For the next couple of weeks Ace Hotel and Swim Club, by way of the Clubhouse, will be screening rarely seen cinematic gems at Cinemathèque every Thursday night for FREE. These are neglected masterpieces you won’t see anywhere else, curated by John Steppling – a film critic, screenwriter and historian who knows the annals of rare film like no one else. Come nerd out, have a drink and catch these on the glimmering big screen while you can.
Copied and pasted below is an interview that Ace Hotel conducted with the curator of the Cinematheque evenings, John Steppling.
(as seen on blog.acehotel.com)
John Steppling is a playwright, screenwriter, educator and cultural inciter with a bevy of credentials under his belt reflecting a life spent in love (sometimes tense or tortured love) with film. Mr. Steppling hosts a weekly film night at Ace Hotel Palm Springs called Cinematheque. He talked with us a bit about entertainment vs. art, those who love Escalante vs. those who love romantic comedies, and film nerds.
You used to teach at the Polish National Film School, and curated their Cinematheque. You mentioned that it was the most rewarding and fun job to teach film students about the art of film. How has this inspired you in this new Cinematheque, and do you think of guests as students, if only for a few hours?
Well, I think I realized at the film school how important it is to provide a dialogue and a context for great filmmakers. It’s difficult to just drop someone into Lancelot du Lac and expect them to understand intuitively what Bresson was all about, what the project was for him and (since we are using Lancelot as an example) how a later Bresson exists in rather rarified air. Same for Dreyer say, or Fassbinder orOzu, but also for John Ford or Hawks or Hitchcock. We live in a time where critics are mostly just consumer advocates and they review — they don’t write criticism.
Some of the films you show are obscure or somewhat difficult to appreciate without a film education. Personally, we like diving into stuff headfirst, even if we don’t understand it all at first, but have you ever experienced any misgivings from audience members who were expecting a Rom Com? How do you make the films accessible to newcomers?
I think people are more open than one might expect. I had students really rebel against Dumont, and weeks later they were downloading Dumont, and Escalante and Bunuel — they were totally with the program. But sure, in an era where the idea of “entertainment” exists almost tyrannically, it’s often challenging to explain that art is not therapy, nor is it even communication.
It’s meant to disrupt and to awaken. I mean Hitchcock is usually entertaining, in the sense that he has a great sense of humor, so it’s easier to dig deeper with him, get into his mise en scene, as it were. But a guy like Dreyer, that’s not easy at all. And even Godard. One has to see the entire body of work, what in theory Godard was attempting. But let’s take genre films, which I love. Val Lewton’s films are among my very favorites — but it’s a different challenge to explain why I Walked With A Zombie is a masterpiece. Not just a masterpiece of genre, but simply a masterpiece. It’s great art.
You were teaching a writing workshop in the desert and decided to start this film night up at Ace Palm Springs — does the workshop setting influence how engaged you like to get after the lights go up and the discussion begins at the screenings?
Well, I teach in LA, too. I teach playwrighting and screenwriting both. And sure, I guess I love to teach. I like to argue about this stuff. I think culture matters. I think it matters greatly, in fact. Without it we sink into barbarism. Adorno said the rise of fascism in Germany came about on the heels of the erosion of public education.
Why is Ace a good match — is it aesthetic, cultural, or something else entirely?
I really like the Ace people. And I like the folks from the [Palm Springs International] film festival in town, too. And the Ace is just such an open and cool space. Maybe that sounds funny, but I mean it in some ‘proto’ sense. Its a logical fit.
You have said you “wish people were coming to blows about art” and that art is a hedge against the sort of fascism of pop culture. Talk about how your love of film feeds the flame and sense of resistance about this.
Sure — I remember in Poland, Polanski (who graduated from the Lodz school where I taught) used to say students came to blows about whose master shots were best, Hawks or Ford. Now, I don’t think pop culture per se is reactionary — but I think a society so inundated with marketing and with the commodification of everything needs a return to genuine dialogue about art. Its almost as if “art” is a bad word these days.
Now, film doesn’t help create a revolution, or maybe even activism — but it does contribute to an awareness of the world out there. Mainstream news is useless, so one must engage with the world on another level, and I think one has to learn to think critically about all this. I mean Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, as an example, really was ahead of the curve on how media co-opts thinking. It’s as if the corporate media (and I mean a large part of Hollywood in this) simply colonizes the mind.
Where do you pull films from, do you show any bias in your screening selections, and which ones seem to go over the best with non-film nerd audiences?
Haha, I don’t know. My biases are my own I guess. I love Fassbinder, but I also love Lewton and a lot of noir, and a good many westerns. It was great seeing Hellman’s The Shooting at the festival. Reminded me ofMan of the West, One Eyed Jacks, The Searchers and all the other great westerns out there. The Shooting is like what Kafka would done if he had made a western.
I’m not at all elitist about this stuff. I think today, actually, a good amount of so called “indie” film is awful. I mean, Corman made Man With the X-Ray Eyes…a really extraordinary film. But I sort of don’t like the Coen Brothers much, nor do I like Inarritu — or Aronovsky. But I’m happy to argue this stuff. The best of film of last year was Animal Kingdom, a low-budget Australian film. A crime film, ostensibly. A film like Los Bastardos remains hugely ignored. We’ll get around to showing that (at Cinematheque) for sure. But with showing double bills, one gets to create a contrast. I’m showing Guy Ritchie’s first film next week. Very well-received film, but I’m showing it as a means to have a discussion about genre. We’ll also show part one of The Red Riding Hood Trilogy — which to me is vastly superior. I think people will argue that…potentially anyway. I suspect though that after a while those same people will view the Ritchie film in a different way. And probably value it a lot less. But we shall see.
for more information, please see:
LOCK STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS (Guy Ritchie, 1998)
RED RIDING HOOD / PART ONE (TRILOGY) (Julian Jarrold, 1980)
ASPHALT JUNGLE (John Huston, 1950)
THE KILLING (Stanley Kubrick, 1956)
MURDER BY CONTRACT (Irving Lerner, 1958)
LE SAMOURAÏ (Jean Pierre Melville, 1967)
Make sure to go check it out! Here is a link to more details: