BIG EARS 2017: Film Programmers Paul Harrill and Darren Hughes

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Though multimedia has been a part of the Big Ears experience since its inception, 2016 saw the festival embracing a discrete, similarly wide-ranging film program curated by Paul Harrill and Darren Hughes of Knoxville’s Public Cinema screening series. Returning for 2017, Harrill and Hughes have stuck with what worked (the Flicker and Wow short film programs, films with direct connections to Big Ears guests) as well as introducing new wrinkles, including meaty retrospectives of Jem Cohen and Jonathan Demme. We asked Harrill and Hughes to talk about some potential highlights from this year’s program.

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What did you learn from Public Cinema’s Big Ears experience in 2016?
Paul Harrill: Early on, Darren and I decided not to take the traditional film-festival approach of screening a bunch of fairly new movies that are on the festival circuit. We already do that in a way with the Public Cinema and it’s not right for Big Ears.

Instead, we focused on screenings that might feel more like an event—either because the filmmaker is in person or because it’s a screening of a very hard to see film, or because it’s a rare opportunity to see something on the enormous Tennessee Theatre screen, or because it’s a regional or North American premiere. This year we’ve continued with that approach. And then we’ve added stuff like Chuck Maland’s talk about James Agee which will lead into the Agee Amble with Jack Neely.

Did your association with Big Ears change the scope of what you were able to program for 2017?
Darren Hughes: We grew the film programming by 50 percent this year, which was only possible because of the extended timeline. I met with Janie Geiser and Kevin Jerome Everson back in early September at the Toronto International Film Festival, where they were screening new work. The conversations with Jem Cohen and Jonathan Demme began around that time, too.

By the same token, part of Paul’s and my job right now is to proselytize for the Public Cinema, Big Ears, and Knoxville when we talk to filmmakers, distributors, critics, and other programmers, and we’ve made the most of that opportunity over the past 12 months. I can tell you from conversations with filmmakers that Big Ears—and to a lesser but not insignificant extent the Public Cinema—does have cachet. 

Paul and I talk a lot about incremental change. This year we’ve made some small but necessary and strategic decisions that we feel bring Big Ears one step closer to becoming a legitimate film festival in its own right. For example, in the film world, quality projection is essential. I was pleasantly surprised by the turnout at our short film screenings last year, but we knew that in 2017, Flicker and Wow had to happen at the Knoxville Museum of Art.

Also, we knew that if we wanted Big Ears to become a showcase for experimental cinema, we needed 16mm projection and an open submission process. I curated the majority of Flicker and Wow through our submission form and was shocked by the quantity and quality of work I had to choose from. There are only a handful of great avant-garde film festivals in America. We’re eager to fill that niche.

For many festivalgoers the weekend is a mad scramble to see and hear everything. What are the challenges in convincing them that a two-hour narrative film they can’t is worth the time? 
DH: The Big Ears audience is as adventurous as you’re likely to find anywhere, which is a tremendous blessing as a programmer, because it means nothing is off limits. Paul and I were both members of that audience before we became involved with the fest, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of tuning our programming to that sensibility.

In other words, many of our screenings aren’t categorically different from the performances. It’s a different medium but the same voice. That’s our intent, at least.

PH: With regards to the two-hour features, many are programmed in morning slots and aren’t in competition with music. They’re a great way to start the day. There are a few features in the afternoon or evening, and those are there for people to just take a breather, or for film-only passholders, or for people who might not otherwise be drawn into the Big Ears experience.

As for strategies for trying to do it all, I’d advise people to do a little homework. Dig into the Public Cinema’s Big Ears web page, read the program notes for the various programs (we spent a lot of time on them!), and note what interests you.

In many cases, the films we’re screening aren’t easy to see anywhere else—and I mean anywhere. That’s definitely true of the stuff at the KMA, Book of Days, even some of Jonathan Demme’s films, like Another Telepathic Thing or Cousin Bobby. Roger Beebe showing a film with eight film projectors, or Jem Cohen’s Gravity Hill? Those are concerts.

You’ll never see or hear it all. That is the heartbreaking, and beautiful, thing about Big Ears.

What makes Jonathan Demme, best known for sweeping the Oscars with a genre film, ripe for a Big Ears examination?
PH: Endless curiosity. His films cross and combine genres. He’s collaborated with major figures of the avant-garde. His work can be politically engaged, but never in a way that’s simple or strident.

To us, those traits describe a lot of the musical acts at Big Ears. Or the festival itself. So the fact that a casual moviegoer might only think of Jonathan Demme as the guy who did The Silence of the Lambs is all the more reason to celebrate his work. He’s a major figure in American cinema.

Why do you think Demme is so good at performance films? Does that carry over into his narrative work?
PH: He’s got a very distinctive voice as a filmmaker, but he’s also a very collaboratively minded director. So whether he’s working with Talking Heads or Justin Timberlake or Spalding Gray, I think this remarkable empathy he has helps him find a sympathetic form or style for each artist.

