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Beyond pressing play: Q+A with James King of Curzon Enthusiasm

Director Andrei Tarvosky behind the camera

It’s a rare occasion when someone will truly take a recommendation to heart. We exchange tips for podcasts, documentaries, articles and playlists all the time, but holding someone’s attention for long enough for them to understand the value of the treasure you’re sharing just doesn’t happen that much.

So when you have access to a real treasure trove, like the 7000 16mm films in the BFI archive, how do you set about sharing that?

To those that don’t make a habit of heading to Curzon Soho cinema at 3pm on a Sunday, Enthusiasm may have passed you by. The repertory strand of programming is dedicated to 16mm and 35mm celluloid exhibition, and mixes short films and readings with more familiar features.

Against the pressures of franchise films and the apparent dwindling popularity of cinema for younger generations, Enthusiasm sets out on a different approach. Curating cinematic events that mix the familiar with the avant garde, the cult classic with little-known auteur works, Enthusiasm’s end result is a compelling argument for maintaining a breadth and depth of knowledge- and will perhaps remind you to turn back to that reading list. Intrigued, Run Riot called up James King, Head of Theatrical Sales at Curzon Artificial Eye to hear more about the series...

Still from Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, 1982

Run Riot: Can you tell us a bit about the Enthusiasm programme and the choice of films you've screened?

James King: The first Enthusiasm event was a Christmas screening of Fanny and Alexander, which was literally just a case of me running through the old vaults of all our 35mm prints, and realising we still had the theatrical cut. We had a look, it was in good condition, and it's one of my favourite films and obviously a Christmas film, so I thought it would be a really nice event. We got some Swedish pastries and mulled wine and had a nice Sunday afternoon with Ingmar Bergman. But I guess in a way, the genesis started a bit earlier than that last year, when we did a nationwide tour of the [Andrei] Tarkovskys which we've just produced the digital releases of.

So when I was coming up with the idea for Enthusiasm, we wanted to stick to focusing on putting on a show, screening films on film and specifically 16mm screenings because there's a wealth of 16mm films out there. There's something like 7000 16mm titles in the BFI archive and people just don't know about them really, because it's so rare. Fortunately we've got two extremely experienced projectionists, Phu [To] and Victor [Makourin] at the Curzon Soho, and they were able to go on a bit of an odyssey to find a 16mm projector in Elstree and they had to do some magic fusing wires together but we got it working and it's in great condition. And now we have access to all these shorts. With Enthusiasm, I was really keen to make sure we always preceded the feature films with a short film, and then have some kind of reading or talk or performance as well, and get back to making cinema an event, not in the ‘Event Cinema’ sense, but you know, making film the event.

Still from Kenneth Anger's Rabbit Moon, 1972

RR: So you're curating these events to incorporate a mix of something people haven't seen shown alongside something they love.

JK: Yes- some of the slightly more well-known films, like the David Lynch films, we knew that they would have an audience, but it was a case of also feeding them something slightly more experimental and with avant-garde inspiration. So before Lost Highway we showed Kenneth Anger’s Rabbit’s Moon, which is one of my favourite short films, but not really that many people are aware of him as a filmmaker even though he's probably one of the most experimental filmmakers of the Twentieth Century, at least the most influential.

And then we did Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon before Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and again I kind of can see that it probably would have made more sense to show Mulholland Drive, because that's the more obvious reference, but they were doing a digital restoration of Mulholland Drive which was going to be shown, so we decided to track down a print of Fire Walk With Me from Paris, which took a year, and kind of offered something- that was within the collective consciousness because of the Twin Peaks revival, because of the Mulholland Drive restoration, but then include something slightly more unique, and on film. We've been working a lot with James Carney, a former podcaster, who runs the Unseen Hour which is a comedy horror podcast, and he's be doing readings in character for some of the screens. So for Lost Highway and Rabbit’s Moon we got him dressed up as Pierrot the Clown from Rabbit’s Moon, doing his best Kenneth Anger impression and reading a chapter from Hollywood Babylon- Kenneth Anger's sort of poison pen message on Hollywood.

For the Twin Peaks screening we had him dressed up as David Bowie which is slightly subverting his own identity because he does a lot of introductions at the Prince Charles for Labyrinth, also dressed up as David Bowie. But this time we had him as David Bowie in a Hawaiian shirt for Fire Walk With Me, reading a chapter from Kenneth Anger's second Hollywood Babylon book, this is called Hollywood Apocalypse, and it was all about the rise of Ronald Reagan, and even though he's talking about Ronald Reagan becoming President, and how surreal that is, it also reads like he's talking about Trump, which is even weirder. So that was really good fun.

For the Son of Saul screening, it was Oscar night, and we suspected that the film would win, so rather than talking about the film because it had been widely talked about, we did a reading from a book called The Last of the Just, which is a book by André Schwarz-Bart, which is about an old, strange, Hasidic myth to do with Just Men, and even though I don't know whether the filmmaker was intending to make Saul a kind of Just Man figure, I thought it would be funny to offer an alternate reading to Saul as one of these lost, Just Men, because he's such a dehumanised, almost zombie-like character in the film.

It's not just about showing short features, it's about offering fresh insight or alternative readings as well. Our next screening is [Michelangelo] Antonioni’s Blow Up, on 35mm, but then beforehand we're going to screen a very bold sound footage film called Out Of Space by Peter Tscherkassky. Because Blow Up is about reprocessing photographs and is a sound image thriller in many ways, and what Peter Tscherkassky does, is he takes footage from a really inconsequential B-Movie from the 1940s or 1950s, and he just completely re-processes everything and turns it into this hysterical formalist horror film that's really quite stunning... And it's kind of medicine with a spoonful of sugar: Introducing people to these rare works and films whilst piggybacking them on to something they are already aware of.

