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The celluloid detective
The Pacific Film Archive's new senior curator tracks down the best prints, keeping local cineastes coming back for more

| 30 August 2006

If Susan Oxtoby seems to have slipped quietly into her position as senior film curator at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA), it's not by accident. Oxtoby, who took over from longtime curator Edith Kramer last October, is experienced at artfully negotiating such segues.


Susan Oxtoby (Wendy Edelstein photo)
 

In 1997, when she became director of programming at Cinematheque Ontario, the Toronto International Film Festival Group's year-round public-screening division, Oxtoby stepped into the shoes of that institution's founder. The cinematheque was then at a crucial juncture in its development, Oxtoby recalls, so she focused on making "a seamless transition" while continuing to offer high-level programming.

The circumstances are decidedly parallel at the PFA - Kramer retired last fall after a 22-year tenure - and the stakes are similarly high. BAM/PFA is in the middle of a capital campaign, with plans underway to move the seismically vulnerable art museum and film archive into a newly constructed building at Oxford and Center streets in the next few years. Timing of the construction depends on how quickly funds come in.

Oxtoby seems unfazed by joining the PFA during a period of flux. Indeed, at age 43 she courted transition, pulling up stakes in her native Canada to make a new home in the Bay Area. "I was looking for a major change in my life," she explains. Her respect for the PFA's programming and collections, and the archive's connection to UC Berkeley, were draws as well: "Coming from a family of academics, I'm very comfortable being in a university atmosphere," says Oxtoby, whose father and stepmother taught at the University of Toronto.

Although she has been in her position for nearly a year, Oxtoby's relationship with the archive goes back much longer. When she and Kramer met at a conference in Madrid in 1999, they had already been corresponding for years.

While at Cinematheque Ontario, Oxtoby collaborated with PFA curators on numerous programs. "It's almost as if the programming departments of the two institutions are a little bit linked," Oxtoby observes, noting that both the archive and cinematheque screen a wide range and large number of programs each year.

Imagining the future

This past June, BAM/PFA named five architects as finalists for its new building. It will likely boast large- and medium-size theaters and possibly a screening room where classes could be held. Upgraded acoustics, improved front-of-theater staging, and discussion space will also be features of the archive's new home. Oxtoby is excited that the institution's two halves will be reunited under one roof, since the PFA regularly coordinates its programming with that of BAM.

BAM/PFA's new location near the city of Berkeley's arts corridor and the downtown BART station is intended to serve as a gateway between the city and the campus. Cultivating new audiences and drawing them through the archive's doors would be a welcome additional benefit. Americans' movie-viewing habits have changed with the advent of home theaters, specialty cable stations, and home-delivered DVDs. That change becomes "a real concern for us when we see a lot of local cinemas closing," Oxtoby says, "because it points to the fact that fewer people are going out to see films in commercial theaters."

While the PFA is not immune to the fallout from such changes, it's partly buffered because of the specialized nature of its programming. Theaters like the PFA, Cinematheque Ontario, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York offer retrospectives and thematic-based programming that attract both a high turnout and "a different style of attendance," says Oxtoby. "If we show a single program one time, it might bring in almost the same attendance as a full day at a multiplex, where you might have only a handful of people attending each screening."

Job jealousy

Oxtoby has heard more than once that her job must be great, since she gets to spend most of her working hours watching films. Not true, she protests. "It's more that I send e-mails all day long," she laughs. When Oxtoby attends screenings - and she makes it to many of them - she feels as though she's off duty. "That's the pleasure," she says, adding "it's the payoff for spending so much time organizing programs."

In the case of major retrospectives, it can take a year to 18 months to track down the best prints. "It's almost like being a detective, because you have to search for quite a while to find the best existing copies of film prints or to learn who currently holds the rights to a given film," explains Oxtoby.

Though the public might not be aware of it, she continues, "the role of archives is really central to film culture." Without some archivists being scavengers "or just collectors who had the insight to realize that film isn't simply a commercially exploitable medium - that it's one that has a lot of historical relevance - some areas of film history wouldn't exist today." When a movie studio needs to restore a particular film in its collection, it may need to borrow back its original materials from one or more archives, which often are the only sources for an old film.

There are other potential stumbling blocks. Rights can change multiple times, and films regularly fall out of distribution in North America. "You may put together a retrospective of a single director and have prints coming from different archives or distribution companies," Oxtoby says. "It's not unusual to have to clear the rights with the estate, or with someone who picked up the rights long ago." In this regard, it's helpful to PFA programmers that the archive is part of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), which represents 120 film-preservation institutions in more than 65 countries (Oxtoby served two consecutive terms on FIAF's executive committee). Each member organization collects films that have been made in its region - the PFA specializes in the Bay Area and Pacific Rim countries - and makes them available to member organizations for screening and research.

For Oxtoby, the real thrill of her job is that it allows her to research areas of film she's unfamiliar with, and that she's able to hear guest artists present their work. One such exciting opportunity may arise if French filmmaker Agnes Varda (one of Oxtoby's favorite directors) attends a retrospective Oxtoby has planned for next year.

Lubitsch, Fassbinder, Chaplin ... the list goes on

A specialist in experimental film, Oxtoby - who has directed two independent films of her own: All Flesh Is Grass (1988) and January 15, 1991: Gulf War Diary (1992) - has broad cinematic tastes. When asked to name her favorite directors, she momentarily falters, explaining that she shies away from making "10 Best" lists because her preferences span nearly every cinematic period.

Then, unable to resist the question, she relents, closing her eyes (as though projecting favorite filmic images in her head) and reeling off names: "Luc Bresson, Michelangelo Antonioni, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Agnes Varda, Yasujiro Ozu, Ernst Lubitsch, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Carl Dreyer, Nathaniel Dorsky, Bruce Baillie, Warren Sonbert, Jean-Marie Teno, Peter Hutton. And from the silent era, Fritz Lang, Chaplin - I could give you hundreds."