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Due to technical difficulties, Kyung Hyun Kim would not have the aid of a microphone to introduce the filmmakers whose The U.S. vs. John Lennon was about to be shown to a rapt crowd in UCI's Humanities Instructional Building last Thursday night.
Kim, the Film and Video Center (FVC) director and an associate professor of the East Asian Languages and Literatures Program in Film Studies at UCI, did not need one. The Lennon documentary, which was more mainstream than some of the artier, experimental or tiny foreign fare the FVC typically screens, drew a couple hundred people. Not bad for an auditorium with 350 seats but raising one's voice slightly was the only amplification required.
With the FVC just having kicked off the Winter Program in this, its 10th year, Kim and his staff certainly wouldn't mind more asses in the seats.
"I'm trying to build on this incredible infrastructure," said Kim, sitting on a table in the building's projection room, which features two projectors capable of flashing 35mm, 16mm or video onto a 29-foot movie screen. The FVC is Orange County's only nonprofit cinematheque, and whether it is showing a popular documentary or a rare film no one outside a film school has heard of, the low ticket prices ($3-$5) are about what you pay for stale popcorn at the big-chain monstroplexes.
It was when the Humanities Instructional Building was being planned, and university officials were considering what to put in it, that the FVC was born. Faculty member Linda Williams was the one pushing for it, but she was offered a job at Harvard before administrators could make up their minds. In a bid to keep her, UCI gave Williams her cinematheque, which she ran for a year—before being wooed away by Berkeley.
Various faculty advisors have come and gone in the years since, but the FVC has maintained a roster of challenging films and festivals throughout. It's become the premier venue for Orange County's Latin American Film Festival, and other series have been dedicated to French, feminist and Jewish filmmakers—hell, probably all three simultaneously. One-off screenings have focused on everything from punk rock to voodoo rituals in Ghana, from issues very personal to one soul with a camera to the world of criminal shit Henry Kissinger brought to the whole world. And then there was this one Nordic jobber with a camera permanently fixed on wildflowers in a meadow that still has at least one head scratching.
Kim was already teaching at UCI and familiar with the FVC when he got tapped to run it two and a half years ago. An initial goal he's since accomplished was to better network the FVC with cinematheques in Los Angeles—including Redcat, American Cinematheque and the film and television archives at UCLA—as well as other Southern California colleges and universities. Capitalizing on his own area of expertise, Kim has ushered in expanded programming of Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese films.
"I am satisfied in some ways," Kim said. "We've had fabulous screenings. We draw smart audiences who ask smart questions. But, you know . . . We just . . . Hopefully . . ."
His voice trailed off, and it's obvious from his new, lowered tone that the "be diplomatic" switch just clicked on in his head.
"There are some things we were promised, a marquee, promotional and publicity [budgets] that didn't come to fruition," he said quietly.
And so, other than a small but hardcore following, the public at large has been mostly unaware of the cinematheque in its own back yard. "Graduate students, mostly from humanities and the arts, will come out," Kim said, "but there is only a handful. There are not hundreds."
This quarter, a conscious effort is being made to reach out to the community. Foreign and experimental films still dot the Winter Program, but so does a Hitchcock classic (Vertigo), and the three-film "Disaffected Youth" series is anchored by another recent theatrical release, The Chumscrubber (or, as I like to call it, Donnie Darko Lite).
"We definitely put together quality programming that can bring more audience," says Kim, who in the same breath mentions the challenge remains getting the word out to that audience, which can very well be composed of local film geeks who think they must schlep to LA for their cinema fix. Kim even entertained the notion that OC's close proximity to the film capital of the world works against his program.
"Definitely. I have a friend, Sara [Driver], who is married to Jim Jarmusch. I ran into her at a film festival and was talking about the screenings we have here, and she thought it was odd that Orange County would even have a cinematheque. Orange County will always be known for shopping malls and great beaches, not for a cinematheque. People here like to go out and enjoy nature. They enjoy shopping more than spending every Thursday watching obscure films."
Then there is UCI itself, which is not as "culturally vibrant" as campuses in true college towns like Austin, Texas, or Madison, Wisconsin, or any of several towns in Massachusetts.
"There is something not exactly right about this place," Kim said, and anyone who has attended or been to UCI for any length of time needs no further explanation.