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July 5, 2020

Jazmyne Moreno and the Art of Genre Film Programming

"Film curation is speaking with someone else’s work — knowing what you want to say with it,” says Moreno.

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Jazmyne Moreno, a freelance film programmer who curates Austin Film Society’ LATES series, attends every single screening she organizes. That’s over 79 screenings since she took over the late-night genre film series in mid-2018. And every time, Moreno offers her critical introduction of each film, then retreats to the lobby — which she refers to as her living room — waiting to get the audience’s impressions when the film is done.

For Moreno, a love of film began as a child, living in small towns in New Mexico and Oklahoma, where there weren’t a lot of other things to do. She’d drag her race car bed into the living room where the television was and watch movies with her mother.

“My mom doesn’t believe in shielding children from the ‘adult world,’ which is why I watched my first Spike Lee film at age six or seven — ‘Crooklyn,’” Moreno says. “Not exactly age appropriate, but it could have been worse.”

Her encyclopedic film knowledge belies Moreno’s appetite for movies. She’s quick to reference film titles, obscure actor’s names and years of films without so much as a momentary pause. At the formative age of 13 she watched Jean-Luc Godard’s reimagined gangster film “Band of Outsiders” and Olivier Assayas’ “Demonlover,” a neo-noir thriller, on the same day. That day, she decided filmmaking must be her calling.

Moreno attended Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, before moving to Austin in 2013. Until she landed her first programming gig, she spent five years working at Vulcan Video — an independent video rental store specializing in foreign, cult and classic films. (After 35 years, Vulcan Video, already facing increasing rent and competition from streaming services, closed its doors for good after the coronavirus quarantine shuttered local businesses indefinitely.)



One day at Vulcan, a scruffy, grumbling guy from the dive bar Hole In The Wall came in looking for someone to put together a screening series. When the rest of the video store staff seemed disinterested, Moreno picked up his business card. And soon she began hosting the series at Hole in the Wall. Around the same time, Laird Jimenez from Alamo Drafthouse, asked Moreno if she’d be interested in guest hosting Weird Wednesday, the cinema’s genre movie series.

“Laird came in one day and we were talking about movies and I told him, ‘there’s this stupid movie you got to see.’ It’s an erotic thriller, ‘Naked Obsession.’ It features the guy who played Carrie’s prom date in ‘Carrie.’ He plays this dude who gets into the seedy underworld of a strip club. There’s a hobo Jesus, masks — so many masks — it’s utterly ridiculous. I suggested it and Laird loved it.”

Similarly, Lars Nilsen, lead film programmer for Austin Film Society, approached Moreno at a Hole In The Wall screening and asked if she’d be interested in more film programming. Moreno says she went into a meeting with Nilsen with a clear idea of what she wanted to do, which sparked the Deep End series that featured, among others, the 1981 horror/sci-fi“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne” and the 1970 British–West German drama of sexual awakening 1960s London, “Deep End.” Moreno is now the regular guest programmer for LATES, AFS’s weekend showcase of genre, arthouse and cult films self-described as “the new cult film canon.”

Moreno, 28, is a natural curator. Although she entered college at first thinking she’d make movies, in the end it just wasn’t her thing. Instead she developed her natural abilities to categorize, make connections, hunt down new things and collect.

“I realized it didn’t want to make things, which sounds bad,” she says. “But (what I do) is an expression of creativity and a way of looking at something. Curation is speaking with someone else’s work — knowing what you want to say with it.”

The more prosaic duties of a film programmer vary, but typically involve finding out who owns the rights to the film. Sometimes it’s a simple process, but other times it can be somewhat of a wild goose chase, tracking down people in different countries. For “Singapore Sling,” a LATES screening now put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic (AFS has closed its theater), Moreno first contacted the director’s son who lives in Europe who then sent her to two German producers who distributed the film.

Moreno selects films by first coming up with a theme — one that may only make sense to her — then drawing from films she saw growing up, or she got to know during her time  at Vulcan Video. Also inherited from her time at the video store, Moreno often programs a series of films around an imaginary person: someone who likes a certain movie and is therefore interested related movies. She’s always got an imaginary customer in mind as well as the follow-up recommendations she’d make.

“If you like Nico from the Velvet Underground then you’re going to want to see this movie where Nico cries and screams in the desert, because you’re a Nico fan. And if you’re into weird stuff, maybe you want to see this dark comedy about the rise of fascism,” Moreno says. “It’s the tone more than anything.”

Not all the films she presents are necessarily her favorites. But they are ones she thinks are worth watching. Curating a late-night genre series comes with some freedoms, she points out. The foreign, the outrageous and the extremely arty are always welcome.

Among the now-canceled LATES screenings was  “All About Lily Chou-Chou,” a story of Japanese teens finding escape in the music of an artist who is “vaguely Bjork-y” and who Moreno loved as a youngster. And later this summer there’s “Son of a White Mare,” a psychedelic Hungarian animated film.

Today, in the age of algorithmically-driven streaming platforms, the concept of someone choosing what to watch for you seems liberating. Perhaps no surprisingly, Moreno doesn’t subscribe to Netflix. She finds it creepy and impersonal to have algorithms choose for her.

“You end up in a weird bubble where you’re only watching the same things over and over again,” she says. “You’re not really expanding beyond that.”

Despite the dizzying amount of shows and movies on streaming platforms, there are plenty of films too obscure and too difficult to secure rights to that aren’t widely available. Moreno points to “Fruit of Paradise,” Věra Chytilová’s little-known follow up to “Daisies,” a 1966 release that helped define the Czech New Wave Movement. “Fruit of Paradise” effectively got Chytilová banned from making films for the better part of a decade due to the way the film challenged the government and religion.

