Visconti Goes to the Midwest. An Interview with David Filipi (Wexner Center for the Arts)
The Wexner Center for the Arts opened in Columbus, Ohio in 1989. It is considered to be The Ohio State University’s “multidisciplinary, international laboratory for the exploration and advancement of contemporary art”. Through the organization of exhibitions, screenings, performances and education programs, the Wexner is crucial to the cultural life of the university and, of course, of the local communities in Columbus. The Center has also an important Film Department, well known for screening contemporary independent films and European art cinema from the past. When I was in Columbus in January 2019, the Wexner hosted a retrospective on “Early Visconti”, including a variety of films from Ossessione to The Leopard. I met the Director of the Film Department, David Filipi, at his office on the morning of January 18, and asked him a few questions about the active role of the Wexner in the promotion of Italian cinema in the U.S.
What is the main role of the Film Department at the Wexner Center?
As a contemporary art center, we try to focus on supporting and presenting living and working artists. We actually have a section in our Department, that most people don’t know, that supports up to 25 working filmmakers a year in post-production: we help them with editing, color correction, make sound, and things like that. We also try to bring here many visiting filmmakers, scholars and historians throughout the course of the year. For lack of a better word, we try to focus on art cinema. We don’t show things that people can see anywhere else, and we try to focus on things that if we don’t show, no one else is going to show. That includes documentaries, films from all over the world, American independent films, experimental films, and of course we do show a healthy amount of repertory cinema.
And what about the relationship between the Wexner Center with The Ohio State University? Do you usually screen movies related to Film Studies programs or you are totally independent in the organization of your programming?
We are in a university campus, and for film students, or any other students, Wexner should be a place where they can go and learn about the history of film. I think that is important to have a place where they can see the films of Visconti, or of other great directors, in an ideal atmosphere, on either film or in a very high-quality digital version, on a big screen, in a nice theatre, and so on. As far as our connection to the university, we definitely do not show films from film class syllabus. Having said that, though, we do have a number of strong relationships with individual professors on campus. Occasionally, if someone will reach out with enough notice, saying that he/she is teaching a specific film, we’re able to make accommodations. At the same time, if we know someone is teaching something on a given topic, such as documentary or experimental films, we are going to do something similar in any way that fits in what that professor is teaching.
What about the current role of Wexner Center in the continuing promotion of European art cinema in the U.S.? Who are your privileged stakeholders in the theatrical distribution process?
The way in which films are distributed now is so different than even ten or fifteen years ago. Largely we are still really dependent on American distributors. Say we find a film, be it Chinese or Italian, that maybe one of us saw at a festival and really like it, but no American distributor picks it up: it’s very unlikely that we are going to show that film. Occasionally it happens, but not very often. There are bigger distributors, even in art cinema, like Sony Picture Classics or Fox Searchlights, and we for the most are never going to show their films, because they are always shown commercially. If we have to arrange a director coming here, we’ll maybe end up showing one of those films. You could say that we deal the most with the next tear down: Kino Lorber, Zeitgeist Film, Janus Films, Rialto (for classic films), and so on. This is the level of distributors we tend to deal with.
Within the catalogues of the independent distributors you’ve already mentioned, how do you decide which films you want to pick up for screenings?
Usually, we tend to try to show the films that are getting a lot of attention, in terms of critical acclaim, to the festival circuit. On top of that, there are the directors that we’ve shown over the years: if they have a new film out we try to show it, even if they maybe didn’t get the best releases. For example, this weekend we are showing Shoplifters, the new Kore-eda film, and we have shown most all of his films from the very beginning, before anyone knew who he was. We try to maintain that kind of continuity too. There are also some directors that have recently become recognizable and internationally known, like Claire Denis, that are getting picked up by big distributors, and we are not able to show them anymore.
What is the main issue in organizing an art house film program in the streaming era?
Twenty years ago, the number of films being released was very manageable. Companies like Kino Lorber or Zeitgeist put out a small handful of European films, maybe three-four films a year, and you could keep up with it. And it’s so crazy right know: it seems that there are so many distributors putting out so many films, and you don’t have the time to really dig down, because there’s a lot of noise right know. And we try to keep us afloat seeing some good films at festival like Toronto and Berlin and getting them from these independent distributors.
The retrospective on Visconti that you are setting at this moment was previously organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, with the collaboration of Cinecittà Luce. What kind of political and cultural relationships do you have with institutions like these?
