"If you show it, they will come." That's been Tom Yoshikami's experience with Rooftop Cinema at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art over the last couple of years. The UW-Madison grad student who has helped program the Wisconsin Film Festival and UW Cinematheque in recent years launched a summer series of outdoor film screenings on the roof of the downtown museum shortly after its 2006 opening. The response was immediate and enthusiastic, with capacity crowds viewing a variety of short experimental and avant-garde films under the stars both that summer and last.
"I think that the rooftop sculpture garden is the major attraction, and in some sense the films take second billing to the setting," explains Yoshikami. "I also think I'm getting a better sense of what works and what doesn't -- there were some films last year that I loved though the audience maybe wasn't so keen on them. I had at least ten people come up to me after one screening last year to tell me that they either loved or hated the films. I guess you can't please everybody all the time."
This year he is shaking up its format a bit. Though the series "Chain Reactions" and "Comic Timing" will open and close this summer's screenings, the programming will also see two firsts for Rooftop Cinema. The second week features the directorial retrospective "The Films of Helen Hill," while the third presents the feature-length film Sans Soleil. Aside from this final film, the selections run from only a few to as much as 30 minutes in length, and were created for the most part over the last three decade by American and British filmmakers.
Tom Yoshikami recently spoke with The Daily Page in an email interview about this junior year for Rooftop Cinema at MMoCA, discussing this year's programming and his hopes for its future.
The Daily Page: Will Rooftop Cinema have the same setup and format for its third year? Are there any big changes?
Yoshikami: Yes and no. All of the films this year will be on 16mm, which is a bit of a change from last year when we showed several films in the digital format. But we haven't made any major changes to the visual or audio presentation.
In terms of programming, there are a couple of new things in store for our series this year this year: we'll hold our first retrospective, so to speak, of films by a single director. On our second week we'll show ten films by the wonderful animator Helen Hill. And on our third we'll show a feature film -- Chris Marker's Sans Soleil -- which is another first for Rooftop Cinema. The film is 100 minutes and I hope that people are comfortable on the roof for that long! Fortunately the film is amazing, so I don't think anybody will get antsy.
This year I've shied away from the strict thematic groupings I did in the past, but I think people will appreciate the diversity in screenings.
How did you decide on what films to screen this year?
It changes for every film. I usually start with one that I love and I need to show, and then program around it. Eric Crosby -- a fellow film studies graduate student and the programmer for the museum's Spotlight Cinema -- suggested The Way Things Go, which kicks off the series' last night. As soon as he mentioned it I knew it'd be perfect for Rooftop Cinema.
Last year we showed Chris Marker's La Jetee, which went over very well, and I thought why not try to show his feature San Soleil, which is one of my favorite films.
Then I first learned about Helen Hill from an avant-garde film listserv in January 2007, when the news broke that she'd been murdered in her house in New Orleans. For the next year or so I'd hear her name every so often and I finally got a chance to see some of her work at the Society for Cinema Studies annual conference in Philadelphia this past March. One of the archivists who helped preserve her films gave a presentation on her work and the process the Harvard Film Archive went through to preserve her films. During the screening I was moved and felt like I needed to share these films and her story with others.
As for the other programming, I do a lot of research reading and viewing films, and with more and more available on the internet, it has become easier to get a taste for titles that I've only read about.
Any connection between what was screened last year and this summer's programming?
In addition to the Chris Marker screening, the only other major connection is John Smith, a British experimental filmmaker who makes some of the funniest films I've seen. In our first year we showed his hilarious film Girl Chewing Gum, last year we showed Associations, and this year we'll show his film The Black Tower which is about a man who thinks he's being followed throughout London by an ominous tower.
The programming looks like it's pretty contemporary, with most selections dating from the last thirty years, which is newer than the last two seasons. What's different about these newer selections?
It's interesting, I've always felt like I may have shown too many films from the '70s in the past, so in some respects I tried to stay away from that decade -- I think we only have one film from the '70s in this year's lineup!
This summer features several films made in the '60s, but the majority (at least in terms of running length) are from the '80s. The only truly contemporary films on the schedule this year are Helen Hill's films. But in some respects I'm not too concerned about when any of these films are made, as many of them are making their Madison premiere at Rooftop Cinema, and I'm hoping that all of these films will be new to most of our audience.
