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Dancing Shadows

Film societies in Silver City and Mesilla bring movie magic to Southwest New Mexico, beyond the Hollywood blockbusters.

Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder

 

The magic is about to begin. It's nearly dark on a mid-summer night in Silver City, and the courtyard of College Street Plaza is soon to be transformed into an outdoor movie theater. It's like a drive-in movie, but without the car.

The big reel at the Fountain Theatre gets ready
to roll on Mongolian Ping Pong.

A gossamer screen is suspended across the mouth of a walkway in the complex of adobe-style office buildings. A couple dozen directors chairs and lawn chairs dot the grass, along with a few blankets, people with coolers and sacks of take-out food. This innovative movie venue is an expansion of the offerings of the WNMU-Silver City International Film Society, which for the past three years has added a monthly outdoor flick throughout the summer and this year scheduled five, continuing into October.

"This is the first time we've come to this outdoor thing," a blonde woman settling into a lawn chair says. "We've seen this movie before, and it's excellent! I even rented it on DVD, but here we get to see it on the big screen. And it's just fun being outside. It reminds me of the drive-in when we were kids."

The sky above isn't the only thing that's dark about the summer series. The Film Society booked an interesting palette of offbeat flicks: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, about a German rock performer whose sex-change surgery is botched; Night Watch, a Russian fantasy/horror film that set all-time box office records in Russia; Donnie Darko on Sept. 9, about a teenager who survives a jet engine crashing through his bedroom and goes on to commit acts of vandalism and worse at the behest of a giant demonic-looking rabbit named Frank; and Pink Flamingos on Oct. 14, the cult classic featuring transvestite sleaze-queen Divine.

Tonight's fare is Stop Making Sense, director Jonathan Demme's film that interweaves two concerts by the Talking Heads, featuring the quirky and oh-so-mesmerizing David Byrne.

Film society board member Tom King mans the concession table at the edge of the courtyard. He's selling a simple variety of snacks and drinks, and chatting with patrons as they walk by and find their seats. He says, "We doubled our movie offerings over the summer months just by adding these outdoor screenings."

Randi Halperin-Olson, vice president of the group's board of directors and tonight's ticket taker—"Just three bucks!"—says attendance is going up for this year's summer slate of movies as word about the series gets out.

The two-dozen chairs are nearly all full now. A few people have brought their own folding chairs and blankets with them.

"This is the best yet," King agrees, taking in the crowd.

A couple of other board members—they take turns volunteering, both here and at the society's monthly screenings at the Real West Cinema II on Hwy. 180—confer on whether it's yet dark enough to run the movie. Someone shuts off the background lights and the screen is illuminated. A computer-projector gives the cue, and then it's all David Byrne, larger than life: "Psycho killer, qu'est que c'est?"

 

The WNMU-Silver City International Film Society is a non-profit organization whose mission is to bring the art of film in many forms to the local community. Foreign language films and alternative films from the United States are a particular focus, and the group's mission statement says at least one in every eight films will be a Latino-themed movie, honoring the area's ethnicity. Like the much larger Mesilla Valley Film Society in Las Cruces, which screens movies nightly at the Fountain Theatre and recently added a Saturday matinee series, the society seeks to meet film buffs' appetites for innovative movies in an area where otherwise only standard Hollywood fare would reach.

Despite its size, Silver City has a long history of independent and foreign film, dating to the 1960s and the heady days of the Copper Drive-In in Arenas Valley. There, Darrel Spurger brought such memorable foreign films as La Dolce Vita and numerous Bridget Bardot flicks. When Spurger left the area, the screen went dark, according to film society historical documentation.

But the flame was picked up in 1965 and carried into the 1970s when WNMU faculty members Cecil Howard and Dorothy Blalock organized screenings of 16- and 35-mm films at the university's Light Hall Auditorium. From 1975-1985, another effort at the university's Miller Library and Fine Arts Center Theater brought in a series focused on the classics, including films like Man in the Iron Mask and Charlie Chaplin in Gold Rush. Film society documents note that Reefer Madness, a film on the effects of marijuana, "brought down the house." Another group took up the cause from 1978-1979, presenting international "World Films II," again using Light Hall.