Still from David Lynch's Lost Highway, 1997

RR: Do you see regulars attending every Enthusiasm, or do you think each one appeals to different people because of the films you're selecting?

JK: There are a few regulars, but I think each screening has definitely drawn in a different crowd as well. It's always nice to me when we get a younger crowd in. Something like Lost Highway, we got a really young crowd in. And I was pleasantly surprised by how many young people were willing to come to the Tarkovskys screenings, if you add some extra element, so we had Geoff Dyer to do an introduction to Stalker, and the screening completely sold out on a hot Sunday afternoon in July, and over half the audience there were under 30, and over half of them had never seen a film by Tarkovsky before, and it was just kind of really encouraging to see. There's a huge amount of debate around the death of art cinema and you know, young people not being interested in the cinematic experience, and only wanting to watch things online, and well, in my experience that's just simply not true. I think you just need to actually make the effort and offer people an event they want to go to.

RR: Is that where the title comes from?

JK: The title actually originated from the founder of Artificial Eye- a fantastic man called Andi Engel, who sadly passed away 11 years ago. He started a very esoteric film quarterly called Enthusiasm, which in itself was named after the [Dziga] Vertov movie, Enthusiasm, which was Vertov's first foray into sound filmmaking. And very political, and he was a Marxist. So we did a tribute screening so Andi actually made only one film in his entire life, a film called Melancholia on 35mm+, and Vertov's short film- it's still over an hour long- of Enthusiasm. And that was a really nice event. The first issue came out in 1975, and then issue two came out in the year 2000. And then subsequently he did five more issues, very sporadically, because he worked at his own pace. So the 25 year hiatus between issues one and two exemplifies how he works. And there's a very funny statement in the second magazine asking the subscribers to send in their new addresses because most of them are dead or have moved, but they paid these yearly subscriptions. Jason Wood, who is the artistic director for Home in Manchester, and I, have been putting together a revival issue of Enthusiasm, which we're hoping to publish next month. We're calling it Enthusiasms in the plural, just to have one removed from Andi out of respect, because Enthusiasm was his thing- but that should be a really exciting thing. It was supposed to come out in March and it's a little delayed, but I feel like it's still not 25 years off so we're doing okay!

Still from Dziga Vertov's Enthusiasm, 1931

RR: Can you tell us how it’s linked to the Enthusiasm series?

JK: It's going to focusing on new releases and interviews with directors, which was the main content from the old magazine. And sort of tirades about the state of the industry- very funny drunken editorials. They were very provocative and a thorn in the film industry's side, and we're trying to remain true to that spirit without making myself immediately unemployed and burning all the bridges, which is a challenge. And then we've focused on young writers to do articles on recent films or films we've talked about or screened in the Enthusiasm series, so that should be really fun.

RR: Aside from Enthusiasm, what would you recommend for people that want to get more into seeing films that aren't just commercial releases?

JK: The landscape has changed. My initiation of foreign language cinema came in the old days of Channel 4: my 12-year-old self thought I had stumbled across free porn with subtitles, but then I started to realise they had stories, and I started watching the films as well. And that was my initiation into foreign language cinema of the 1960s and 1970s- Tout Va Bien, and Swimming Pool even later on- nudity plus subtitles… and this was when we still had video shops. The landscape is different today. These films rarely screen on TV although Film4 are screening all of the Tarkovskys, but now we kind of look more at the DoD stuff- Curzon Cinema or Mubi are a great starting place because they have curated collections- often quite considered collections, and that's a nice way for people to delve in. And those are great spaces for people to have access to films that are rarely screened in cinemas, but the good thing about digital is you have more access to films than ever before in history. First we had video, which was a bit of a game changer, and now we just have the internet.

RR: You'd think with algorithms etc people would perhaps get stuck in a rut with what they're watching, but on the right platforms they're also given a lot more choice to branch out and stumble across something new.

JK: I think there's less choice in commercial cinema and even independent cinemas are showing Star Wars and James Bond and endless fucking tirade of Marvel Movies, I don't know how people don't get stuck in a rut with people just smashing into each other in the exact same proliferations over and over again, but we still seem to have four or five [Marvel] movies a year. But there is always an appetite for counter culture and particularly in tempestuous political times, I think people do start to reject the mainstream a bit more and do become more disillusioned and look for an alternative experience.

RR: Have you got a favourite moment where you were looking around and realised this was something that could only happen at Enthusiasm?

JK: The Lost Highway screening sold out in the big screen at Curzon Soho and that was a great experience with a huge crowd of people- we always like to thank the audience first and then the projectionists, because those guys do a huge amount of work and never get any credit. So I think it's always important to thank the projectionist. And when we thanked them, the whole audience cheered. That was a great moment- having a crowd of people that appreciate the amount of work that goes on to put these screenings. Which is just a real rarity nowadays- it does require a huge amount of labour. Phu nearly killed himself soldering wires together so he could get this beautiful monochrome sound. And it worked. So that was a really nice moment- it was about the craft of the exhibition as well as you know, pressing play on a DTP, which anyone can do nowadays.


Enthusiasm #6: Blow Up takes place on Saturday 20th May at Curzon Soho at 3pm. Tickets and more information here. Find out the latest about Curzon's Enthusiam screenings here.

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