Coming Out Again with Quad Cinema and NewFest

Movies Features Quad Cinema
Coming Out Again with Quad Cinema and NewFest

If I were a monster, I would facetiously suggest that the Q in LGBTQ should honorarily stand for “Quad Cinema,” the New York art house/repertory theater that sits on W. 13th Street, which reopened in Spring 2017 after substantial renovations. Its new, sleek look is not only stan worthy (OK, I’ll stop), but so are its curators: programmers Chris Wells, director of repertory programming at the theater, and Nick McCarthy, programming and operations manager at NewFest, New York’s LGBT Film and Media Arts Organization. These two have gamely and extraordinarily dedicated themselves to the Quad’s long history of supporting queer cinema, both first run and especially in its repertory programming.

Coming Out Again is the Quad’s monthly film series, co-curated and co-presented in partnership with NewFest, highlighting obscure queer cinema, deep cuts in the world of LGBTQ film that are diverse and wide ranging, from hardcore art phenomenon Boys in the Sand, directed by Wakefield Poole, to Robert Towne’s forgotten Personal Best. Access to queer cinema is important, as a means to look at the past, to look beyond the canon of Carol and Brokeback Mountain, to try to understand the history of how LGBTQ representation and aesthetics evolved and shaped the community as it exists today in popular culture.

Paste spoke with Wells and McCarthy about the series, the detective work of finding prints, what it’s like to program queer cinema in the current sociopolitical landscape and what the future holds for Coming Out Again.

Paste Magazine: Would you mind telling me the origins of this series?
Chris Wells: I think it was born out of my original desire to preserve a lot of the queer programming the Quad had been doing over the course of its four decades. Obviously, we want that to happen with the first run films, opening new, queer titles—but also with the repertory screening we had a great opportunity to bring back films that had played at the theater previously or other films that had just not screened in New York in a really long time. A lot of LGBT films get shown in different capacities, but I wanted something with kind of a year round presence. And partnering with New Fest made a lot of sense. I reached out to Nick about it because they do certain other events throughout the year and they have their big festival presence in the fall, but doing something that’s a monthly series is a great way to kind of keep the mission of what they do alive throughout the year when they’re focusing on other things and we can just, every single month, have people coming back and presenting new lost treasures.
Nick McCarthy: Yeah, absolutely. The plan, that yeah, when the Quad was first reopening, as he mentioned, he reached out to us with an idea of potentially partnering on something, and we were just ramping up again [with] sort of more year ’round programing. New Fest had gone through a lot of different iterations over the past 10 years, and the festival always remained, but we wanted to be able to offer more and more of queer cinema for our members on a [yearly] basis.

Also, as we were sort of culminating towards the 30th anniversary, it was really exciting to be doing something that sort of honored the history of LGBTQ cinema, but also was able to put a new lens on what we were analyzing from the past. I had looked through a bunch of programs because we have all these printed programs. So I was really excited with the Quad, by honoring their history of actually being a platform for LBGT cinema just as much as New Fest has also for 30 years, providing that kind of space and platform for conversation and the screening of new kinds of stories. It seemed like a natural fit.

