John J. Fink – Cultivator Profile

Buffalo is full of people helping to cultivate cinema and we want to celebrate those involved.
The Cultivators is a new monthly feature in which we highlight individuals who are integral
to the presentation, promotion and production of film here in the queen city.

THE CULTIVATORS #005
JOHN J. FINK
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Director of Programing at Buffalo International Film Festival
Senior Staff Writer at The Film Stage
Twitter: @finkjohnj

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QUESTIONS & ANSWERS

What got you interested in movies?

I think my intro came like most: seeing and enjoying mainstream movies. In particular Saturday matinees at the 10-plex in Paramus, New Jersey where I became interested in the fact that in each one of those rooms something different was happening while I was seeing films like Dennis The Menace and Groundhog’s Day.

I developed a little more adventurous taste around middle school thanks to Siskel and Ebert. I became interested in the small ads for foreign and indie films—things that would rarely make the Paramus 10-plex. And then one day one of those acclaimed films mysteriously showed up at another local New Jersey multiplex: Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies. Mom and I decided to go see it.

That film blew my mind—a work of improvisational social realism that proved to be more exciting than the latest James Cameron action film. I’m grateful to my mother, Gayle, who supported this inquiry—suffering through countless films until my 17th birthday when I was able to drive myself to the art houses in Montclair, NJ where I continued my film education with films like The Piano Teacher, Chopper, Y Tu Mamá También, and Divine Intervention. I’ve been fortunate enough to live all of my life in or near cities with great art house cinemas.

What is your favorite movie related memory?

I have so many great ones from my first TIFF screening ten years ago at the Ryerson (which has been home to many great movie memories) to seeing Last Day of Disco (one of my favorites) with a packed house at Metrograph in August.

It’s so difficult to pin-point one memory but I do think cinema is a useful tool for reflection and self-discovery and sometimes intentionally or unintentionally its a therapy for the viewer as much as it is the filmmaker. Films that have hit me hardest as a teen were films that seem to directly reflect an emotional reality that wasn’t always represented—films like Rob Schmidt’s Crime and Punishment in Suburbia and Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, both of which I had seen in theaters and nailed what it was like to be a teenage boy making sense of all those pretty girls that unintentionally drive you insane while also blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality as one gets to know his backstory. I’m a sucker for films about time and place, particularly those about the American suburbs.

A second viewing of Richard Linkater’s Boyhood became a more personal experience a month after my grandmother passed away. Having seen the film months after its opening weekend, I found the experience more intense, emotional, and rich the second time around. That afternoon I walked into Dipson’s McKinley Mall, cried more than I ever have before at a movie, and walked out refreshed having had a cathartic experience. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me during a second viewing.

How did you end up in Buffalo?

After the economy fell off a cliff in 2008 (sometime after a particularly excellent cinematic adventure at TIFF) I decided it was time to get back to my passion: film. I had been working in sales and operations for a rather large and conservative regional bank. Even through they were well-managed, they were not immune to the economic earthquake. The breaking point was taking a class to become a CTP (Certified Treasury Professional) only to be told Congress will be changing much of what we were learning in the next few days (but we still had to know it for the test!).

After researching my options I landed at the University at Buffalo, Department of Media Study in the fall of 2009 to pursue an MFA. I had originally arrived in a very experimental department in transition as someone mostly interested in narrative film and found an unlikely supporter in the great Tony Conrad. Buffalo proved to be an amazing playground for the arts (although not without its challenges) and I enjoyed the kind of wild-west atmosphere where great things were possible for a guerrilla filmmaker with organizations like Hallwalls and Squeaky Wheel providing a platform (and audience) to take on projects that blended film and installation through their big annual fundraiser parties.

In 2013 my graduate thesis film Brandonwood (filmed mostly in WNY’s Southtowns) had its world premiere at BIFF. The next year shortly after the festival, BIFF founder and director Ed Summer passed away and I thought surely BIFF would remain dormant. I was encouraged by the movement to relaunch the festival as it represented a rare opportunity to host the kind of regional festival I would have liked to have attended as a cinephile living in Buffalo, so I jumped at the opportunity to join the team. Although I have moved back to the New York City area for family and professional reasons, I remain closely connected to the 716 though BIFF, various film projects, and close friends and collaborators.

What do you want to see more of in Buffalo?

I’d love to see FILM make a comeback—at least for many of the exciting repertory screenings that are hosted around town weekly! Nationally it’s encouraging to see 35MM is being championed by filmmakers and operators like the Alamo Drafthouse and in New York by the new Metrograph (which presents several 35MM prints a day). While I admire new digital restorations that make classics more accessible via DCP, I really love the texture of a properly preserved and presented print. On a related side note: we have intel that a 70MM projector exists in a mothballed WNY cinema! My dream is to save, restore, and install it for big screen classics and the latest works from our contemporary master filmmakers who are still fighting the good fight. Any cultivators up for a heist and/or caper?

What are your essential film books?

My gateway of course was anything written by Roger Ebert. I used to sit in my room skimming his big book of reviews as a kid and teen before high speed internet. When I grew up and met other cinephiles in the festival and criticism circles, I found that wasn’t so unusual.

Essentials discovered further along in my formal film education are Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Heretical Empiricism and Andre Bazin’s What is Cinema which, when read together, offer some interesting tension around the grammar and politics of cinema. I like that Bazin’s “Myth of Total Cinema” continues to poke its thumb at new media storytelling like VR and 4D Cinema, even as they are heralded as the next big thing. I also recently read Hitchock/Trauffaut after seeing Kent Jones’ terrific film at TIFF last year and it might as well replace Bordwell and Thompson as the default text in every “Intro to Film” course.

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TOP TEN FILMS
website-header#01 – Barcelona [1994], directed by Whit Stillman
website-header#02 – The Piano Teacher [2001], directed by Michael Haneke
website-header#03 – Mothlight [1963], directed by Stan Brackhage
website-header#04 – Syndromes and a Century [2007], directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
website-header#05 – In Jackson Heights [2015], directed by Fredrick Wiseman
website-header#06 – The Flicker [1966], directed by Tony Conrad
website-header#07 – Pulp Fiction [1994], directed by Quentin Tarantino
website-header#08 – The Watermelon Woman [1996], directed by Cheryl Dunye
website-header#09 – Sunshine State [2002], directed by John Sayles
website-header#10 – Exotica / The Sweet Hereafter [1994 / 1997], directed by Atom Egoyan
website-headerEgoyan’s back-to-back masterpieces
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Photo of John J. Fink supplied by subject.
Film stills from left to right, top to bottom are Dennis the Menace, Secrets & Lies,
Y Tu Mamá También, The Last Days of Disco, The Virgin Suicides, Boyhood, Tony Conrad, and Brandonwood.

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