First of all, I would say that we have really good working relationships with the Lincoln Center, and with Luce Cinecittà as well. I think that makes it easier to do this kind of series: if someone basically has a venue in New York, whether it’s MoMA, Lincoln Center or Film Forum, it’s easier for them to organize a retrospective even because European distributors have heard of them. We have relationships with some of the European distributors as well, but not to the level that the Lincoln Center does. So, I guess, we could have tried to organize a Visconti retrospective by ourselves, but it’s just easier if someone like Lincoln Center does it first. Because what usually happens if they’re going to do a series like this — whether it’s Visconti, Magnani (we had one recently) or Fellini (there’s one coming up) — is that a place like Luce Cinecittà maybe will make new prints, digital copies, or 35 mm restorations. We do not have the type of influence to have make that happen, whereas a New York venue does.
Do you usually change anything about the original programming of classical retrospectives set by other venues?
For some series, one institution in the U.S. organizes it – doing all of the work, clearing all the legal arrangements – and then it travels all around the country as a package. Talking about the Visconti series, even if the Lincoln Center originally organized it, for the most part I (like every other venue that participates) had to go back and do it all over again. You have to contact the Italian distributors, rent the films, make individual arrangements to show the films, and so on. It’s not as easy as a traveling packages that go around, but it’s certainly helps that someone like the Lincoln Center does it at the beginning. And it helps giving publicity too: for example, when they did it, they got a big article on Vanity Fair, which was helpful promotion.
From a cultural point of view, what does it mean for you to host an “Early Visconti” retrospective, in 2019, in the U.S.?
As you noticed, we decided to show just films from the first part of Visconti’s career. We discussed this a lot, and we were not sure we would have the right audience to do a full retrospective. Then, we thought about showing films that maybe people have already heard of but hadn’t seen yet, like The Leopard, Rocco and His Brothers, etc. Most of Visconti’s later films, in fact, the casual fan has never heard of them. So this was our compromise. Visconti, in particular, is such a fascinating director, starting as a main figure in the neorealism movement, through to the end of his career. I think that it’s absolutely crucial to highlight bodies of work like these on the big screen: how could you fully appreciate The Leopard on a smartphone screen, on a computer screen, or even on a big screen television? It is not close to the same thing. Criterion made a beautiful Blu-Ray of The Leopard, but it’s a film that you have to see on a big screen! I think also that is important that people have a place to go and they can see these types of film in the way they are meant to be seen. And I also know that it’s increasingly naive to think in that way. As long as we try to make that possible, obviously Visconti is one of the great director in film history. To “film people” obviously he’s incredibly well known, but I think that even to average people who know for example Truffaut, Godard and Fellini, Visconti is not quite as well known. Especially when you talk to students and you tell them to realize what a huge influence Visconti has on great American directors as Scorsese or Coppola, then they start to get interested in him. I remember that a number of years ago, Sight and Sound did a poll on world’s critics and filmmakers, and Scorsese said that The Leopard was one of the most important films in his life. I think that things like that do definitely influence people, younger people especially, to come and see classic films.
What immediately struck me about all the screenings of this retrospective was that the theatre was quite well attended every time. You could see young people and the elderly, both scholars and general public, with a strong emotional involvement in the picture. Why do you think that Visconti could still be considered, if he could, as a topical author in 2019?
I have two answers to that. First of all, I think that a lot of older people come to see these films because they are still of the generation that used to go to movies like these, and so for them is a sort of a second nature. And of course, there were students that for class, who maybe found their way here. But I think also that the films of Visconti are universal, and as great works of art they always find a resonance in the time you are living in. Coming back to The Leopard, it’s a film on the end of an era and the beginning of another one, and you can easily connect it on what’s going on in the world right now, in the U.S. but also in many parts of Europe. You could also take a film like Ossessione, that in a way is a genre picture, and it’s amazing to consider the similarities that a film like that, for the historical moment when it was made, has with any numbers of directors from all over the world that today make crime films, thrillers, or dramas about romantic relationships. I think that’s a really interesting discussion to have, but when you sit down and watch a Visconti film it’s almost completely resonate, because it questions our very existence: what is our place in the world? What about the essence of living and dying? I strongly believe that greatest filmmakers like him are always resonate. But we also have to consider that though this Visconti series has been well attended, ten years ago it would have been double. People are staying home and streaming films, so it’s increasingly getting to be a challenge to figure out ways to get people to come and see films on a big screen.
You provide a film note, with a short review of the movie from a film journal, to every viewer before each screening in the Visconti series. Does this have an educational purpose, to help the audience to understand the issue of the film or the production context, or just to give them a critical approach?
