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Interview with Philippe Spurrell – Cinéclub Film Society in Montreal

Before I headed back home to Manchester, I managed to meet up with Philippe Spurrell and ask him a few questions. You’ll be able to hear more from the interview and more about the Cinéclub Film Society in Montreal on the upcoming Cinemanation Podcast from Monday 22nd June.


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I’m drinking coffee in the kitchen. A man points a rifle at my head, and adjacent to him, fierce dinosaurs are attacking a submarine. “I have so many of these vintage movie posters. The frames are from a drive-in movie theatre, and they have these slots at the top, so you can easily just slip in a new poster, so each month I change them.” Philippe Spurrell, programmer and founder at Cinéclub Film Society in Montreal, is seated opposite me in one of four plush velvet cinema seats, threatening to make a dent in his homemade chocolate cake. I wolfed mine down within seconds, but he is taking his time, distracted by new tangents in our conversation. Suddenly he’s talking about Technicolor film, since he’s thing of doing a special tribute screening as part of Scalarama in September.

“I’m big on observing anniversaries of things – I feel it adds another dimension to the event. This year happens to be the 100th anniversary of Technicolor – it started in 1915 with its two-strip process and evolved into its 3-strip process. We might do a tribute to Technicolor by screening 35mm and 16mm films that came out of technicolour labs –  not a simulation of it, but the actual film prints from the era.”

 I ask him, what’s special about Technicolor?

 “If you’re sitting in a theatre and watching a genuine print, it just feels different, the colours have this incredible vibrancy to them that can’t quite be emulated digitally. How it differs primarily is that it incorporates dyes, the film is actually dyed, as opposed to layers of colour, which potentially  – particularly with older Eastman Kodak stocks, will almost invariably fade to red, whereas the Technicolor, even if the print was struck in the 1940s, will still retain 100% of its beautiful vibrant colour. It’s really one of those things that you have to experience – as light beams shot through technicolor celluloid and those beams of light reflecting back off the screen. You have to see it to realise what it is.”

Philippe is obsessively passionate about the medium of film, but equally he is no format snob, and has a pretty impressive collection of VHS and Laserdiscs to complement the film society’s vast 35mm and 16mm archive. He also owns Planet of the Apes on pretty much every possible moving image format, from 8mm to Bluray (and even a weird short-lived ‘video disc’ format)

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The Cinéclub Film Society has been showing films in their original format for 25 years, with their programmes spanning all genres and decades. At their current home is the DeSeve Cinema at Concordia University I was lucky enough to catch a Universal horror double bill (Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Black Cat – an excellent Lugosi / Karloff film), and watch a young Sean Penn in James Foley’s 1985 crime drama At Close Range. I also got along to their bi-annual silent film event in a gothic church – a 16mm screening of Thief of Bagdad (1924) with a fantastic live score and a belly dancer.

Whilst Philippe co-ordinates the programming and promotion, the events themselves are well staffed by volunteers, working as ushers, box office, and selling home-made pastries and coffee at the intervals (these can be the difference between breaking even on an event or making a loss). It’s clear that a lot of work goes into each event.

“I think whether it’s a festival or a repertory cinema, I think you have to have a lot of skill sets, and you have to really believe in what you’re doing. The area I find I put most of my effort is promotion. You can have the most wonderful thing, but if people don’t hear about it repeatedly, then they’re just not going to show up. You can’t expect people to just telepathically get that your event is the most fantastic thing and that they should skip Netflix for a night. They need to see it, that it’s out there, on link to an event page, a poster on a lamppost somewhere, or somebody handed them a postcard sized flyer at an event.  At the event last weekend we had a fantastic turnout, but behind that is many hours spent promoting trying to get that crowd in.”

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“It’s getting people to be motivated beyond consuming a film”

As anyone who puts on events knows, showing a film is hard work, but showing an older, less well known film is doubly hard. Cinéclub do a lot of work not only to promote the event but also to educate people about the films, which many people may not have seen before.

 “One girl said what convinced her to finally go was one of the Facebook posts about the person who created the creature’s costume in Creature from the Black Lagoon, which was a woman. It was often attributed to some man who did other minor make up effects in the movie and she was kind of hidden in the shadows, and it finally came out that she was the one who designed and created this monster. I could have saved that for the lecture just before the film screening, but I decided I’m going to post it on Facebook with tonnes of pictures of her. This girl said that’s what convinced her to go see the screening. Going was a gesture more than “I’m going out to see this movie”, it became “I’m going out to pay tribute to this wonderful woman who’s finally recognised as being the creator of this thing”. So it’s getting people to be motivated beyond consuming a film. They need to be motivated to feel “I’m participating in a happening – my presence there matters to others” because it’s a collective experience. That’s where you get people off the fence. 

creature from the black lagoon Millicent Patrick

The film society occasionally tours a funded programme of silent film, but beyond that, its regular screening program at Concordia is unfunded other than discounted rates through Concordia University’s cinema department. This means that for each event it’s a fine line between profit and loss. Sometimes an event will be sponsored, covering the cost of the film license (the sponsor gets to choose a film from the archive, and gets 6 free tickets, plus coffee and pastries), but still there is the hire of the venue and promotion to factor in. Twice a year they do a fundraiser – big silent film events with a live scores, which helps to bring people back into the fold and also generate money for the next season. Like most independent events organisations, they have a few approaches, but ultimately they rely on people coming and handing over their hard earned cash for a (very reasonably priced) ticket. The challenge is to make that case week in week out.

