The Film Fanatic
Everything about the movie theater, Metrograph, screams “hip.” From the international roster of directors whose films it screens; to its Lower East Side location among some of the city’s chicest restaurants and bars—Kiki’s, Dimes, and art world hangout Beverly’s; to its brightly backlit concession stand and its perfect-for-a-date Commissary; to its expertly curated bookshop, this is a place to see and be seen (before your movie starts of course. Then it’s all about the art). Metrograph also hosts exclusive premieres, book signings, and special events.
Aliza Ma, head of Metrograph’s programming, has one of Manhattan’s most enviable jobs. A cinema enthusiast who’s worked around the world at festivals and museums, Ma chooses new films to introduce, or reintroduce, to New York’s eager audience. Back in December, she assembled a much buzzed about 20-film retrospective of the career of Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung. When the theater first opened back in early March, she launched a retrospective of the French Second Wave director Jean Eustache. Yeah, this lady knows her stuff. Read on to hear from one of the city’s most important tastemakers in all things film.
Discuss how you came up with the January program and what you’re especially excited about this month at Metrograph.
An Éric Rohmer retrospective featuring gorgeous, rare imported film prints from Paris. These scintillating, breathtaking films—often set in southern seaside locales and featuring beautiful protagonists conflicted by existential quandaries—will be a most welcome escape from the post-holiday winter slump. For the uninitiated, this will be the ideal way to experience them for the first time. As for repeat audiences, if you are like me, you probably already understand how essential these films are to revisit. We will have French critic Antoine de Baecque here to present his newly translated biography on the filmmaker.
January shaped up to be a celebration of our favorite film-related authors. My programming partner Jake Perlin (Artistic Director) and I love doing book events at Metrograph, because it allows us to activate every aspect of our space, from the cinema, to the bookstore, to the Commissary. On January 14, we will be hosting critic and author Molly Haskell for a signing of her vital new book, Steven Spielberg: A Life In Films. That same weekend, you will be able to experience a retrospective of our favorite Spielberg films, including Empire of the Sun and A.I. Artificial Intelligence on 35mm.
Another program I’m very proud of is called “Based on a Book by Patricia Highsmith.” It celebrates the legacy of auteur-driven films adapted from the literary work of this pioneer of modern suspense thrillers. Ranging from Strangers on a Train by Alfred Hitchcock to Carol by Todd Haynes, this program features films made over a six-decade range, which all speak to the profound and lasting cinematic influence of her work.
You’ve worked at film festivals and museums, in all areas of the cinema world. What attracts you to the New York independent theater scene, and Metrograph in particular?
The openness and freedom available to a programmer in NYC, especially in the vibrant neighborhood of the Lower East Side is incomparable.
On average, we must have the most well-viewed movie-going audience in the world (ok, outside of Paris…), thanks to the complex ecosystem of art house theaters, repertory houses, museums, and experimental film venues that offer a never-ending array of delectable filmgoing offerings. As a film lover, I could not imagine a better place to be. I feel very fortunate about that.
As a programmer, I have been delighted by the wonderful audiences Metrograph has developed. We show some pretty off the beaten path programming sometimes, and it has always found an audience. It’s an audience that’s open, curious, and always up for a discussion about film. It’s important to us to program intuitively—so that the films can be experienced as we would like to experience them as audiences.
In this very mixed and ever-changing neighborhood, you never know who will unexpectedly turn up for a weekend matinee or late night screening, or have dinner at the Commissary. The fluidity between audience, programmer, talent and industry is what can make New York film culture so rapturous and programming even more fun.
You’re given one free meal at the Metrograph Commissary and the opportunity to select one free book from the bookstore–what do you choose?
A steak tartare (must try here) with frites and a perfect Manhattan. For light mealtime reading, I’d probably choose Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger’s salacious chronicles of Hollywood behind-the-curtains gossip between 1900-1950s.
Describe how you became interested in film and how that love has developed over the years.
I studied film in school, but I always felt like my real film education happened in the cinemas. I was lucky enough to grow up near a cinematheque that regularly showed imported archival film prints from around the world, and those screenings were deeply formative experiences for me.
Over the years, programming and watching films has led me to develop a less dogmatic and more personal and nuanced way to love film. I’ve completely done away with fallacious binaries (‘indie vs. mainstream’, ’arthouse’ vs. ‘studio’) and best-of listicles, to really focus on appreciating each film on its own terms. If I had to describe the most important tenet to our programming philosophy, that would be it.
I feel fortunate to be programming with someone who can have widely diverging tastes and cultural reference points from me, but who shares the same ethos on programming and spectatorship. I’ve always been told—and I agree—that the programming at Metrograph has the feeling of a mini film festival, every week offering a large variety of films and guest appearances. To me, Metrograph feels like at once like an indelible playground and a never-ending source of renewal for my passion for film.