Paste: Yeah, that’s fantastic. So what were the logistics in choosing the first film to introduce Coming Out Again. That was Boys In the Sand, right?
Wells: It was, and a lot of our selection process I think for this series is: We’re always kind of pushing ourselves to dig deep, which can be difficult, realistically in a lot of ways. Because there are a number of LGBT movies to showcase from the history of cinema over the last 100 years, but there’s a finite number. And part of what the series calls attention to is there’s not an unlimited supply of films to play, unfortunately. There are only so many that you can choose from. And a lot of those moves have thankfully been resurrected and screened in fairly regular rotation in repertory programming. I think we’ve been kind of trying to do that all along, where I want to try and find movies that maybe people haven’t even heard of before, and that’s not just canonical classics, but… like, I love the idea of being able to open up one of our program books and look at the lineup and learn about these movies for the very first time. Boys in the Sand just felt like a nice way to begin because it’s something that was fairly successful back in its day and has sort of fallen through the cracks. It’s also a hardcore film, and I like being able to kind of push the limits with the series and show things that are a little more adventurous, that may not be for every audience or every taste, but I think are necessary to screen. So I think we kind of threw down the gauntlet with that, with that first one a little bit. Boys in the Sand sends a very strong message about the kind of titles that we want to present.
McCarthy: Boys in the Sand, actually somewhat ironically, was as the first [screening] the only film that we’ve shown in its 2K restoration, whereas everything else we’ve shown since then has been 15mm or 35mm. So it was an interesting sort of first choice. But as we mentioned, beyond that, what we wanted to do was appraise how influential a lot of these films have been, whether people realize it or not, reassessing films that people may not even have been aware existed, even if they were really in touch with certain pockets of queer cinema. And with Boys in the Sand it’s sort of allowed that catalyst of accessibility from kind of a hardcore queer standpoint of having this very explicit film. Also about sort of the paradigm of what a lot of queer arthouse films would come to, it’s the structure to have.

Paste: I know that showing movies on film, on celluloid, is important to a lot of repertory houses, and cinephiles as well, but I think there’s an interesting kind of relationship with the tactility of film, particularly in exploring queer history, specifically because it ends up being shoehorned or marginalized on the fringes of other forms of film. Would you mind explaining what the process is for tracking down a lot of these prints?
Wells: It sort of varies on a case-by-case basis. I will say, there are fortunately now organizations who are more committed to preserving specifically LBGTQ cinema, like the OutFest Legacy Project at UCLA. But for a long time that just wasn’t really the case, and oftentimes we’ve shown some prints in the series that have been faded pretty pink, that are actually in dire—those are titles that are in dire need of restoration. I think that there is a component to the series that when you see a movie, in this context on 35mm or 16mm and it’s in not terrific shape, that’s often the case because that’s the best available version that we could obtain. And hopefully that is somewhat depressing.

I would like people to be able to see a really pink print of something and [think], It’s actually sad that there’s not a better screenable version of this film in existence. You want that to be a rallying cry almost, to say these things are very important, these are very much worth preserving. These are pieces of history, each and every single one of these titles, and then hopefully someone will stand up and take notice and kind of do that work. We’ve partnered for a couple of things with Jenni Olsen, who is really terrific, who is based in San Francisco and she’s a great filmmaker and an archivist as well, and has really specialized in these very esoteric pockets of LGBTQ cinema history. She’s a real authority on this. And she’s a collector and has preserved things herself. So kind of partnering with her in a couple of screenings is pretty terrific as well because she knows more than almost anyone else about some of these obscure films, but also has her own personal library. And we have gotten multiple films from her directly.
McCarthy: In searching for 16mm and 35mm for these, Chris has been doing a great job of being able to look at a lot of these, and Jenni has been invaluable with a lot of this as well. And I think it’s really fascinating, on top of what Chris mentioned about the prints being faded is a lot of these are just collector prints. We found a print from the UCLA archives for Crush. There are maybe only one or two prints of some of these films that exist. So finding them and sourcing them can be really challenging, but once you find where they are, especially if it is one in Jenni’s collection, it’s something really special to see someone take so much ownership of the preservation of the history. It shows how much support the community has to keep this kind of story building. And preservation is super important to it… The film that we’re showing on April 4th, Willy/Milly, is Jenni’s personal print. So we’re excited to have her in person to be able to talk about it as well.
Wells: Yeah, it’s her personal print, and it’s I would say her discovery. This is a movie that was not a widely seen film back in the day, but is something of a mainstream movie that deals with these gender swapping issues in kind of a lighthearted, fun way, but is suggesting a lot in the presentation of those themes.

The rights are owned by Park Circus, which is a big studio. They control the MGM library and a lot of things, but they don’t have any materials on that film. They have no more prints. So Jenni is the source of this and she is the one who kind of brought it to our attention, and it’s fascinating because she’s always looking for mainstream movies that dealt with a lot of these issues in however abstract of a way. Sometimes they were tackling them directly, but her library includes films that might have a single very small supporting gay character, but the way that that character kind of operates in the narrative or is treated by the film, [it’s] very fascinating to see how they correlate it with the time in which the film was made.

