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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

Programming in Italics: behind an ambitious Chicago film exhibit

Chicago has the good fortune of regular archival programming around the city (Siskel, Doc Films, the Music Box, Facets) but another venue’s slipping a sleek program into the Windy City mix in the cold of January. As part of The Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Italics: Italian Art between Tradition and Revolution 1968–2008,” (running until February 14), eight films will be shown in glorious 35mm, including Visconti’s The Damned, Pasolini’s Decameron, Antonioni’s The Passenger, and rarely-shown titles by Bertolucci and Rosi. Gwen Infusino, Curatorial Administrative Assistant at the MCA, worked on the series.
I first heard of the film series after running into Infusino, and even at a casual mention, it sounded ambitious. Later, we had a few exchanges about why the MCA went with this unusual extra to the larger exhibition, including the origins of her participation and what background experiences brought her to this point. It’s a few days before Sundance opens, where the conversation about seismic shifts in finance, distribution and programming with be on the tip of every other tongue. But as this specialized conversation shows, the enterprise of getting movies to audiences, even in old-fashioned 35mm, persists, if not thrives.
PRIDE: How’d it start?
INFUSINO: Back in August, Elizabeth Smith, the former Chief Curator, told me that Madeleine Grynsztejn was interested in screening films at MCA, and had suggested a film series be developed in conjunction with Italics. Elizabeth knew I had a long background in film and writing.
PRIDE: Here’s what struck me when we first talked about this, you saying, “In curatorial discussions, I had a tendency to compare everything to films, so it was exciting when this project came up.”
INFUSINO: Yes. She assigned me to work on the project, and I started research. It was also really interesting to work with Peter Taub [the director of performance programs] as the director for the project. Previous to that, I had learned a lot at the institution from a curatorial standpoint, so it was great to get involved in a multidisciplinary discourse with performance. Peter facilitated a lot of useful discussions about how the audience would experience the films, and how the screenings could be situated.
PRIDE: Do you have a title on this project?
INFUSINO: I don’t have a separate title specific to my role in the project. At MCA, we generally all contribute work to a litany of projects at once; and our roles tend to develop organically during the creative process. I worked on this series with Peter Taub, the Director of Performance Programs, and Stefano Questioli from the Italian Cultural Institute.
PRIDE: Did you propose right off the bat to find these particular films?
INFUSINO: I started with a list of roughly a hundred films I was interested in showing. All of the final choices were on that list, except for The Inglourious Bastards. That suggestion came from Joe Rubin [see below for more on Rubin and other Chicago contributors], who had a friend at Severin Films who had a newly [struck] print, and the timing for a screening was perfect. I researched everything on the initial list to get a sense of what we had to work with. I really wanted to program a series that developed thematically with each film, something that would have its own progressive shape and serve as a well-rounded metaphor for Italics. I was curious as to why more film series aren’t programmed this way, and learned that it’s somewhat counterintuitive to the process of tracking down prints. It was definitely more challenging to take that approach. Anyway, I was sure about screening [Elio Petri’s 1970] Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, since it resonates so well with the exhibition. I also wanted to show Fellini’s Casanova because thematically, [the exhibition offers] the right context to illuminate what really works about that film. Luckily, those two prints were easy to get. I was really interested in screening [Francesco Rosi’s 1976] Illustrious Corpses and [Bertolucci’s 1981] Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man, but I didn’t expect to be able to find them. Oddly enough? I ended up finding both prints at British Film Institute.
PRIDE: In a download-and-DVD era, it’s impressive that they’re all in 35mm. Are there any good stories about obstacles or unexpected successes, or archives you never knew existed until you set out on this?
INFUSINO: Well, Illustrious Corpses was the most difficult to find. Maurizio Cattelan‘s “All, (2008)” leads off the major exhibition, and Illustrious immediately came to mind as the perfect complement to that piece. I was asking everyone I came in contact with if they knew where I could find it. When I found Tragedy at BFI, I was searching their still image holdings and noticed they had stills of Illustrious, and sure enough they had a print. It’s not in very good condition, casfellaffiche_67.jpgbut I couldn’t find any record of it being screened in the US since the 1970s, and BFI believes it’s the only known print left of the film. I later heard there may be another print in a private collection, but that was never confirmed. Obviously, it’s difficult to get a definitive idea of how many of such prints are left in existence, who’s holding them, and where. Nearly all of the initial prints I researched were somehow unavailable. Rights would be expired, there was that fire at Universal, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is temporarily closed, New Yorker Films was bought out by Technicolor…
PRIDE: What’s in your background that stoked your curiosity about the arcana of this kind of programming?
INFUSINO: I grew up with an enormous collection of Beta and VHS, including an extensive amount of international films (especially German and Italian); bootlegs like the original rough cut of Dune (I think it was over 5 hours long), genre stuff like horror and 1950’s sci-fi, and everything fantastic to come out of Hollywood over the past 50 years. I worked at Elmhurst Public Library during high school and could get nearly anything on loan, and started heading down to Facets with my friends as soon as we were old enough to drive. I did a lot of literature and film work at DePaul, and in ’02 I moved to Paris to study. The program had a sort of interdisciplinary liberal arts focus on the expatriate experience. So one week I’d spend 60 hours at the Louvre listening to an art historian contextualize each piece in the collection, and the next I’d be seeing three films a day and reading and writing extensively.

