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Cornell Cinema has in the past year attracted more than 18,000 attendees, 10,000 of whom were undergraduates, at 300 different film screenings and other events and seen an increase in attendance.

November 1, 2017

Guest Room | Defending Our Cinema

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A few semesters ago, when I was a more active staff writer in this section, I reviewed the 1971 film Walkabout before it screened at the Cornell Cinema. When the opportunity arose to review one of the greatest Australian films ever made, I obviously seized it without hesitation, thankful there exists an institution right here at Cornell that is devoted to showcasing profound examples of world cinema, like Ran and Koyaanisqatsi, alongside more contemporary works like Moonlight and Baby Driver. I didn’t expect much to come of that review — after all, who actually reads this section, if not this paper, right? — but at the bottom of the online article, I found a comment by an alumnus named David Moriah ’72, whose response is tangible evidence of the enduring relevance of institutions like the Cornell Cinema. It has been nearly half a century since David graduated, yet he has “returned to [Walkabout] several times over the years and continue[s] to drink in the deep well of its wisdom and beauty.”

Recently, we were all rudely awakened to discover the Cornell Cinema has been threatened by not just a reduction to existing funding, but a complete withdrawal of financial support. Just a few weeks ago, local audiences were finally given the chance to witness the belated Ithaca premiere of Jean-Luc Godard’s Adieu au Langage, more than three years after its initial release at Cannes. The packed theater, composed of people from both Cornell and surrounding communities, verified our cinema as among the most important cultural venues at this school, if not central New York. Had Cornell Cinema not been around to screen a pioneering 3D film by one of the most celebrated filmmakers of all time, I wonder if it would have ever found its way to this part of the world.

In a time when the United States is gripped by issues of social division and shrinking empathy, the power of the moving image as a means by which we might expand our empathy — the foremost purpose of cinema identified by the late critic Roger Ebert — appears more relevant than ever. While some of the grievances that prompted the Student Assembly Appropriations Committee’s intended funding withdrawal appear well-reasoned, threatening the very existence of Cornell Cinema is immensely disproportionate to the marginal improvements they demand of its financial structure. That a portion of student funding not be used for the wages of a faculty advisor appears like a reasonable request, but this was already approved by the Appropriations Committee of Fall 2015, which decided the allocations of 2016 to 2018 cycle. While the Appropriations Committee of Fall 2016 expressed their concern toward this practice, the money with which the cinema paid this staff wage had already been granted and to re-divert it mid-cycle would have violated other restrictions imposed by the Student Assembly.

The committee’s other grievance, that the cinema’s business model is unsustainable, grossly mistakes the inherent value of certain institutions. The Cornell Daily Sun is not a profitable business, but almost all of us would ultimately agree that its importance as an independent institution transcends the profit motive. I would similarly posit the Cornell Cinema is of such importance as a cultural institution that neither should its existence be dictated by profitability. If anything, the Cornell Cinema is registered as a non-profit organization — and yet it manages to consistently return a slight fiscal surplus! My friend Yuji Yang ’19, president of the cinema’s Student Advisory Board, says they expect a $200 surplus this fiscal year. My argument therefore doesn’t concern what the Cornell Cinema ought to be, but is simply a reminder of what it already is.

I personally owe much to the Cornell Cinema, not only because of the cultural experiences it has provided to me as an audience member. If I end up making filmmaking my ultimate career, I will forever have it to thank as the premiere venue of my first feature-length film. If the Student Assembly has no qualms devoting $75,000 each year to their Infrastructure Fund Commission, which supports student-led infrastructure projects with which budding engineers might practice their craft, why not extend the same generosity to budding creatives, for whom the Cornell Cinema acts as a unique, cultural institution instrumental to our development. The committee’s ostensible incredulity toward the value of Cornell Cinema is perhaps part of a growing STEM-obsessed skepticism toward the relevance of the arts, which is why, in resistance to the increasing functional commodification of higher education, we must vigorously defend our cinema.

The thought that decades of history and cultural enrichment that the Cornell Cinema has provided could suddenly end with the decision of an undergraduate committee should deeply trouble us. The consequences will be far greater than members of the Appropriations Committee likely anticipate, leaving a permanent cultural crater at the literal center of our school. In the lead-up to their final vote next week, I implore the transitory representatives of the Student Assembly to consider the lasting cultural opportunities they would deny future Cornellians — some of which are still fondly remembered nearly half a century later — if they allow our cinema to die on their watch.

Lorenzo Benitez is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]