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O Pioneers 

Wednesday, Apr 22 1998
When Adrienne Mancia, the winner of this year's Mel Novikoff Award, tries to recall her favorite moments from 34 years of film programs at the Museum of Modern Art, she thinks of Beatrice Lillie baring a breast during a tribute to British comedy, and some thugs threatening Ralph Bakshi with a gun and a knife after one of his incendiary cartoons. Most vividly of all she remembers a homage to Russ Meyer, because the soft-core king brought along his star, Edy Williams, who walked to the front of the theater in hot pants and a tight T-shirt, rousing a chorus of whistles and wolf calls. "It may not be politically correct," says Mancia, laughing, "but I never heard such a strong response from a crowd. And that's what this should be all about -- breaking down the barriers between people, so that, for a while, we turn into one family coming together for the love of movies. If we forget movies are a popular art, we're dead. At the same time, because they are a popular art, they should reflect what's happening in society. Movies are entertainment, but that should include entertainment for the mind."

Mancia, born in Brooklyn 70 years ago, sees herself (somewhat ruefully) as a member of a thinning breed of film-lovers who came of age during the '50s and '60s and helped fuel the creative film explosion of the '60s and '70s. She credits the college film society at her alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, with solidifying her love for movies. "I think college film societies were different then from the way they are now. We wanted to show Eisenstein and Pudovkin because we'd never had a chance to see them in our towns; we were excited by the different forms a film could take. These days, college film societies tend to show popular films.

Mancia worries about the changes home video has wrought in moviegoing habits. "Of course, if you do any kind of programming, for a museum or a theater or a festival, you're flooded with hundreds of cassettes. But occasionally I dismiss a film I've seen on cassette and later, when I see it projected, think I must have been crazy. It's not just the size of the image that changes, or that you're seeing it in a big room in the dark. You're also engaging in a group dialogue between the film and the audience. We know how that works with comedies, but it works with serious films as well; you sense the curiosity or the outrage or the rapture of the people around you for what's happening on film. Once you're hooked to that experience, your love for it doesn't go away."

She began her career at the offices of Contemporary Films, the premier nonprofit distributor of what used to be called "art films" (the catalog included much of the French New Wave and the National Film Board of Canada). In between extensive trips to Europe, Mancia furthered her nonacademic education at some of New York's seminal film appreciation societies, including Amos Vogel's Cinema 16 and William K. Everson's Theodore Huff film clubs. With Vogel showcasing avant-garde work, Everson opening up the world of genre films and B movies, and Jonas Mekas touting the offerings of the latest "underground" epic, New York in the '60s had a rich world of alternative cinema. "There was always a lively exchange," Mancia says. "You went to a film and argued about it afterwards with your friends."

Richard Roud, who co-founded the New York Film Festival with Vogel in 1963, and directed it until 1987, was part of that feisty group. His gourmet concept of a festival -- highlighting a score of new films that he or his selection committee considered la creme de la cinema -- differed from other international film festivals. "Probably no other film program that calls itself a festival shows as few films as New York," says Mancia. "But the festival works perfectly for New York City. Every film gets reviewed, for better or worse, in the New York Times, a national, an international newspaper, so it has a chance to enter the culture. In San Francisco, people take vacations to spend two weeks at the festival. I don't know how many people in New York have time to do anything like that." She sees the tremendous scope of festivals like S.F. and Toronto as "a mixed blessing. They may be impossible for journalists to cover, but they have the space to include promising talents or films that just might point to something new. By seeing a lot, you can get a rapid tour of what's happening in the world, and maybe use that to select what you'll see at the Pacific Film Archive the rest of the year."

Mancia joined the department of film at MOMA in 1964, became its curator in 1977, and retired from that position this year to become program consultant to the museum's department of film and video. Drawing on her international trolling expeditions, she kick-started Brazil's Cinema Novo in this country with a MOMA series of that name, and did the same for the New German Cinema with a series called "Das Neue Kino." Her "Cineprobe" and "What's Happening" series illuminated the independent and documentary worlds, and Mancia also helped select films for the "New Directors/New Films" series, which over the years has highlighted wunderkinds as different as Steven Spielberg and Pedro Almodovar.

Mancia's ideal programmer would be a terrific writer, an adept historian, and an instinctive organizer, with a knack for putting old movies in new contexts and for raising the financing needed to realize celluloid dreams even in nonprofit exhibition. Mancia considers herself a "pioneer programmer, not a great programmer." But movie-lovers will continue to explore the trails she's blazed for decades to come.

-- Michael Sragow

Adrienne Mancia receives the festival's Mel Novikoff Award at 1 p.m. on Sunday, April 26, at the Kabuki immediately before the screening of Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember, Yes I Remember.

About The Author

Michael Sragow


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