County Judge, Veronica Escobar

  • Classic movies deep in heart of Texas
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  • AT THE PLAZA | El Paso's film festival shows cinema greats as they originally were meant to be seen
  • September 4, 2009
    BY LAURA EMERICK Staff Reporter

  • EL PASO, Texas -- Movie Maker magazine recently singled out 25 notable film festivals, ranging from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Woods Hole, Mass. It gets a thumbs up for including Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert's festival in Urbana-Champaign, and the Locarno International in Switzerland certainly sounds intriguing. But it overlooked an equally deserving event, the Plaza Classic Film Festival here.

  • That might be understandable, since the festival was launched in 2008. But it's already making a name for itself and just ended its second run Aug. 6-16. As its name suggests, it features classic films -- shown the way they were meant to be: on a big screen, in this case, the landmark Plaza Theatre in downtown El Paso.

  • This year's lineup boasted more than 70 titles: Hollywood golden-age greats "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) and "Gone With the Wind" (1939), foreign films "The 400 Blows" (1959) and "La Strada" (1954), and more contemporary classics like "The French Connection" (1971) and "Star Wars" (1977).

  • "We try to drill into the permutation of what 'classic' can mean," said the festival's artistic director Charles Horak. "In addition to big films, we show films that deserve to be reanalyzed or deserve to be seen, like the noir 'Blast of Silence' and the Western 'The Tall T,' as well as films that are just plain old fun, like 'Mary Poppins.' Or films that are instant classics like Miyazaki's 'Spirited Away.' That is a great film, and it doesn't take 30 years to recognize that."

  • Though other festivals might showcase classics, no other U.S. fest does so at this scope. "We've started to think that it's the largest classics film festival out there," Horak said. "I'm getting much more comfortable claiming that that's true. We've done searches, and there's nothing else like this out there.

  • "By any measurement or standards, it's just so exceeded our expectations, which were high to begin with," said Horak, who hosts a film-themed show on the local NPR affiliate and also hosts El Paso's Film Salon, a monthly revival series. "I go to other film festivals, so I think I have a good basis of comparison."

  • A classic movie palace
  • Built in 1930, the Plaza Theatre underwent a $40 million restoration financed by the El Paso Community Foundation. When the theater reopened as a performing arts center in 2006, after being shuttered for 30 years, "There were huge expectations for Plaza, along with a great source of nostalgia," said Eric Pearson, executive vice president of the El Paso Community Foundation, which also presents the festival. "After the reopening, people would come by and share a story about the Plaza, and then inevitably ask, 'When are you going to show movies here again?' So it was always in our minds to do it."
  • For the first festival in 2008, they drew up a wish list of more than 100 films. "Here we are after the second year, with still more titles to show," Pearson said. "We hope to keep it going for years to come."

  • A lost experience
  • The films are screened in the 2,000-seat Plaza and in the smaller 200-seat Philanthropy Theatre, a state-of-the-art digital cinema built next door as part of the Plaza complex. Most of the festival titles are shown on film, but even the digital experience offers moviegoers something that has been largely lost.

  • "There's still a craving to see wonderful films with an audience," Horak said. "That kind of experience can't be re-created easily in a modern cineplex."

  • That's certainly true for epics like "Star Wars" -- which I must admit I'd never seen on the big screen before attending one of two sold-out screenings at the Plaza Classic Festival. Moviegoers stood in lines that stretched along the block, and many kids, who were dressed up in "Star Wars" costumes, wielded lightsabers while waiting to enter. I'll also admit (please don't kill me) that I never understood the fuss over "Star Wars" until I saw it with 2,000 fans who cheered with genuine excitement every time that one of their heroes first appeared onscreen.

  • As filmmaker Bart Weiss noted on his blog after attending this year's event: "Many [of the fest's titles] are new prints; all are great prints. Many who come to see these films have never experienced them on the big screen; for many, they will never get to see them again this way."

  • Director of the Video Association of Dallas, Weiss once worked on a '70s era film about movie palaces, "and since then, most have vanished." So he knows this subject extensively. "The Plaza is the best restoration of one of these palaces I have ever seen," he said. "The lobby, the amenities, the scale and the majesty of the Palace have come alive like the monsters in one of the sci-fi films we saw [at the festival]."

  • Along with great films, the festival also offers special events (concerts, lectures, signings), local film showcases and guest appearances. Actor Michael York, who introduced a screening of "Cabaret" (1972) -- in which he memorably co-starred with Liza Minnelli -- also received the festival's first Lifetime Achievement Award. Former Hitchcock production designer C.O. "Doc" Erickson appeared with "Vertigo" (1958) and discussed his work on other classics such as "The Misfits" (1961), "Chinatown" (1974) and "Blade Runner" (1982). Nick Clooney, former host of American Movie Classics (when it actually showed classics), an avid film historian and of course George Clooney's father, introduced "Some Like It Hot" (1959).

  • The guest celebrities all commented on the festival's great sense of community. "It's bigger than the film festival, it's bigger than just a theater," Horak said. "It's a hub for a lot of other ideas that are sprouting up downtown."

  • Just blocks from the border
  • Nestled in a mountain pass along the Rio Grande, El Paso is witnessing a period of rebirth after an economic downturn beginning in the 1960s. "There's the notion of the border, and El Paso being a tough place," Horak said. "And the Plaza does sit in the city's poorest ZIP code. But we are creating a world-class festival that's just blocks from the border. The idea that El Paso might become a destination for cinephiles everywhere -- that thrills me to no end."

  • From the start, the non-profit festival was created with the idea of giving back to the community. "El Paso has had this weird mentality," Pearson said. "There's this attitude, well, it's OK by El Paso's standards. But the Plaza Classic Festival is as good as it gets.

  • We want to create something that the community is going to take great pride in. It's turned into something wonderful, and people around the country starting to take notice."

  • The 'Star Wars' coup
  • People like George Lucas. His staff at Lucasfilm approved the Plaza screening of "Star Wars" (which Lucas rarely allows to be shown publicly) because the festival impressed him -- especially its mission of helping to support local filmmakers. All proceeds go into a charitable fund, which will help to finance film projects.

  • "Our goal is to generate interest on this fund and then send the money back out to light some small fires," Horak said. "Most films shot here are made for zero money, no one's paid. Even small grants would have a huge impact on what local filmmakers are able to do. We also hope to support ideas for alternative film festivals. We have a broader base, so this festival can generate sparks for other local showcases.

  • "The fund does exist, and it's growing. We got a lot of donations this year. It comes in small amounts, as well as larger donations, and it adds up. That's how the Plaza itself got saved."

  • Horak, who was trained as an architect and in his "day job" runs a development firm, is looking ahead. "We're really proud the festival has become a success regionally. We're now positioning to get the word out nationally."

  • So mark your calendars: He and Pearson already have announced the dates for the third annual Plaza Classic Film Festival: Aug. 5-15, 2010.


  • County Judge
    Veronica Escobar