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January 30, 2007

Indie films get some love: U of L Film Committee steps in to fill art house film void

U of L Film Committee: Photo by Leah Whitmer Members of the U of L Film Committee include (back row) Stuart Neff, Dillon Campbell, Hank Knight, Joshua Hardman and (front row) Remington Smith and Selene Black.The University of Louisville Film Committee, a subset of the Student Activities Board and the ultimate arbiter of film events in the university’s Floyd Theater, has resurrected itself as an art house theater after nearly two years in hibernation.Remington Smith, executive film chair for the Student Activities Board and one of the primary forces behind the resurgence, says the group’s goal is to fill a void created by recent changes at Baxter Avenue Theatres. “We’re trying to bring high-quality, under-the-radar independent films,” he says.He also explains that the group’s “greater philosophy” is to be a viable community theater house. “We show these films for little cost ($2, $1 with student ID), so we’re not out to make a profit,” Smith says. “We put on these films because we love them and we want others to have access to them.”This is the newest solution to a problem that has been vexing Louisville and other mid-size cities for decades. The Vogue Theater in St. Matthews was once the city’s preeminent indie film theater, but it closed in 1998. After that, the Baxter was just about the only place Louisville residents could see bold and original films. But around 2003 it transitioned toward the mainstream, which manager Bryan Senteney says was in response to customers’ wishes.“I keep track of all film types very closely,” Senteney told me, “and we try to play the best of all types of film. If all was right in the world, the Baxter would have 18 screens instead of eight. This would allow us to play all and any type of film we would like.”Senteney is quick to add, however, that Louisville has never been terribly supportive of fringe films. Of the handful  of art house films Baxter showed in 2006, he says, only one title had much of a following (“Transamerica”). “I suppose it is hard to get an identity when they have to go against films with multimillion-dollar ad campaigns,” he says.While Baxter’s movies are still vastly better than the crass Hollywood lot that dominates the suburban multiplexes, the change has nonetheless left an obvious void in film culture here.That’s why several U of L students began re-imagining the role of the college theater within the community. Calling themselves the Film Liberation Unit (a nod to some of their politically radical influences), a group began showing films on Thursday nights at the Floyd Theater. By 2003, they were working with (but more often against) the Student Activities Board to regularly screen films the Baxter was passing on (“The Weather Underground,” for example), some that only modern art museums would show (“Cremaster”), and some best known in Paris or Madrid (Bunuel’s “Los Olivados,” Godard’s “Weekend”). As sometimes happens, especially with student organizations, the FLU petered out in the fall of 2004. People graduated, got jobs, dropped out or moved on to other projects. Sadly, two of them passed away in the last year.The influence of FLU could be felt last year when the Film Committee started putting on a number of adventurous programs, films like “Jesus Camp” and “The War Tapes,” among others. Currently, the U of L Film Committee is offering a daring mix of first-run art house and repertory films: “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” and a special multi-media event in memory of one of the FLU founders, “The David Sauter Memorial,” have recently been shown. “Half Nelson” and “Idiocracy” are on the bill for February. For Stuart Neff, the U of L adviser who has been helping the activities board screen films for years, the key to the Floyd’s success is having students who will aggressively promote the films. “With Remington’s initiative to promote the Floyd U of L Film Committee: Photo by Leah Whitmer Members of the U of L Film Committee include (back row) Stuart Neff, Dillon Campbell, Hank Knight, Joshua Hardman and (front row) Remington Smith and Selene Black. as FLU used to do, we are once again getting community patrons back into the theater,” Neff says.While this current interest is promising, its future will remain tenuous.That is, when Smith and the current crop of motivated film enthusiasts move on, who’ll take their place? Here’s hoping this successful group passes on its passion and knowledge in the way the FLU and Neff did to them. Moreover, does this economic model work? Your average multiplex will screen a film 30 or 40 times in a week, while the Floyd might do three or four, with a greatly reduced ticket price. They make do without national promotion, big names and investors. What’s more, they exist in a distribution netherworld between “theatrical” and “educational” purposes that may greatly limit their film options. If these problems prove insurmountable, Louisville figures to lose what Neff calls a “vital part of Louisville’s cinematic culture.” It will take time before there are answers to these questions. In the meantime, film-lovers can enjoy the movies and hope for the best.You can find the U of L film calendar at http://campuslife.louisville.edu/sab/calendarevents/films/. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com