Volume 79, Number 35 | February 3 - 9, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

“Karen Cooper Carte Blanche:
40 Years of Documentary Premieres at Film Forum”
February 3-20
At The Museum of Modern Art
11 W. 53rd St. (btw. Fifth and Sixth Avenues)
Call 212-708-9400 or visit www.moma.org

Photo by Robin Holland

Karen Cooper: Casting a slightly sideways glance at the next great film?

Film Forum, at forty, finally honored
MoMA gives Cooper free reign for ‘Carte Blanche’


Movies didn’t particularly interest Karen Cooper as a kid “growing up on the E and F trains out of Queens to Manhattan.” Dance did.

“Probably my most vivid childhood memory,” the honcho of Film Forum has confessed, “was as a teenager, in standing room, at the Metropolitan Opera (the old one) seeing Nureyev and Fonteyn dance ‘Romeo and Juliet.’  ”

To which, if Karen Cooper could blush, she now blushingly adds: “My mother named me Karen after the little girl in the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of ‘The Red Shoes.’  ”

From February 3rd through February 20th, The Museum of Modern Art is honoring the 40 years of Film Forum’s existence with “Karen Cooper Carte Blanche” (a series, curated by her, of 21 stunning documentary films that premiered on one or another of her screens over all those years).

The parade begins with “My Architect” — Nathaniel Kahn’s jolting 2005 exploration of the secret life of his father (the late great architect Louis Kahn). It ends with “Domestic Violence” — Frederick Wiseman’s unflinching 2001 look into a Tampa, Florida shelter for battered women and children.

Filmmakers in between include Agnes Varda (“The Gleaners and I”), Paul Cox (“Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh”), Werner Herzog (“Lessons of Darkness”), and the team of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (“The War Room”).

“Clearly,” Ms. Cooper says, [documentaries are] “where my heart is.” A full 50 percent of what she herself has programmed at Film Forum were and are documentaries.  “I think real life is a lot more complicated, nuanced, and exciting than jewelry heists, prostitutes turned society ladies, and drug deals gone wrong.”

Her tastes, she says, are eclectic — though leaning toward the political, thoughtful, penetrating. She has learned that being called “a generalist” is a compliment, not an insult. She’s frankly fascinated by how a people as cultivated as the Germans could have metamorphed into Nazis. Ergo, one of the documentaries that fascinates her (and me) is Hartmut Bitomsky’s 1986 “Reichsautobahn.”

But documentaries are certainly not the only story at the non-profit Film Forum. With Mike Maggiore (who came aboard in 1994 and who double-duties as Forum’s publicist), Ms. Cooper has traveled to film festivals around the world to see and book (or not) hundreds upon hundreds of non-documentary “movie-movies.”

In any given year, from 35 to 40 of these offerings will be theatrical world premieres. “But Mike and I turn down much more than what we bring in.”

Further hundreds of great, classical, little-known or forgotten motion pictures — from Britain, France, Italy, Holland, Russia, China, Korea, Hollywood, everywhere — fill one of Film Forum’s three screens every day in the Repertory Series (brilliantly conceived and conducted this past decade by Bruce Goldstein).

Film Forum is 40 years old — but it’s been Cooper’s baby only 38 years. The girl from Queens came out of Smith College with a BA in English Literature in 1970 and found a job at a now long-deceased movie magazine.

In the spring of 1972, she met a young man named Peter Feinstein — who, with a friend named Andy Miller, had been running a fly-by-night Film Forum on 50 wooden folding chairs upstairs on Manhattan’s West 86th Street.

“They were cineastes. They loved movies; but Andy had already left the scene and Peter wanted to get out of it. He asked me if I wanted to take over the business, small as it was. I asked him what the business consisted of, and he handed me a suitcase full of the carbons of letters he’d written to filmmakers everywhere. Remember those old purple carbons?  Those.

“Well.” says Karen Cooper, “I thought: I’m an English major, I can do this. I have a sense of organization. I can type. I have a love of the arts, particularly dance. I got that from my mother, Ruth Handelsman Cooper.”

She took the suitcase and shook Peter Feinstein’s hand.

“His salary had been $100 a week. The budget was $19,000 a year.” Dryly: “Today, it’s $4.4 million.”

The non-profit status has of course helped get grants, loans, and backing from various governmental and private sources — but none of it has been easy, including the writing and sending of Film Forum monthly bulletins to 48,000 members in the great world out there.

The outfit has moved from 86th Street to Vandam Street to Watts Street — “Which nobody could ever find, but they did” — and, finally, to the West Houston Street premises it has occupied for 20 years now “thanks to a decent and generous landlord named Jeff Gural.”

Karen and her husband, animator George Griffin, live in the far West Village. Their daughter Laura is a MFA in painting at Columbia.

And “The Red Shoes” — the much-beloved 1948 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, starring Moira Shearer as the Victoria Page who gives her life to dance — comes back to Film Forum for one week starting February 19.

Film Forum is located at 209 W. Houston Street. Call 212-727-8110 or visit www.filmforum.com.


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