steadily since you graduated from University of Wisconsin in 1978, programming film festivals from Ithaca to Virginia to Oregon, while lecturing, writing, etc. Where do you find the energy and the time to screen films?

RICHARD HERSKOWITZ: You know, finding the energy and the time — it’s what I love to do, and I kind of have to restrain myself from doing it all the time. I became a cinephile in my early teenage years. I fell in love with film, and I moved back and forth between wanting to be a filmmaker and wanting to be a film historian. I fell into programming and it was the ideal compromise in a way. I just found that there were all these extraordinary films by filmmakers that were not getting the attention they deserved, and I kind of felt those filmmakers whose films I fell in love with were making far better films than I could ever make. I was better employed finding ways to exhibit their films and show them in contexts that could make them more accessible to more people. Also, I just found that I was very good at creating programs and putting film exhibitions together.

The festivals that I curate are not typical festivals. They’re often very thematic. For example, here at Cinema Pacific, we tend to focus on particular national cinemas and look at them in depth: Mexico, Taiwan, the Philippines. And in the Houston Cinema Arts Festival, we focus on films by and about artists. And when I was at the Virginia Film Festival, we took a different theme every year, like money or wet or cool or animal attraction, and I’d gather a lot of films of different stylistic varieties: documentaries, experimental films, and feature films. Then, I created these programs where all the films informed each other and illuminated each other. In a way, they’re kind of like big collages that I’ve created out of movies that I think people really ought to see. And that’s what I found I’m pretty good at. I got lucky enough that I can do this as a career.

EFS: You mentioned that you fell in love with films as a young teenager. What films sparked your love for cinema?

RH: I remember very, very clearly: when I was about 13 or 14 years old, my parents would go to their film society, which was called Cornell Cinema. And a couple films in the late ‘60s that I saw there totally blew my mind. One of them was Godard’s Weekend and the other was The Battle of Algiers. It wasn’t just the movies themselves — and they were exciting movies — but the way audiences reacted to them. People were standing up with their fists held in the air and I saw, after Weekend, people were storming out and shouting at the screen. What I also remember vividly was that when I went home, my parents’ friends and I would talk about these films. It was amazing to me that a movie could activate so much heated discussion.

That experience was one I just became addicted to really: the idea that moviegoing would not be a passive experience, that it wasn’t just about escapism, but that it was really about engaging people intellectually and sensuously at the same time, activating their participation as a moviegoer.

EFS: You were talking about grouping movies thematically. What do you see as an emerging theme in recent cinema?

RH: Right now, I’m in the midst of curating a series of films for the Houston Cinema Arts Festival and the focus is on the street. I’m looking at films that are about street photography, or that apply some of the principles of street photography to filmmaking, but also I’m bringing in films about street music and films about street art. Also, several films about the Occupy Wall Street movement, and I just found that this idea of the street as a place where people can be creative and recapture their democratic participatory voices and make them heard. Artists leaving museum spaces and practicing in the wild, so to speak — that seems to be an idea that’s showing up in a lot of movies.

EFS: This season’s Schnitzer Cinema series, which you also curated, will focus on “American experimental media,” according to the program. How did you go about selecting three films to represent such a sprawling movement?

RH: The first thing I should say is this is going to be a sprawling series. For the next two years, we’re going to devote ourselves to [experimental cinema]. For several years, the Schnitzer Museum asked me to curate programs about art or that are related to art exhibitions in the museum. Something I really wanted to do was explore and expose films that are themselves pushing cinema into new territories and stretching the limits of film as an artistic medium. That often means they leave narrative behind, or that they play with narrative in very unconventional ways, that they are more akin to filmmaking as poetry or painting.

