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WHC: where 35mm plays

Graphic by Joseph Valdez

This past Friday, February 24, I ventured into the auditorium at the Whitney Humanities Center (WHC) to watch a horror film by A.D. Calvo, a New Haven playwright and director. The screening was hosted by The Films at Whitney, a program run through the WHC. Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl is a horror film categorically and substantively different from any other scary movie I have previously seen. The difference was clear from the moment the film started rolling, primarily in the cinematography and the seemingly effortless acting by cast members. The program screens an assortment of underrated genre types. A.D. Calvo’s horror-thriller is a prime example of such variety.

When the film was over, the two main actors in the film were asked to come to the front of the auditorium. Audience members were able to access the point of view of the actors and the director. The Films at Whitney program supplements many of its films with talkbacks: question-and-answer segments between audience members and the actors and director. The talks illuminated the functions of certain characters, and covered cinematography strategy as well as the neighborhood where the film was shot.

The Films at Whitney enjoys not only the work of a local artist but also the company of New Haveners at the screenings. Although the program is run through Yale, it is meant for the broader New Haven community. All films are screened in the auditorium of the WHC, which was renovated in 2002 and is now complete with comfortable plush chairs, booming speakers, and a large projection screen that almost spans the width of the stage. The space is designed so that community members and Yalies alike can come together and get cozy watching the film. With the lights off, the auditorium does feel very much like a movie theater. Screenings are open to the public, and the audience is usually an eclectic mix of undergraduates, locals, and fans of particular stars or filmmakers.

In 2009, Ronald Gregg, Professor of American Studies and Film Programming Director at Whitney, started the Films at Whitney as an extension of the previous programs offered through the WHC, such as the Cinema at Whitney program, which ran from 2005 to 2009. The program, an undergraduate and graduate film society, screened movies every Friday night — a Hollywood blockbuster one week, an independent experimental film the next. The basic design of The Films at Whitney is very much an extension of Cinema at Whitney’s practice to increase exposure to lesser-known films while also screening popular and recently released films.

The mission of the Films at Whitney, according to the program’s website, is “to help foster a dynamic film culture.” They do so not only by hosting faculty and student-organized screening events, but also by supporting other film-related events such as film conferences, festivals, and special screenings with workshops attended by visiting filmmakers. Marsha Shpolberg, a Film Programming Associate currently standing in for Professor Gregg, helps to schedule screenings. She noted, “Gregg pioneered a beautiful vision of Films at the Whitney as an inclusive program that would bring both local and professional filmmakers to Yale, and that would appeal to a wide variety of interest groups.”

What is striking about this program is that it really does do its best to incorporate a wide range of voices and film genres. Furthermore, The Films at Whitney ensures continued interactions between the New Haven community and the university by recognizing the work of local filmmakers. The program also collaborates and co-sponsors screenings with Yale film organizations, such as The Yale Film Society. YFS, an undergraduate organization, also has talkbacks similar to those of the Films at Whitney. The majority of the movies that the group currently screens are in 35-millimeter film, one of the oldest forms of film.

There is a great deal that goes into selecting which films get screened, setting up talks with directors, and scheduling workshops for both writers and lovers of film. The films at the Center range from “the most hyped-up recent Hollywood films to work by local New Haven filmmakers and the avant-garde canon,” according to Shpolberg. The task of selecting a film is up to Shpolberg, Gregg, and Mark Bauer, the Associate Director of the WHC. Students and Yale Community members are able to submit requests for films they would like to see screened using an online proposal form, which funnels the request to Bauer.

After the films are selected, the ball starts rolling to complete the extensive list of work required to guarantee a successful screening. Either the original of the film or the digital cinema package (DCP) is secured. WHC’s projectionist, Anthony Sudol (more on him later), checks the film to make sure it is working properly. Next come the logistics of booking the auditorium, and lastly, the directors must decide on the best format to introduce the film. Needless to say, hosting a screening requires much more planning and precision than one might imagine.

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Working in the back of the auditorium where the projection booth blasts the film onto the screen is Anthony “Tony” Sudol, the head projectionist. Tony has been with the Whitney Humanities Center part-time since 1997, and in 2010 was offered a full-time position. He tasks himself seriously with the “preservation and quality treatment of other people’s art.” A thorough inspection of the film to be screened includes checking the audio and image. Each reel — typically a film consists of three reels — is inspected on the rewind bench, and Tony expertly checks and adjusts the focus and sound to his desired level.

The Whitney Humanities Center’s projectionist booth houses two film projectors and a digital server. It has grown overtime to keep up with the changes in the film industry from primarily film recordings to an abundance of digitized media. The preservation of film, on both 35-millimeter and 16-millimeter reels, is the program’s attempt to continue to appreciate film as an art form. Due to increased abundance of digital film, Yale is lucky to be able to offer 35- and 16-millimeter film, since their presence is becoming increasingly rare. Tony’s projection for the future of film is that it will end up being shown primarily at universities and museums, and with his work, Films at Whitney serves as one such bastion of film.

Although Ron Gregg, the mastermind behind Films at Whitney, is leaving Yale and the WHC, the program’s future is still bright. During my trip to the Center, the large audience and high quality of engagement demonstrated that the community and faculty of the Center have come to love the program. The Films at Whitney is an exciting opportunity to gain access to films, workshops, festivals, and talks with filmmakers that enrich the “film as an art” space.

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