Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Tom Luddy's Long Happy Life

Image from Nocturama provided by SFFILM
My first week or so at the San Francisco International Film Festival was pretty successful. I saw many solid movies, only one real dud (sorry, Golden Exits, it's you not me) and one absolutely gripping feature, Nocturama, that is really sticking with me and making me eagerly anticipate a chance to see it again (it's supposed to be commercially released theatrically in July, although I'm not sure if that's just in New York or not; no San Francisco dates have been announced yet.) I also really enjoyed the Who Cares, Who Sees: Experimental Shorts program although I feel a bit bad that I skipped out on the last short in the set (Jesse McLean's See a Dog, Hear a Dog) in order to race from the Roxie to the Castro for the transcendent Parallel Spaces: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Bitchin Bajas With Jerome Hiler program, which I hope to write more about soon as well. Here's hoping that the Crossroads festival coming to SFMOMA May 19-21 includes it in its program when it's announced tomorrow. (In fact, I'd be happy to rewatch any of that program's films, especially Brigid McCaffrey's brilliantly-colored, hand-processed Bad mama, who cares or Christoph Gir​ardet & Matthias Müller's haunting personne in a future festival like Crossroads). None of the above-mentioned films has another SFFILM playdate; of the titles I saw that do, I was most impressed with the Catalan amnesia drama The Next Skin.

One highlight of the weekend was the Sunday afternoon presentation of the Mel Novikoff Award, named for the former owner and/or operator of many historic Frisco cinemas (including the Castro), to former Pacific Film Archive director, Telluride Film Festival co-founder and co-director, and storied producer of films of all sorts, Tom Luddy. One of the great highlights of my blogging "career" was when Luddy responded by e-mail to my obituary of his friend and collaborator Chris Marker, and then allowed me to publish some of his recollections of working with Marker. Although I've never had the gumption to introduce myself to Luddy on the many occasions I've seen him at a local screening, I feel very much like a personal beneficiary of his famed generosity. Of course I also have greatly benefited from viewing films he had a hand in getting produced (like Jean-Luc Godard's Every Man For Himself and Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi), or revived (like Mikhail Kalatozov's I Am Cuba and countless others).

Alice Waters onstage at the Castro Theatre to introduce the Mel Novikoff Award presented by SFFILM to Tom Luddy, April 9, 2017.
Tommy Lau, courtesy of SFFILM
I just said that the award presentation was a highlight, but in fact that's not precisely true. The presentation of the spire-shaped award itself was unmemorable in itself. Luddy even left it on the table as he exited the Castro stage, which in the moment seemed to prove Michael Barker of Sony Pictures' Classics right when he said, "People like Tom Luddy do not seek awards. They go out of their way not to receive them," although I later learned that an in-fact grateful Luddy was asked to leave it behind by the festival staff so they could engrave it.  Barker said this shortly after being brought out by the first speaker of the afternoon, SFFILM director Noah Cowan, who stressed that Luddy was in fact a member of the Mel Novikoff Award selection committee himself, and that his comrades in the group had "gone behind his back" to select him for the honor. Barker's encomium (followed by similar but not overlapping ones from Peter Becker of the Criterion Collection and Alice Waters of Chez Panisse) had competition from an attention-diverting slideshow of photographs of Luddy posing with various directors and other folks; I identified Les Blank, Wim Wenders, Philip Kaufman, Eleanor and Francis Ford Coppola (the latter three in attendance at the Castro as well) in one and Alexander Payne in another, while certain other figures were unrecognizable to me. However, his address was unfazed by audience members clapping for favorite pictures projected onto the screen above him, and he related how Andrei Tarkovsky told him Luddy speaks "perfect Russian," how Akira Kurosawa said of him upon disembarking from a long plane flight, "that guy plays a great game of golf," and how he'd personally been steered by Luddy to the works of Ozu, to Fritz Lang's Die Niebelungen, "the greatest war film ever made", and to the amazing 1912 silent The Land Beyond the Sunset. Becker, up next, credited Luddy with helping him appreciate and ultimately commit to restoring and releasing a pair of trilogies, Satyajit Ray's Apu and Marcel Pagnol's Marseille a.k.a. Fanny trilogy. Leah Garchik, reporting on the Castro event in the San Francisco Chronicle, has summarized Becker's tale of a Luddy-organized excursion he took with several aforementioned directors. Finally, Waters, just in from a Bloomington, Indiana screening of The Baker's Wife, talked of being brought by Luddy to Pagnol screenings at Novikoff's long-gone Surf Theatre and read a passage, from her upcoming memoir, about her introduction via Luddy to films by Kenneth Anger, Max Ophüls, Bruce Conner and Alain Resnais.

For better or worse, this long build-up to the award presentation itself felt less like a public presentation and more like an intimate industry event than any Novikoff Award event I've attended (namely, Manny Farber in 2003, Paolo Cherchi Usai in 2004, Jim Hoberman in 2008, Serge Bromberg in 2011, Pierre Rissient in 2012 and Peter Von Bagh in 2013). The real highlight of the afternoon came after the statuette was delivered to its recipient and he expounded on his life as a cinephile-mover-and-shaker in an interview with critic Todd McCarthy. From a chair on the Castro stage (and magnified by video camera feed running above him), Luddy told stories from various stages of his life amidst screens and the artists who fill them. It didn't feel like name-dropping to me while hearing it, so I hope it doesn't seem like it when I try to summarize what he said.