In a way, it’s a kind of a legacy. Years and years ago, it was often part of grants that you had to provide something like that. So it’s become a sort of tradition, for decades, to give film notes to the audience. And it has evolved to the point where now we find good articles, the best reviews, ideally to provide some context, whether historical or the production of the film, that would help people to come to grips with what they have just seen. Frankly, we show a lot of films where people are coming up at the end telling us that they have no idea what that was about. At least there’s someone else take on it. Sometimes, let’s say for a younger person, you come to art films on a regular basis and you start to notice that we use lots of reviews, you might not know anything about the fact that magazines as Sight and Sound or Film Comment exists. Maybe it could be a good point of interaction.
Luchino Visconti Series (2019)
|Date of Screening||Original Title||Number of Admissions|
|Jan 10, 2019||Ossessione||52|
|Jan 12, 2019||La terra trema||19|
|Jan 13, 2019||Rocco e i suoi fratelli||45|
|Jan 17, 2019||Bellissima||56|
|Jan 23, 2019||Senso||30|
|Jan 27, 2019||Il gattopardo||57|
|Feb 2, 2019||Le notti bianche||11|
You also organize a festival on film restoration, Cinema Revival: in the program of this year you will screen the Italian silent thriller Filibus (1915, by Mauro Roncoroni) and in 2015 you screened Sandra (Vaghe stelle dell’orsa, 1965), again by Visconti. Can you say something about these two really different choices?
When it comes the program of that particular festival, we often look for films that have good stories surrounding their restoration. Sometimes there are films that are virtually unknown and there’s a good restoration story, or sometimes, when we have to get people to notice the festival, we show a really known film that may have not the most interesting story. When we get a film from the Studios, whether is Fox or Sony, they have all the material, and usually we do not have to search the globe for the best material. And then, what I usually do is to reach out to different archives, and ask them what do they have coming up for our festival. When we showed Sandra, we had Grover Crisp, the Head of restoration at Sony Pictures, as a guest curator. We started to talk about what he might want to show and he told us he was really disappointed because he’d worked hard on the restoration of Sandra, but it was not getting played very much. So that’s largely the reason why we decided to show that here. With Fillibus it was quite different. The film has several interesting parts, some people say that it’s the first picture with a lesbian character in film history — but I’m not absolutely sure about that. But the cross-dressings, the super-hero aspect, the flying ships, and all things like that make it so crazy for that time period! I think that the current success of the super-hero genre today could lead to revived attention on this film. The people that are distributing this film, Milestone, are long-time friends of the Wexner, and they were very keen to have that shown. So we decided to get it.
More in general, what kind of role has Italian cinema in your recent programming?
Traditionally, when audiences come here for films from other countries, I would say that France is first and Italy second. I would say that American people usually know the big names of Italian and French cinemas very well, so for us is it a good opportunity to show French and Italian films quite frequently. A couple of years ago, for example, we showed a Mastroianni and Fellini’s film, City of Women. It wasn’t part of any series, we just knew that there was a new restoration of it, and then we showed it. Recently, we also showed Fire at Sea, a very important documentary, that we screened just because in our opinion was an interesting film. We have shown lots of single Italian films during the past 9 years, but among the series on Italian cinema I could mention a retrospective on Anna Magnani organized in 2017, one on Monicelli in 2015 and one on Pasolini in 2014, which was combined with a couple of lectures by important scholars including Derek Duncan and Louis-Georges Schwartz. In 2013 we also had Isabella Rossellini in a conversation with Guy Maddin: she said she would have come if we paid tribute to her father and mother, and so for the occasion we showed Europa ’51. Moreover, sometimes in summer we do series that are a little bit broader, and in 2010 we had one named “Cinema italiano”, where we showed classic films of Fellini, Visconti, Antonioni, Bertolucci, De Sica, but also contemporary films as I Am Love by Guadagnino and Mid-August Lunch by Di Gregorio.
Anna Magnani Series (2017)
|Screening Date||Original Title||Number of Admissions|
|Jan 12, 2017||Roma città aperta + L'Amore||76|
|Jan 17, 2017||Vulcano||23|
|Jan 19, 2017||Bellissima + Campo de' fiori||44|
|Jan 26, 2017||Teresa Venerdì + Nella città l'inferno||33|
|Jan 29, 2017||Abbasso la miseria! + Abbasso la ricchezza!||39|
Mario Monicelli Series (2015)
|Screening Date||Original Title||Number of Admissions|
|Feb 5, 2015||I compagni||30|
|Feb 10, 2015||La grande guerra||31|
|Feb 13, 2015||I soliti ignoti + Risate di gioia||37|
|Feb 17, 2015||L'armata Brancaleone||18|
|Feb 19, 2015||Caro Michele||17|
Pier Paolo Pasolini Series (2014)
|Screening Date||Original Title||Number of Admissions|
|Jan 9, 2014||Uccellacci e Uccellini + Porcile||47|
|Jan 10, 2014||Il Vangelo secondo Matteo||65|
|Jan 14, 2014||Il Decameron + La sequenza del fiore di carta||55|
|Jan 17, 2014||Mamma Roma||50|
|Jan 17, 2014||Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma||81|
|Jan 21, 2014||I racconti di Canterbury + La terra vista dalla luna||33|
|Jan 23, 2014||Accattone + La rabbia||32|
|Feb 6, 2014||La ricotta + Edipo re||24|
|Feb 13, 2014||Medea||55|
|Feb 18, 2014||Il fiore delle mille e una notte||16|
|Feb 25, 2014||Comizi d'amore + Appunti per un'orestiade africana||32|
Is there any specificity in the organization of an Italian series?