Paste: What’s been the hardest film for you to arrange to show as part of the series?
McCarthy: I feel like the ones we’ve found a bit difficult are the ones we haven’t been able to show yet.
Wells: Yeah, that’s true.
McCarthy: I say of these, I mean, I think the one that we probably sourced for the longest was either Crush or Personal Best. I know that Personal Best was on our radar for a while, and Chris had mentioned that it was doing some traveling prints, but it would only actually be shown if some of the talent was able to be there. So it was really exciting when we were able to uncover a 16mm. But yeah, the difference between finding prints and rights issues, it’s been somewhat of a challenge, but so far yet [no rights issues] have been enough to prevent us from showing it.
Wells: And Crush makes sense that it would be maybe tough to track down because it didn’t have a huge release in the early ’90s, and [writer-director] Alison Maclean, while she’s gone on to make a couple other very terrific movies, there hasn’t been a huge demand for that movie for screenings of it.

Personal Best is an odder case because it’s directed by the writer of Chinatown. I mean, it’s Robert Towne, [and he’s] kind of a Hollywood legend, and this is a mainstream film from not that long ago. I was talking with a friend recently who said, “I had a print of Personal Best 20 years ago and it was probably barely ever played and it was perfect.” And I was like, Yeah, I mean, there are prints from five years ago that are gone, that are kaput, that have been damaged or not taken care of properly. So even to find this, it’s from a collector’s personal archive. I can’t tell you how excited we are to have it, but how a lot of it is just trolling through people’s personal list. Developing relationships with collectors. They have to trust you to let these prints out and then convincing them to loan them. I would say almost more than any other series that we do, there’s so much detective work with Coming Out Again.

I wish it were easier. There are companies like Strand Releasing who have been releasing LGBTQ movies for decades that have been very committed to it, and they have their archive at UCLA and there’s a Legacy project, but I wish it were easier, that there was one kind of go-to place for all of these.

Paste Magazine: In this contemporary, sociopolitical landscape, I personally feel that the programming of queer cinema anywhere, but in New York since we’re here, is particularly of importance to me. You have the Lincoln Center’s Pre-Stonewall series from a couple of years ago that Thomas Beard programmed, the Fire Island and Queer 90s series that Michael Lieberman programmed at Metrograph. How do you feel about doing this series in the current landscape, as it were?
McCarthy: Yeah, I actually, what I—I suppose what I would say the most about my excitement of programming this series is that as a gay man and just generally when I think about the history of what NewFest has represented for queer cinema in New York City, LGBT cinephiles for a while have seen film as something that gives them a keyhole to deconstruct the world. I think that it’s kind of just a framing device that is naturally put in when you experience art as an LGBT individual. It’s obviously not limited to that, and I think in the more sociopolitical landscape, that allies are more and more keyed into this beyond just academia as well. So being able to show a film that asks people to wrestle with representations of LGBT characters from the past and sort of analyze as we do with something like Willy/Milly [is important]. I find it so inviting that this isn’t just a series for LGBT audiences, but for all audiences to sort of put that lens on the kind of film, to give it that kind of framing to then view and deconstruct, as opposed to just viewing it in a straightforward way. I think any kind of recommendation to look deeper under the surface of something, even if it’s not clear right away, is a cornerstone for how a lot of queer people have seen cinema in the past and how a lot of people in this world are just being able to analyze the kind of inequity between class and race and sexual orientation and gender.
Wells: I’m a white, cisgender male programmer, so, and that’s why I would never want to program something like this on my own. I mean, a lot of these are movies that I want to know more about. I think good film programming is both [about] sharing knowledge and expertise, [as well as] asking questions you might not know answers to and investigating things you don’t know about. I think that’s a very important component of it, and I have a platform, like a small amount of power to kind of hold a spotlight to whatever I want to screen. And I think it’s a very important to do that and to work alongside Nick who knows more about the history of this than I do. I mean, I think it’s constantly a learning process, which I love.