“You may not love the film, but at least it’s something that you might not ever experience elsewhere versus it’s just something in my queue,” Moreno says.

Moreno says platforms like MUBI, which curates a new film every day, offer a surprise element that’s key for appreciating cinema. But it still doesn’t compare to the act of sitting in a dark theatre with a bunch of strangers, and how that influences your experience of a film.

She recalls a Weird Wednesday screening she organized at Alamo Drafthouse where she managed to bring together the regular film bro crowd and a bunch of screaming J. Lo fans with, “The Boy Next Door,” the erotic psychological horror thriller starring Jennifer Lopez.

“I told everyone, ‘I know it’s the Alamo, but feel free to get rowdy.’ We’re watching ‘The Boy Next Door’ where J. Lo sniffs a cookie and just puts it back, in sadness. It’s amazing, it’s a ton of fun.”

The community of people who attend LATES and Weird Wednesday screenings can vary, Moreno says. At the Alamo there’s a hodgepodge of older film guys and younger folks there for specific screenings. At AFS, the audience makeup skews toward End of An Ear record shopper or Hyperreal Film Club event attendee, plus some generally adventurous film fans willing to watch anything.

But Moreno is not overly concerned about tailoring her programming to a specific audience. Hers is more a take-it-or-leave-it strategy.

“I’m not trying to please everyone, and god knows not everyone’s going to be pleased by ‘Singapore Sling’,” Moreno laughs. “If I were trying to please everyone that would be the last film I’d present.”

Of course, many of the films she presents are made by white men, an unfortunate reality of arthouse and genre films, Moreno points out. Likewise, she typically presents to a majority white audience.

Moreno recalls the all-white audiences at the early films of Spike Lee at Alamo and also atf her Protect Ya Neck series, hosted by local hip hop duo Riders Against the Storm (RAS), which featured films with rapper Tupac as well as movies that came out in the wake of “Boys In The Hood.”

“It’s film culture at large,” she points out. “And as a black programmer, it’s kind of awkward. You’re going to end up working with (and presenting to) a bunch of white people.”

Moreno describes a scenario at a screening of “Space Is The Place,” Sun Ra’s 1971 Afrofuturist science fiction manifesto. It was the only film within a series she was presenting that featured black people.

“The whole audience was white and I made a joke when I was presenting, like, ‘there’s four black people here and one of them’s my reflection’,” Moreno laughs.

Moreno says a white majority audience is inevitable, considering the racial breakdown of Austin (68.3% White according to the 2010 U.S. census). And finding new audiences who don’t normally come to screenings can be tough.

“If you associate (genre films) with a bunch of white dudes, and you look like me, you might not go,” she says. “My fellow weird people of color are there, just not as present.”

And with most genre films made by men, they come under fire for being tailored to the male gaze, lumped in with sexploitation films, grindhouse cinema, horror and more. Moreno says it’s important to push back against that stereotype and concentrate on individual actresses and performances. She naturally presents films she is interested in, which tend to lead away from male-gazey tropes.

“As a woman, I don’t gravitate toward things where I feel like the woman in the film is a weak sketch,” Moreno says. “I like the idea of a strong female character — I don’t need her to actually be strong, physically or even emotionally. I don’t need cold ladies. A woman can cry and be a complete mess on screen and that I think is a show of strength in and of itself.” 

Moreno tries not to dismiss noteworthy performances by actresses because a couple of scenes might have been uncomfortable. She chose to screen Serge Gainsbourg’s  “Je t’aime moi non plus,” (1976), featuring Jane Birkin, for example. Birkin plays an androgynous gas station worker who falls in love with a truck-driving gay man, and the majority of the film is spent with them trying to consummate their relationship. The film has been criticized for a scene in which Birkin has painful anal sex.

“(Birkin) played a lot of characters back in the ‘70s where she was just the cute hot lady, just sex on legs.’ And (in ‘Je t’aime moi non plus’) she’s really gets to dig deep and gives a great performance. (Her male co-star) is someone who’s detached and cold, just lightly sketched,” says Moreno. “But that said, it’s something that if you’re watching now you look at it and think, ‘Oh, yeah, maybe this wouldn’t happen today’.”

Another example: The 1982 German horror film “Der Fan,” that chronicles an obsessed fan girl who stalks down a pop star. Moreno says some people love the film, but others don’t because the lead actress spends a significant portion of the film in the nude.

“If you’re trying to find strength in women just keeping their clothes on or women not expressing themselves emotionally, I think that’s also a problem,” Moreno says.

Moreno tries to keep in mind that actresses in these films wanted to be in the role and chose the jobs. While the majority of arthouse and genre films are directed by men, there are other roles than the director, Moreno points out. She’s presented films written by and starring women, like “Wild,” directed by Nicolette Krebitz,

Nevertheles Moreno explains she didn’t draw special attention to the film’s female director when she presented it at AFS.

“Whether it’s directed by a woman, a man, someone of color, someone of the LGBT community — I just want people to see these films. And so I try not to make it a big deal,” Moreno says. “I think it’s also a matter of how it’s presented. I try not to present things in a socio-political context.”

While Moreno has screened Asian films and some American films, by directors such as David Lynch and Harmony Korine, by and large arthouse cinema is primarily dominated by European directors. The great equalizer is that they’re all weird, she says.

“Being able to present these films is awesome. They are ones I never thought I’d get to see, much less show to an entire audience. I’m constantly in awe of that experience.”

 


Mary K. Cantrell
Mary K. Cantrell
Mary K. Cantrell is a 25-year-old, Austin-based writer who splits her time working at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and freelancing. She has journalism and women’s and gender studies degrees from The University of Texas and a fondness for covering local arts stories.

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