The same is true of his narrative films. He consistently gets career-best performances out of the actors he works with—Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith, Anne Hathaway, Paul LeMat, Tom Hanks.

DH: I’ll just add that, judging by the musicians he’s worked with and the quality of his soundtracks, Demme has great taste in music and a finely trained ear, and I think that expresses itself in the rhythms of his films. They’re all musicals of one kind or another.

Is there anything in your personal ideal Demme retrospective that you weren’t able to book for Big Ears?
PH: In my dream scenario, we would be screening a director’s cut of Swing Shift, but that was never going to happen. More conventionally, it would’ve been great to screen some of his early Roger Corman films and some more of his great documentaries. And Married to the Mob.

DH: One of the many ideas on our original wish list that never came to fruition was an installation of Demme’s and Jem Cohen’s music videos. I’d happily sit in a gallery and watch Demme’s video for Suzanne Vega’s “Solitude Standing” on a loop.

What inspired the Flicker and Wow Kids! screening? How is programming something like that different?
PH: I think it came to us when Darren and I were talking about how he had shown his own kids some animations by the wonderful Jodie Mack, who was at Big Ears 2016.

DH: Yeah, I still regret not introducing my girls to Jodie last year. Paul and I consider ourselves advocates for cinema as a public art (hence the name), and the Kids! program is one more opportunity to expand and improve the local conversation about film as a cultural value.

I’m just old enough to remember the thrill of walking into school and seeing a 16mm projector at the back of the classroom, and I also remember them being replaced by TVs and VCRs in the mid-’80s. My daughters, who are four and six, experience everything digitally, usually via Netflix and Amazon streaming. We want them and other kids to touch celluloid and to see and hear a projector. We also want them to have a lot of fun, which Kids! most definitely will be.

Which musical act are you looking forward to most at Big Ears? What’s the most painful one to be missing out on due to film program responsibilities?
: Despite being a longtime fan I’ve never managed to see Wilco. So, as conventional as that might sound, they’re my number one must-see. And I’m bummed I’m going to have to miss Frederic Rzewski, Xylouris White, My Brightest Diamond, and several others.

DH: I’m dying to see Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Unremembered. And I still can’t believe Supersilent is playing in Knoxville! Also, I love Jem Cohen’s work and have enjoyed helping pull together a small retrospective of his features, so I can’t wait to see his new work with live performance, Gravity Hill Sound + Image. I’m crushed about missing Matmos and Jace Clayton.

What’s your personal favorite film showing at the festival?
PH: There are too many great films to name a “favorite,” and even I’ve not seen all of the films Darren’s programmed. But Stop Making Sense, Something Wild, and Swimming to Cambodia have special places in my heart. I saw all three as a teenager and they expanded my ideas about film—and life.

DH: I’ll name a favorite: As Without So Within, by Manuela De Laborde, which is screening in Flicker and Wow 1. After Manuela said yes, everything else was icing on the cake.

Speaking as programmers, what was your most thrilling get?
DH: In 2013, Demme mentioned in an interview that he wished Cousin Bobby would find its way back onto the big screen. I think it’s pretty cool that we’re helping make that happen by debuting a new digital transfer from Demme’s own print of the film.

We’re also hosting the North American premiere of a new restoration of Georges Roquier’s Farrebique (1946).

PH: For me, it wasn’t any single person or film. It was when I stepped back and looked at the scope of the full schedule. The “get” for me is that we’re bringing in Jonathan Demme, Jem Cohen, Janie Geiser, Kevin Everson, Bill Morrison, Roger Beebe—all in one weekend.

What’s your prediction for the sleeper favorite? Which film is going to have the biggest impact on an unsuspecting audience?
DH: Kevin Jerome Everson sent me links to more than 100 of his films, ranging from a few seconds to several hours each (he’s ridiculously prolific), and gave me total freedom in curating a screening. I’m really pleased with the shorts program we put together. That, along with his installation at the University of Tennessee’s Downtown Gallery, will give audiences a unique introduction to a truly important artist.

PH: This is an impossible question. I’m a big fan of Janie Geiser. Book of Days on 35mm is going to be special. Of the Demme films, Who Am I This Time? is the sleeper.

And what, if you have to choose just one, would you say is the unmissable centerpiece of this year’s film program—the one where no one’s going to be wondering whether they’re missing out on the show across the street?
DH: Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids at the Tennessee Theatre! No one gets to see this film with an audience. It’s only screened theatrically a handful of times, in Toronto and New York. And it’s so damn good.

PH: Yeah. This is the first time it’s shown on a big screen outside of Toronto and New York. And I want to point out that we’re showing it because it’s a great film — you don’t have to be a Justin Timberlake fan to enjoy it. But for me that’s only half of it.

Then, immediately after it, you have to see Stop Making Sense. Those two films projected at the Tennessee Theatre—I don’t know what to say other than you need to be there.

Nick Huinker is fortunate to have spent the past 15 years living and covering Knoxville’s near-constant DIY music renaissance. Once a year he does his best to return the cultural favor as producer of the Knoxville Horror Film Fest; most of the rest of the time he’s of limited use.

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