Following the wildfires that recently rampaged through Bastrop, Texas—leaving more than 1,550 homes destroyed in this small community—director Richard Linklater, actors Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey, and producer Ginger Sledge held a special fundraising premiere for their new film Bernie at Austin’s Paramount Theatre on Sunday, September 18. Co-presented by the Austin Film Society (along with numerous sponsors), the fire relief benefit screening—which was originally scheduled as a closed-door cast-and-crew screening—was held to support residents of Bastrop, where much of Bernie was filmed and where Linklater is a part-time resident. All proceeds from the film’s Austin public premiere benefited local organizations such as Friends of the Lost Pines State Parks, Bastrop County Emergency Food Pantry, and the Heart of the Pines Volunteer Fire Department.
In addition to living there part of the year, Linklater decided to shoot Bernie in Bastrop (standing in for the tiny East Texas town of Carthage) because of its distinct small-town Texas character. Linklater has labeled Bernie “a film from [Bastrop’s] community,” and said that the fundraising premiere was “the least we can do for this wonderful community that opened its doors to us during production.”
Linklater was himself evacuated during the fires and, while much of his property was damaged, all of his neighbors lost their homes to the blaze. He hopes proceeds from the Bernie premiere will help Bastrop residents rebuild their homes and their community, and also hopes to bring the film to his hometown for community screenings.
The Bastrop wildfires, already so destructive and tragic, posed another threat to Linklater fans and to the film community: several of Linklater’s own 35 millimeter film prints were housed at his Bastrop property and were damaged by the fire. In fact, Linklater had graciously agreed to supply his own 35mm film print of subUrbia for the Walker Art Center’s upcoming screening of the film on September 28th, as part of the Walker’s “A Day in the Life” Linklater retrospective. Luckily, Linklater was able to ship his own print of subUrbia before the wildfires reached his house—meaning viewers at the Walker screening can appreciate this underrated 1996 satire in all of its glittering celluloid glory.
But the fact that Linklater’s personal 35mm print is one of few available for exhibition is cause for alarm; had his own print of subUrbia been lost to the Bastrop wildfires, we likely would have had to screen the movie on video—an avenue exhibitors resort to increasingly often as theaters gradually shift towards digital projection. This is a common fate for films nowadays, especially those which are not recent enough to be considered new releases, yet not old enough to be classified as beloved classics. Linklater’s own Tape, for example—another film in our retrospective (it will be screening here on October 5th)—is currently unavailable on 35 millimeter through its distributor. (Though Tape was shot on digital video, its raw, corrosive DV look really comes through with the utmost power when transferred to and projected on film.)
In the grand scheme of things, the scarcity of well-restored 35 millimeter film prints may be a less heinous tragedy than the wildfires that have scorched Bastrop, but it’s still something for film lovers to lament. The very fact that both subUrbia and Tape were extraordinarily difficult to secure on 35 millimeter—despite the fact that they’re directed by one of the most well-known American independent directors—is a testament to the difficulties in restoring, preserving, and/or exhibiting film prints. Imagine, for example, if Slacker—Linklater’s landmark feature debut, enjoying its twenty-year anniversary this year—experienced such neglect and was condemned to a dreary 35 millimeter afterlife limited to a few shoddy exhibition prints. (Luckily, the fact that Slacker revolutionized American independent filmmaking means a 35mm print is readily available for its screening at the Walker on September 24th—despite the fact that Slacker has perhaps the most convoluted distribution and ownership backstory of all of Linklater’s films. The new print is courtesy of the Sundance Collection at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.)
The paucity of 35mm prints is an obstacle which film programmers and exhibitors deal with all the time, especially as theaters are turning increasingly towards digital projection in place of celluloid (a format which, cineastes will attest, offers an entirely unique experience). These difficulties are complicated immeasurably when distribution and ownership rights change hands over the years as companies shut down or merge. Such an indifference to restoring and preserving classic films on celluloid is not exactly new—it accounts for the sad fact that the majority of silent films (an estimated three-quarters) no longer exist on film or in any other format. It makes the destruction of prints that do exist doubly tragic; film enthusiasts may always be aware that the loss of a print to a disaster like the Bastrop wildfires may mean the disappearance of that film from 35mm available for exhibition.
We may be heartened, though, by Linklater’s attempts to support both the film community and his own physical community of Bastrop, Texas. While the fundraising premiere of Bernie provides crucial donations to a community in the process of rebuilding, his attempts to safeguard his own collection of 35mm prints ensure that at least one more well-preserved print will be available for theatrical audiences to enjoy—a seemingly small fact that will be especially reassuring when subUrbia is screened, in all of its celluloid glory, next Wednesday here at the Walker.
A full schedule of the Walker’s “Richard Linklater: A Day in the Life” retrospective may be found here.
The Austin Film Society’s official release regarding the special premiere of Bernie (with links to the organizations that received donations) may be found here.