I would say yes, but let’s take the ideal case of Rialto or Janus releasing a classic Italian film. If they are releasing L’Avventura, and we book it from them, we could pay around three-hundred dollars, and we are able to show it. But if we try to get a film directly from Italy that has not a U.S. circulation yet, it’s almost impossible for us. Frankly, Italian and many European distributors can sometimes be difficult to deal with in terms of rental fees. For instance, when we did the Pasolini retrospective in 2014, one of my favorite of his films – Teorema – was the only one of Pasolini’s entire career that we weren’t able to show. This was because the Italian distributor wanted almost $2000 to show the film, just one time! Usually you can negotiate the price, but this person in particular was inflexible. And unfortunately we just couldn’t show it. We do only occasionally book directly from Italian distributors or producers, because it is usually more expensive. If we are showing a film just for one time, with a fifty-sixty people audience, and no one else is sharing expense from other venues, you have to pay the shipping, the rights on your own, and so on, so you have to find a good balance.
Cinema Italiano Series (2010)
|Screening Date||Original Title||Number of Admissions|
|July 1, 2010||La dolce vita||193|
|July 8, 2010||Morte a Venezia + La signora di tutti||122|
|July 9, 2010||Pranzo di Ferragosto||115|
|July 10, 2010||Pranzo di Ferragosto||104|
|July 15, 2010||Umberto D||72|
|July 16, 2010||Io sono l'amore||250|
|July 17, 2010||Io sono l'amore||235|
|July 22, 2010||Zabriskie Point + Il posto||69|
|July 29, 2010||Il conformista + Mafioso||103|
|Aug 5, 2010||Amarcord + Divorzio all'italiana||117|
|Aug 12, 2010||Le amiche + Blow-Up||113|
|Aug 19, 2010||Ladri di biciclette||105|
|Aug 20, 2010||La legge||29|
|Aug 21, 2010||La legge||35|
You also do a great job in the distribution of contemporary independent cinema. Considering the traditional success of Italian cinema in the U.S., Italian films seem recently to have a hard time finding their way onto American screens. Why do you think it is harder now to distribute an Italian film in the U.S.?
I don’t think it’s harder to distribute an Italian film than a French film or a Japanese film. The summer when we did the “Cinema italiano” series, we did a lot of research on contemporary Italian cinema. It was almost ten years ago, at the time when Guadagnino’s I Am Love and Garrone’s Gomorrah came out. There were lot of interesting contemporary Italian films being produced and released, getting noticed at international film festivals and also a good U.S. distribution. A few years later, I think that these opportunities have subsided. I don’t know why, and I don’t much understand the international distribution problems of Italian film industry. But I think that a lot of different European countries have the same problems: big arthouse films that fit for the international markets, and popular films that are good for their own countries. I think that the right films have to be made, and it is more because of a matter of circumstances, mostly related to national cinemas: Sorrentino and Garrone, for example, are getting shown and well-distributed in the U.S., and they get also attention at the festivals.
Do you think that a fascination with Italian cinema of the past affects in some ways the U.S. reception of contemporary Italian films?
I think that now there are names of certain French filmmakers that resonate more than the Italian ones, and French cinema has a similar story to Italian cinema in terms of their historical distribution in the U.S. I don’t think there is any predisposition that people have based on post-war Italian cinema. Maybe, many contemporary Italian films are not able to play on the notion of the “romance of being in Italy”, like the classic Italian directors did. And in fact, you do see lots of British films and American films shot in Italy, in Tuscany or whatever, taking this idea. At the same time, several British films are made for American audiences: maybe they are popular in the U.K. as well, but they are also made for the U.S. audience because they can play on the fascination with British culture. Let’s say that there should be more Italian films on making cheese and rolling hills! Americans go crazy for these films, and I think that Italian cinema could take advantage of this fascination with what we could call the “romantic pictures of Italy”.