Friday, September 17, 2010

Hiding From Success With Walter Chaw

by Josiah M Hesse

Movies have always had a hard time being respected as a worthwhile art form.

Seriously. Take a look at the man spending all day in a theater, or on his living room couch, watching six straight hours of cinema; then place him next to the man spending that time reading books in the library, or wandering through an art gallery. Who is more respected in the eyes of society? Just behind fashion and athletics, movies are the most commercial and least regarded of all forms of human expression. It is seen as a dullards’ medium — each theater dismissed as a church of American idiocy, where drones spend small fortunes to have their brains ground to oatmeal by romantic comedies. We’re told that too many movies will dull the mind and marginalize the soul — the dark refuge of the lazy and the useless.

And yet all over the world there are obsessive fans who devote their waking hours to ingesting as many films as possible; not film critics or historians, just lovers of the moving picture. None will ever achieve any reasonable respect from his or her peers. Partly because they are unemployed sociopaths whose wet dreams are always in black and white, but also because their drug of choice is not in societal fashion. And the film geeks who spend 3/4 their lives in school learning about Kurosawa’s childhood or the obvious meaning of a mirror in a film will have just as much trouble being seen as a serious person making a contribution to society. And their attempts to communicate their passion will be equally tragic.

Though at Denver’s Central Library there is a small, undiscovered refuge for cinephiles each Tuesday night at 6 p.m. It’s a small oasis of earnest intellectuals, not looking to receive a degree or be revered as a person of cultural substance, but merely out to have their senses stirred and their minds challenged. And the great shaman of this trip is local author and film historian Walter Chaw.

Chaw’s social and academic credibility could lead him to a more collegiate venue, where at least his resume would get a nice boost of cachet credibility. But here he is, guiding a crowd of retired seniors and off duty students in a discussion about social commentaries and cinematic language. All in a library basement where the only money exchanged hands is for popcorn or green tea.

His presentation each night is the same as any cinematic emcee. There’s a twenty minute, spoiler-free introduction giving background information on the film’s production and the state of society during its release. Then we watch the movie, all on a large screen with reasonable sound and no ticket stub required. When Chaw returns to the stage he’s prepared with a list of subjects to discuss, anything from a Catholic ban on the film, to the director’s sexual neurosis expressed through cinematography. Though typically we never get there; usually eager hands spring up in the audience within minutes — everyone desperate to express their minds in a safe space.

A space where the opinion of a movie can be as relevant as the opinion of a president.

“I love working at the library the best,” Walter Chaw tells me on the patio of a forgettable coffee shop, “because it’s interesting to get an unpretentious or unprepared response [from the audience]. In a mainstream audience people hate [critics], and in an audience of students everyone’s trying to impress you…I usually try and get some things out of the way at the beginning. Like, ‘Yes, they slept together’ or ‘No, they didn’t hate each other. Now, what did you think of the movie?’ That other stuff they can look up on Wikipedia or IMDB.”

For a film historian like Chaw, this is a pretty eccentric way of operating. Typically when a movie aficionado has a group of bodies held captive as an audience, he will demand silence from them as he ejaculates all the facts and theories of his arsenal unto their glassy faces, desperate to be recognized as a worthwhile person. But Walter Chaw rushes through this part, wanting instead to hear what the audience has to say about the film — which is, if nothing else, sincere. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” he says, “and the only pleasure I get out of it anymore is to hear what you guys have to say. I’m sick to death of what I have to say.”

A majority of the folks in the audience of one of these events has never attended a film class or written an essay on the subject (though some have — and they will let you know who they are). Most are simply fans — fans who probably watch more movies than your average citizen, but are by no means professionals. And yet Chaw craves their input. Their perspective. He sits through a film he’s probably seen multiple times (he watches 400 a year), just for the unique experience of hearing what these passionate, yet unaccredited, people have to say. He’s tired of cinema culture, where the dogma of film critique has become stale and predictable. Here we have a more pure, instinctual approach, a new set of eyes that aren’t searching for that one piece of information that will impress Walter Chaw. Or prove him wrong.

No one in the crowd will be receiving an academic certificate for participating in this event, nor will they be recognized by any social elite. Their pursuit is simply to be entertained by a good movie and have their intellect challenged by the discussion afterward. These people understand the high of learning. They pursue knowledge for the sake of knowledge — not out of any social, fiscal, or academic drive.

Unfortunately, folks with this mindset are rare today, and that’s why there are usually more than a few empty rows of chairs each Tuesday night. There seems to be little use today for an event that lacks any glamour or academic credibility. Though Chaw seems alright with this; he is a man who, in the face of his dying father, began to see life in a more immediate, more existentially enlightened view. He forfeited a lucrative baseball card business to get his masters in film, bypassing the financially secure world of universities for the shaky ground of a public library. He seems to understand the unfortunate reality that, for most people, no event is worthwhile unless there is money involved. We’ve been conditioned to need that narcotic high of handing over a wad of bills, a capitalistic guarantee that we will enjoy what we are paying for.

“I think what you are talking about is best seen in the Denver Film Festival,” Chaw tells me, “which really doesn’t bring in that many good movies…But everyone wants to go to it. People get dressed up and spend about seventy-five dollars to go see some crappy movies. It’s a place to be seen.”

And unless retired pensioners, drunken sociopaths, and undersexed film geeks are the crowd you’re trying to get in with, the Films at Denver Central Library is not the place to be seen.

Though none of us are complaining.

Keeping the cinematic elite and the romantic comedy crowd out of each Tuesday Night screening is essential to sustaining that untainted synergy that blooms in each group discussion. There’s a delicate balance to all of this, something to be guarded and cherished. It’s the rare opportunity to connect with strangers on a level of sincerity that is almost extinct in this age of technology, academics, and commerce.

Readers Note:
The Film Series hosted by Walter Chaw is ongoing at the Denver Public Library. For more details, go to:

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