The first film was easy, the film Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film is a perfect overview of the experimental film movement internationally, but mostly emphasizing the U.S. It’s a good film. It’s made by an experimental filmmaker who has personal friendships with a lot of masters of experimental film, like Jonas Mekas. I should say something else: in the spring, I’m curating an exhibition at the Schnitzer Museum of photographs of filmmakers by that artist, Jonas Mekas, and we’re bringing a speaker here who is one of the leading authorities on experimental film and he’s going to be talking about that filmmaker. So Jonas Mekas, who is like the dean of American experimental filmmakers — he is a major presence that we’re going to see in Free Radicals. Anyway, I chose that one because it is the perfect introduction and orientation to a kind of cinematic practice that, for many people, is highly disorienting.

The next one, the Harry Smith program — that is a perfect example of one of the exciting branches of experimental media, which some people call expanded cinema. Expanded cinema often involves film projection that goes beyond the screen. It can involve multiple projectors projecting images. It can involve live performance that happens simultaneously with a film. So what we’re going to do with the second show is recreate an expanded cinema performance on multiple projectors, done by one of the legendary experimental filmmakers, Harry Smith. This collector from Portland whose name is Dennis Nyback, who’s been studying Smith and how he showed his films in such an idiosyncratic way, is going to recreate the performance of Harry Smith’s animated feature Heaven and Earth Magic.

It goes on from there. The last one of this season is a video artist named Julia Oldham. I really wanted to bring it to the present and connect to our region and show somebody who is kind of working in this tradition, taking it to new places, because the first two programs are concentrating mostly on the legendary pioneers of experimental film.

EFS: How do you think technology has enabled recent experimental filmmakers?

RH: It was extremely important that 16mm came in and was a more affordable and accessible tool for artists than 35mm was. One of the great experimental filmmakers, Ken Jacobs — he’s 82 years old and Jonas Mekas, who I mentioned before, is 91 or 92, and they are still making films and they’re incredibly prolific because of the ease of digital video and the accessibility of Final Cut Pro. Really, what’s happened is that it’s often been a drain on independent experimental filmmakers that film is this cumbersome, expensive, hyperindustrial tool. A lot of technological developments in film and video that have made it more and more flexible and affordable have been a boon to experimental filmmakers.

EFS: With the advent of digital filmmakers, do you think experimental filmmakers have had an easier time attaining success or actually making a living out of their art?

RH: No, experimental filmmakers have always had a hard time making a living. What you are seeing now is, in some cases, some experimental media artists can create media installations that have a reasonable market value, but basically, it’s not a lucrative profession. At least, it’s something that doesn’t necessarily break the bank because the tools are more affordable.

EFS: Do you teach a lot of aspiring filmmakers?

RH: I think I teach all kinds. Some are aspiring filmmakers, but a lot of them are Cinema Studies students who are just learning about film as an art form. Some go on to write or teach. I taught a course on experimental film the first year I was here, and I haven’t done that since. Most of my teaching, for the past five years, has revolved around the film festivals that I organize and other film festivals in town. We created Cinema Pacific as a teaching festival that students could participate in and learn how festivals are organized, how they’re curated — all the aspects, from film selection to booking to theatrical organization to publicity. They participate in every aspect.

The centerpiece of the Cinema Pacific Film Festival is the Adrenaline Film Project, and it’s a pretty complicated operation. A lot of students that I supervise work on mounting that 72-hour project and other sections of Cinema Pacific. Then, another large group of students in the spring experience, as viewers with privileged access, Cinema Pacific, as well as several other film festivals that happen, including the Northwest Animation Festival, the DisOrient Film Festival — both of those take place at the Bijou. They attend those and learn about what goes on behind the scenes. They see a lot of the films, discuss them, and meet the filmmakers.

EFS: How would you describe the Eugene film culture?

RH: It’s pretty healthy. What is particularly striking to me is that in the spring, especially, there is this onslaught of film festivals: the Cinema Pacific Film Festival, the DisOrient Film Festival, the Archaeology Channel Film Festival, and the Northwest Animation Festival. They’re specialized, but broadly and cumulatively, they represent a particularly vital film culture. Of course, the Bijou is going all year long. I’d say, in many ways, Eugene is pretty well off.