PRIDE: And then in Chicago?
INFUSINO: When I moved back I did a lot of video production study, and then after college I started working at Facets. At first I was answering phones, and then ended up rewriting all their grant proposals, helping market the cinema, and then moved on to writing capsules for that phonebook-sized catalog. The standard was to write one every 15 minutes. I’d be going home every night with 10 or 20 screeners in addition to my rentals. I was watching about 20 films a week and writing about over 100. After I left Facets full-time, I continued work writing the capsules on a contractual basis, and doing French translation work for Home Vision (Image Entertainment’s indie label). At that time, Brian Chankin, at Odd Obsession [a Chicago specialist in rare and out-of-print film titles] was buying a lot of contemporary international. I was watching the collection so quickly, I had to start making requests of what I wanted next. In short, I’ve always been focused on art, literature, film and music, I love music and am always going to shows. I’ve always been most interested in the relationships between these disciplines. I think this is why film shakes out as such an exciting medium, it combines all of these elements, and the meaning that resonates from such convergence is exponential.
PRIDE: You’re cross-referencing all the time.
INFUSINO: Yes. I’ve been working as a writer since ’97, which enabled me to move fairly easily amongst my interests. I’ve worked in film, architecture, advertising, technology… In technology I worked for years on a grant proposal relating color theory to new digital printing technologies for IBM, Microsoft and Fujitsu. So yes, everything for me tends to be about cross-referencing.
PRIDE: I was surprised the time we got into the excitable conversation about Nanni Moretti. That doesn’t happen very often.
INFUSINO: The search for Nanni Moretti prints posed the biggest wild goose chase. There were a lot of false leads. Stefano Questioli eventually got in touch with Moretti’s assistant, who was initially optimistic about helping us procure a print of Ecce Bombo from Cinecitta, which we would have had to soft-subtitle. [For the film’s relevance to the series, Moretti is interviewed here.] But eventually Cinecitta responded that Ecce Bombo was booked solid in various locations throughout France for the month of January. That was weird, but Ecce Bombo does have a more prominent cult status in Europe; Italians still wear t-shirts screen-printed with Ecce Bombo quotations. We tried a number of alternates, but were unsuccessful with those as well. We heard Warner Brothers was holding the rights to some of the films, but weren’t able to track down any more prints in due time. I did research for [Moretti’s 1985] The Mass Has Ended, but had no luck. It was my ideal alternate for the final film in the series.
PRIDE: So not too many dead-ends?
INFUSINO: My dealings with archives were pretty efficient, but they didn’t have anything I was looking for. Most archives and distributors don’t hold many post neo-realist Italian films, and what they did hold didn’t necessarily fit with the series as it was taking shape. I didn’t end up dealing with any lesser-known archives, but did field a lot of suggestions of prints in private collections that Joe Rubin came across.
PRIDE: Yes, let’s go back to Chicago figures that were helpful. Tell me about Joe.
INFUSINO: Joe Rubin works for Brian at Odd Obsession, and was helpful in giving me advice on how to track down certain prints. He showed up out of nowhere when Odd Obsession first opened, and announced he had already amassed a huge personal collection of film prints, even though he was then still a teenager. Now he’s got his hands in everything, and functions as this sort of virtual bat-phone for film traffic. I’d ask him about a print, and he’d immediately respond with leads all over the country, references to other contacts, and detailed descriptions of print qualities. And if you want to know when and where a print last screened and how good it looked, just give him 12 hours. It’s shocking. I also know Ignatius Vishnevetsky through Brian; Ignatius has done a lot of work in the film community, including print trafficking for the Chicago International Film Festival; he was great for advice as well. My friend Michael Broers was also a huge help. He’s that sort of “that guy” who’s seen absolutely everything.
PRIDE: Were the smaller collectors more specialized?
INFUSINO: With most private collections, the curation was more niche and based on the collector’s personal interest. If someone was holding a relevant film, it was often loosely related to a larger collection of gialli or ‘70s camp.
PRIDE: So it’s worked out to your satisfaction?
INFUSINO: All in all, I’m really pleased with how well the series worked out. I was able to get the prints I really wanted, and wrangled the series into a great thematic match to “Italics: Italian Art between Tradition and Revolution 1968–2008.” These films are rarely screened, especially in 35mm format, and were each in some individual respect, incredibly influential to filmmaking as we know it.
PRIDE: Plus I just got the press release that the popcorn’s accompanied by Italian sodas, a nice touch.
INFUSINO: That was Madeleine’s idea, I love it. She certainly brings a touch of class to everything we do here.
PRIDE: And how would you summarize the exhibition overall?
INFUSINO: “Italics: Italian Art between Tradition and Revolution 1968–2008,” was curated by Francesco Bonami, organized at MCA by Tricia van Eck, and will be on view through February 14, 2010. The exhibition examines the artistic production of a country where cultural change has often been defined by the persistence of the past, and demonstrates how these artists have forged new identities and aesthetic languages. For me, the sort of x-factor of the exhibition lies with the tension that exists between tradition and revolution. I wanted to explore that tension, and create a series that would function as a holistic metaphor for the exhibition. The MCA periodically screens films in conjunction with its programming (in this case, the Italics exhibition). In addition, many exhibitions and performances directly incorporate the use of films and videos.
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The film program is here.

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