And in the 1980s, a group of film buffs put together another round of international film screenings at a local theater, The Broken Oak. According to long-time area resident Harry Benjamin, a participant in several of the film groups over the years, their film selection committee was so large as to make the process unworkable and the group disbanded.

These days, the Silver City film scene benefits from the concerted efforts of the WNMU-Silver City International Film Society, which came together in 1994 under the inspirational hand of long-time film enthusiast Jane Miller, according to the group's executive director, Grits Gedgaudas. The WNMU-Silver City International Film Society held 16-mm film screenings in Light Hall and showed videos at the Miller Library on campus, as well as starting the 35-mm film screenings at Real West theater.

WNMU continues to be a strong partner in the independent and international film effort, Gedgaudas says, with support and an annual donation to the film society. Gedgaudas, who started working with the group as a volunteer soon after he came to the area in 2001, says a main reason for having an organized film society in this small town is to bring in the unusual, the unexpected, the mind-expanding.

"What comes to town is pretty mainstream," Gedgaudas says. "There's a lot more out there, stuff that's definitely off-the-beaten-path, and we love bringing it to the community." Pointing to cinema "as an art form," he says he thinks there's value in bringing in international films in particular so people can experience other parts of the world. "On top of everything else, it's a cheap vacation, you know what I mean?"

Gedgaudas says John Gray, owner of the Real West Cinema, has been a huge supporter of the film society's efforts, allowing the group to rent a Sunday matinee slot every month and discussing what films Real West is bringing in so the film society doesn't repeat the theater's offering, or conversely, so the society might bring in a film the theater isn't going to schedule. The film society, for example, wanted to show the controversial Michael Moore film Fahrenheit 911, but not if the theater was going to bring it in.

"We thought it was an important film to bring," Gedgaudas recalls, "and if John wasn't going to show it, the film society felt it was its duty to screen the film as one of its monthly (offerings)."

The theater did decide to carry the film, to good response.

"That was great. They had great crowds throughout the whole run—" one week, Gedgaudas recalls. "We would have only had it for the one showing, so a lot more people got to see it by the theater bringing it in."

 

The film society rents Real West's larger space, which maxes out at 198 seats. Average audience size is about 105 people, Gedgaudas says, with the society breaking even at about 100 paying customers per film. A few films—like the esoteric What the Bleep Do We Know, Skin and The Triplets of Belleville, an internationally acclaimed animated film—have been sell-outs.

WNMU-Silver City International Film Society

Regular monthly film series:
Sept. 17, Water
Oct. 22, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
Nov. 12, TBA
Dec, 3, TBA.

Films are shown at 4 p.m., Real West Cinema II, Hwy. 180 E.. Admission $7, free to WNMU faculty and students with valid ID.

 

"Under the Stars" outdoor movie schedule:

Sept. 9, Donnie Darko
Oct.14, Pink Flamingos

Films are shown at dark (around 8:30 p.m.) in the courtyard of College Street Plaza, 301 W. College. Admission $3.

Special event: Sept. 23, Soul Food, two free showings, 4 and 6:30 p.m., at the Silco Theater on Bullard Street, as part of Silver City MainStreet Project's "Taste of Downtown."

 

Mesilla Valley Film Society

Regular series:
week of Sept. 1, Wordplay
week of Sept. 8, Mountain Patrol
week of Sept. 15, Spirit of the Beehive
week of September 22, Scanner Darkly
week of Sept. 29, Edmond
week of Oct. 6, Quinceanera.

All showings are at the Fountain Theatre, 2469 Calle de Guadelupe, Mesilla, nightly at 7:30 p.m., Sunday matinee at 2:30 p.m. Admission $6, seniors and students with ID $5, members and children $4, matinees $5, Wednesdays $4.

