Pacific Northwest | December 14, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineDecember 14, home
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Special Arts Issue

Saving the Last Picture Shows: A film-series master is preserving the classics and stoking the passion
Larger than life: Greg Olson and his heroine Kate come face to face. (The Hepburn image is from "The Philadelphia Story.")
YOU PROBABLY DON'T know Greg Olson. But you do know Jimmy Stewart; at least, the soft-eyed, stalwart movie version of him, the good guy at the end of "It's a Wonderful Life," who did good things for his town. And if you know Jimmy, then you know Greg a little bit; Jimmy is Greg and Greg is Jimmy. Life and art sometimes overlap, in delicious ways.

If you go to Seattle Art Museum on a Thursday night, you'll likely see Olson, standing quietly at the entrance of the auditorium, checking subscribers' movie passes, greeting the regulars, attending to a dozen details at once. He's a soft-spoken man who might have been described, in an earlier era, as a tall drink of water, his hair flecked with the silver of a movie screen. Olson is a modest fellow who avoids public speaking — you'll never see him on stage to introduce the film — but make no mistake: The film is there because Olson brought it there, and the experience you will have is one he created for you.

Olson has been programming movies at Seattle Art Museum for more than three decades. His long-running film-noir series, now a fall tradition at SAM, has been acclaimed worldwide. Throughout the year, he finds and brings to local audiences a wealth of archival films — some classics, some unjustly forgotten — that can't be seen anywhere else, creating a community of those who love the movies as much as he does.
The projection booth looms over the audience at Seattle Art Museum's Plestcheeff Auditorium as Olson's regulars gather for an evening of noir.
And if you ask him why he does this, on a part-time position with little budget, he'll tell you a story. The first feature film he ever showed at SAM, back in the old Volunteer Park building, was Frank Capra's classic 1937 adventure "Lost Horizon." It was, Olson thinks, 1972, when movies like "The Godfather," "The Poseidon Adventure" and "Cabaret" were in theaters; nonetheless, the auditorium was packed.

"We had to turn people away," Olson remembers. "An old gentleman, must have been in his upper 70s, came up to me after the show and said, 'I saw the premiere of this movie in New York, and I never thought I'd get to see this again in my life.'

"That, right there, was what it's all about for me — giving someone that enriching and warm experience." Somewhere, Jimmy Stewart is smiling.

"GREG SEES the good in people and in the place that he lives, and he brings that out in the films he programs," says Olson's friend and colleague, Norman Hill, promotions and advertising director at Scarecrow Video, who first pointed out the Stewart analogy. "The museum's very lucky to have him. Seattle is lucky to have him."

To program four quarterly film series a year, with most films from the 1930s to the '70s, requires not only an encyclopedic knowledge of movies but a sensitivity to educating, entertaining and thrilling an audience. "For some people, booking is mechanical," says film critic Richard T. Jameson, who has known Olson since the 1960s. "But to do something really different, like Greg, something your own, you'll be addressing challenges from somewhere deep within. You create public realities out of your own imagination."
There's no ripping of tickets at SAM's Thursday-night series; the regulars all show Olson their passes as they make their way into the theater. The line begins forming early; film-noir devotees like to get their favorite seats.
And Olson does this in an era where big-screen exhibition of classic film is fast disappearing, seemingly in inverse proportion to the proliferation of home video and DVD. So the experience he's creating is becoming increasingly rare. Ever seen Katharine Hepburn, or Cary Grant, or Humphrey Bogart, glowing in gray, silver and black from a screen as high as a house, from your seat in a vast, dark room filled with rapt strangers? Then you haven't really seen them at all.

"When you see a movie on the big screen, it's like you're seeing it for the first time," says Janice Findley, a local filmmaker and longtime devotee of Olson's noir series (so much so that, when she threw out her back one year, she watched one film lying down in the steep auditorium aisle). "You're in a dark room, with all these other people, no distractions. The audience reaction becomes this palpable force that's changing the movie. It's like you're going on a trip that you've never taken before."

And Olson has a simple answer to those who would say that DVD is just as good. "As a curator, would you show a painting on the wall and have a little peephole to view it through? Would you show a postage-stamp-sized image of it? That's not the way the artist intended it to be seen." In that dark SAM auditorium with the eggplant-colored seats and Art Deco-ish curves, Olson's exhibiting art.
Olson is always around to greet pass holders such as Brenda Swidler at the SAM film series. Some of the audience members, Greg says, have been attending for decades; some have saved all their passes over the years. Olson gets a number of suggestions for future films and series from them.
"It's harder these days; everyone's a film critic and everyone's seen everything," he says. "But it thrills me still."

