Pittsburgh film culture

Pittsburgh. It’s no New York. It’s no Hollywood. Speaking of the Pittsburgh independent film scene, curator Gordon Nelson was quick to acknowledge the relative inertia of our city: “There’s not a lot going on,” he said almost immediately. And it’s true: If you want to find independent film venues in Pittsburgh, you’re going to have to look.

Nelson is one of three curators in charge of Jefferson Presents..., a six-year-old organization devoted to showing independent short films in monthly presentations. Since its birth, Jefferson Presents... has become a staple in Pittsburgh’s realm of independent film. Screenings typically have audiences of about 40 people, said Nelson, with loyal patrons representing roughly half that number. Admission is an affordable five dollars, four with a student discount. The shows are almost always located at Garfield Artworks on Penn Avenue.

Each film is at most 30 minutes long, and there’s really only one word that captures the selection: variety. Just look at the Jefferson Presents... website, www.geocities.com/jeffersonpresents. On an index of past screenings, titles such as Hodgepodge, Mixed Bag of Cinema, Assorted Movies, and More Variety dominate the page. Jefferson Presents... does occasionally have themed presentations; there was once a night for productions by female filmmakers, in addition to An Evening of Bug Cinema, which featured films about insects. The movies come from online catalogues such as The Film-Makers’ Cooperative in New York City, where Nelson and his associates can rent from a giant library of films whose size should keep them satisfied into the far future. “I think we could probably do this for 20 years,” said Nelson. Nearly every show begins with at least one project by a filmmaker from Pittsburgh. Nelson compared this to a local band playing as the opening act for a concert.

But despite the undeniable significance of Jefferson Presents... to Pittsburgh’s film culture, it’s also an example of a film venue that is severely limited by its location. For one thing: Jefferson Presents... only hosts screenings on a monthly basis. “You have to consider what else is happening,” said Nelson. “If there’s a Steelers game, nobody goes to see the movies.” In Pittsburgh, there simply is not enough public interest to warrant more frequent showings. “I wish there was,” added Nelson.

Additionally, Jefferson Presents... suffers a stumbling block common to promoters of underground art: a low budget. There’s hardly any marketing for the monthly Saturday shows. As Nelson put it, “We rely on word of mouth.” With underground operations, there’s a fine line between quaint and unprofessional: A website hosted by Geocities and contact e-mails at yahoo.com don’t exactly connote the prestige that one would expect to find surrounding an independent film venue in, say, New York.

A more professional source of independent film in the area is Pittsburgh Filmmakers, a group committed to providing opportunities for film artists and audiences. Pittsburgh Filmmakers has three locations: a base and screening room on Melwood Avenue in North Oakland, the Regent Square Theater on South Braddock Avenue in Edgewood, and downtown Pittsburgh’s Harris Theater on Liberty Avenue. The Melwood Screening Room is one of the country’s few enduring large, single-screen theaters.

Ross Nugent, the theater manager of Pittsburgh Filmmakers, explained that one of the goals of his organization is to expose the people of Pittsburgh to independent film. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” he said. According to Nugent, the biggest obstacle for independent film is not that people don’t like it, it’s that people don’t know if they like it.

At this point, you might be wondering: What exactly is independent film? Are we talking about this year’s Best Picture nominees at the Oscars, or some unintelligible French art film shot entirely in black and white? It can get confusing: Both of these extremes are technically members of the independent film genre.

“This year it was sort of interesting,” said Nugent. “It’s strange to see how things have to be packaged to be sold.” Nugent theorized that the notion of an “indie” movie holds a lot of appeal. But after a certain point, it’s hard to remember that some independent films weren’t made in Hollywood. Crash is probably the epitome of such a phenomenon, with a cast that featured more celebrities than most of its Hollywood contemporaries. And when Crash returned to theaters this winter, it was hard to find a mall in the country where it wasn’t playing. Nugent said that the success of independent movies at this year’s Academy Awards was, in essence, the culmination of a fad. Next year, he predicted, the nominees will probably all come from Hollywood.