Film critic Todd McCarthy and Mel Novikoff Award recipient Tom Luddy onstage at the Castro Theatre during the 2017 SFFILM Festival, April 9, 2017.
Pamela Gentile, courtesy of SFFILM
Luddy talked about the spark that ignited his movie passion: a high school religion class taught by a friend of Elia Kazan's, who took him on field trips to see The Ballad of a Soldier and films by Visconti, Bergman and the like at places like the Beekman and the Paris Theatre (although he later became delighted to realize he'd seen a Luis Buñuel film, namely Robinson Crusoe, at age 10). When he moved from New York to Berkeley he plugged right into the local cinema scene at a time when Sidney Peterson, James Broughton, Bruce Conner, Christopher MacLaine and Kenneth Anger were in the Bay Area. He attended screenings inspired by SFMOMA's Art in Cinema series which had been founded by Frank Stauffacher in the 1940s, such as Bruce Baillie's Canyon Cinema screenings "in churches in Kensington." He went to Ed Landberg's Cinema Guild just after Pauline Kael had been fired from it, sparking impassioned boycotts; he hadn't met Kael yet and thus had no loyalty to betray. Soon he was putting on shows himself, renting prints from local distributors like Willard Morrison's Audio Films and Bob Greensfelder of Kinesis, Incorporated (Greensfelder would later be instrumental with Luddy in helping Agnès Varda create her wonderful short Uncle Yanco.) Luddy ran Cal's F.W. Murnau Film Society (named for one of his longstanding favorite directors- and mine, too) and later, the Telegraph Repertory Cinema, which for a time brought in more box office revenue for screenings of Andy Warhol films than anywhere else in the country.

Asked by McCarthy about the San Francisco International Film Festival's early days, Luddy said "it was my film school." His first year attending was 1962, "when it was the only film festival in the Western Hemisphere." He fondly recalled Albert Johnson's afternoon tributes to key cinema figures and rattled off the line-up for just one year, 1965: "Walt Disney. Busby Berkeley. Gene Kelly. Hal Roach. John Ford. John Frankenheimer. King Vidor. Leo McCarey. Lewis Milestone. Mervyn LeRoy. William Wellman." A few other names from other festival years were tossed out by Luddy and McCarthy (who was also in the Bay Area by the late 1960s): Raoul Walsh, Jacques Tati, Bette Davis, William Wyler, and Rouben Mamoulian. And of course Howard Hawks, for whom Johnson had prepared such an extensive compilation of clips from throughout his career that the director was able to introduce the screening, head to Kezar Stadium to watch an entire 49ers football game, and be back in time for the post-montage interview.

Tom Luddy, recipient of the Mel Novikoff Award presented by SFFILM. April 9, 2017.
Pamela Gentile, courtesy of SFFILM
Eventually Luddy became director of the Pacific Film Archive, and from that position co-founded Telluride, to where he was particularly proud of bringing an array of guests without perhaps the name recognition of Johnson's cohort, but whose cinematic contributions arguably stand as high: he listed Dusan Makavajev, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage and Francis Ford Coppola, and legendary art directors Ben Carré and Alexander Trauner. Most especially, Napoléon director Abel Gance, who at nearly ninety remarked, according to Luddy, "I'd rather die on my way to Colorado than vegetate in this cottage" when he offered to bring him there from Nice. Also cinematographer John Alton, a long-standing "holy grail" for the Telluride team to bring, and who was finally tracked down at age 92 after decades living abroad.

Luddy said he left his position at the Pacific Film Archive due to frustrations with the University bureaucracy at the time; he gave one example of being left on the hook for expenses, that ought to have been paid by the school, from Jean-Luc Godard's visit to the institution. By then he'd struck up a friendship with Francis Ford Coppola, who welcomed him into the fold at his American Zoetrope with open arms. Together with George Lucas, they helped secure backing from 20th Century Fox for Akira Kurosawa's 1979 film Kagemusha, after a shared meal at Chez Panisse in which the elder master explained how he couldn't find enough funding in Japan, and the younger three couldn't help but notice the scars from his 1971 suicide attempt on his hands. After Luddy presented Gance's Napoléon at the Avenue Theatre with Bob Vaughn performing an organ accompaniment, Coppola was inspired to try to present it at Radio City Music Hall with "a symphony" by his father Carmine Coppola as accompaniment. Luddy helped make that happen, too, and went on to produce Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters with Paul Schrader, Barfly with Barbet Schroeder and Wind with Carroll Ballard. Those are just a few of the titles he highlighted from the Castro stage!

