Marian Luntz, Museum of Fine Arts Houston's Curator of Film and Video will be honored by the Cinema Arts Festival on Sunday at 4 p.m. for 20 years of outstanding service to the Houston community. Luntz has selected Federico Fellini's masterpiece 8 1/2 to celebrate the occasion.
You can also catch her on film in Robert Ziebell's The State I'm In, screening on Sunday at 7 p.m. Luntz has served on the production team of the Texas PBS shorts showcase, The Territory, since 1984. She lectures on the media arts at institutions and conferences throughout the country and is an expect on the work of the legendary photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank. She's the recipient of the Dedicated Service Award from the School of Communications at Texas Southern University and Excellence in Film Programming Award from The Houston Film Critics Society.
Luntz took a break from her busy life in film to reflect on the journey so far.
CultureMap: Congratulations on receiving this much deserved honor. At a time when people are watching movies on their phones, I am so glad that the MFAH continues to play a vital a role in keeping the film experience a live and collective event. You single handedly save us from the multiplex. How do you think the MFAH is positioned to take an even larger role as a place to see important films?
Marian Luntz: The MFAH has been involved with presenting films since the 1930s, before we had a building. Our current style of programming was established after the Brown Auditorium Theater opened in the mid-70s, organized by such film lovers as the late artist William Steen, film programmer Ralph McKay (who directed our program for many years), and critic/author/educator Phillip Lopate, who is coming to Houston as a guest of the Cinema Arts Festival this week.
Phillip is the subject of the documentary Chekhov for Children, screening on Saturday, and consulted with the museum's film program while he was at the UH Creative Writing Program in the '80s. When I arrived, there was a great tradition in place, and a loyal audience that we always aspire to satisfy and expand. And now we are reaching out to the next generation, as the offspring of our devotees find their way to our films.
As part of the local film community, we naturally became part of the conversation with the abrupt shuttering of the Angelika, just as we'd been when there was talk of razing the River Oaks a few years back. It's encouraging that Houstonians clamor to see the art films opening elsewhere on the big screen, and we always want to be responsive.
CultureMap: I will never forget how calm and collected you were when 500 people showed up for the opening of the Fellini festival. It was downright Felliniesqe. What do you love about Fellini's 8 1/2?
ML: My memories of 8 1/2 are quite visceral: I think of the cacophony, the humor and pathos, the stylish black and white appeal, Nino Rota's fabulous score, the constant intoning of "Guido" by so many people, and the charismatic central performance by Marcello Mastroianni. I heard that Fellini wrote a reminder to himself while shooting that said, "Remember, this is a comedy."
CM: Do you remember the moment you got hooked on film?
ML:. While in high school on Long Island, my friends and I began frequenting what was then called the New Community Cinema, a nonprofit arthouse that's now known as the Cinema Arts Centre and is operated by the son of the people who ran it when I first attended. In college at Dartmouth I joined the Film Society and began ushering for them to see as many films as possible, while also becoming looped in with artists who ran something called the Shadowbox in a church, screening experimental films.
It was kind of a precursor to the Aurora Picture Show and microcinemas. I took film classes too. My first job out of college was working in the office of people who distributed B movies internationally, so I became involved in coordinating the shipment of 35mm prints of the likes of Revenge of the Cheerleaders and Invasion of the Love Drones to all parts of the planet. Fortunately, I moved on from there to work for Kino International, a venerable distributor of art films that we now rent films from on a regular basis.
CM: I can't imagine you in the same room with a film called Revenge of the Cheerleaders. But there's more we don't know about you. Few people know that you had a brief career as a movie star in The State I'm In, which is such a wonderful time capsule of the arts scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
What do you recall about the experience of being in the film and the art community back then?
ML: I moved from New York to Houston in 1983, attracted by its welcoming film and art scene when I passed through briefly two years earlier while coordinating an independent film tour for the American Film Institute.
Among my friends were artists from the early years of the Core Fellows Program at the Glassell School of Art, including The State I'm In director, photographer and filmmaker Robert Ziebell.
Rob had seen "my work" during my on-camera stints co-hosting The Territory, the shorts showcase produced by SWAMP that airs on Houston PBS. My husband Jim Kanan also appears in my scene in his film, playing an evangelist with a fish.
CM:. Very few people in the country do what you do. We are lucky in Houston to have such a vibrant film program based at the MFAH. So much goes in to what you do from the curatorial process to finding the best possible print of a particular movie. What's your favorite part of the job?
ML: It's an absolute team effort here, and our longevity owes much to the MFAH Trustees and Dr. Peter Marzio appreciating the value of the museum presenting films alongside other art forms. The film committee that advises our department — including founding chair Lynn Wyatt and co-chairs Franci Crane and Michael Zilkha — provide guidance on many levels. Our small staff includes Tracy Stephenson and Ray Gomez in the film department, and our a/v department led by MariAlice Grimes and head projectionist Ralph Kaethner, both of whom have worked at the museum longer than I have. And, of course, the audience's enthusiasm is what sustains us.
I often get the comment "I want your job" or "You have the best job." Watching films and making selections is the biggest challenge, and the biggest delight.