WHEN YOU TALK to Greg Olson about movies, he smiles a lot and frequently looks away, his eyes softening. He's not being inattentive; more likely he's fondly screening a movie in his mind. This past fall, Katharine Hepburn often would have been a subject of those private screenings; he's been putting together a tribute series, to run at the museum Jan. 8 through March 11.

"I originally fell in love with the young Katharine Hepburn," says Olson, recalling visions of the straight-backed heroine of "Bringing Up Baby." "She's certainly beautiful by any measure, but it's the way her spirit so imbues her physical form, her behavior, her attitudes. She knows what she thinks, and she will stand up for that to the end." His series will begin with what he considers Hepburn's golden period, the '30s and '40s.

In her long career, Hepburn made dozens of movies; choosing 10 to represent her is a daunting yet tasty task. But, as with any archival film series, it's not just a matter of picking the films, making a quick phone call to some centrally located, all-encompassing film clearinghouse, and awaiting the shipment of reels while humming "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." No — finding a 35mm print of an older film can require the detective skills of Sam Spade, and the Rolodex of an old-time studio kingpin.
The small projection booth, perched above the SAM auditorium, is dominated by two 35mm projectors, used many years ago at the 5th Avenue Theatre for a long run of "The Sound of Music." Posters from film festivals past are taped to the walls; movie reels in their metal shipping containers occupy much of the floor space. On any given day, reels of film are going out and coming in, for Olson's series and for the many independent screenings that take place in the auditorium.
At 58, Olson remembers an easier time. In the '70s, rental films were available, for the most part, only in the 16mm format (a smaller, less expensive film stock than the standard 35mm used for theatrical release). With 16mm films, you simply thumbed through a thick catalog and ordered. "There were just a couple of companies," he says, "maybe three or four. You could rent a title for $22."

Now, Olson says, renting a 35mm film — which gives a far superior image — costs more than 10 times that, not including shipping, which can run in the hundreds of dollars. And that's if you can track down the owner of the copyright, which can be an ever-shifting trail. Perhaps the company that made the film no longer exists; perhaps the rights are held up by, say, the composer's widow. "Sometimes," Olson acknowledges, "there's some kind of legal web that we have to jump into and battle."

Consider the saga of the Hepburn films — all well-known American classics, not remotely obscure. Safely tucked away in a studio vault, no? Some of them were, but Olson, after making his choices, learned that three ("Bringing Up Baby," "Stage Door" and "State of the Union") had shifted ownership — Warner Classics, which owned the bulk of the Hepburn films, had not retained them.
Cary Grant for president — who'd argue with that? Olson has saved numerous programs from the dozens of series he's programmed over the years; here's a small sampling.
With program deadlines looming, Olson called a colleague at the Art Institute of Chicago, who had been doing a Hepburn series. This led, many calls later, to another distributor ("not a studio, but a middleman, so to speak") who had 35mm prints of "Stage Door" and "Bringing Up Baby." "State of the Union" was later located at yet another distributor. Digging up "The African Queen" presented a worse problem: It appeared that no print was available. In many cases, studios and film collections (such as the UCLA Film & Television Archive, one of the largest) maintain only an archival print of a film, which isn't available for exhibition; in more dire situations, no print exists at all, just a negative. The UCLA archive estimates that 50 percent of films produced in the U.S. before 1950 have already disappeared; 90 percent of classic film prints in the country are in very poor condition.

Many of these films are in line for restoration or preservation; others simply wait to be bumped up a priority list for a new print to be struck. Film scholar Kathleen Murphy, a longtime colleague of Olson's and former series curator for New York's Film Society at Lincoln Center, recalls vainly attempting to find a print of Robert Altman's 1975 masterpiece, "Nashville," for exhibition at Lincoln Center in 1998. "It never occurred to me that I would have any trouble finding a copy of 'Nashville,' which ought to be a national treasure," she says. "But I could not find a print of this film."
   Light Weave

I once knew a girl
Who could make things with light.
A girl named Aura,
Who collected silver movie beams in theatres
And wove the light threads
Into a silver beam belt
That looked like
Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn doing
I can't give you anything
But love,

— Greg Olson
   Movietone News, 1972

Finally, she tracked down an archivist at Paramount, who confirmed that "Nashville" was somewhere on a list for a new print, someday. But he hinted that "if a certain film preservationist made a phone call, maybe the schedule could be changed." Right away, Murphy faxed a letter to Martin Scorsese, the acclaimed director who's been a passionate advocate for film preservation. The next day, the archivist called — though he was careful not to confirm that Scorsese had intervened, they were making a new print of 'Nashville.' "