CineMatinee Series at the Fountain Theatre:

Sept. 2, Salt of the Earth and Heavy Metal
Sept. 9, The Gunfighter
Sept. 16, Real Women Have Curves
Sept. 23,Rancho Deluxe
Sept. 30, Trail of the Painted Ponies
Oct. 7, Not Columbus Day (Native American music, dance, film).

Films are shown at 1:30 pm. Admission $3, free for MVFS members. For more information, call 524-8287 or 522-0286,

It costs the film society $700-$1,000 to bring in and show a film, Gedgaudas says. That includes the theater rental, projectionist and promotion costs—ads and film society mailings, as well as those posters that go up all over downtown. Add to that the actual film rental cost, which varies, he says.

Individual and business sponsors help greatly in keeping the society afloat, paying $200 to sponsor a film, for which they get their names in the program and mailings. Having board members and other regular volunteers staffing the box office eliminates another expense.

The film society has a mailing list of more than 400 names, to whom they send newsletters and postcards quarterly and monthly. Not all on the mailing list are members. The society's board currently is reworking the membership arrangement, Gedgaudas says, hoping to offer a package that gives members breaks on admission price. Added income from regular annual memberships would help pay for mailings and promotion.

Gedgaudas says a small selection committee chooses the films. Perhaps the current film society has learned from the experiences that broke the back of The Broken Oak group back in the 1980s?

He concedes that the selection process is "interesting," hanging onto the word in a playful way, indicating that the road to movie selection is not always easy or smooth. The committee is composed of just five to six people—usually a couple of board members, Gedgaudas and an "alternate person," someone from the community.

"It can get a little political," he says.

As for selection criteria, the society tries to get films that are just off first run in the theaters, but haven't yet hit the video stores on DVD. As the movie industry has changed, Gedgaudas explains, that has gotten harder to pull off: "Films are going from first run to DVD within four months these days." And some film distributors won't deal with a small film society that doesn't own its own theater, limiting the group's already tough choices.

Asked if the film society is meeting its artistic goals, Gedgaudas laughs. "You know how that goes," he says. "As soon as you start checking things off your list, you think of new things you could do, and things get added onto the bottom!"

Of course he'd like to offer even more movie selections. He hopes to add more special series, like the successful "Under the Stars" summer program.

In the past, the society has held "Bring a Director to Town" events, and Gedgaudas says the group plans to bring back that highly successful format, in which a director makes a presentation before the film and audience members get to meet him or her. The society hopes to make its "Oscar Party," added last year, an annual event. The fundraiser was a huge success, he says.

 

But for passionate film buffs like Gedgaudas and the film society board, the bottom line isn't just the bottom line. It's about the art of film, Gedgaudas says, and the experiences it can bring to the viewer.

He mentions The Hours, a decidedly somber flick the society showed in a past season. In it, the beautiful Nicole Kidman plays author Virginia Woolf, wearing drab clothing and sporting a prosthetic nose to lessen her attractiveness and more accurately portray Woolf. Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore play other women in other time periods, connected to Woolf and each other through Woolf's novel, Mrs. Dalloway. If seeing Kidman as other than her usually glamorous self isn't enough to depress you, all three characters are dealing with depression and facing difficult life passages.

"People may not have walked out feeling great, but they walked out having experienced something," Gedgaudas says. It was a "heavy" film choice, he admits, but insists it was "worth bringing in. In film, you get a peek into how other people live, and I think that's so valuable."

As another example of what off-the-beaten-path film can do, Gedgaudas cites a recent film society offering, Mountain Patrol. Based on true events surrounding Tibetan antelope poaching in Kekexili, a vast and isolated region of China, the film follows the brave volunteers who face down ruthless outlaw hunters, all with a sweeping backdrop of the Tibetan plateau.

Gedgaudas pulls out the film society's promotional postcard for Mountain Patrol. The central image is a man, Tibetan in appearance, with a determined, passionate gaze. In the background is a craggy mountain range, and at the bottom, an antelope's silhouette. Gedgaudas eyes the snow-covered peaks.

