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Courtesy of Gorky Film Studio

January 26, 2016

Reel Talk: a Conversation with Cornell Cinema Director Mary Fessenden

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The Cornell Cinema has crafted a program of fascinating and diverse films for its Spring 2016 season. In addition to its selection of Hollywood blockbusters from the past year (Missed Creed the first time around? Don’t worry), Cornell Cinema is running curated series on a breadth of topics.

Cornell Cinema’s series excel in their wide-ranging perspective, and appeal to Cornellians with a variety of interests, from the cat-lover to the sci-fi aficionado to the up-and-coming Oscars pundit. I talked with Cornell Cinema director Mary Fessenden about her planning process, the Cinema’s collaboration with campus organizations and the Cinema’s role in the Ithaca community.

The Sun: Looking through Cornell Cinema’s spring flick sheet, there are a lot of partnerships with different Cornell organizations this term. There is, for example, the LGBT Film Festival with the LGBT Studies program, and a number of graduate student associations helping present the Piled Higher and Deeper films. Are the directors of Cornell Cinema reaching out to groups to form partnerships, or do organizations often come to the Cinema looking to work together?

Mary Fessenden: It works both ways. For the Piled Higher and Deeper films that we’re showing, we had shown the original one when it first came out and I actually became aware that there was a second one when I was contacted by some graduate students. I didn’t actually know about the second film, and when I became aware of it I thought, “Oh yes, of course we’ll show this.” I was approached by the Engineering Graduate Student Association and they said that they would love to help out, they would love to supplement the film rental cost to make it cheaper for graduate students, so that was fine with us. Those same groups said, “It would be nice to bring back the first one at the same time you show the new one just in case people didn’t see the first one,” so that seemed like a great event to do at the very beginning of the semester for graduate students.

We were interested in doing some films around the Chinese New Year’s so I got in touch with a number of student organizations that might be interested and we heard back from the Chinese Students and Scholars Association and they said, “Sure, that would be great.” We worked with them on scheduling screenings of Ip Man 3 that actually bookend Chinese New Years. It really does work both ways. I might be aware of something that a student group might not be aware of but would be very interested in letting their members know about, so they are often happy to hear from us about something.

Sun: In some of this term’s film series, there seems to be one topical film — such as the Internet Cat Video Festival that closes “Cats!!”  — that the Cinema then helps students connect to other films spanning back years or decades.

M.F.: Both the “Cats!!” series and the “Invaders From Mars” series have a pretty good range. The “Invaders From Mars” series really spans a number of decades going from the Soviet silent film [Aelita: Queen of Mars] which has really amazing, incredible, constructivist sets and great costumes and this wild story that parallels what was going on in what was then contemporary Moscow and this notion of Mars. So that series spans from 1924 up to the most recent The Martian. I think that makes for a really great series , when you have that kind of range in it.

The “Cats!!” Series isn’t as vast of a range but it also includes a documentary, it includes Japanese animation, it includes a great French film, in includes Kiki’s Delivery Service and of course that cat video festival.  So I think that just makes for a really great series to have that kind of variety because it really allows for people to engage with the topic in any number of different ways.

Sun: For the students on campus who are budding cinephiles, what kind of films and materials does Cornell Cinema provide for students who have an interest but perhaps are new to exploring film?

M.F.: Well, we’re one of the only theatres in upstate New York that still has 35mm projection, so right there it’s very unusual that we have that ability to do this, and to do reel-to-reel 35mm which is the old-fashioned way in which you go back and forth between two projectors to show the film, 20 minutes on this projector, 20 minutes on this projector, back and forth and hopefully, if all goes well, the audience member is not aware that you’re switching between the two projectors. We make a point of highlighting those in our flick sheets so that people do know that they can experience film in the good old-fashioned way by coming to see them here.

These days, because so much is only available digitally, we often times have to go to film archives to get a good 35mm print. That’s where we’ll be getting a print of Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave, her performance film, which is fantastic. It came out in the mid-80’s, and we’re getting a print from an archive in North Carolina. As part of our Mars series we’re showing the Cold War classic Invaders from Mars and that’s coming from a collector of 35 mm films who is based out in Kansas.

There are still contemporary film distributors who are working in 35mm, so we’ll be showing this great program of shorts by the Quay Brothers, stop-motion animators who do amazing work. Apparently Christopher Nolan is a fan of their work and a big fan of 35mm, so he made a documentary about the Quay brothers and then curated a program of their work. We’ll be showing that in early March. That is a great opportunity for students to see a film by Christopher Nolan, but also be introduced to the work of the Quay Brothers.

For cinephiles who are particularly interested in [projection and film], we’re always interested in having people ask to take a look at our projection booth so they can actually see these projectors and understand how they work in tandem to present a show. As part of our elegant winter party – March 19 – we’re showing a great documentary in the background called Dreams Rewired that’s all about old technology: early telephones, early surveillance, early tape recording devices. We’ll be showing that and we’ll also display some old technologies for people to look at, we’ll actually put out some 35mm film reels, an old film strip projector, which we’ll let people run 35mm film through to get a sense of the tactile essence of 35mm film, which is so different from digital work.

Shay Collins is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at scollins@cornellsun.com.

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