A lot of this is part of why I wanted to embark on it to begin with… It’s an area I didn’t know as much as I wanted to know about, and I want to learn about it. I think that’s a great reason always to go into any kind of endeavor. I think that’s what’s nice about our lineup that we’ve done thus far, is I think you can feel us discovering titles as well as we dig deeper and deeper, because like I said, there are so many canonical titles that get screened, and then you just have to keep trying harder and going more obscure to other countries, to other decades. And a lot of that other programming has been great examples of the same. I think Thomas [Beard] is a friend and that Pre-Stonewall series was one of the best film programs in New York in the last five years. It was really, really significant and really eye-opening and had a clear kind of mission and argument behind it, which film programming always should have.

Paste Magazine: What is one of your favorite films that you would like to program in the future for this? Or what do you see as the future for Coming Out Again?
Wells: Nick, what do you got.
McCarthy: Wow. Huh. I don’t want to show our cards too much for what we might show later.
Wells: Maybe we should think of one that we’ll never be able to get but we wish we could do. I don’t know what that is. I’m trying to think of what’s on our list.
McCarthy: Extremely good point. I’m trying to think of a recent one that I’ve been bouncing around that I was like, This is going to be impossible. But I mean, I will go in and say on top of that though, with what Chris said, is a lot of this is about discovery for us, too. When we look at all of the titles—and I even look through a lot of the older NewFest programs—I’m constantly surprised by what I’m discovering that I have never heard of before but it sounds marvelous and I’m able to track down some kind of link for it.

I mean, off the top of my head, one recently that I couldn’t really believe we had screened at NewFest and was sort of a crazy off-the-wall one was actually something by Paul Morrissey. Paul Morrissey is a leading queer filmmaker, and I think too he had a film called Forty Deuce, with Kevin Bacon as a hustler. And it’s a really, really strange little film that I’m sort of shocked that no one really talks about when you have someone like Kevin Bacon involved. Like, these larger name people that are involved, I’m really curious to sort of bring those to light, too. And excited to potentially even have those people involved in these screenings and talk about what that experience was like. It seems obvious to want to have a certain guest there, but when you have these people who have different careers and you’re like, “You were part of queer cinema at a certain point,’ it’s really interesting I think to hopefully bring that back, and I would love to do something along the lines of that.
Wells: Yeah, and whenever we’ve had talent for a lot of these screenings, they’re not huge celebrities, but they are people who played very important roles in the fabric of the history of queer cinema. The star of Saturday Night at the Baths or the screenwriter of A Very Natural Thing that’s coming up: Often my favorite Q&As are with people who have maybe only worked on a few projects. They may not have had really long careers as writers or directors or actors, so these movies loom very large for them and are very significant chapters in their lives, and those stories can often be the most telling and the most rewarding.

I’m trying to think if there’s one that I really want to do that we haven’t been able to find in particular, but I don’t know.
McCarthy: Yeah, I’m trying to think of that too.
Wells: Forty Deuce was a good one. Yeah, there are plenty that we have been able to find that we will do coming up. I think going forward, just continue to have as much variety as possible. We’ve showcased things from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Boys in the Sand is ’60s. I think everything has been kind of in that four-decade span. Obviously there’s a lot more queer cinema post-Stonewall, but we’re even still trying to dig deeper in that time period.

But I think you will see us going even further back, and [having a] more international scope as well because most of the titles we have done thus far have been English language. There are a lot of others that we’re interested in showcasing from across the world. It’s hard enough often to find English language lost LGBT movies, let alone lost LGBT movies from other countries that may have been even worse at preserving them than the US has been. But that’s not going to stop us from trying to get them.

Coming Out Again screens monthly at Quad Cinema; the next screening will be Personal Best tonight, March 26, then Willy/Milly (a.k.a., Something Special) on April 4 and A Very Natural Thing on May 29th.

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