American Cinematheque programmers deal with daily challenges

Putting together a film series requires enormous patience and as much selflessness as ego.

You don’t have to tell that to Gwen Deglise and Chris Desjardins (who is known as Chris D.). As the programmers of the 25-year-old American Cinematheque, they know all about the daily challenges of the job.

The two were elevated to their positions after working for Dennis Bartok, who left the Cinematheque last year after serving as its chief programmer since 1992. That happened to be around the same time the Cinematheque acquired another venue — the Aero Theater in Santa Monica — to augment its programming at the Egyptian Theater, its storied flagship on Hollywood Boulevard.

As a rule, Desjardins programs the Egyptian and Deglise the Aero, although both insist they regularly draw on the other’s expertise.

“Chris has a wonderful knowledge of American films, Japanese samurai films, British horror and genre films,” says Deglise of her colleague. “I am everything that is classic European.”

Though there’s no precise demarcation regarding which theater shows what films, the Egyptian generally screens more unusual, hipper pics. Recent series have included “The Golden Age of British Horror: 1955-1975,” “Cinemascope & Widescreen,” “Angry Young Cinema: The Original British New Wave” and a short series of erotic films under the banner “I Am Curious Swedish.” This month, long-unseen Russian fantasy and sci-fi pics dominate the lineup.

The Aero leans more toward mainstream fare. Last month, the theater presented “The Delirious Poetry of Vincente Minnelli,” “The Ballad of Bloody Sam: The Films of Sam Peckinpah” and “Teens on Screen.” A program of new Italian cinema just concluded, and the Jules Verne Adventure Festival, a mix of features and docus, is currently showing.

Audience preferences help shape Cinematheque programming, especially at the Aero.

“We originally went with the idea that it’s the Westside and we can show what we want,” Deglise says. “It’s not true. They are going for classic American, less European, well-known names.”

Even at the Egyptian, predicting what audiences want isn’t always easy.

“A lot of time, if you’re not careful, you may show stuff that’s played out,” says Desjardins, citing a Wes Craven series he programmed. “We though it would be a hit when we showed the ‘Scream’ films — with Wes Craven there — but nobody turned out.”

Desjardins says the Cinematheque’s mission is to “show all sorts of films from all over the world, obscure as well as familiar.”

He likens his job to walking a tightrope. “You have to balance the tried and true and the classics with the overlooked and underrated,” he says.

To help achieve that balance, Desjardins and Deglise often rely on outsiders. Several Spanish cultural institutions help program the ongoing Recent Spanish Cinema series, and those new Italian films at the Aero were chosen collaboratively with Cinecitta. The Cinematheque’s annual film noir series relies on noir authority Eddie Muller. And for Westerns, the Cinematheque checks in with film critic Blake Lucas.

“Even when we were four in our department,” says Deglise, “we didn’t have knowledge about everything.”

Homevideo has complicated Deglise’s and Desjardin’s job.

“The quality of DVD is much better than VHS,” says Desjardins. “And with the size of people’s TVs and the ability to create home theaters with stereo sound, people are less likely to go out and see a movie on the bigscreen, especially if it’s an older film.”

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