Olson's story, too, has a happy ending: It turned out that Paramount was indeed at work restoring "The African Queen." The restored print is scheduled to be at SAM to conclude the Hepburn series. Olson will be one of the first to exhibit it; he's well known, in the studio and archival film world, as someone who understands the value of what he's handling. He's borrowed treasured prints from UCLA, the Library of Congress, the British Film Institute, major movie studios, and the private collections of Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson and David Lynch
Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart and Ruth Hussey star in "The Philadelphia Story" — a madcap heiress, a debonair ex-husband, a fast-talking tabloid reporter and a true screwball classic.
Hepburn teases zoologist Grant in the 1938 Howard Hawks screwball "Bringing Up Baby" — another madcap heiress, another breathless ride through romantic-comedy heaven.
But meanwhile, other films languish on studio shelves. "Lately, there's been a resurgence of new 35mm prints of older, particularly American films," says Michael Seiwerath, director of the Northwest Film Forum, whose Grand Illusion Cinema frequently screens archival films. "Once those are all out on DVD, I think it's going to dry up again." He notes that the situation is more chronic with foreign films, which often lack a distributor or funds to create new prints.

Murphy remembers, as a film student years ago, wishing that films could exist in a library that any student or film buff could use, as you would borrow a book. "We got what we dreamed of, but videotape and DVDs are essentially killing celluloid," she says. "Be careful what you wish for — we now have immediate access to most films, but future generations are never going to see glorious black and white on the screen. They'll see mush, most often, on a videotape or bad DVD."

GREG OLSON doesn't wear a watch. "I like to become engrossed," he says.

Growing up in rural Issaquah in the '50s, the only child of a Swedish-immigrant father and a Russian-Canadian mother, Olson loved to attend sci-fi movies at his neighborhood moviehouse, the Issaquah Theatre (now a performance space for Village Theatre). It was a small-town upbringing, like those in so many of the movies he came to love.

Friends have pointed out the link between Olson's background and that of filmmaker David Lynch, whose work Olson has admired for a long time. (Olson's book on Lynch, "It's a Strange World: The Art Life of David Lynch," will be published in 2004 by Scarecrow Press.) Both are Northwest natives, the sons of woodsmen, coming of age in a '50s-America small town; both, in their work, look back to an earlier time.
Hepburn and Spencer Tracy play a husband and wife headed for the White House in Frank Capra's 1948 comedy, "State of the Union." Yes, the tie needs to be straight.
A couple onscreen and off, Hepburn and Tracy struggle with their relationship in "Woman of the Year." She's successful, he's uncomfortable — doesn't his body language say it all?
Olson attended the University of Washington, majoring in English and taking the only film class offered there at the time, "The History and Aesthetics of the Motion Picture." In that 1967 classroom, Olson remembers, were critics Jameson and Murphy, Seattle Times movie critic emeritus John Hartl, longtime Seattle Post-Intelligencer movie critic William Arnold, Seattle Weekly scribe Roger Downey, and Don Bartholomew, veteran manager of the UW's extensive media collection. Long conversations about movies grew into friendships, and Olson was soon recruited as a board member in the Seattle Film Society, founded in 1970, which presented screenings of independent and foreign films, and thoughtful film commentary in its still-missed Movietone News (published 1971 to 1981). After graduating from the UW (and doing a short stint as movie critic of the UW Daily), Olson found work at Seattle Art Museum, "uncrating art, unpacking shows, hanging things on the wall. Sometimes I'd show slides for slide shows." There was a 16mm projector at the museum, and Olson began showing short films — W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, animation by Norman McLaren.

Warmed by the response to "Lost Horizon," Olson put together his first film series in 1972 — eight Alfred Hitchcock movies. And the film-noir series that would become an institution began a few years later, a genre so new it barely had a name. "He's really an authority on a genre that only recently is getting more and more respect," says Seiwerath of the Northwest Film Forum.

Film noir is the polar opposite of Olson's other movie passion, screwball comedy — "talk about light and dark, and being equally drawn to both," says Olson, who remembers watching Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck icily banter in "Double Indemnity" on television as a kid. "I think I understood what film noir was about before I, or other people, really verbalized it. That urban, literal darkness, aesthetic darkness with shadows. People with schemes, trying to act out their strongest desires, trapped.
Vintage Hepburn coming soon

Olson's next subscription series, "Katharine Hepburn: The Vintage Years" runs Jan. 8 through March 11, Thursday nights at 7:30 p.m., Seattle Art Museum's Plestcheeff Auditorium.

