On Cinema, Art, and Houston: A Conversation with the MFAH’s Marian Luntz

by Neil Fauerso October 1, 2018
Marian Luntz of the MFAH

Marian Luntz of the MFAH

Marian Luntz, a native New Yorker who attended Dartmouth College, has worked in the film and media arts field for over three decades. After positions at Kino International and the American Film Institute, she moved to Houston in 1983 to become Director of Exhibition at the Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP). Since 1990 she has been the Film and Video Curator at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, programming more than 200 screenings annually, and overseeing the museum’s archive and distribution of films by Robert Frank.

Neil Fauerso: I saw you worked for Kino, which sent back memories to me of when I was a nerdy teenage film buff and would send orders to Facets Video in New York and wait six weeks for a VHS of Andrei Rublev. Can you talk a little bit about working for Kino? 

Marian Luntz: It was really great timing for me. I had grown up being something of a film nerd on Long Island. And, in fact I just saw the people who run the theater where we used to see art films — it was called the Community Cinema, it’s now called Cinema Art Center and it’s out in the middle of Long Island in a town called Huntington.

I’ve been thinking of it, because we [the MFAH] have been doing this Bergman centennial film series, and I definitely first saw Bergman films when I went there. And then I had the opportunity to go to college at Dartmouth in the first co-educational class, which turned out to be a mixed experience, because it’s a very isolated, beautiful college in New Hampshire, steeped in tradition, including men who liked the all-male thing. At the same time the women who were there, some of them were legacy — daughters and granddaughters of alums — but others were randomly there, like me, because we were looking for a good college. And we kind of bonded and I still have some close friends, most of my close friends from there are women. They didn’t have a film program at the time, and now they have a really flourishing film program. Film courses sometimes live in other departments, like English, comparative literature, French, something like. I started taking film courses, and then continued my fascination with film study and film analysis with like-minded folks there. But then I was lucky to get a job out of college with an alumnus who had his own film company in New York.

After about a year working at that company, I read in the New York Times about a job opening at Kino International, which distributed art films. I felt very lucky to get a job there. It was a three-person office and the person running the company became one of my early mentors, and his name is Don Krim. And he came from a family involved in the movie industry, but Don was passionate about film and they were distributing what was then the Janus collection, and started to release new international and independent films and packages. One of the things we did was the silent class series, which is based on the landmark book by the critic Leonard Maltin. He covered Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Langdon. And so Don Krim got together a series of 35 and 16mm prints, and I was responsible for assisting with getting these booked around the country.

Being New York, there was no shortage to see films. I was really fortunate to work for a film distribution company during the day and then see films at evenings and weekends. Don passed away of cancer not that long ago, but had secured the future of the company by joining forces with Richard Lorber, so now it’s Kino-Lorber, [who] have recently partnered with Zeitgeist Films, which is a woman-owned company, and so Kino-Lorber and Zeitgeist are doing things in partnership. 

Still from Eagle Pennell's 'Last Night at the Alamo' (1983)

Still from Eagle Pennell’s ‘Last Night at the Alamo’ (1983)

NF: How did working for SWAMP come about? 

ML: I vividly remember how I got to SWAMP; it involves Don Krim. I had the opportunity to interview for a job with the American Film Institute, which at the time had their LA campus, but they were also housed in the Kennedy Center in Washington, and they were screening films and organizing tours of films around the country. I was offered this job to coordinate something called the New American Cinema Showcase, which was a selection of independent films from the late ’70s and early ’80s, to bring these films to a group of cities around the country. The idea was to spread awareness of filmmakers such as Charles Burnett, Gregory Nava, Houston’s own Eagle Pennell. Features and docs. I had this conversation with Don Krim; I’ve been offered this job, but it’s a contract job. And Don said, “I can’t guarantee you’re going to have a job when you come back, but it seems a good career trajectory for you as a next step.”

So with his blessing, I took the job and traveled around the country with that package and one of the cities I came to was Houston. The way it was set up: In each city I was given a desk at a non-profit media arts organization. So SWAMP was where I was based, in a garage apartment in one corner of where the Menil Collection property is. So we put on this independent film festival at the River Oaks. We brought filmmakers to town. We brought Charles Burnett and Killer of Sheep to TSU. It was quite a time. And I liked Houston. Everyone was very friendly, I enjoyed working with SWAMP. The tour ended. 