Is it becoming more difficult to program the series, or are there still plenty of films out there that fit the bill?
No, not really. Even if we showed films every week, there'd still be plenty of films to show, especially if we show more features. That said, there are still a couple of titles I'd love to show every year if I could.
Where did you acquire this year's selection of films and videos?
A variety of places. Some come from traditional art-house distributors like New Yorker Films or Icarus Films. The Helen Hill films are from the Harvard Film Archive, which has preserved all of her extant films. Most of the others are from Canyon Cinema, which, along with the Filmmakers Distribution Co-Op, is pretty much the go-to place for 16mm film rentals.
What's your personal favorite among the titles?
That's a tough choice because the films are so different, but I'd have to go with Sans Soleil, Chris Marker's poetic film told through a series of letters from a world traveler. It's a beautiful and moving work and one of the few films that's made me want to pick up a camera and make films. That doesn't happen too often!
What do you say to people who want to see more than four weeks of Rooftop Cinema?
I'd like to see that as well. This is actually something I talk about with the museum every year, and they're certainly not opposed to it but it takes quite a bit to put on the show. Hopefully with another great season of packed houses, we'll make it a reality sooner rather than later.
The complete schedule for the third year of Rooftop Cinema follows, along with links to online previews of films screening over the four-week series:
Friday, June 6An extended version of the schedule, including descriptions of each film, is available in the related downloads at right.
- Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go) by Peter Fischli and David Weiss (Switzerland, 1987, 16mm, 30 min.)
Watch an excerpt of the film and read an interview with the filmmakers published in ArtForum.
- Homage to Jean Tinguely Homage to New York by Robert Breer (USA, 1968, 16 mm, 9.5 min.)
Read an interview with the filmmaker published in Film Culture and an introduction to his filmography, watch various short films he has created over the last four decades. More information is also available from Canyon Cinema.
Friday, June 13
The Films of Helen Hill
- Rain Dance, Vessel, World's Smallest Fair, Scratch and Crow, Tunnel of Love, Your New Pig is Down the Road, Film for Rosie, Mouseholes, Madame Winger Makes a Film: A Survival Guide to the 21st Century, and Bohemian Town by Helen Hill (USA, 1990-2004, 16 mm, approx. 60 min. total)
More information about the filmmaker is available at helenhill.org and her legacy is honored through the Helen Hill Award.
Friday, June 20
Chris Marker's Sans Soleil
- Sans Soleil (Sunless) by Chris Marker (France, 1982, 16 mm, 100 min.)
Watch an excerpt and read the complete transcript of the feature film, the first to be screened at Rooftop Cinema. More information about Marker can be found in a biographical introduction to his work as well as in an interview published in Film Comment.
Friday, June 27
- The Black Tower by John Smith (UK, 1987, 16 mm, 24 min.)
More information about the filmmaker is available in a multimedia profile provided by the LUX art agency, in an interview published in the Millennium Film Journal, and from Canyon Cinema.
- On the Marriage Broker Joke as Cited by Sigmund Freud in Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious or Can the Avant-Garde Artist Be Wholed? by Owen Land (USA, 1977-79, 16 mm, 18 min.)
More information about the filmmaker otherwise known as George Landow is available in a profile for the Reverence film touring exhibition sponsored by the LUX art agency, as well as from Canyon Cinema.
- On Dem Watermelons by Robert Nelson (USA, 1965, 16 mm, 11 min.)
More information about the filmmaker is available from Canyon Cinema.
Rooftop Cinema returns to MMoCA for the summer on Friday, June 6 for the first of four screenings each weekend through the end of the month. The films will start rolling once the skies are dark enough, which should roughly be around 9:30 p.m. Tickets will go on sale at the MMoCA lobby desk at 8:30 p.m. on the nights of the screenings, and run a mere $5, with admission free for museum members. And like in the last two years, popcorn and beverages will be on sale from Fresco. Should rain threaten, meanwhile, the screenings will be moved indoors into the MMoCA Lecture Hall on the first floor.
"Hopefully we'll be able to expand the series to beyond four nights, but we also might branch out into more features," concludes Yoshikami about the future of Rooftop Cinema. "I'd also like to screen some silent films with live musical accompaniment in the future."