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Paramount's film curator explains choices for summer series

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

The Paramount Summer Classic Film Series offers not only an escape from the state's legendary infernal temperatures; it provides a trip back in time, a voyage into our collective cinematic consciousness.

Everyone, whether 19 or 90, likely has a specific memory of watching Atlanta burn in "Gone With the Wind" or sitting riveted as a pained Marlon Brando laments his fate as a bum in "On the Waterfront."

The Paramount Theatre each summer gives movie lovers chances to commune together in the dark as our remembrances are brought to life through the beauty of 35 mm film, a gasping art form that sits precariously on the verge of extinction.

The 37th rendition of the summer series kicks off with a 50th anniversary screening of the Gregory Peck classic, "To Kill a Mockingbird." The Universal Pictures film is just one of a number of Universal films that will screen this summer in celebration of the studio's 100th anniversary.

Paramount film programmer Jesse Trussell, now in his second year at the reins, says that while curating the list of films he stayed cognizant of the two joys people get from the series. He wants to present people with the classics that have been burned into our memories while also presenting new discoveries, especially foreign titles and more obscure films, such as German director Reiner Werner Fassbender's three-hour science-fiction film "World on a Wire." The film, originally made for German television, will make its Austin premiere at the Paramount this summer.

More than 80 films will be screened in stunning 35 mm at the Paramount, including beloved titles such as "The Birds" and "East of Eden," and more modern classics like "Raising Arizona" and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." The Stateside Theatre will participate in the series for the first time and screen 20 films digitally.

The series breaks down into categories by director, theme and genre, with special one-off events, such as Iron & Wine frontman Sam Beam's presentation of "The Third Man," dotting the calendar.

In advance of tonight's opening film, we sat down with Trussell, who talked about some of the films he is most excited to see and his thinking behind this summer's programming. We also hear from three Summer Series regulars on what makes it so special to them.

‘To Kill a Mockingbird' (opening night film)

"It's such a great film, and yet in a weird way I feel like it's almost been, if not marginalized, it's not one people always think to bring up when they talk about the great films. And I think with Obama coming out in support of gay marriage, we're obviously at this really important social moment, and it's interesting to look back 50 years at another time and what society was going through then. Gregory Peck's central performance in this film is one of the most humane, real things I've ever seen. It's such a powerful piece of work. It's hard to get to that level of gravitas and respect that someone like Peck really commands. You don't think he's this authority figure on high; you feel like he's earned the respect."

World Cinema Classics (featuring ‘Close-Up' from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami)

"One of my personal favorite films, ‘Close-Up' is a really, really interesting film that's a hybrid of documentary and fiction and re-creation that's also a film about filmmaking in a lot of ways. I thought, especially after ‘A Separation' did so well this year, that people would be interested in seeing some more Iranian films. I don't think an Iranian film has ever played at the Paramount Summer Classics Series before."

Bergman in Love

"One of the things I think about (Swedish director) Ingmar Bergman is that he sometimes gets painted too much as a dour, insanely depressing filmmaker. But ‘Smiles on a Summer Night' is a straight-up comedy that's really funny, and ‘Summer with Monika,' one of my favorite Bergman films, was a big influence on the French New Wave filmmakers. It's very much this young, exuberant, romantic, fast-paced movie, and those are things I don't think people associate with Bergman."

Kickoff Weekend: Celebrating 100 Years of Universal Pictures (featuring restored prints of ‘The Sting,' ‘All Quiet on the Western Front' and more)

"Universal's great. They're one of my favorite studios to work with; they really care about film. As soon as I heard about their 100th anniversary celebration and the films they intended to restore, I emailed them. This is one of the things I really want to focus on when people come to the theater this summer. Thirty-five millimeter film is slowly dying. With the transition to digital that's going on, with the way that the studios themselves are completely going away from it, sometimes seeing these films on 35 might be potentially some of the last times you can see them in a lot of ways because no one's sure what's going to happen with a lot of the archives. And the repertory theaters around the country are steadily becoming less and less able to book films; the archives are lending them out less."

Dramatic Artists: Acting and Performance on Film

"I wanted to really show a variety of different styles with this category. Obviously we've got the two Tennessee Williams adaptations (‘A Streetcar Named Desire' and ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'), and both of those to me are really amazing works of acting. You really don't get better than watching Brando in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire' for thinking of what acting was and how revolutionary it was at the time. That film still feels really fresh, like it could have been one of the great '70s classics, but it was made in 1951. It's significantly earlier than it feels, and Brando is a huge part of that. Some of the other stuff in that category – I've always been a fan of Orson Welles. Welles is one of my favorite actor-directors, and ‘The Lady from Shanghai' is really interesting because it's this relationship between the actor-director and his wife at the time, actress Rita Hayworth. It's a unique film in a lot of ways."

Alfred Hitchcock Week (featuring ‘The Birds,' ‘Rope,' ‘39 Steps,' ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much,' ‘North by Northwest' and ‘Strangers on a Train')

"Alfred Hitchcock is a guy who, what he did well, just became what all movies would do. While planning the series, I re-watched ‘North by Northwest,' and it is just the best summer popcorn adventure movie ever. It's significantly better on a level of craft than anything that came out last summer. You see the way that Hitchcock manipulates both his stories and his actors, and he has his pet themes that come up over and over again. It's putting that really personal stamp on populous filmmaking. We have a handful of those people today, like Christopher Nolan, doing that, and Hitchcock created that – the celebrity director. And certainly Hitchcock's films are some of the greatest films that work on a big screen even better than they work on a television. And they're seriously re-watchable."

