A Q&A with Cornell Cinema's Mary Fessenden

ITHACA, NY -- Cornell Cinema screens over 150 different films a year, five to seven nights a week in the Willard Straight Theatre. The space features the largest screen in Ithaca and has the facilities to handle archival 35mm reel-to-reel prints, DCP and other digital formats. Each semester-long scheduled includes a range of classic Hollywood and foreign films, documentaries, international cinema, silence films, cult classics, experimental work and recently Hollywood and arthouse hits. We sat down with Cornell Cinema director Mary Fessenden to talk about the upcoming schedule.

Ithaca Times: I started going to Cornell Cinema screenings in 1980 when I was in high school, so I’ve been around for more than 40 years. It’s actually hard to believe that CC has been around for just 50 years. It’s been such a big part of my life.

Mary Fessenden: I know what you mean! I’ve been here since 1987. But who’s counting? Did you know that Cornell Cinema is one of the longest running campus film exhibition programs in the country? I think only Doc Films at the University of Chicago has been around longer. We were established in 1970, so that makes us 51 years old. We missed our big 50th anniversary in 2020 due to the pandemic, but we’ve planned a belated acknowledgement of the milestone with this fall’s series: Celebrating 50+ Years of Cornell Cinema.  

I decided to limit my selection of films for the series to those that were particularly significant for one reason or another during the first half of the organization’s lifetime, for example: films that were really popular and shown multiple times; films that were shown with a noted filmmaker or other special guest in attendance; or films that represent a specialized aspect of Cornell Cinema’s programming. The series has about 20 titles, so I won’t list them all here (they’re all on our website), but some of the highlights include a recent restoration of George Nierenberg’s fantastic documentary “No Maps on My Taps” (1979), featuring legendary tap dancers Chuck Green, Bunny Briggs and Howard ‘Sandman’ Sims, which screened on Sept. 1. When the film was originally released, the dancers performed live in conjunction with screenings around the country, and Cornell Cinema hosted “Sandman Sims,” who performed in Statler Auditorium in April 1980. Film society staples like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Seventh Seal” and “Days of Heaven” — the latter two screening in glorious 35mm film prints — will also be shown in September. We’re particularly excited about a pair of films, documentary hybrids, we’ll be showing in early October: French filmmaker Georges Rouquier’s “Farrebique,” or the Four Seasons (1946) and the follow-up film, “Biquefarre” (1983), both set on a family farm in the south of France. The films were celebrated by film critic Richard Brody in a 2017 article in the New Yorker.

Former Cornell Cinema director Bill Gilcher, and then history professor John Weiss, brought Rouquier to Ithaca in 1978 to show “Farrebique,”about a year in the life of a French peasant family. After Rouquier’s visit, Gilcher applied for and received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to make a follow-up film to be directed by Rouquier. Gilcher took a leave from Cornell Cinema during the spring of 1981 to work on the film in France, and the result was “Biquefarre” (1983), which had its American premiere at Cornell Cinema after Richard Herskowitz had become the director. The premiere was attended by Rouquier and others involved with the film, including Gilcher, one of the film’s producers. Gilcher recently shared with me an article he wrote for the former Ithaca weekly, “The Grapevine,” about how he came to produce “Biquefarre”and it’s a great story. He’ll join us for a virtual Q&A following a screening of a digital restoration of “Farrebique” on October 4th and provide a virtual intro for a screening of “Biquefarre”on Oct. 7.  

IT: This year marks the return of the All-Access Pass?

MF: Yes! The pass was very popular when we introduced it in 2019, and it prompted lots of people to attend films they otherwise wouldn’t have seen, which was one of the goals behind it. We have made a few changes: the pass will work on a semester-basis, not for the entire academic year; it will be digital only (there won’t be a physical pass); and it can only be purchased online. What hasn’t changed is that it’s still an incredible deal! The general pass price is $30 (students pay even less), and with it, patrons gain access to all regularly-priced screenings for the semester, about 70 films. We’re also encouraging everyone — passholders and single ticket buyers as well — to reserve or purchase their tickets online in advance. By doing so, they can skip the box office line.

IT: As usual there are many films premiering at Cornell Cinema.

MF: Yes! In the documentary category I’d like to highlight “Being a Human Person”, a wonderful documentary about Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson and the making of his last film, “About Endlessness,” which we’ll show the weekend before; “Sisters with Transistors” (Sept. 8), about female electronic music pioneers, which will be followed by a panel discussion led by CU professor Trevor Pinch; “Gunda,” a stunning black-and-white film about a pig and life on a small farm (yes, you read that correctly!); and “The Velvet Underground” (Oct. 15, 18 & 19), the first documentary made by Todd Haynes. The Cornell Library acquired a large “Velvet Underground” archive in 2015, and music professor Judith Peraino teaches a graduate seminar on it. She’ll discuss the archive and the film at the Oct. 19 screening. We’re also premiering a number of great feature films, including “Tove” (Sept 10 & 12), about Finnish visual artist and author Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins; “Eyimofe (This is My Desire),” an impressive debut from Nigerian twin brothers Arie & Chuko Esiri that’s set in Lagos; and “Son of Monarchs” (Oct. 5), about a Mexican biologist living in New York who returns to his hometown in the monarch butterfly forests of Michoacan. “Son of Monarchs” will be followed by a panel discussion featuring filmmaker Alexis Gambis and Cornell professor Robert Reed from Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, who was the inspiration for the main character. 

IT: What are some of the special events you have planned?

MF: We’ll be showing the silent Chinese masterpiece, “The Goddess” (1934), on Thursday, Sept. 23, with a live score performed by Min Xiao-Fen, a virtuoso on the Chinese stringed instrument pipa, and guitarist Rez Abbasi, both acclaimed musicians who just recently did this show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The film is about a poverty-stricken single mother who works as a prostitute so she can afford an education for her young son, and the lead is played by legendary actress Ruan Lingyu, whose life is portrayed in the unconventional 1991 biopic by Stanley Kwan, “Center Stage,” starring Maggie Cheung, which we’ll be showing in late October in a recent digital restoration.  We’ll present another great silent film/live music event in November when we host Dr. Philip Carli — a regular at Cornell Cinema — and his ensemble. They’ll perform Carli’s original score for “A Fool There Was” (1915), starring Theda Bara, who was written up in the Ithaca Times earlier this year, as she once came to Ithaca to make a film. We’ll also be hosting an eclectic range of guest filmmakers, so I encourage everyone to spend some time on our website to read about them and all the other films we’ll be showing!

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