Movie Magic

Anthology Film Archives founder/artistic director Jonas Mekas. (All photos: Kim Madalinski)

AH, PATRONAGE. Where would we be without it, especially in these days of extreme income polarization? For good or ill, if a certain subset of the wealthy didn’t help fund the arts in this country—whether motivated by genuine affinity, the tax code, or evil-billionaire image management—all that would remain available for mass consumption would be endless analogues, for every artistic medium, of American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance?, Project Runway, Project Greenlight, etc. One of the primary modes of arts fund-raising—the benefit, often with awards attached—can nevertheless be deadly, with overlong acceptance speeches, contrived prizes, and an Ouroboros-like vibe of self-devouring self-congratulation. However briefly, the rich get to feel like artists, artists get to feel like the rich (if they aren’t already), and everyone gets to logroll it all the way home.

Mercifully, this year’s benefit for the eminently worthy Anthology Film Archives’ film preservation efforts was quick and to the point. Held Monday at the High Line Room and Terrace of the Standard, overlooking the High Line park to the east and the Hudson River to the west, the event, er, benefited from dramatic post-storm clouds and a dazzling Technicolor New Jersey sunset; excellent comfort-food-inspired hors d’oeuvres; decent musicians; and perhaps most important, short speeches.

A downtown New York institution, Anthology Film Archives was founded in 1970 by Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, and others to “preserve, present, and promote independent, avant-garde, and artist-made cinema.” The AFA began annually honoring fellow film preservers in 1992, with awards going to everyone from Martin Scorsese to Eastman Kodak to the “United States Senate & House of Representatives, sponsors of the legislation creating the National Film Preservation Foundation.” This year’s honorees were Cinetech (a world-class restoration/preservation lab and a subsidiary of Deluxe, which has been in the film business since the medium’s inception); Richard Peña, program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the New York Film Festival; and the Women’s Film Preservation Fund.

After half an hour of cocktails and canapés on the terrace, Mekas, AFA godfather and patron saint, delivered opening remarks. Slightly doddering, but endearing nonetheless, the Lithuanian artist-filmmaker told a parable about the creation of cinema and the fiendish art v. commerce struggle that has plagued the expensive medium since its birth. According to Mekas, God created the film camera, and the Devil said, “Hey, you could make money off that!” God then created avant-garde film, but the Devil made film materials pricey and unstable. God created film preservation; the Devil asked where the money for this would come from. With a twinkle in his eye, Mekas said that God responded by creating the film preservation benefit, and hence, here we were. The crowd, a mix of middle-aged people in mildly outrageous clothes and younger, studied film hipsters (I saw several Wes Anderson and Whit Stillman manqués), applauded warmly.

Next, we were treated to several musicians of varying repute, performing songs in different configurations. The standout was Angela McCluskey, a solid Scot who sang like Billie Holiday and claimed her songs were inspired by films. McCluskey got points from me for covering Randy Newman’s gorgeous and occasion-appropriate “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” though her pianist elided the best chord changes (at least from the Dusty Springfield version I know).

Bush Tetras and Felice Rosser.

During a break, the attendees were gently scolded for not buying enough raffle tickets (prizes included, along with a trip to the set of Boardwalk Empire and tickets to The Colbert Report, “film memorabilia donated by Phoebe Cates & Kevin Kline”). I spotted filmmaker Michael Almereyda, Criterion Collection chief Peter Becker (who went to my grade school), and then, on the terrace, Stanley Tucci accompanied by a taller women in a red dress (like most male actors, Tucci is smaller than one would assume). Back inside, the awards were presented. Cinetech founder Sean Coughlin delivered a humble, appreciative speech. He had the air of a dedicated scientist who would do what he does for no material reward. Coughlin and his team at Cinetech won an Academy Award for Science and Engineering in 2001 for developing a color restoration process to be used on fading color negatives (something akin to what was done to the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but with far less controversy).

Next up was Richard Peña, who, if you’re a New York cineast, seems almost omnipresent. Despite the weight he throws around in the top echelon of the city’s film programming world, Peña seemed genuinely moved by the award. He told a story about going to a Von Stroheim film as a young man and seeing Henri Langlois, the famed founder-curator of the Cinémathèque Française, in the audience, an early inspiration for the role Peña has played for so many years. He said that while some think of AFA as a cathedral, he thought of it as a university and has used it as such for decades. He thanked Mekas and the AFA for his wonderfully varied “education” in the art form.

Filmmaker-producer Sara Driver was up next, introducing the Women’s Film Preservation Fund. She said that when she produced Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise in 1984, there were about five working female filmmakers; now there are twelve. This got some rueful laughs. Part of the larger organization New York Women in Film and Television, the Women’s Film Preservation Fund awards cash grants to female filmmakers and offers post-production and restoration resources for films in which women have played a major creative role. Driver showed an intriguing quick-cut montage of many such films from all eras, whetting one’s appetite to access the collection.

Finally, the mostly female post-punk New York band Bush Tetras took the stage and launched into a short set of angular, funky grinds (think early Gang of Four, Wire, and locals Liquid Liquid). The noisenik guitarist looked like she could be someone’s hip granny, but she had her Andy Gill–style guitar skree down and would make an inspirational instructor at a rock camp for girls. The Tetras’ volume and aggression cleared the room of many if not all of the middle-agers, though I saw a few sixty-somethings reliving some private CBGB’s moment, idiot-dancing in ways that don’t even look good when young, impeccably styled people do it. Cornered by a small drunk man in his fifties wearing stilettos, fishnets, a diaphanous babydoll, and makeup (but no wig), I figured it was time to leave. Even at the Standard, I have standards.