Female Filmmakers in Hollywood and Abroad

"Last year, after I had programmed the series, I was looking through the list and realized there weren't any female directors in the series, and honestly I was a little ashamed of that. We're a classic-oriented series, so that plays into it. There were just very few female directors in classic Hollywood. So I wanted to change that this year and actually put a spotlight on it. We're starting with two classic films from the 1940s and 1950s, Dorothy Arzner's ‘Dance, Girl, Dance' and Ida Lupino's ‘Outrage,' to show that there were these women working in the system even if they were a little less heralded. That's a really diverse week. We've got everything from more recent stuff like ‘Clueless' (which will be presented by director Amy Heckerling at the State Theatre) and ‘35 Shots of Rum,' which is one of my personal favorite films of the last several years. ‘35 Shots of Rum' was made by Claire Denis, who is this major French female director; she's really a remarkable filmmaker. This is the kind of place where we're stretching a little of what we're classically doing; that's a film that's only 3 years old at this point, but it's so under-seen and her work is going to be one of those great world classics in the next 20 or 30 years."

"Out of Africa"

" ‘Out of Africa' is just a film I really enjoy. It was made in the mid-'80s but has that old-school scope of epic filmmaking. A lot of this series is devoted to the great, iconic screen stars. We're at this point now with stardom where it's like, ‘Are we having any more icons?' And certainly Meryl Streep and Robert Redford are two of the last great screen icons."

Spike Lee presents "Summer of Sam"

"We had an opportunity to bring Spike Lee in to have him show one of his own works, and we told him to choose any of his films. And he chose ‘Summer of Sam.' My assumption (as to why Lee chose it) is that it was a film that was in a big run of some of his most famous films and was a little bit unheralded or under-seen at the time. I always find it interesting how a filmmaker often locks in on those that are the less-obvious choices. So instead of showing ‘Do the Right Thing,' he's chosen ‘Summer of Sam.' We're going to have an hourlong discussion with Spike before the screening. It's gonna be really entertaining; I can't wait for that.'

Stars Are Born

"‘A Star is Born' has been remade twice — 1934 was the original, then it was remade with Judy Garland in the '50s and Barbra Streisand in the '70s, and I think Beyoncé is currently doing a remake for today. It's interesting because it's a franchise in the same way that the Bond films are — they've been making them over and over because clearly it works. But it has none of that connection to the classic things that we think of as being a franchise. And it also sort of shows off the idea that, for every time people complain about remakes and sequels, that's kind of always been going. It's just that maybe sometimes some of the ones we think of now as being sequels from that era were just done at such a high level they don't feel like retreads."

Early Kubrick, featuring ‘Paths of Glory' and ‘The Killing'

"Kubrick's early films are really gritty. There are definitely some seeds for some of his later stuff, but these two films, especially ‘The Killing.' The whole sequence in ‘The Dark Knight,' the bank robbery with the masks and everything, is a specific reference to a bank robbery in ‘The Killing.' It's a really interesting noir and very gritty and odd. I like it a lot."

Contact at modam@statesman.com Twitter: @Odam

10 to see at Paramount Summer Classic Film Series

¦ May 26 & 27: "The Sting" 

¦ June 1: "An Affair to Remember"  

¦ June 8: "Modern Times"  (Stateside)

¦ June 12 & 13: "Raising Arizona" 

¦ July 14 & 15: "My Man Godfrey"  ¦ July 24 & 25: "Nosferatu"  (1922) ¦ July 28 & 29: "The Exorcist" 

¦ August 25 & 26: "2001: A Space Odyssey" 

¦ August 28 & 29: "Magnificent Seven" 

¦ September 4 & 5: "Rebel Without a Cause"

For the complete Summer Classics Series calendar, visit austintheatre.org .

Paramount Summer Classics Series regulars

Cameron Pohlman

Pohlman has been going to the Summer Classics Series off and on for almost 20 years. He says he always takes a soda and popcorn with him to his preferred seats: front-row center in the balcony.

Favorite series film: "Casablanca"

Excited this summer for: "North by Northwest" and "Pillow Talk"

Why he loves the series: "In a nutshell, it takes me away from the real world for a short while. I also love the theater. Once, when I was about 5 years old, my mother took us to one of those movie palaces in San Francisco to see ‘Pillow Talk.' I never forgot it. Even a lousy movie in a magnificent setting takes me away. The Paramount does that, and I never tire of it."

Cecy Corea

Corea has been a devoted attendee of the Summer Classics Series since she moved to Austin in 2006. Her rituals include going to a taco brunch at Mi Madre's and catching the first Sunday matinees at the Paramount.

Favorite series film: "I look forward to seeing which new films I've always wanted to see but have never had a chance to make the list. For example, I had always wanted to see ‘Brazil,' but had never had a chance. Last year, not only did I get to see if for the first time, but I got to see it in a beautiful theater, and in glorious 35mm!"

Excited this summer for: "The Lady From Shanghai," "Freaks" and James Bond week, especially if she can persuade her dad in San Antonio to join her.

Why she loves the series: "I love the fact that there is always something for everybody. I feel the mix between old and new classics keeps getting better. We get everything from Alfred Hitchcock to John Cassavetes and Spike Lee. It manages to be both engaging for the most hard-core film fans and accessible enough for the casual moviegoer. It's just the perfect balance."

Wade Utley

Utley lives over an hour from the Paramount Theatre but has been regularly making the drive for five years. He says he usually sees more than two-thirds of the movies during the series and always sits in the mezzanine area reserved for Paramount Film Fan Club members.

Favorite series film: "Casablanca," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "Gone with the Wind"

Excited this summer for: "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Cabaret," "My Man Godfrey" and many more

Why he loves the series: "I love seeing the classic movies. Also, the draw for me is the Paramount itself because, to me, it's not just a movie theater. It's a treasure and should not be treated like an ordinary movie theater. I love that theater. It is like a second home to me, and all of the staff and volunteer ushers are great friends."

— Matthew Odam