Cinematic Time-Traveling: Ben Talks Film with Marian Luntz of the MFAH

Ending one of our summer programs at Brazos always leaves me with a bittersweet feeling. For the past few years, we have dedicated the entirety of summer to one author/artist—Marcel Proust in 2014, William Shakespeare in 2015, Stanley Kubrick in 2016—and we have such fun planning these programs that we can hardly believe summer will end. Happily, I was able to end our 2017 program—Summer of Jane Austen—in one of my favorite Houston spots, surrounded by friends.

The spot? The Brown Auditorium Theater at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where I’ve seen a number of terrific films over the past few years that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. The friends? Numerous people I recognized from the bookstore—the many customers and readers who both shop at Brazos and then check out what MFAH Films has to offer. Readers often tend to also harbor a love of intelligent cinema, and there were a couple hundred such people at our Summer of Jane Austen finale, sitting comfortably in the Brown Auditorium for a screening of Ang Lee’s 1995 film Sense and Sensibility.

I remember the film coming out, and being quite popular (including numerous Oscar nominations and a win for Emma Thompson’s screenplay), but I had never seen it. It had always seemed too stodgy, too mannered. This was a stupid assumption, however. Seeing the film, I found it lively, effortless, with the actors—especially Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in the lead roles—conveying a psychological depth that seemed to carry like electricity across the 207 years since Jane Austen published the novel.

“I’m always enamored of period films,” Marian Luntz, curator of film and video at MFAH, tells me when we sit down to talk upon the completion of Summer of Jane Austen. “Since we know how often [older books] get adapted into a more contemporary setting, there’s great authenticity in seeing something more literal.” MFAH Films (along with Rice Cinema and Main Street Theater) were stalwart partners through Summer of Jane Austen, and Luntz is my primarily point of contact. Whenever I sit down with her, though, I don’t feel particularly business-y; instead, I’m mostly just curious to hear about the movies she has been digging lately.

In talking about period films, she mentions a couple favorites: Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (Luntz was also instrumental in last year’s Summer of Kubrick). She also mentions Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and tells me that, lately, she has found herself looking back to 1970s cinema. “It was a pivotal time for me,” she says, “a coming-of-age decade. I’m dating myself, but I don’t care! I think about Nashville. Or any of [Robert] Altman’s films.” She tells me about a recent screening she saw of Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, his revisionist Western released in 1971, hosted by production designer Leon Ericksen. “It was interesting to hear the production designer talk about interiors and exteriors, trying to create that set from the time period.” What Luntz seems to respond to in all of these period films is the sense of immersion. She uses the word “evocative,” and that seems to just about sum it—that feeling of cinematic time-traveling—up.

Of course, MFAH Films is dedicated to showing much more than just period films. Among their flagship festivals/series are the Houston Iranian Film Festival and Five Funny French Films, but they’re also deeply involved with QFest and the Houston Cinema Arts Festival. Luntz does not present herself as somebody territorial about MFAH Films’ place in Houston’s film landscape; instead, she calls out to some of her favorite other cinema organizations, including Aurora Picture Show, 14 Pews, Rice Cinema, Alamo Drafthouse, River Oaks Theater, and First Thursday at Brasil.

For Luntz’s part, she tries to think about the audience first and foremost. “I think that one of the challenges in choosing the films is to think about what people in Houston are interested in,” Luntz says, and in pursuit of this goal, she tries to program not only new films but also classics (like Sense and Sensibility) and revivals (a new digital restoration of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, coming soon). Luntz also regularly programs tributes to particular actors—recently, Olivia de Havilland and Alec Guinness.

The Guinness tribute is a perfect example of MFAH Films’ mission. Guinness, of course, is best known as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, but before that he had a much different kind of career as the star of a number of droll British comedies in the 1940s and 50s. He also won an Oscar for his lead performance in the classic war film The Bridge on the River Kwai. “When we screened that one,” Luntz says, “it was a sellout. It was inspiring and made me happy to see people of all ages—World War II veterans, young people who had never seen it before—coming together. It became something of an event.” Never mind that The Bridge on the River Kwai is a familiar film, available in all kinds of formats: the screening became part of a program to take a famous actor and reimagine his career for a new generation of film viewers.

Upcoming Highlights at MFAH Films

Sacred

“The work of forty camera crews that around the world to document people in different kinds of observances. A beautiful, sweeping film that makes you think and doesn’t have narration or much dialogue, except when people in the scenes themselves speak. It deals with spirituality and how people over many generations get connected to traditions that were part of the lives of their ancestors.”

Soul on a String

“A film from Tibet. A young man shoots a deer that turns out to be a sacred deer, which propels a journey for him. The filmmakers probably consumed a lot of old Westerns and also a bit of Joseph Campbell. It’s epic in length, and we don’t often see films from Tibet. It’s an intriguing experience for people.”

Obit

“A documentary about New York Times obituary writers. A lot of newspapers no longer employee thind kind of writer, but the film follows five veteran writers whose job is to summarize a life after death, whether it’s a famous person or just an ordinary person. It’s about writing, and that’s what appeals to me about this film.”

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