"Film can be an avenue to explore different parts of the world," he says. "There are places I'll never get to go, but film can take me there."

 

On a brilliantly sunny afternoon in Mesilla, a woman named Eileen is also pondering interesting, faraway corners of the world. A devotee of alternative and international films, she says she is looking forward to seeing Mongolian Ping Pong, today's offering of the Mesilla Valley Film Society at the Fountain Theatre.

"We come to the majority of them," she says of the film society's offerings. "I've seen films from Iran, Bhutan. It's gotten to where I was just saying, 'I've got to get a world map so I can see where all these places are!' It's really wonderful, what it opens up for you."

RoseAnn Hernandez couldn't have said it better herself. She's currently the treasurer on the Mesilla Valley Film Society's board of directors, has also served as its secretary, and was box-office coordinator for 11 years. She'll be part of the volunteer staff working at the theater for the late-afternoon showing today.

Hernandez says she loves being associated with the film society, with what it brings to the community, and with the glorious old Fountain Theatre just off the Old Mesilla Plaza.

"Yes, it's great having our own building and all that provides for us," she says. "And it's quite the building!" Her arm makes a sweeping gesture from the back of the hall near the theater's entrance to the classic stage below. A row of cafe tables and chairs invites patrons to sit with their snacks and sodas. A rail with a counter-style shelf and a bank of chairs looks down over the rows of traditional movie theater seats. The walls are covered in Old West murals.

The film society has had long-term leases on the Fountain Theatre since 1989, when the society was first incorporated. Built in 1905 on the site of a Confederate army barracks, the Fountain Theatre is New Mexico's oldest movie house, once home to vaudeville performances as well as cinema. Patriarch Albert Jennings Fountain—lawyer, politician and militia colonel—disappeared mysteriously in the desert in 1896, but his legacy lives on in the theater, still owned by a descendant, Lucille Fountain Valentine. The theater seats 100 people comfortably, Hernandez says, or a tight audience of up to 106 patrons maximum.

The group's strong track record of showing alternative and international films began with Babette's Feast. They've screened a new movie every week—that's four to five movies a month—for the past 17 years. Movies run from Friday to the following Thursday, each flick getting eight screenings, with evening shows and a Sunday matinee.

The non-profit group pulls off all this movie magic with somewhere between seven and 13 hard-working board members and a committed cadre of volunteers, many of them pitching in weekly since the beginning.

"We do it all," Hernandez says, "not just the box office. We handle the concession stand and we scrub the toilets and sweep up after the shows." The only two paid staff are the cleaning person and head projectionist. Hernandez adds with a smile that she's had her hand in nearly every facet of running the theater. Yup, even the toilets.

Stephanie Baumann and Kellie Morris are regular volunteers working the concession stand today. They're the perfect kind of people to have behind a sales counter, serving up big smiles and hearty hellos along with the goodies. They acknowledge several regular patrons by name.

"Oh, it's the popcorn," Baumann says with a laugh of the film society's success and regular theater patrons. "We use real butter!" she adds with a humorously naughty smile.

The popcorn's rich smell is indeed filling the air, and hardly a patron walks past the booth without buying a bagful. In addition to the usual drinks and a few candy options, the concession sells slabs of decadent-looking cake. Morris rolls her eyes at mention of the cake, acknowledging its seductive appeal.

Seats are filling and people are picking up movie schedules from the table near the ticket area. The society prints some 3,500 newsletter-calendars and mails out to a distribution list of around 1,700.

 

In addition to the society's regular weekly schedule, there are flyers for a new series. Film society board member (and regular Desert Exposure contributor) Jeff Berg got the idea a few years back to show special weekly matinees out at the Farm and Ranch Museum, bringing an expansion of non-mainstream films to the area. Noting the museum's "underutilized theater and projection equipment," Berg worked with museum staff and developed the "New Mexico Connection Film Series." Keeping in step with the museum's theme, he showed films that had some connection to New Mexico, ranching or the area's history.