It includes "Alice Adams" (1935), "Sylvia Scarlett" (1936), "Stage Door" (1937), "Bringing Up Baby" (1938), "The Philadelphia Story" (1940), "Woman of the Year" (1942), "State of the Union" (1948), "Adam's Rib" (1949), "Pat and Mike" (1952) and "The African Queen" (1951).

A limited number of subscription tickets are available at $55 ($48 for SAM members); call SAM's box office at 206-654-3121 to order; or 206-654-3100 for general information.

"People ask me, and I wonder, too, why doesn't film noir depress us? Why do they make you come out of the theater feeling buoyant and thrilled? I do kind of believe in that cathartic function of art." Watching in the dark, living through the emotions on screen yet remaining slightly removed, we can all be troubled detectives and femme fatales, strolling those dark sidewalks, emerging into the light.

The noir series, called "the granddaddy of all film noir series" by the Los Angeles Times, is the longest-running in the world — regularly selling out to a dedicated audience. It's always the fall offering in Olson's quarterly series. Comedy occupies the summer slot; winter and spring might be filled by a tribute series (Olson has paid homage to John Huston, Bette Davis and many others), or a selection of films from a particular country or era.

Outside of the series, Olson programs a number of individual films for the SAM auditorium; sometimes local offerings from filmmakers like Findley or Karl Krogstad, sometimes early previews of new films of interest to the museum audience ("Girl With a Pearl Earring," inspired by the Vermeer painting, had its Seattle premiere there). The auditorium is also home to a number of independent screenings and festivals. Thanks to them, "the museum is able to offer hundreds of film programs," says Olson, "and in many esoteric areas."

Olson works miracles on a part-time schedule, and many in the local film community would like to see his programs expanded. "In most places, someone who had done this kind of work for as long as Greg has, there would be evolution, there would be recognition, there would be expansion of the program," says Murphy. "He really has been an unsung hero in this community. I would like to see him better able to support movies at the museum, because a city this size really needs to have the imagination to understand that they're being very limited."

"The fact that he's part-time is scandalous," agrees Seiwerath, observing that museums often see films as commerce, needing to pay their own way, while paintings on the wall can lose money.

Olson would certainly welcome more money for the film program. He'd like to be able to afford international shipments (which can run up to $700), and to bring in more out-of-town visitors to introduce and discuss films.

But he has mixed feelings on the question of whether he'd like to see his position expanded. The current setup has allowed him time to write the Lynch book, and given space at the museum for other groups to present films. Outside of work, he enjoys photography and is an avid reader, but smilingly admits that "the closeness of life and art is very much there" — he's one of those lucky souls in love with his work. He's proud to be part of what he calls "the SAM family," remembering trips to the Volunteer Park museum with his parents many decades ago.

"There are some nights," he says, "when it's so magical, and I'm so enveloped in the film and everyone else is, I get a feeling that I almost made the movie. It's almost as gratifying as if I had put that film together."

THERE'S STILL MORE Olson wants to do at SAM; he brims over with ideas for new series, and is always haunted by some elusive film (his current white whale is the Michael Curtiz noir "The Breaking Point" — he's been searching for a print for years). But meanwhile, it's another Thursday night, business as usual, bringing the big-screen experience he loves to a few hundred lucky filmgoers.

Other than the projectionist, Olson is a one-man show. Hours before the film starts, he's been in the empty auditorium, positioning the speakers, fine-tuning the masking (the black curtains that frame the screen), lowering the screen, checking sound levels. He's written the program notes ahead of time, leaving a neat pile of copies near the auditorium door.

Quick as a cat, he hurries up and down the vast SAM staircase many times as the camel statues smile benignly. The projection booth is above the auditorium, up the stairs and tucked behind the cafeteria. Often, wandering cafeteria patrons poke their heads into the small room, where two 35mm projectors dominate the cluttered space.

On this windy autumn night, the audience begins queuing up about an hour before the film's 7:30 start time, assembling themselves in an orderly fashion along a hallway. At around 7, Olson, dressed in his usual white shirt and khaki pants (a timeless uniform; you can picture Cary Grant in it), leads the line to the open auditorium door; a quiet, expectant parade.

Once again, Olson checks movie passes, nods at the regulars, smiles in surprise when a moviegoer stops to say, "Thank you for putting this on." And when the show starts — after another quick run upstairs to make sure all is well in the booth — he's in the back of the theater, watching the movie and watching the audience watch the movie, letting himself be thrilled again.

Moira Macdonald is The Seattle Times movie critic. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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