Get to know the people behind your favorite university cinema in our new blog series, “Meet Your IU Cinema Staff.” Using the format of our exclusive filmmaker interviews — all of which can be found on our YouTube channel — we’ve crafted a questionnaire for our staff to help introduce them to you, our audience. For today’s profile, we have our talented technical director, B. Elena Grassia.
What is your job at IU Cinema?
My work as Technical Director includes management of tech operations and procedures, the tech staff, the yearly budget, the hiring and training of Graduate Assistant Projectionists and the maintenance and upgrades of all tech equipment for presentation at IU Cinema. I also cover projection as needed, especially for archival 35mm and 16mm film presentation.
What part of your job do you enjoy the most?
I love working behind the scenes in the booth, confirming the build of a Digital Cinema show, threading and running 16mm and 35mm film, or working with service technicians on booth equipment maintenance and upgrades. I also enjoy one-on-one training sessions with our Graduate Assistant Projectionists as well as collaborating with IU Cinema’s exceptional technical coordinator, Seth Mutchler, as we work to discover and document best practices or new procedures. And nothing beats the satisfaction of a successful event, whether with a live audience present in the Cinema or while producing a virtual presentation!
Of the IU Cinema events you’ve been a part of, do you have a favorite?
I have so many favorites, so I’ll just choose one of them! On March 8, 2018, Victoria Price was a guest at IU Cinema. She gave a lively and engaging presentation of her father Vincent’s public and private life. I learned that Vincent Price was so much more than his popularly known personae as an actor. He was an avid art historian, collector, and museum founder. Victoria’s presentation was partnered with the screening of The Masque of the Red Death and The Abominable Dr. Phibes, which provided an intriguing juxtaposition of “Vincent Price, the Master of Menace” on film and his personal passion for art as a serious collector.
Do you have a film experience that changed your life or direction?
Soon after I moved to San Francisco in the late 1970s, I began frequenting the numerous arthouse cinemas operating at that time. In darkened theatres across the Bay Area, I saw big-screen premieres of first-run independents; historic arthouse, experimental, and underground gems; international films; as well as many Hollywood classics. By 1985, the owner of the Roxie Cinema, Robert Evans, had become a close friend. He and his son, Bela, offered me the opportunity to train as the all-day Saturday projectionist. I knew that I must seize this chance to work in the booth as the “woman behind the curtain!” Unbeknownst to me, that weekly shift projecting 16 and 35mm films at the Roxie was the start of a career in film and digital presentation that I still enjoy more than 35 years later!
In terms of films and/or filmmakers, what or who inspires you?
What inspires me are fragments rather than entire films or a specific filmmaker’s body of work. (I guess as a projectionist I accepted that watching fragments during the time between reel changeovers was enough for me to experience as each film screened.) These inspirational moments are inevitably during a transitional, transcendent, or epiphany moment for the characters, or for me as the viewer. These fragments underscore a deeply resonant concept or elicit a strong emotional response.
An example is the scene in Ozu’s Tokyo Story when the mother, Tomi, visits her daughter-in-law, Noriko. Of all the family Tomi visits in Tokyo — her sons, daughters, grandchildren — it is the relatively poor Noriko (she has to borrow rice from a next-door neighbor) who is most loving and generous to Tomi. Noriko is the widow of Tomi’s son who died in World War II. In the background is a box of RINSO soap flakes. That visual juxtaposition of Western influence on Japanese culture post-WWII underscores the realization for me that the two most sympathetic and compassionate characters in Tokyo Story show the most love toward each other. And they also both loved the soldier who died fighting against the US.
What do you hope audiences leave with after an IU Cinema event?
A sense of having left their busy and often stressful world behind at the door to experience something that transports them beyond their usual day-to-day experiences or deep within to a relevant and transformative experience. Then, upon re-entry I hope they return to the real world with something that stays with them in the form of replenishment, intellectual stimulation, or emotional support gained from gathering at IU Cinema.
What is the most powerful aspect of film as an art form?
Cinematic presentation, especially in a venue like IU Cinema, imbues storytelling with a dream-like quality and provides an immersive experience on IU Cinema’s larger-than-life screen, often with full surround sound. Curation in the form of introductions and after-show discussions or Q&As deepen the experience by allowing interaction that is not usually possible in commercial venues or at-home streaming events.
What would be your dream IU Cinema event or series?
Back-to-back double bill screenings in a series called Art Imitates Art:
- Pandora’s Box (1929) and Cabaret (1972)
- The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
- Seven Samurai (1954) and The Magnificent Seven (1960)
- Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) and Tokyo Story (1953)
- Dead End (1937) and Mean Streets (1973)
What is the importance of having a place like the IU Cinema?
IU Cinema provides a special place for film where audiences can be treated to both the comfort and beauty of the space while staying fully focused mentally in a shared experience with the human community.
Which of our IU Cinema exclusive filmmaker interviews is your favorite or is one that you’d recommend?
Ash Mayfair’s interview is my favorite.