Instead of appearing, Shelby Lee Adams left an e-mail, a three-page thing, that had been printed and taped to the wall near the elevator, just outside the room where a film about his photography was to be shown.
Part screed and part apology, his e-mail had been delivered to the crowd of about 40 last Tuesday night via the Louisville Film Society, a nonprofit group fueled essentially by three people who spend their free time bringing reel oddities — and the ensuing discussions — to the city. At the moment, their screenings happen three Tuesdays a month, through partnerships with the Kentucky Museum of Art & Craft, Bernheim Forest and the 21c Museum Hotel.
There are other showings, too, like the upcoming year-anniversary celebration slated for next Thursday evening in the backyard at Nachbar, the Germantown watering hole where a packed yard watched the maiden LFS offering, “Strange 16MM Films,” last June 19.
Tracy Heightchew, a boundlessly energetic flower of a woman and one of the group’s three founders, told the crowd for the Adams documentary that LFS provides “alternative films in alternative spaces.” And there we all sat, rows of plastic chairs in what could easily be a conference room by day on the second floor of the KMAC building on West Main Street, awaiting a film that grapples with the intricate controversies of a photographer whose beautiful, grotesque images of his Kentucky-Appalachian homeplace have stirred some to accuse him of exploitation and perpetuating hillbilly stereotypes, a criticism that at once seems to anger him and shatter his heart.
Thus, the e-mail.
Adams sent it because he needed to decline an invitation to appear alongside the film, called “The True Meaning of Pictures.” As well, he was clearly compelled to participate in a conversation about the film, not only because it is critical of him in certain ways, but because the notions it brings forth — How does the presence of a photographer interfere with what he is documenting? Do provocative images of a stereotyped person or thing confront the stereotype or reinforce it? — should be discussed. That is, after all, the purpose of Adams’ work.
That is a parallel purpose of the Louisville Film Society, not only to show films you won’t see unless you seek them out, but also to initiate and facilitate discussion about film — as art, message, conduit and conscience.
The group formed last April after Heightchew, a native Louisvillian who’d just moved back from Chicago and a job at the famous Facets Multimedia, and Ryan Daly, a filmmaker and aficionado who studied at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, hooked up with George Parker, also a native who’d spent eight years in San Francisco and one in Austin before returning home. Among other traits, they shared these essentials: a love of film and a recent past in a city with a broad, diverse film community.
After the Adams film, attendees sipped wine and nibbled at finger foods, and, you know, talked to each other. That doesn’t often happen after the “Spiderman 3” showing at a Cinemark multiplex. Not to disparage such a thing. Those behind LFS certainly do not, and, in fact, make a point of telling people like me during interviews like ours that they will work with almost whomever, wherever, to disperse both lesser-known and well-known films with the overriding goal of developing a broader community around film, one driven by the kinds of conversations that Adams and all of us had about “The True Meaning of Pictures.”
“One of the important things about what we’re trying to do is build community awareness and appreciation for film,” Parker said. “And build these community spaces where people can come together, meet one another and spend an evening together watching a film — whether it be an independent film or a mainstream film.”
Karen Welch, director of programming for KMAC, said she had been interested in putting on a film series to support exhibitions at the museum and diversify its general offering. She noticed the third-Tuesday series at 21c across the street and contacted LFS.
“Just staying truly visual art is fine, but I feel like you always seem to think about the music that’s related to it, or the feeling that’s related to it,” she said. “What can we do that would make this more of a full circle?”
The Adams film, the first of their arrangement, ran in conjunction with a Southern Arts Federation exhibition that features prominently a group of Kentucky artists. “The more things you can bring to it, the more it steps out of just visual art,” Welch said of the screening. “It makes it more connected.”
Parker said film is an ideal medium to bring people together because it can bridge artistic disciplines, which can, in the most ideal sense at least, offer greater understanding — of person, place and thing.
Aside from the regular rotating Tuesday nights, the Louisville Film Society is partnering with the Idea Festival to launch a brief series called “What Film Changed Your Life?” This question will be posed on the Idea Festival’s website soon. From the answers LFS will choose three films to screen at the Brown-Forman Amphitheatre at Waterfront Park on Aug. 1, 29 and Sept. 26 — opening day of the Idea Festival. For more on the Louisville Film Society, visit www.louisvillefilm.org.
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