The series was very successful, drawing 3,500 visitors from January 2005 to June 2006, but tightening restrictions on movie choices—Berg quips that the museum decided to "lasso in this maverick program"—led him to move to the Fountain. The Saturday matinee screenings have been well attended, even better than they were at the Farm and Ranch Museum, with about 45 patrons. Berg says he feels that will increase "as we have more publicity, special events or guests, and when the 'snowbirds' come back."

Berg says he hopes to hold more special events as part of the series, some with special guests and speakers. By special request, Berg says, the newly renamed "CineMatinee" series will have a repeat screening of a documentary film, The Trail of the Painted Ponies on Sept. 20. October 7 will see a "NOT Columbus Day" event, with several Native American performers and films celebrating the culture and community of American Indians. The following Saturday will be a "History of Las Cruces and Mesilla Day," with guest speakers, short films "and who knows what else," he says.

"Oh, it's been very positive," Hernandez says of the CineMatinee addition. The program has brought new members to the film society's fold, she says, and increased audiences at their established movie program as well.

 

She says it's the box office and concession revenue that keeps the film society afloat. Membership, actually, is relatively small at around just 75 people. For an annual fee of $40 for a single or $75 for joint membership, patrons get into the regular films for just $4, and get free admission for the special classic films and the Saturday matinees (otherwise $3).

But Hernandez says she's unconcerned as to whether the group is $300 in the black at year-end or $40. "So long as we're not in the red, that's all that matters," she says, laughing. The organization does have "reserves," she admits. After all, they will need to buy a new projector one of these days, she says with a sigh.

Many members do not even pull out their membership cards at the ticket booth to get their discount, Hernandez says, adding, "People join just to belong. They just want to show their support for what we do."

Touching proof of this commitment came one year when the society teetered on the brink of financial insolvency, and the group held a fundraising "Rent Party." "It was amazing," she recalls. "People were writing checks for $200, $300, even some for $500! Oh, and we all had a blast!"

The society also rents out the theater itself for private special events, like graduations, birthdays, even weddings. Local public radio station KRWG has "bought out the house" for a special screening of the crossword movie Wordplay.

But the society also holds a number of free events, which boosts its profile in the community and serves to bring more interesting films to the local audience. It has held an "Almost Midnight Film Series" and an "Under the Stars" program, both with free admission.

Hernandez reflects on some of the more memorable moments the film society has enjoyed over the years. Getting the new theater chairs gave everyone involved with the theater a real morale boost, she says. Two movies, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Fahrenheit 911 were unbelievable sell-outs, she says, with great audience feedback. The society plans to bring those movies in again, she says.

The theater was picketed when the society showed the controversial The Last Temptation of Christ. Picketers yelled at moviegoers that God would strike them blind for seeing the film, she says. To her knowledge, there were no visual problems stemming out of that screening.

Hernandez says the film society has benefited from its friendly neighbors on the plaza. "Our collaboration with the Wine Garden next door allowed us to serve wine. It made us unique—patrons like being able to buy a glass or bottle of wine and watch a movie."

By now the theater is nearly full. A gentleman near the back of the hall removes his cowboy hat and places it on the vacant seat next to him, one of very few left.

"I have no idea what this one is about," he says of Mongolian Ping Pong, today's featured film. "It doesn't matter, though. Everything they bring is good. I come up from El Paso."

The lights dim and a hush falls. The screen flickers to life and the theater is filled with first, silence, then the unmistakable sound of Asian music. We are off to somewhere far away, somewhere beautiful and mysterious.

Please pass the popcorn.

 

Both the WNMU-Silver City International Film Society (538-5142, www.silverfilm.org) and the Mesilla Valley Film Society (524-8287, www.fountaintheatre.org) welcome new members, volunteers and additions to their mailing lists.

Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure.

 

 

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