But the ’Burgh is a long way from the red carpet. Here, independent film is far less commercial. Pittsburgh Filmmakers aims to promote a diverse selection of material, including 16-millimeter short films like those Jefferson Presents... shows. For example, last weekend the Melwood Screening Room featured a three-day presentation of short films called “Crossroads: ’70s Avant-Garde Film in Pittsburgh.”

Additionally, Pittsburgh Filmmakers offers a host of exhibitions of independent feature (full-length) films. Coming up at all three Pittsburgh Filmmakers locations is the Silk Screen Asian American Festival. Encompassing the cultures of several Asian countries, the event is going to include more than 30 films. The festival is set to span May 12–20, with an opening night gala and workshops throughout.

The Harris Theater is currently showing American Gun, a 2005 drama that watches a group of families cope with a school shooting. After that, April 17–20, the venue will feature Antonio Gaudí. Named for its subject, an innovative architect of Barcelona, the film captures the beauty of Gaudí’s design as director Hiroshi Teshigahara combines shots of his work with a variety of evocative music and sparse narration.

Antonio Gaudí, which was made in 1985, is one of many vintage films that Pittsburgh Filmmakers likes to show. You can see Filmmaker’s vintage films on Sundays at the Regent Square Theater, which has a different series of classics every month. This month, Sunday evenings are all about female contributions to film. The current series, “Calling the Shots: Women Behind the Camera,” features films of every decade from the ’40s to the ’80s, including Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (April 30). Each night begins with a film by director Maya Deren, whose work spans the ’40s and ’50s.
In May, Regent Square will host “Visions of War II,” a Sunday series featuring classic war movies such as The Deer Hunter (May 7), All Quiet on the Western Front (May 21), and Dr. Strangelove (May 28). You could catch a lot of these films on television, Nugent pointed out, but nevertheless, a lot of people prefer to attend the Regent Square presentations. There’s something precious in what Nugent called the “movie-going experience,” and Pittsburgh Filmmakers has definitely tapped into that. Showings are often followed by question-and-answer sessions where audiences can interact with filmmakers.

When you consider the bulky schedule of current and upcoming Pittsburgh Filmmakers events, the Pittsburgh independent film scene doesn’t seem so stagnant. The ’Burgh used to be very much a part of the world of alternative cinema. “Indeed,” reads the Pittsburgh Filmmakers website pghfilmmakers.org, “in the ’70s Pittsburgh became the ‘third center’ of avant-garde film in America.” Back then, the now-nonexistent Film Section of the Carnegie Museum of Art helped to make Pittsburgh a film nexus comparable to New York and Los Angeles. Though Pittsburgh’s status in the film world has evidently declined since the ’70s, the legacy alone is certainly helpful in providing momentum to organizations such as Jefferson Presents... and Pittsburgh Filmmakers.

So maybe the independent film scene in Pittsburgh isn’t so bad. Like most aspects of Pittsburgh, film here is different from film anywhere else. In another city, independent film might be reserved for an elite art-class of sorts. “That simply isn’t the case here,” said Nugent. In Pittsburgh, art is anything but pretentious. If you went to Gallery Crawl this January, you probably noticed that a significant portion of the crowd was composed of legions of Steelers fans, who saw no need to take off their jerseys as they browsed local art. After last weekend’s Ben Folds concert, the crowd of mostly college-aged students broke into “Here we go Steelers, here we go!” and it seemed entirely appropriate.

“There’s lot of opportunity for the arts in Pittsburgh,” said Nugent. Jefferson Presents... might not be a high-brow venture, but at least it has the opportunity to stand out and help local artists do the same.

Would Jefferson Presents... even work in New York? “I feel like we’d get swallowed up there,” said Nelson. Nelson also confirmed the suspicion that it’s nearly impossible for operations like Jefferson Presents... to make money: “It’s Pittsburgh. No,” he said frankly. So film fanatics might not be able to quit their day jobs, but this way you can be sure they’re in it for the right reasons. “I think a lot of people just do it because they enjoy it,” said Nugent. “You change culture a little bit.”