I guess one of the things that struck me when I came to University of Oregon was how strong Asian Cinema Studies was. There were a lot of faculty teaching the different national cinemas of Asia, more than I’ve seen at any other university, and that inspired me to come up with the idea for Cinema Pacific, that we would focus on films from the Pacific Rim. After I was here for a couple years, I saw there were a lot of Latin American studies and Latin American cinema aficionados at the university and in the community. So we really make sure to emphasize that we’re interested in the whole Pacific Rim, including the Pacific Americas, as well as the Asian Pacific and the Northwest.

One of the first connections I made here was with Scott Chambers and Chambers Communications. They were very enthusiastic about getting a really good film festival started here, particularly with the Adrenaline Film Project and training people. What makes the Adrenaline Film Project different from other 72- or 48-hour film-intensive events is that ours is all about mentoring. We bring in three professional filmmakers or people who are working in the professional film world. They oversee the pitch, the script, the shooting, the editing. That kind of presence ups the game of all of the filmmakers who enter Adrenaline. In that 72 hours, they get a huge amount of experience.

EFS: When did you found Cinema Pacific, and who else was instrumental in that?

RH: There was an administrator at the university who was vice provost at the time, Russ Tomlin, and he’s the one who gave me the idea of emphasizing the Pacific Rim. I think he’s the one who said to me, “In many ways, Eugene is closer to Seoul and Shanghai than it is to Los Angeles.” I could see the numbers of Asian students. I could see the strong Asian art collection at the museum and the numbers of people teaching Asian cinema. All of that made me realize the interconnections between the Northwest and the Pacific-bordering countries. For example, we showed a film made in Seattle called Big in Japan. The very first film we showed was a Chambers production called Chamaco that was produced here in Eugene but was made in Mexico. That kind of emphasis on interconnection of the coast and the Pacific Rim, I just found fascinating.

Doug Blandy was the chair of the Arts and Administration Program at the university. He was enthusiastic about making this a teaching program. I mean, it was really a gamble. I had done film festivals for quite a while. I’ve been a programmer since 1982, but I had done film festivals since 1994 — so it’s like 20 years now — but when I came here in 2008, I wasn’t sure that, having always done film festivals with professional colleagues, it could be done with a minimal staff and assigning a lot of the responsibility to students.

The third person who was absolutely key is Larissa Ennis, and she was working at Academic Extension at the university. They do continuing education programs, and that’s where Cinema Pacific is administratively housed. She was assigned to help me, and it turned out she was completing her Ph.D. in film, so she was very enthusiastic about helping get Cinema Pacific off the ground. She and I have been partners since the beginning, since the first festival in 2010.

I could go on because Cinema Pacific, like most film festivals, involves a lot of collaborators who own and take charge of different pieces of it. That’s how it can be very big, like The Wizard of Oz, with very few people behind the curtain who create a big spectacle.

EFS: Well, because it’s the Halloween season, if you had to program a horror festival, what do you think you’d choose?

RH: There’s a wonderful experimental film called Outer Space and it’s by an an Austrian filmmaker who takes a horror movie starring Barbara Hershey, and remixes it and makes it more terrifying through the various scratches and manipulations. You say Halloween, and that film jumps to mind. To tell you the truth, the horror film is not my major forté.

My favorite subgenre of experimental film is the found-footage film. It’s the experimental film that takes a preexisting movie and remixes it, recuts it. In many ways, it’s a way for filmmakers with limited budgets to take films that cost a lot of money to make, like the Barbara Hershey film, and now you get to remake it. All you’ve gotta do is grab the footage or the videotape and put it into your editing system and reshape it. This, to me, is one of the great found-footage films from the last couple of decades.

It was a 1982 film The Entity, and he’s tinkering with that. But, you know, there’s a whole tradition of avant-garde filmmakers who grab commercial footage and exploit it in really creative ways. It goes back to the artist Joseph Cornell. Bruce Conner is another one who made a classic movie in the 1960s, A Movie, which was made up of newsreel footage. There are so many examples, but it’s my favorite genre of experimental filmmaking.

Sean Hanson is a Eugene film critic whose work has been published by Something Awful and Front Row Central.

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