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