The Screen’s the thing Brent Kliewer’s cin­e­matic le­gacy in Santa Fe

Brent Kliewer’s cin­e­matic le­gacy in Santa Fe

Pasatiempo - - HAPPENING IN MAY - Jon Bow­man

Bet you’ve heard this be­fore: Santa Fe boasts more art gal­leries per capita than prac­ti­cally any other Amer­i­can city. But here’s an­other brag­ging right you might not know. With the open­ing of Vi­o­let Crown, we cur­rently have four times the usual num­ber of movie screens for a city this size. Don’t be­lieve me? Then pon­der th­ese facts. The Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Theatre Own­ers counts 39,056 movie screens — or, on av­er­age, one for ev­ery 8,167 res­i­dents — now in ex­is­tence across the United States. But in Santa Fe, with its 35 movie screens, that ra­tio trans­lates to one for ev­ery 1,999 res­i­dents.

This hardly sur­prises Brent Kliewer, who has sin­gle­hand­edly launched more Santa Fe art houses than any in­di­vid­ual or com­pany. Kliewer’s im­pri­matur extends from the Jean Cocteau Cinema, which he founded in the early 1980s, to the Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, where he cu­rated the film pro­gram for more than a decade, be­gin­ning in 1986. To com­plete his hat trick, Kliewer es­tab­lished The Screen in the late 1990s on the cam­pus of the Col­lege of Santa Fe, the pre­de­ces­sor of to­day’s Santa Fe Uni­ver­sity of Art and De­sign.

“Santa Fe peo­ple have al­ways been a cul­tured group,” Kliewer told Pasatiempo, re­call­ing how lo­cal movie­go­ers have shown an in­her­ent will­ing­ness and in­cli­na­tion to em­brace cin­e­matic cur­rents from all over the world. “Even be­fore the video stores, be­fore the in­ter­net, peo­ple in Santa Fe would turn out see films from the most ob­scure times and places. There was an artis­tic and in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity you don’t see in many towns.”

In 1983, Kliewer chris­tened the Jean Cocteau Cinema by open­ing with a dou­ble bill of G.W. Pabst’s si­lent movies from Ger­many that was an­chored by

Pan­dora’s Box, star­ring Amer­i­can actress Louise Brooks, who was known for her bobbed hairdo and flam­boy­ant, flap­per-era life­style. Kliewer scored his big­gest box-of­fice tri­umph with the up­scale Mer­chant Ivory cos­tume drama Room With a View, but even more per­son­ally grat­i­fy­ing, he found Santa Fe au­di­ences open as he broad­ened his cu­ra­to­rial ex­cur­sions on a global scale.

By the time he be­gan book­ing films for the Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, he grew Ti­betan horse epics and African mythic sagas into sur­pris­ing lo­cal hits. Some of th­ese films, such as The Horse Thief (from the steppes of Asia) and Yee­len (from west­ern Africa), barely turned up as blips in New York or San Fran­cisco, but in Santa Fe, they re­mained the toast of the town for months on end.

Kliewer said Santa Feans aren’t tra­di­tional cin­emaphiles in the sense that they can rat­tle off the fil­mo­gra­phies of ev­ery A-list direc­tor or dis­cuss how Al­fred Hitch­cock used shad­ows to chore­o­graph sus­pense. But film­go­ers here aren’t afraid to ex­plore diver­gent trends far out­side the purview of the lat­est Hol­ly­wood block­buster. “In the old Santa Fe, they didn’t like any­thing that smacked of be­ing too com­mer­cial or sug­gest­ing gen­tri­fi­ca­tion,” he said. “There was a real in­ter­est in films that were more trib­al­is­tic or spir­i­tual, or that had a solid ethno­graphic ba­sis.”

A few no­tably ec­cen­tric, quirky Amer­i­can indie film­mak­ers achieved a fol­low­ing here, Jim Jar­musch, Gus Van Sant, Charles Bur­nett, and John Sayles among them. But Kliewer re­mem­bers Santa Feans re­ject­ing works by some of their col­leagues turn­ing out ex­ces­sively dark or vi­o­lent works. “Vi­o­lent films have never done par­tic­u­larly well in Santa Fe. The au­di­ence is just not wired for or re­cep­tive to a lot of vi­o­lence.”

