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Buffalo Film Seminars: A community ‘scene,’ as well as a class

Try getting a parking spot around 7 p.m. Tuesday nights during the semester near the Amherst Dipson Theatre across from the South Campus. Sure, there are spots a short walk away near the UPS Store and Jimmy John’s sandwiches. But near the site of the latest showing in the Buffalo Film Seminars, forget it.

The Buffalo Film Seminars faithful — or the “flock” or the “groupies” as some call themselves — already have arrived.

For the past 16 years — 32 consecutive semesters — UB English professors Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian, who are married, host what has become a tradition of film screenings and discussions, attracting a community following that joins students enrolled in English 438 “Film Directors.” The series has been popular since it began in 2000. But this year, on those cold, dark, otherwise unremarkable and sleepy Tuesday nights, the Buffalo Film Seminars is booming.

The vintage Amherst Theater lobby is packed and noisy. The line waiting to get a ticket for the latest show — tonight’s feature is the Hitchcock classic “Notorious” — fills the waiting area and stretches to the doors. Regulars greet each other with hugs and smiles. Conscientious movie employees gallantly try to accommodate the crowds, trying to make themselves heard over the buzz of patrons.

“It’s easier to get Stones tickets,” jokes Jody Stark, one self-described “groupie” waiting to enter the long hallway leading to the theater.

The Buffalo Film Seminars — the brainchild of these two venerable and loved UB professors — is now a happening, a gathering spot for the class of 32 enrolled in ENG 438, along with four or five times as many followers.

Christian, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of English, and Jackson, SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture in the English department, seem more like beloved party hosts than remote university lecturers. In understated fashion, Jackson admits the series is enjoying “a growing awareness.”

“The evening begins in the lobby,” says Jackson. “One of the things I often point out is in a classic movie theater you don’t go directly into the theater. You come off the street into a lobby and then maybe go down a corridor to a door to the screening room. And that’s the case here. It’s kind of a psychological transition coming into the place. It’s a different mind place.”

“A growing awareness” seems insufficient to describe the energy and chemistry of this edition of the seminars. Tuesday nights at the Amherst are happenings, events. It’s like a big party going on — what used to be called “a scene” — all around these classic films and the people they attract. Before the start of “Notorious,” Jackson jumped behind the counter to help general manager Rich DiSalvo as he tried to accommodate the overflow crowd waiting to get into the theater.

At the door where tickets were collected stood the striking presence of statuesque Andi Coulter, the 6-foot-tall teaching assistant for the film seminars, who handles the microphone for questions from the audience in the post-film discussion. Coulter calls herself the Vanna White of the Buffalo Film Seminars and dresses to suit the movies.

“I am thinking of starting a BFS Instagram f0r pictures of the talks and maybe my sartorial choices,” says Coulter, who says she moved back to Buffalo from Washington, D.C., to be a part of the series. “Forties film noir is my favorite period to wear.”

Coulter joins Christian — a former nun — who also chooses her wardrobe for the evening based on the films.

“I never acknowledged dressing for the film for the first 14 years,” says Christian. “Probably comes from Catholic liturgical imprint. It marks a livingness to the scene.”

One more thing: Tuesdays are bargain days at the theater. Popcorn and drinks are half-price, about what you would pay at a convenience store.

Those early or lucky enough to get tickets walk down the long theater corridor with its black carpeted walls and red overhead lights to that big, beautiful throwback movie screen. They sit in the recently installed reclining seats reading the now-famous “goldenrod handouts” giving students and the “flock” copious notes on the film, actors and director, providing such background as awards and film credits.

This allows Christian and Jackson time to devote the pre- and post-film discussion to more integrated subjects. They introduce what could be Hitchcock’s most famous film. Eventually the lights go down, and on that massive screen appears a well-defined, way-larger-than-life image of Ingrid Bergman walking into a courtroom wearing a hat and defining the word “star power” and the timeless power of beauty.

There is a synergy in the Amherst Theater. It’s a place where young people taking ENG 438 mix with retired UB administrators, such as SUNY Distinguished Service Professor Claude Welch, or retired U.S. congressman John J. LaFalce. It’s where the university’s academic state of mind merges with the community. Coulter calls it a “town hall of art,” a place where “worlds can converge in wonderful and productive ways.”

It’s also an unmistakable attraction for a Buffalo resurgence. Buffalo residents can take visitors there for an evening of fun and education, all revolving around a love and appreciation of proven film art. It’s like something out of Greenwich Village, just a lot less expensive.

And the only thing as great as the BFS faithful’s love and appreciation of film is their love and appreciation of Jackson and Christian. They go to great lengths, waxing poetic to show the depth of that appreciation. When told of this story, many of them sent detailed and emotional emails on why the Buffalo Film Seminars matter to them:

