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Photograph by Pamela Gentile

Oh, Captain: Peter 'Captain' Scarlet during the fest last year, next to film critic Manny Farber.

Degrees of Obsession

San Francisco International Film Festival programmer Peter Scarlet makes work more than a four-letter word

By Kara Knafelc

What were some of your jobs before film programmer?

In chronological order? I drove a furniture delivery truck, I tended bar, was the assistant music editor of the Book of Knowledge encyclopedia, worked in film production for a number of years in New York and on the West Coast. I produced a documentary for the forerunner of PBS about athletes who were making a connection between sports and politics in America in the wake of black protest at the 1968 Olympics.

Were you originally interested in documentaries?

Not particularly. My original interest happened rather late in life after seeing a lot of films. I was in Europe and stumbled into the Cinematheque Francaise during the mid-'60s and got hit by the wonderfully surreal juxtapositions of the programming.

How would you describe what you do every day?

Actually, I don't have time to describe what I do right now [laughs]. It's a joke, but it's a serious one.

Would you say that great film represents everyday life?

I would say that's one thing that great films can do. It's one of the things that mainstream film rarely does. I'll take an example in Kiarostami's work, which is the fellow in A Taste of Cherry who is trying to decide whether he will commit suicide or not. He drives around and picks up three different people. He has conversations with those people who represent different walks of life and has other kinds of exchanges, either visual or verbal, with the people working in the terrain he passes through, so that the world that Kiarostami depicts is a world of people at work. Mainstream movies rarely depict people at work, possibly in part because they're designed as a diversion for people who don't like their work, want to get away from it. And so in a whole lot of American movies not only do you not see people working, but it seems like they don't even have jobs.

And if you do see them working, there is a list of fairy-tale professions that are allowable. Is there any other job you could see yourself doing?

Well, I haven't found it yet. I toy with the idea of going back into production and might yet do it one of these days, but there's something extremely rewarding about what I do.

Do you see yourself as a champion of the everyday voice?

We're now in an era that, with video and a number of other things, anybody can make a movie. And while I'm a believer in the ideology of that, the fact is that the movies that Everybody makes aren't very good. So I'm not a champion of the--what was the phrase you used a moment ago?

The everyday voice.

Films do reflect the diversity of life, and I don't just mean that in a trendy way, like "multi-ethnic" or whatever the phrase is these days. People exist in all kinds of different forms, shapes, sizes, colors, degrees of obsession, occupation on this planet. And movies are a good way to learn about that.

I'd never thought of "degrees of obsession" as a way of categorizing people.

Well, try it. And by that I mean not just what we conventionally think of as a movie, which is a movie that runs an hour-and-a-half or two hours and tells a story and has actors, but also about non-narrative films, about documentaries, about short films. All those different forms of cinema are enormously powerful ways in which to explore our human diversity. And I'm trying not to go back to phrases like "mainstream," but there's an awful lot of cinema that just kind of bores me, to speak about it personally, because it's about the activities of the fantasies of people who occupy the lobby of a Holiday Inn, to use a sort of silly metaphor.

So, you have someone who exists in a rarefied atmosphere, and they're busy playing, or imagining, the average person's fantasy, even though they're removed from what that person might experience on a daily basis. I find that very odd.

Well, you've touched on the central paradox of modern life, because what you're saying is not true only of film but of all mass media and indeed of most contemporary political activity. Stuff is done not because someone wants to do it or, to come back to my earlier phrase, has an obsession that drives them to do it. It's because they think that someone else would either buy it, get behind it or vote for it. There's a whole "Where's the beef?" in that idea. It's the old gag, and there's something missing there.

Is there any other job you could see yourself doing?

No. Maybe production. I don't think after all of the years of doing this or knocking around on this planet that I understand life very well, although I think I'm trying to and I think sometimes art, in this case movies, can help us through the process of doing that. And if I had a gun to my head I guess I'd say that I think it's those kind of movies that excite me more than movies that try to distract me or tempt me into escaping from life.

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From the April 17, 2000 issue of the Metropolitan.

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