Kliewer wasn’t Santa Fe’s first movie art-house op­er­a­tor. That distinc­tion be­longs to the Col­lec­tive Fan­tasy Cinema, which pre­dates the Jean Cocteau but oc­cu­pied the same premises, be­gin­ning in 1976. Fea­tur­ing con­sid­er­ably funkier dé­cor (pa­trons had to part a pair of musty East In­dian-fab­ric cur­tains to gain ac­cess to the ex­hi­bi­tion space), it was owned by Lynne Co­hen, Rich Szanyi, Anne Lewis, and Mary Hetler. From 1979 to 1986, in the for­mer Pen Road Shop­ping Cen­ter (close to the in­ter­sec­tion of St. Fran­cis Drive and Cer­ril­los Road), Bill and Judy Hill ran the City Lights Cinema, which dou­bled as one of Santa Fe’s most de­lec­ta­ble bak­eries.

Kliewer’s con­tri­bu­tion to the lo­cal scene is twofold, func­tion­ing as a ground­break­ing film cu­ra­tor and sig­nif­i­cantly re­fin­ing the ar­chi­tec­tural trap­pings of ev­ery prop­erty where he did stints, fo­cus­ing in par­tic­u­lar on el­e­vat­ing the pro­jec­tion stan­dards and view­ing con­di­tions.

The Jean Cocteau owes its nau­tilus-like wind­ing ramps to Kliewer and also its sig­na­ture mar­quee, de­signed by Venezue­lan artist Ar­turo Her­rera, whose work has been shown at the Whit­ney Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art in New York and the Ham­mer Mu­seum at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Los An­ge­les. Kliewer also amped up and tricked out CCA’s first ded­i­cated film ex­hi­bi­tion hall, but The Screen, his fi­nal stop in Santa Fe, is his crown­ing achieve­ment. Be­gin­ning in 1996, he spent sev­eral years cre­at­ing the au­di­to­rium we know to­day from a tab­ula rasa, one of four cav­ernous TV and film sound stages then in use at the col­lege. “We had the per­fect square, a space with all-nat­u­ral sound­proof­ing and hang­ing cur­tains, but the booth was on wheels and you could roll it out wher­ever you wanted it to be.” Kliewer spent many years in the re­mod­el­ing trenches, over­see­ing in­stal­la­tion of the sta­dium-style seat­ing and the curved screen. His ef­forts came to­gether in a hall the East­man Ko­dak Com­pany praised for of­fer­ing “some of the best pro­jec­tion we have ever seen.”

Th­ese days, Kliewer re­mains cu­ra­tor of The Screen, but he no longer lives in Santa Fe, hav­ing re­turned to Ok­la­homa, where he first broke into the movie busi­ness, do­ing bookings for the Uni­ver­sity of Tulsa’s stu­dent theater and the Wil­liams Cinema in down­town Tulsa. He de­scribed to­day’s Santa Fe au­di­ence as a smart, dis­cern­ing bunch, but noted that the size of the au­di­ence has shrunk and is aging. “It’s an older crowd, and that’s al­ways a con­cern, but it’s a mir­ror of what’s hap­pen­ing ev­ery­where. The younger peo­ple are fickle. They’ve got so many op­tions at their fin­ger­tips that they are eas­ily dis­tracted and not so re­li­able as the­ater­go­ers as the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion.”

At a time when movie re­leases are on the rise, there’s been a cor­re­spond­ing shrink­age in for­eign im­ports, es­pe­cially fea­tures with sub­ti­tles. “Hardly any­thing from Asia is get­ting seen here th­ese days. And even the num­ber of Euro­pean pic­tures is off, although there are still the French pic­tures — but they have never been a big thing in Santa Fe.”

There’s an­other di­chotomy afoot. Though indie artists are tak­ing ad­van­tage of new light­weight dig­i­tal equip­ment and lower pro­duc­tion costs to cre­ate more orig­i­nal work than ever, the tra­di­tional dis­tri­bu­tion net­work has splin­tered, forc­ing art houses — es­pe­cially la­bor-in­ten­sive, sin­gle-screen halls — to strug­gle to stay afloat and weather a slug­gish econ­omy.

Kliewer is determined to ride out the tur­bu­lence and cu­ri­ous to see where all the tech­no­log­i­cal up­heaval and in­dus­try shifts will lead. “I can’t re­mem­ber an­other time when there’s been this much change com­ing so fast.” At The Screen, look for more spe­cial-event pro­gram­ming in the months ahead, rang­ing from clas­sic film re­vivals to hand­picked fare for opera, ballet, and other arts afi­ciona­dos.

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