Still from Charles Burnett's 'Killer of Sheep' (1978)

Still from Charles Burnett’s ‘Killer of Sheep’ (1978)

I went back to New York and got another job. Out of the blue I got a call from Ed Hugetz, who at the time was the director of SWAMP. “What would you think of moving here, because we have a position, we liked working with you.” So that happened. It was pretty crazy. I told everyone in New York I was moving, and they said, “Oh, really?,” and after a few beats, said, “What are you doing with your apartment?”

It was a great challenge for me. I got to go around Texas with independent films by Texan and South Central American films. SWAMP was funded by the NEA and other entities to provide support and funding for independent film and video artists in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, at one point Louisiana and New Mexico. It was an amazing time for me — I was able to experience Texas through film, which I loved. I also was involved with The Territory, which is a television series on PBS, which is going to be revived next year. It’s a short showcase of independent films, and SWAMP started doing this with PBS in the late ’70s. James Blue, the documentary filmmaker who founded SWAMP, managed to persuade PBS that they needed to show short independent films. It was for a long time the longest-running showcase of independent short films. It was great: we showed Robert Rodriguez’s Bedhead, and a lot of work by video artists who were thriving in the ’80s and ’90s, and for the first few years we were actually on camera, which was crazy because I have coworkers who tell me, “Oh, I saw you on TV when I was in high school.”

So The Territory was another big project I was involved in, and I’m glad to get back [to] it when they resurrect it. When I moved to Houston, one of the people I was very friendly was Ralph McKay, [who] was the film curator at the MFAH in the ’80s. He told me he was moving to New York, and encouraged me to apply for the position I still hold. I was fortunate to be hired by our former director Peter Marzio and Anne Tucker, the founding curator of photography who’s now Curator Emerita — she retired two years ago. I still get to work with SWAMP. Next weekend we’re doing the Manhattan Short Film Festival. It’s a curated selection of international shorts. 

NF: What is your philosophy for curating for an art museum? Do you see any difference compared to, say, the Film Forum in New York, or Austin Film Society? Or is it the same, it just happens to be housed in the museum? 

ML: Here’s what my experience is as a programmer at an art museum. We do function as an art house screen. So that means we’ll do a combination of new releases, and we do repertory. We’re finishing Bergman, and then we’re doing Visconti starting in November. Our museum has one fantastic theater of 350 seats. It’s shared by multiple departments; there might be a lecture, a symposium, a musical performance, and on the weekends most of the time there’s films. One thing that’s different in an institution like this is being aware of multiple demands on the one theater that we have. In the fall of 2020, we have a new building opening that will have a second smaller theater that will also be shared. That will give us some flexibility to add to peak screenings if we sell out. 

Another thing that is different for us: We are also doing programming that responds to the exhibition schedule. Last summer we had an exhibition of Mexican Modernism, and we showed a collection of films from the golden age of Mexican cinema. We have an exhibition opening in a few weeks called Tudors to Windsors — it’s a portrait of British Royalty, so we’re doing a serious called Real Royal. We’re starting with The Queen (2006), and we’ll sprinkle some more in throughout the exhibition. Next spring we’ll have a major Van Gogh exhibition, so we’ll bring back Loving Vincent. If I was programming somewhere else, I might not show as many films about artists. We’re showing the documentary Kusama: Infinity. Our friends at Milestone have restored The Mystery of Picasso, and we’re showing that next year. With the ten or fifteen films we’re offered every week, we’ll definitely prioritize the ones with artists. 

Still from Barbara Loden's 'Wanda' (1970)

Still from Barbara Loden’s ‘Wanda’ (1970)

NF: How would you say your approach goes to balancing retrospective film series, films that respond to the exhibitions, art-house new releases, and any other categories? 

ML: I’d call it a very fluid process. These two spotlight series — Bergman and Visconti — those take up slots. In any given year when I look at our programming calendar, I’ll always have to pencil in dates for our recurring annual festival and film series that we do, and then I’ll see how many nights we have left; what’s the exhibition schedule, are we showing films to go with the exhibition on view with the particular time period? Then we tackle filmmakers who may be touring who we hear about, and new films.

