Sunday afternoon just before 2 o’clock. The weekly meeting of the Hendersonville Film Society (HFS) is about to begin. The filmgoers have walked through corridors decorated with elegant antiques to reach the Smoky Mountain Theatre in the Lake Pointe Landing Senior living community. Instead of popcorn, there’s hot coffee and cookies.
Effervescent Elaine Ciampi, the society’s guiding muse and chief ambassador, is everywhere. She collects donations, hands out the monthly schedule, greets the regulars and makes the newcomers welcome. Now she sits front row with the crowd, about 30 of them today, mostly retirees.
Film historian Chip Kaufmann warms up the crowd with a lively intro to today’s film. It’s And the Ship Sails On, one of Federico Fellini’s last films, produced in 1984. Kaufmann praises the film’s enchanting style and humor, places it in historical context and points out the cinematic imagery to look for.
Set in 1914, before WWI officially broke out, Ship is the story of passengers on a luxury liner, on their way to spread the ashes of a beloved opera diva in the sea around the remote island of her birth. It promises lots of Felliniesque touches — glamorous people doing strange things, dancing Serbian refugees, a narrator who may or may not be alive to tell the tale, cellophane ocean waves and an unhappy rhinoceros. It’s an operatic fantasy within a fantasy, or as Kaufmann calls it, “a love letter to cinema as well as a look back in time.”
The big screen descends, lights dim, sound up full, subtitles switched on. Weird and wonderful the film indeed proves to be. Yet everyone watches with rapt attention. After the film, people linger to engage Kaufmann in fervent discussion. Were several distinctive shots for the 1997 blockbuster Titanic copied from this Fellini film? Was the ending tragic or was it one of the director’s in-jokes? And what does the rhinoceros mean?
By the end of the afternoon I found myself in a state of astonishment. I’d worked in Hollywood for over 20 years and never saw this Fellini gem. How could a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains show such a rare film and garner a good-sized audience eager to see it? More amazing, it turns out that, except for the month of December, such film presentations occur every Sunday afternoon.
Begun by Elaine Ciampi and friends in 1991, HFS is now in its 20th year. Asheville resident Kaufmann came on board in 2000. With a small cadre of dedicated volunteers, Ciampi and Kaufmann perform all the necessary tasks it takes to run an active 501c3 non-profit. Grants, especially those from the Hendersonville County Arts Council, enable HFS to hold special events, such as last year’s highly popular Great Artists on Film series.
Since her early days in New York, Ciampi has been a passionate film lover, especially foreign films. “Foreign films are very different from Hollywood films,” she says. “More realistic, more involving.” Her favorite directors? “Federico Fellini, Louis Malle and Luchino Visconti.” Her favorite films? “I like movies about food — Babette’s Feast, Chocolat…” Favorite actress? “So many I couldn’t list them, but we all love Judi Dench.” Favorite actor? “Oh, Marcello Mastroianni, of course!”
The society shows all kinds of films, from all eras, American and foreign, color and black and white. Member suggestions count for some presentations, such as the recently shown The Gods Must Be Crazy, but mostly the selections are up to Kaufmann and Ciampi. They choose films that are significant but ordinarily not seen in the local theatres or on television. “Mostly the films are from the 1970s and 1980s, ones our members have heard of but didn’t have the chance to see,” Kaufmann says. “Such as The Eagle Has Landed, from 1976 — an old-fashioned Hollywood movie that was the last work from John Sturges, who’s most well-known for The Magnificent Seven.”
What’s the biggest programming challenge? “It’s a balancing act,” Kaufmann replies. “Between choosing a film people will like and what I think they should see. People come to be entertained, and we want to offer education, too.”
Favorites last year include Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train; the Swedish love story, Intermezzo with Ingrid Bergman; and the controversial 2006 film, Perfume, a movie about a serial killer. “A surprise hit,” Kaufmann says. “The violence was off screen and the story was compelling, especially the behind the scenes aspects of perfume-making.”
“The biggest hit of all last year,” Kaufmann continues, “was also a real surprise. It was 7th Heaven, a 1927 silent film. At first the members were shocked to realize it was silent, but as it went on, they loved it. A great, romantic movie.”
Worst disappointment? “All That Jazz,” Kaufmann admits. “It wasn’t what they expected and they hated it. People are still complaining about it!” The members also aren’t big on westerns, horror, sci-fi or fantasy. “They like movies with strong, linear story lines that don’t jump around in time.”
September is the most popular month. It’s the annual Classical Music month with movies that involve classical music. “That month The Red Shoes became one of the most popular movies ever,” says Kaufmann. “People had heard about the 1948 film but never had the chance to see it on the big screen. A wonderful movie and a big hit for us.”
Four terrific films are on the schedule this month. A stylish mystery thriller, a 1970s Sherlock Holmes adventure, an epic adaptation of the novel Ragtime set in New York City in the early 20th century and an independent 2003 film shot in nearby Marshall which features Asheville’s favorite native son actor, Paul Schneider.