Tom Luddy, recipient of the Mel Novikoff Award presented by SFFILM onstage at the Castro Theatre, April 9, 2017.
Pamela Gentile, courtesy of SFFILM
Meanwhile, in 1979 Luddy was called in by San Francisco International Film Festival director Claude Jarman to help shepherd the festival when he no longer wanted to remain. At that time in festival history, this meant taking on the responsibility of $150,000 worth of debt. Luddy agreed to volunteer his time to help keep the festival alive through this period, but only if Mel Novikoff would join him in the responsibility. Novikoff agreed and allowed the festivals to use some of his theatre screens without a rental fee for a time, until George Gund stepped in and saved the festival from its debts.

Luddy said that working at the non-profit Telluride Film Festival at the same time as working as a producer in the for-profit movie business is part of the reason why he kept a fairly low-profile through those years, refusing interviews in order to avoid drawing attention to his unique, and perhaps to some, questionable, position. But looking at what he was able to build by straddling both sides of the non-profit/for-profit line, it's hard to begrudge his dual devotions.

The films he chose to screen after the discussion represented these two sides of Luddy pretty well. First, we saw Une Bonne à Tout Faire, a brief piece made by Jean-Luc Godard on the incredible Dean Tavoularis-designed casino set of the American Zoetrope production One From the Heart. Intended as a test for his 1982 film Passion, Godard creates a luminous tableau quite reminiscent of some of the most memorable shots in that film, turning a real film production site into an imaginary one in which Andrei Konchalovsky, portraying a director, and Vittorio Storaro, portraying a cinematographer, communicate with each other in un-subtitled Russian and Italian, respectively, as if locked in a Las Vegas Tower of Babel. Though it was never released at the time, Godard sent Luddy this digital version of the short, transferred from the 1-light dailies for a 2006 screening at the Pompidou. The film's actual cinematographer Ed Lachman (La SoufrièreCarol) is on the hunt for the original negative materials so a preservation (and, I would hope, release) print can be struck, but in the meantime what we saw looked pretty darn good.

Image from A Long, Happy Life provided by SFFILM
The digital presentation of Soviet filmmaker Gennady Shpalikov's A Long and Happy Life, however, didn't fare as well. Though there clearly is a beautiful, equally Jean Vigo- and Michaelangelo Antonioni-influenced film in there somewhere, it was hard to fully appreciate it through the low-contrast, cloudy image quality that appeared to be not much better than the version currently viewable on YouTube. I heard through the grapevine that there was originally a plan to screen a 35mm print from the BAMPFA collection (thus connecting this choice directly to Luddy's non-profit career), but that it was found to be unsubtitled and thus a digital substitute was made. This seems like the perfect opportunity to bring in digital soft-titles over a 35mm print, as has been undertaken at the Noir City festival, for instance. For whatever reason, SFFILM and its partners decided against this option.

Though both films screened as DCP, Luddy himself is clearly for the use of 35mm prints when possible. Before introducing the screening, and after listing a few all-time favorite filmmakers at McCarthy's behest (including Julien Duvivier, Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Alexander Dovzhenko, Mikio Naruse, and Kenji Mizoguchi, as well Murnau, Ray, Bergman, Godard and Coppola) he expressed appreciation for Bay Area audiences and presenters. He singled out the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (which has recently announced its June slate, by the way), for being able to "fill this theater for relatively obscure silent films," as well as Noir City and the completely-non-digital Stanford Theatre. He noted that his friend, critic David Thomson, was helping prepare a summer program tribute to the Warner Brothers studio, stressing that David Packard would be striking new 35mm prints of certain titles currently unavailable to show in that format. Obviously the series will probably include plenty of well-known titles like the Adventures of Robin Hood, The Jazz Singer and Mildred Pierce but my mind is still racing imagining all the possible rarities I might finally be able to see in their intended format this summer. Rarities by Walsh? Hawks? Wellman? Frank Borzage? One Way Passage? Thunder Over the Plains? The Blue Gardenia? Perhaps even the namesake for this blog? I'm trying not to raise my expectations too high.


  1. A terrific overview of the Novikoff Award to Tom Luddy. He has influenced the careers of so many in the arts with his encouragement and generous introductions of people to each other. His straddling the for-profit and non-profit worlds has been done by others with similarly important results and cinema lovers are the better for it. It takes a savvy entrepreneur to understand how to create mutually beneficial outcomes without a conflict of interest.

    You might want to correct the name of the owner of the Cinema-Guild to Ed Landberg instead of the great cinematographer you reference later, Ed Lachman
    , also a close friend of Luddy.

  2. Thanks for reading & appreciating the article, Gary. I should probably have said "unusual" rather than "unique" so I'm glad you mentioned others straddling the divide.

    I'm not sure how I mixed up Ed Landberg & Ed Lachman while typing as they certainly are distinct in my mind. I wrote a bit about a film about Landberg a couple years ago. Anyway, I fixed the error.

  3. Fantastic!
    Tom befriends the known and unknown
    Best read person I know ... Very inclusive
    His pal Christopher Hotchens drunkrnly yold me at a party he thought tom was the devil... Bec if the devil came to earth he would be smart, know everyone, be surrounded by young beautiful women, participate in the best films, art and food. I had to agree tho I think of Tom as more angel than devil but whose gonna argue with Mr Hitchens?
    Thank you for this writeup (and to Hsry for forwarding it) as I missed the Castro tribute to the end of my days regret!