Whitney: Fancy films for the masses?

Among the options for weekend diversion at Yale, a film screening at the Whitney Humanities Center seems decidedly academic.

Consider the choices for a given Friday night: sake bombing with friends at Miya’s Sushi or a screening of “The Puppetmaster,” a film which, according to the Cinema at the Whitney Web site, “explores the realities of Japanese occupation through the complex interplay of documentary interviews and fictional reconstructions”? Or a show by, say, the Sphincter Troupe or “L’Amour Fou,” a “largely improvised masterpiece … about the exhilaration and costs of role-playing one’s way out of boredom”?

Founded in the fall of 2005, and fully funded by Yale, Cinema at the Whitney screens two films every Friday evening, and it hosts a gala at the start of each semester. To select the films for a semester’s program, the Cinema board members spend the previous semester proposing and voting on “pitches,” double features in which the two movies are “connected in an inventive and tangential way,” as Miranda Popkey ’09, undergraduate chair, puts it. According to the Cinema’s Web site, the program intends to screen “films both classic and contemporary, experimental and mainstream — films that appeal to the broader spectrum of student taste.”

But does it actually achieve this goal — or are its offerings too obscure, too insular to appeal to the general Yale population?

One of the Cinema’s aims, Popkey said, is to screen films that Yale students typically “wouldn’t otherwise get to see.” The organization shows these movies in their original 35-millimeter format, making the Cinema unique among Yale film groups. As any cinephile would tell you, this feature enhances the quality and authenticity of the viewing experience. It also allows the Cinema to screen films that are not available on video, often including rare or obscure movies. A recent offering, “L’Amour Fou,” directed by Jacques Rivette, is a 252-minute epic that’s nearly impossible to find in any other format.

“In general, we try to offer a wide variety of films, in terms of nationalities, periods and genres,” Jeremi Szaniawski GRD ’10, co-founder of Cinema at the Whitney and Whitney Humanities Center liaison, said in an e-mail. Even so, he conceded, “this semester [spring ’08] has been our most ‘highbrow’ yet.”

Last Friday, the Cinema showed a series of films by Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman. “Toute Une Nuit,” from 1982, is a series of mostly silent vignettes about couples interacting one night in Brussels, which some in the audience found obtuse.

“It would have worked just as well as a series of screens in a museum,” Kate Riley ’10 said of the film. “It seemed like an interesting, but not very successful, experiment.”

Despite the seeming obscurity of some of its films, Cinema at the Whitney professes to appeal to the entire Yale population. The board members said that their programming is designed to attract not merely a cinephile or “movie buff” audience. Richard Suchenski, the Cinema’s graduate chair, said that distinctions such as “highbrow” or “popular” are irrelevant.

“We never willfully show obscure films,” Suchenski said in an e-mail. “If, in a given week, we are showing something that is perhaps less familiar, that’s because it’s a valuable, interesting film that we think people at Yale would find rewarding.”

And Popkey, too, insisted that the Cinema’s programming is truly designed to appeal to the masses.

“I don’t want to imply that there is a clash between the desire to attract a broader audience and the desire to show the best films possible, whatever their relative popularity or obscurity,” Popkey said in an e-mail.

Is this a paradox — or is it really possible? Judging by the numbers, it would seem that Popkey is dead-on. According to the Cinema’s official count, 115 people showed up to “Toute Une Nuit,” and more than 100 saw “L’Amour Fou.” By anyone’s standards, that’s not bad.

So why do they come, even when they haven’t heard of the film? The answer, it seems, is that they have faith in the program.

“In the past few years, the Cinema at the Whitney has built up a trust with the audience,” Popkey said. “Even if one doesn’t know a film, one is likely to come to the film and bring their friends.”

In addition, the films shown at the gala events are often well-known. At the start of this semester, the screening of “Singin’ in the Rain” was so popular that staffers had to turn away guests at the door. During their regular programming, the Cinema occasionally screens what Szaniawski calls “mainstream or even garish fare” — with Spielberg, Wes Anderson and Scorsese falling under the former category, and Lloyd Kaufman under the latter. On the docket for this coming fall, Popkey revealed, will likely be the popular films “Alien” and “Starship Troopers.”

For screenings of mainstream films, there’s always the Yale Film Society, which sometimes previews popular films and hosts guests involved in the industry. And the Stiles Silver Screen, an Ezra Stiles institution, provides even more “popular,” or, shall we say, less “highbrow” fare.

Christian Oncescu ’09, current head of Stiles Silver Screen, said he shows movies that make him feel good.

“I show films that I think that a lot of people will want to see,” he said. “They’re mainly entertaining and will leave you feeling happier, having forgotten your worries.”

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