Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive turns 30


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Banned for two decades, Czech director Jiri Menzel's 1969 comedy, "Larks On A String" is a pointed and witty satire of Communitst society.

07 February 2001 | Where else would you find such a choice of films - from amusing Italian comedies starring Totò ("Big Deal on Madonna Street" and "The Passionate Thief") or the captivating slapstick humor of a silent Buster Keaton masterpiece ("Sherlock Jr.") to Chinese classics ("Two Stage Sisters" and "Street Angel") and works by leaders of Bay Area filmmaking (Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffman's "Long Night's Journey Into Day") - all showing under the same roof in the same month?

At Berkeley's highly acclaimed Pacific Film Archive. The archive of more than 10,000 titles, representing one of the largest university film and video collections in the nation, offered that eclectic lineup at its new location - 2575 Bancroft Way, on the south side of campus - as it celebrated 30 years of cinematic magic in January.

Imagine a year-round film festival and a seemingly limitless selection of films to choose from. On any given day, the archive may offer rare and beautiful prints of classic movies, works by the world's greatest directors, Third World cinema, film noir, silent films with live music, or exhilarating experiments by today's independent film and video artists.

That extraordinary diversity reaches back to the archive's beginnings in the late 1960s. During the effervescence of those days, Pacific Film Archive's founder, Sheldon Renan, arrived fresh from New York, and began organizing screenings to satisfy the sophisticated and adventurous tastes of Bay Area movie-goers. Transplanted from a similarly enlightened eastern film culture, Renan seized the opportunity to add rare films, classics, European works, independents and politically engaging experimental works to the Bay Area's rich tapestry of film offerings.

"Renan founded the Pacific Film Archive as an exhibition, collection and study center based on Paris's Cinémathèque Française," said Edith Kramer, who has been director and curator of the archive since 1983. "This facility filled a void on the West Coast. Sheldon was determined to bring cinema, in all of its intellectual and spiritual richness, to the Bay Area and give the community that faced the Pacific Ocean a film center that would operate much like a public library. Users would be able to watch these films in the archive. Researchers and filmmakers would have access to rare holdings they would not be able to find at other archives."

The archive, which was located within Berkeley's Museum of Art, opened its doors on Jan. 22, 1971, with the Bay Area premiere screening of "Dodeskaden." A masterpiece of cinematic skill, the film was shot by the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, whose primary interest was to portray the dreams of impoverished residents in a poor neighborhood in Tokyo.

A formidable collection of works from Western Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa followed. Renan, serendipitously, started to acquire precious, little known films from Eastern Europe. An effort took hold to save Japanese and Chinese films, as well as West Coast independent films. Within a short time, the archive had acquired one of the world's important collections of Soviet silent films. By then, it had gained a unique repository of Berkeley "alternative newsreels," films that rarely found their way onto the big screen but chronicled Berkeley culture like no other medium could during the Vietnam era. And by 1996, the archive had the best collection of post-war Japanese cinema - including many of the only subtitled prints - outside of Japan.

Thanks in large part to the passionate writings of cinema's most deserving critics, that treasured film repository gradually found its name among the best known in the United States. The Pacific Film Archive Library and Study Center began to flourish with little known but ingeniously crafted films (Bruce Conner's "Crossroads," Jordan Belson's "Allures"), those that captured with candor and uncanny clarity history's most memorable triumphs and defeats (Roberto Rossellini's "Open City," Masahiro Shinoda's "Punishment Island"), and some of the most technically brilliant portrayals of ordinary life in the turbulent '60s.

Today such movie masters as Michelangelo Antonioni, Nagisa Oshima, Ousmane Sembene, Edward Yang, Jean-Luc Godard and Theo Angelopoulos are a testament to the most vibrant and important art form alive. Researchers and filmmakers from around the world gather regularly at the center to be introduced to the works of celebrated directors from Japan, Greece, China and Senegal. National retrospectives have presented the finest films from Iran, Vietnam, Mexico, France, India and Czechoslovakia, and have illuminated the history of that most exotic of all places: Hollywood. Students and movie buffs can find international animation and American experimental cinema and video art here.

The archival, polyproplylene canisters holding the master reels of films the likes of "Je t'aime, je t'aime," by Alain Resnais, Francis Coppola's "The Conversation," "I Am Cuba," by Mikhail Kalatazov, and Jiri Menzel's "Larks On A String," to name just a few, reveal an art form that is able to interact with the cultural and historical moment in splendid clarity. Whether it be glimpses of mainstream U.S.A., bohemian Europe or unconventional, trend-setting Northern California, they freeze time in the magic of the cinematic moment.

In a word, these films are gems. Uncensored slices of history, the finest possible prints tracked down from every corner of the globe, shown on state-of-the-art projection and sound equipment. Masterpieces of the human condition seen through a multitude of lenses. All at Berkeley's doorstep.


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