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.
"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."
"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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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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