Fans of movies-they-just-don't-make-like-that-anymore may have already considered which sardonic, misanthropic gem to take in at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive’s series, Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder, running through Feb. 28. Wilder favorites like Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment are on tap, as is the seldom-shown Five Graves to Cairo.
That film, a World War II spy thriller, is on loan from the UCLA Film and Television Archive—Universal, the studio, did not have a print. Series curator Steve Seid has begged and borrowed (but probably not stolen) just the right film for the right show for 26 years, and the Wilder program will be one of his last for BAM/PFA as one of three full-time curators for the archive's popular film series—he retired at the end of 2014.
BAM/PFA shows about 400 films a year, and over his career, Seid estimates, he’s gotten to pick and choose several thousand individual movies for over 1,000 different programs. A search on the PFA site reveals the ultra-eclectic nature of his interests: There are Seid series on the Free Speech Movement, punk rock, the early films of Milos Forman, Sergio Leone, pirates and piracy, video art, genetics, ecological sci-fi disaster movies, the appreciation of water, Robert Aldrich, Hollywood and the New Deal, and one simply called Eccentric Cinema: Overlooked Oddities and Ecstasies. In that 2009 program, viewers were turned on to/suffered through such weird fare as Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels, and the best film of all time featuring the contours of Sean Connery’s genitals—Zardoz. “In the year 2293 A.D., Sean Connery will wear a red loincloth and bandoliers, and he will liberate a society from the onus of eternal life,” wrote Seid in his notes on the film.
All in all, sounds like it was a pretty great job.
“Yeah, it was definitely a great job,” Seid says. “I was somewhat set loose, and the only things that might restrain me would hopefully be my good sense.”
Senior BAM/PFA Film Curator Susan Oxtoby praises Seid for being "really in touch with the zeitgeist, but he's also a wonderful film historian. So when he shapes a program, he really does so in a way that frames historical periods or issues or trends. And he's got a real commitment to showing films that need another look."
Peter Conheim, who collaborated with Seid on PFA shows over the years, notes how Seid approaches film curation with a deconstructionist's eye. “He’s a very wise and clever curator who is also a rabble-rouser,” Conheim says, “and he’s sort of looking under the surface. He’ll subvert the forms of the shows themselves, and the audience’s expectations.
“I think some curators are much more inclined to put on an easily recognizable type of show," Conheim adds, "and he’s more willing to break the wall down and do crazy stuff, all with a sense of humor."
To wit, Conheim cites the 10th anniversary celebration of The Saddest Music in the World, by Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin. “The film centers on a beer-jingle writing contest in frigid Winnipeg in the middle of winter," he says, "and at one point beer is consumed from a giant glass leg. So we had a glass leg outside and people were able to drink beer out of it.”
Conheim also recalls Seid convincing a Berkeley sound company to recreate Universal’s earth-shaking but less-than-earth-shattering Sensurround technology, which rattled seats during a handful of disaster-suspense films in the 1970s.
“They brought in subwoofers for the film Rollercoaster in a sort of faux Sensurround," Conheim says of the PFA event. "It shook the building."
That 2004 series, called Exploit-O-Scope, remains one of Seid's favorites.
“I found all these films that had gimmicks, and then I recreated the gimmick,” he says. The program included John Waters’ Polyester in "Odorama"—audiences could partake of 10 scratch-and-sniff scents—and Ray Dennis Steckler's The Maniacs are Loose in “Hallucinogenic Hypno-Vision.”
“Originally, (Steckler) said live axe murderers were in the theater, so I had myself and another person running around with axes," says Seid. “Part of the job was to remind people that cinema really came out of vaudeville. Most of the early theaters were actually vaudeville theaters that they then equipped to see cinema, and you might see a movie, and then the juggler or ventriloquist would come out.”
The Digital Controversy
Seid is leaving PFA at what he calls a "pivotal time" in the distribution and archiving of movies.
A new era in that admixture of art and commerce we call the movies began in earnest in 2014, when the word “film” became an anachronistic term to describe what the public sees in theaters. Last year was the first in which the studios stopped shipping film prints and insisted all movie houses be outfitted with digital projection equipment. The digital tsunami hasn't just affected new releases—retro houses and archives like BAM/PFA, which make heavy use of the studios' back catalogues, have also been forced to exhibit in the new format as studios have been much more hesitant to lend film prints. Yet, Seid says, studios have also been slow to convert less-popular but important works from film to digital, leaving such titles unavailable altogether.
“The major distributors are not really interested in making (film-based) materials available in the way they used to,” says Seid. “They really want people to move over to digital media. So there’s a gap right now where most of the good work is to be found on film, which they also don’t want to lend, and there are very few substitutes. Maybe in five years they will have caught up, and there will be hundreds or thousands more films that have been converted to digital. But right now it’s kind of a problematic moment.”
While the superannuation of real, honest-to-goodness film has gone unmourned by the moviegoing public, some film purists view it as an aesthetic distortion of the way films were meant to be seen. Seid says a vocal minority of the BAM/PFA audience has voiced displeasure at his willingness to show movies digitally.
“Literally, when we got our digital projector, there were several people who said, 'If you’re going to be showing films on digital, I’m not coming anymore.' Some of them left and some of them have slowly come back, because I think they realize we show film when we can, and digital isn’t some Satanic thing.”
Seid said some curators flat-out won’t show digitally projected movies, but that he has been less “parochial” about it. The Billy Wilder series, for instance, is a mix of Digital Cinema Packages (the industry term for digitally projected movies) and film.
“With the Billy Wilder show, some of the distributors have the films on DCP, and they have some of the titles on 35 mm. But often they'll say 'We have this new digital transfer on DCP, or you can get this beat-up old print.' So then you have to make that decision about the authenticity of the materials versus trying to control the quality of the experience in a different way.”
The Show That Got Away
Seid, 66, plans to use his newly freed-up time to write about Ant Farm, the San Francisco art collective who in 1975 marked July 4th by driving a Cadillac through a wall of burning TV sets at the Cow Palace. Aside from having a deep knowledge of narrative films, Seid's also a well-known specialist on video art, curating shows on the subject at both PFA and Berkeley Art Museum galleries, says his former boss, Susan Oxtoby.
Is there any curation he would have liked to do, but didn't?
“I have wanted to do a history of erotic films," Seid says. "That seems to be unaddressed, even though year by year and decade by decade we’re flooded with sexuality. You can go all the way back to the silent period and see erotic films. It was a kind of underground from the very beginning. I went to a film festival in Mexico one year and one of the most starling programs I saw was from the Filmoteca, one of the natonal archives in Mexico City. They brought a bunch of silent pornography and it was amazing to see.
"But it’s sometimes difficult to get access to that material," Seid explains, "and I never quite found the right shape for it. A series like that, I wouldn’t want to do in a clumsy fashion because it’s going to be controversial.”
One question he implies that he's asked frequently: After researching, promoting and watching so many movies, what's his favorite?
"When people ask me that I often just say Mean Streets. I don’t think I’ve ever shown it. I just adore those kind of small films with huge ambitions."
And, judging by his career, a lot of others, too.