Philippe is emphatic about the impact that audiences have in shaping, or at least sustaining culture, by voting with their feet. It makes me think of Scalarama’s VOTE CINEMA provocation.

 “On a cultural level, the normal way that popular arts events get funded, at least here in Canada, is government funding – so you have a committee that decide. Those funding bodies take peoples tax dollars and spend them as they see fit. They’re representatives of the public. I believe when you vote for something, with your dollars, that’s a serious vote. If you can support an organisation with the money that’s coming right out of your pocket, that’s more direct than relying on some disconnected funding body to fund the events and the art that you see out there. It’s a more direct way – it’s kind of the Indie gogo thing but a bit more immediate!” Whether it involved money or not, even if it’s a free event… that night you could sit on the couch doing your Netflix thing re-watching Breaking Bad, or you could say “this seems amazing, we’ve got to go check this out”. Your presence is part of the event, and you’re encouraging the organisers to continue doing the same thing”.

Montreal also boasts several speciality film festivals which are surprisingly popular, often selling out. You have a festival devoted strictly to films about Art (La Festival International Film Sur L’Art), a documentary festival RIDM (Rendezvous of International Documentary film in Montreal) , and Festival du Nouveau Cinema, showcasing art-house and cutting edge technologies, redefining what cinema is. Downtown during summer you can also catch outdoor screenings in the Place de la Paix (“peace park”), hosted by SAT (Society for Art and Technology), and curated by various film groups across the city. One event that stands out is Back to the Future, chosen by SPASM Festival since the square is also a recently legalised skate zone, which should bring an interesting edge to Marty McFly’s board antics. Cinéclub Film Society will be there in July screening the Montreal-made teen B-movie, Pinball Summer (1980).

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Phil is also developing a Méliès-inspired event for Montreal’s Fantasia Festival in July, screening some of his shorts on 16mm, interspersed with appearances by a live magician in early 20th Cenutry costume performing magic tricks and “acts of mentalism”. Fantasia (July 14th – August 5th) is one of the highlights in the Montreal film calendar. The festival began in 1996 and has grown from a love of obscure Asian cinema to grow into North America’s biggest genre festival, showcasing  fantasy, science-fiction, horror and anime from most countries.

“It’s the best attended film festival in Montreal and the festival where the audience is the most enthusiastic. The film-makers who come are blown away by the reaction. The audience really gets excited… they become part of the experience.”

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It’s a pretty rich film scene, and this is also reflected in the films coming out of the city as well as those coming in:

“Montreal, more than most cities internationally, is very film-centic – particularly because in the national context, you have french-speaking Quebec, which has its own identity and its own cinema. By far the best films coming out of the entire country are actually from here – the French language Québécois productions. You have directors like Jean-Marc Valée and Denis Villeneuve – and what’s interesting is that a lot of these guys are being picked up by Hollywood – Villeneuve, who did a film called Les Incendies, he’s going to be directing the next Blade Runner, and he’s this local guy from here.”

As a city, Montreal does seem to have it all in regards to film culture – film-makers, cinemas, festivals. Philippe still feels there is room for more variety in terms of the scale and function of exhibition venues:

“That’s the one thing that’s lacking I think – venues where you can get your work shown affordably. A filmmaker that has made a short film or a very low budget indie feature film, renting a venue and screening their work, publicising it, telling people “my film is playing at this venue this week, please come and see it” – you still have to do a deal with a distributor, unless you’ll spend some serious money trying to get a place like the Cinéma du Parc or the Excentris to screen the film. “

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I can see the parallels with (the majority of) UK cities, and by contrast, the vital roles that cinemas like Cube and Star and Shadow play.  It seems no coincidence that Philippe owns a copy of ‘Berliner Kinos’ – a terrific book which is a guide to 20 of Berlin’s best small independent cinema spaces (there are many more, it must be said). As we flip through the pages, I can sense the cogs turning in Phil’s head. I refresh my memory on the amazing interiors of the Lichtblick Kino, with its 4 seats per row, or the innovative brick-built raked seating of the Sputnik.

Looking ahead to the autumn, Philippe is taking inspiration from another German innovator for his next live score fundraising event in October:

“we’ll be presenting a double bill of Vampyr by Carl Dreyer, preceded by the 1920 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde starring John Barrymore, and we’re going to be incorporating the church organ for both of these. We’re looking forward to that!”

 

I can’t wait to see what desserts he creates for that double bill.

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