It’s kind of a weird thing, with the theatrical window being non-existent or shortened because of the priority of streaming platforms. But even if a film is out on streaming platforms we’ll consider it, if it’s something we feel committed to. Barbara Loden’s Wanda is a good example of one that Janus released in a digital restoration a few months ago. We were having trouble fitting it in; I just finalized it for late December, because I find this film seminal and impactful and I want us to show [it]. Because it’s Janus, it will be on Filmstruck and Criterion Collection, but I feel good about allowing people to see it on screen, and pointing out why this is an important film. 

NF: Is there any dream retrospective or film series that you would like to do?

ML: One thing: Did you notice Kino-Lorber has a massive box set of women directors during the silent era called Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers? That’s going to come out pretty soon, and we’ll probably do a selection of those, maybe in the spring. It’s always a balancing act to make sure we have films by and about women, making sure we have films from other countries and cultures. There’s also a documentary that’s almost done on Alice Guy-Blaché, and if we’re able to get that as well, it would be interesting to show some shorts and featurettes because she was a really seminal part of the film industry and underappreciated. Having funding available to show silent films with live accompaniment is something I would really like to do more of. I’d love to have one or two silent film concerts. 

Still from Robert Frank's Cocksucker Blues (1972)

Still from Robert Frank’s ‘Cocksucker Blues’ (1972)

NF: Can you talk about the Robert Frank archive that the MFAH has and that you oversee? 

ML: When I first came here, Anne Tucker had organized a mid-career exhibition for Robert called New York to Nova Scotia, so this is early- to mid-’80s. So Robert had made a number of films at that point, and didn’t particularly have a central distributor for the films. So Ralph McKay and Anne said to Robert, “We’d like to show your films, since we’re showing your photographs.” And he agreed to that. We helped with restoring a couple of films right out of the gate. Robert came down and screened Cocksucker Blues on 16mm.

Robert liked how it was working with my predecessors, so they hatched the idea that the museum would become the repository and distributor of his films. So when I came to this job in 1990, within a year I had met Robert Frank, which was outstanding, and [we] forged a relationship I’m very privileged continues to this time. He’s turning 94 in November, and he’s in good spirits and good shape.

For many years we did an inventory of the films and negatives that were here, and we’re able to get grants from the NEA, the New American Film Institute, and The National Film Preservation Foundation, which is still the most important source of public funding for preservation for independent film. In each case we’d have preservation negative and presentation negative. When digital things started happening, Robert’s longtime editor Laura Israel started working with Robert and his publisher to release Robert’s films on DVD. We received digital masters of the film; when an institution wants to show Robert’s films we can provide the digital copies if they can’t show 16 or 35mm.

Not that long ago, a decision was made by Robert and his advisors in New York to move his archive to MoMA. MoMA is a renowned film archive — they have thousands if not millions of copies of films and negatives in an amazing facility in rural Pennsylvania, and they are a member of the International Federation of Film Archives. This was a wise decision, because it assures the legacy of Robert’s films by having an important institution like MoMA be his archive. So we are still the distributor, and they are the archive. 

Still from My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Still from Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ (1988)

NF: Can you say a few words about any of your favorite films or favorite film experiences? 

ML: On anime: I wasn’t brought into the whole genre until one of my first assistants here gave my daughter a VHS copy of My Neighbor Totoro. This is around ’92-’93. And it became a great discovery for me. When there was a Miyazaki retrospective touring, we showed them, and I loved them and loved seeing the families coming in. Anime encourages a sense of wonder and makes you think about fears as a child. I’m a fan of Fred Wiseman in general. I would say Annie Hall — Woody Allen’s personal stuff aside, it was very seminal for me and my friends. Also Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. I would also say Charles Burnett, who we’ve hosted a few times and is such a nice person. I am a fan of Robert Altman’s films. Pandora’s Box with Louise Brooks (1929) was one distributed when I worked at Kino, and I think of it often. 

This interview took place in Sept., 2018. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

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