  • “The discussions after the screenings never fail to enlighten and provoke reflection. I sometimes find myself thinking about the film and accompanying commentary and discussion for days after the screening,” wrote Leslie Boldt, professor in the Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures Department at Brock University in Ontario.
  • “I used to wish that someone would have taped their presentations for future students to enjoy,” wrote Robert Mampe, a retired engineer with an English literature degree. “But it would have taken away from the fact I was privileged to see something live of such quality, never to be rebroadcast. Since that first time, I’ve seen more than 150 films in the series.”
  • “I think the world of Diane and Bruce’s series,” wrote LaFalce, who says he goes about twice a month — “not often enough.” “Primarily because it gives you an opportunity to hear their perspective on the movies. There are so few discussions we have with other members of our society. That type of mental interaction and social dynamic is important.”
  • “Of course, Bruce and Diane are not just real film lovers. They are filmmakers, absolutely committed to the integrity of the medium,” says Barbara Bono, UB associate professor of English and a Shakespearean scholar. “They insisted on quality prints in authentic formats (for the longest time reel-to-reel) on the big screen for the real experience and they had the energy, the know-how, the backers and the resources of their own money as SUNY Distinguished Professors to make it happen.”
  • “Bruce and Diane are Buffalo treasures,” wrote Roger Herle, catering manager at Canisius College. “I cannot imagine the series without them. I am not a student, rather just a middle-age guy who likes films. They have educated me, amused me and made me think deeply about film, education and myself. As teachers, I know their focus is students. However, they have to be aware of the ‘regular joes’ who frequent the films and walk away with a better grasp of cinema. “Besides … I’ve always had a little crush on Diane.”
  • “I was a student in Diane’s class many years ago while in the honors program at UB,” wrote Helen Cappuccino, assistant professor of oncology at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. “Over the years I’ve enjoyed returning to hear Diane and Bruce discuss the films in the film seminars and have also enjoyed the lively discussions among community members and students on Tuesday nights.”

Bruce and Diane’s top 10

Ten notable films and their pivitol scenes

Orson Welles, 1941, Citizen Kane

Breakfast montage: the history of a degenerating marriage in a few, very brief tableaux. A masterpiece of writing, filming, editing and acting.

William Wellman, 1931, The Public Enemy

Grapefruit scene: James Cagney at his volatile villainous best in an iconic scene from one of the greatest of the early gangster films.

Leni Riefenstahl, 1934, Triumph of the Will

Nuremberg Rally: Riefenstahl created “heroic Hitler” images. Movie magic gone deadly.

Charlie Chaplin, 1925, The Gold Rush

Thanksgiving dinner? One of the great silent comedy scenes by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

Pedro Almodóvar, 2002, Talk to Her

Raquel theme: The final scene of Talk to Her has no talk, but everything is said in Pina Bausch’s mesmerizing erotic dance and a glance.  A film that seemed to be about love forever lost becomes in those few moments one about infinite possibility.

Fred Zinnemann, 1952, High Noon

Final showdown: If any single sequence in westerns enacts the violence and gender issues undergirding the genre, it is this one. Wonderfully acted, edited and filmed, and accompanied by a musical score that has been building to this moment since the opening credits.

Ang Lee,1992, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Best fight scene: This is one of the most beautiful fight scenes ever choreographed. Utterly impossible, but utterly believable. Movie magic!

Robert Bresson, 1966, Au Hasard Balthazar

Balthazar’s death: Not a word spoken. A donkey dies from a gratuitous bullet. Sheep surround and seem to bless him at his death. Audiences come to this film thinking, “What can be interesting about a donkey?” After the fadeout at the end of this scene, the room is silent because everybody is crying.

Francis Ford Coppola, 1976, The Godfather Part II

Final scene: Godfather I and II comprised the great screen epic of the 1990s, and both endure. Coppola’s end of Part II recapitulates all that has come before, reminds us of all that has been lost, and then shows the loss in the dark, solitary, motionless figure of Michael Corleone at his Tahoe house. He’s won everything, but has nothing.

Baz Luhrmann, 2013, The Great Gatsby

“I’m Gatsby:” There had been three previous attempts to film F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great novel; all of them failed because the makers of the early three never realized that the novel is reflective and romantic, and none of them figured out what to do with Nick or how to display Jay Gatsby. Luhrmann figured it all out: His film is over the top in every regard and this scene in which Gatsby introduces himself to Nick with fireworks in the background and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue filling the soundtrack shows how he did it. It’s audacious, absurd and it works.

Instructors and audience members talk about the stories that become Buffalo Film Seminars folklore.

In September 2001, the late Don Shack, former chair of UB’s math department, was scheduled to meet with his broker in the World Trade Center. But he canceled the meeting there to get back to Buffalo to watch “Little Caesar” showing that Tuesday as part of the seminars.

“He didn’t have that meeting with his broker, who died in the Trade Center tower that day,” Jackson recalls. “He came back, and we let the movie run that night. But we cancelled class. He was there. There was only one other person there that night. But he figured that movie saved his life.”

There was also a father and son who were regulars. They both came for several years, Jackson says.

“His son told me his father couldn’t see any more, but his father still kept coming,” Jackson says. “His father liked listening to the music. He liked the talk. Then the father died. So now the son still comes.”

And so it goes with the Buffalo Film Seminars, which as that typical Tuesday night showed, is just hitting its stride.

“We love it that people enjoy the films and the conversation,” Jackson says.  “We’re teachers and that’s what we love to do: engage people in conversation about things that matter. But there is something more to the Buffalo Film Seminars: We’re students there, too.

“I can’t tell you how much we’ve learned preparing for the screenings, engaging in the  exchanges with the audience, then going home and continuing the conversation at our kitchen table for a few hours more. I’ve been at UB almost 50 years, but I cannot think of a course I’ve taught, or took previously, in which I’ve learned so much. And we’ve made a lot of real friends.”

When asked what makes a good movie, Christian doesn’t hesitate.

“Art,” she says.

Then she quotes Thomas Aquinas’ definition of beauty: quod visum placet — that which being seen pleases.

“We want them to be moved by these films,” she says. “We desperately want them to love them.”

By Charles Anzalone