News Column

MONDAY Q&A: Love means not leaving the movies

May 27, 2013

YellowBrix

May 27--The Modesto Film Society doesn't just show movies. It celebrates them.

"Our philosophy is that you have to make it an event," said Randy Siefkin, who co-founded the society in 2005 and continues to help steer it. "We try to work in a cartoon or a newsreel clip. We have a drawing for a gift basket at every film. It includes a copy of the movie, popcorn, some memento that relates to the film." (The basket for this month's screening of "Mildred Pierce" included eyeliner, a humorous nod to the heavy makeup star Joan Crawford was known for.)

Siefkin, 71, has big love for the big screen, and he wears his heart on his tuxedo sleeve. Sometimes it's a white tux; for July's showing of the 1964 James Bond classic, "Goldfinger," it was gold-sequined. See that one on the society's Facebook page, and on its page at The State Theatre's website, check him out in his best film-noir gumshoe suit.

MFS, which began with 50 to 75 members, used to rent The State for its showings. That changed two years ago: "Now we are partners with The State; it's our home," said Siefkin, who also is past president of the theater's board of directors.

The society has about 200 members. During its nine-month season, MFS shows 18 films divided between classics and more contemporary films destined to become classics. Showings are open to the public and generally draw as many nonmembers as members, Siefkin said. "Our membership skews older, but there are some younger members. When we show films of the '70s, '80s and '90s, we get fewer members and more nonmembers."

Siefkin, a retired Modesto Junior College instructor, has a rewarding real life beyond his reel life. It includes being a husband -- he's been married to Susan Siefkin, a Stanislaus County Superior Court judge, since 1965 -- father and grandfather.

He's lived in Modesto since 1970, and his teaching career included 31 years at MJC, where he taught American politics, California politics and comparative politics. He remains a political consultant and is a collector of political memorabilia, specializing in 1940 Wendell Willkie buttons. (How many could there be? There were 1,200 buttons issued, and Siefkin has about 400.) He still runs "an occasional 10K because my body's not too beaten up yet."

Before he recently took a trip to Portland, "where I can see Douglas Fairbanks in 'The Black Pirate' on the big screen," Siefkin turned up the house lights to talk movies with us.b

Q:Your Modesto Film Society is dedicated to promoting and showing classic films. I think "classic" is tossed around too freely in pop culture, between terms like "classic rock," "contemporary classic" and "cult classic." What do you consider the benchmark for a classic film?

A: I have bookshelves crammed with titles like "The Greatest Films Ever Made" and "100 Essential Films." For me, a classic film is one that has enduring value, characterized by notable acting, direction, production values or contribution to a genre. These are films that I can watch again and again.

Q: Do you find younger generations willing to embrace classic films, including silent movies, black-and-white, etc.? Or have fast-paced, effects-laden, summer blockbuster movies perhaps irreversibly changed most people's expectations of what a movie must be?

A: This continues to be a challenge. Our classic and independent films tend to be dialogue-heavy and don't rely on special effects, and foreign films are subtitled. But The State has made an effort to attract younger audiences through diverse programming and partnering with schools and community groups, including offering discounts to students for relevant films.

We are committed to expanding film literacy through our Science on Screen, Youth Education and Books to Film series and, in partnership with the Stanislaus County Board of Education, serving as the venue for the After School Reel Life Film Festival. We hope to work with MJC to offer a film history course at the theater and are developing plans for a summer film camp for students.

Q: How has home-theater technology, starting as far back as VCRs and now including huge, flat-screen, high-def TVs, affected the moviegoing public and the experience of going to the movies?

A: Whenever someone tells me that he saw a particular movie at home, I ask him whether he has ever seen it on a real movie screen. The answer is usually "no." I argue that seeing a film on a big screen like The State's is consistent with the intent of the filmmaker.

Moreover, viewing movies with an audience is a profound artistic and social experience. The State's filmgoers usually observe theater etiquette, disabling their electronic devices and refraining from incessant chattering without having to be told.

Q: Who decides, and how, which films to bring to The State for the Modesto Film Society and for general screenings?

A: The State's general manager, Sue Richardson, regularly solicits suggestions from the public and, together with the film committee, consults a variety of print and online film review sites, including Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com), Indiewire (www.indiewire.com) and Metacritic (www.metacritic.com).

The Film Society polls its members annually, checks compilations of classic films like those of the National Film Registry, making sure to include a variety of genres in making booking decisions (a complete list of past MFS films can be found by following the MFS link under the "About" section of The State's website: www.thestate.org).

While we have been able to dramatically expand the number of films that would have previously bypassed our community, we are a nonprofit organization and must always be aware of box-office potential. And we can't always get titles we want, either, because theater chains have first claim on some films we would like to screen, or because of the phasing out of 35 mm film prints by major studios, which will require The State to install a very expensive digital projection system. We'll be asking for community support to help us make this transition during the current year.

Q: Even if you went to the Bay Area or Sacramento to see movies that don't make their way here, you couldn't see every movie you'd like to on the big screen. What do you look at when determining what to see in a theater versus what you'll watch at home?

A: While I make an effort to see every film in a theater, it just isn't possible. That's why my wife, Sue, and I recently viewed "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Flight" at home. I know that the plane disaster in the latter would have been much more spectacular on the big screen. There are currently 50 films in my Netflix queue, half of which aren't immediately available because they aren't on DVD. After watching the 16-hour documentary "The Story of Film" (in installments), I added at least 50 more American and foreign films to that list.

Q: Do you have a favorite film? Or five? Or 10?

A: Among my personal favorites are "Casablanca," "Sunset Boulevard," "Vertigo," "Lost Horizon," "Grand Illusion," "Double Indemnity," "Cinema Paradiso," "The Third Man," "Chinatown," "The Seven Samurai," "L.A. Confidential," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "All About Eve" and almost any film noir, my favorite genre. Then there are those classic horror films from Universal Studios. I need to stop now before my answer takes up this entire interview.

Q: What do you think of the state of the film industry today?

A: Whether the film industry is dead is a hot topic in the chat-room conversations that I subscribe to. For the major studios, profits and domestic attendance are down, while production and marketing costs have escalated. The majors have attempted to compensate by offering even more prequels, sequels and franchise films in order to generate box-office numbers. The San Francisco Chronicle's Peter Hartlaub recently wrote that the major studios seem to be making movies for 13-year-old boys. On the other hand, digital cameras and new distribution platforms have made smaller independent and foreign films more available to theaters like The State.

On the Net: The State Theatre and the Modesto Film Society, www.thestate.org.

Bee local news editor Deke Farrow can be reached at jfarrow@modbee.com or (209) 578-2327. If you know of someone who might make a good subject for Monday Q&A, email him.

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(c)2013 The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.)

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