News Column

Behind the screens with Paramount Theatre's film programmer

May 22, 2013

YellowBrix

May 22--Stephen Jannise has the soul of a cinephile. He has been professionally programming movies in Austin for two years, but the 27 year-old head of the Paramount Theatre's film department has been thinking like a programmer since he was a teenager.

When Netflix debuted during Jannise's high school years, the Nederland native considered starting a program were people could go online and write down a description of their mood or interests and Jannise would suggest a fitting movie for the occasion.

A decade later, the engaging and affable Jannise has turned his whimsical idea into a career. After receiving a master's degree in film studies from the University of Texas' graduate Radio, Television and Film program, the Baylor University alumnus worked for 11/2 years as film programmer at the Austin Film Festival.

He joined the Paramount Theatre in November and immediately went to work building his biggest program of the year -- the Paramount Summer Film Classics series. The Austin summertime institution kicks off its 38th season Thursday night with a double feature of Jannise's two favorite movies -- "Casablanca" and "Annie Hall." The two movies will screen under the title Happy Beginnings.

The series, which runs through the first week of September, will feature 85 films shown on 35 mm prints at the Paramount and three ("2001: A Space Odyssey," "West Side Story" and "Lawrence of Arabia") screened in stunning 70 mm, as well as 37 movies projected digitally at the adjacent Stateside at the Paramount.

The program groups movies by various themes constructed by Jannise and offers dozens of double features, which allow people to attend two consecutive movies for the price of one. Many of the pairings span eras and speak to Jannise's keen understanding and appreciation for filmmaking and cinema history.

In July the State will screen a double bill of Francois Truffaut's classic "The 400 Blows" followed by director Andrea Arnold's 2009 drama "Fish Tank," starring an at-the-time relatively unknown Michael Fassbender. At first blush, the correlation between the two movies may seem abstruse. Jannise explains.

"I really like juxtaposing those sorts of things," Jannise said. "Hopefully by showing two movies paired together like that you see new things in them that you wouldn't have seen otherwise."

For instance: "400 Blows" is a legendary foreign movie, so people watch it in terms of what it's doing as a landmark of French New Wave. By pairing it with "Fish Tank," a modern movie from an under-seen British female director, Jannise can make both of the movies more accessible.

"Hopefully that will pull '400 Blows' down a bit from this sort of mountain that it's on and help people start to watch it again for what it is, which is a story of a young boy who's having troubles with all the authority figures in his life, which is what 'Fish Tank' is about, but with a girl in modern times," Jannise said. "I like trying to re-contextualize the movies and have people see them for the films that they are and not necessarily the movements they were spearheading."

Before he realized that film programming could be considered a career path, Jannise figured he would end up working as a film professor or critic. In his role as film programmer at the Paramount, Jannise gets to tread in the waters of his previously imagined jobs. He curates, introduce sand discusses films like a professor while also serving as an arbiter of taste and champion for great movies, two of a critic's roles.

His thematic groupings at times read like a professor's syllabus. There is the "Film Studies" category that gives Jannise an excuse to schedule a grab-bag of films, from the anarchistic Marx Brothers comedies to the musical "Gypsy." Film noir, a genre favorite of Jannise, gets extra attention with Film Noir 101, Film Noir 201 and Film Noir 301.

"I've always liked starting at the beginning of things," Jannise said. "I've tried many times in my life to actually go through the history of film, starting with silent movies. I thought it would be fun to see the films in order and try to be able to see it in the context of how it was getting better and better with each film and how it was changing over time, which you can't get if you just watch things at random."

His noir series starts with key golden era noir classics such as Billy Wilder's 1944 "Double Indemnity" and runs up to modern '90s classics "Fargo" and "L.A. Confidential." The breadth of noir offerings allows audiences to watch the evolution of the genre and examine the different ways in which quintessential noir character Philip Marlowe changes when interpreted by Humphrey Bogart in 1946 ("The Big Sleep") and Elliott Gould in 1973 ("The Long Goodbye").

Of course, no Paramount Summer series would be complete without some standbys audiences have come to expect. While some might think movies such as "Gone with the Wind" and "Lawrence of Arabia" are a bit dusty, Jannise says "the important thing is to remind ourselves why those movies have gotten to the point where they are -- where we want to see them once a year. 'Casablanca' can easily be seen once a year. I'll never get tired of it. I hope by the end of my life I can almost recite 'Casablanca.'"

So, what movies is a man who watches and programs movies for a living most anticipating seeing this summer? Jannise is excited to show audiences some of the great Daniel Day-Lewis' early work ("My Left Foot" and "My Beautiful Laundrette"), along with French crime movies "Le Doulos" and "Un Flic" and lesser-heralded Woody Allen movies "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and "Radio Days." He subconsciously scheduled those last two on his birthday.

What better gift could a movie-lover give himself than a double feature from an American master in one of the grandest movie theaters in the country?

"I really do have to pinch myself," Jannise said. "Not only the fact that I'm getting to program films but I'm getting to do it in a place like the Paramount and a city like Austin."

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