Masterpiece theater

Club: While the Columbia Film Society gains greater popularity, gaining membership is getting more difficult.

August 19, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Conspiracy theorists take note: little ol' Columbia is home to a little-known society of dissatisfied suburbanites who meet once a month in a darkened room in the center of town.

We're talking hundreds of people, most of them older than 50 who possess a keen desire to see, hear and be involved in something new and exciting.

OK, so maybe it's not a conspiracy; it's the Columbia Film Society.

Though it's something of a local institution, a lot of Howard County residents have never heard of the club, which has 1,400 members who pay $40 each year to see nine art films over nine months at the Smith Theatre at Howard Community College.

FOR THE RECORD - A picture caption accompanying an article on the Columbia Film Society in The Sun yesterday incorrectly identified two founders, Marcia Gorrie (left) and Helen Ruther (right). The Sun regrets the error.

Subscriptions to the film society are so hot that tickets are sold out in a matter of weeks. Organizers don't bother to advertise because they're sure tickets to the series will be gone almost immediately.

This year, the society added an extra Saturday showing to accommodate the hundreds of people who were being turned away every year.

The waiting list stretches into the future with no prospect that it will slacken.

Living in Columbia isn't required -- some members come from as far as Northern Virginia -- but an appreciation for adventurous movie-making is.

At a time when multiplex movie theaters and corporate video rental stores are dominated by middlebrow schlock, the Columbia Film Society has been catering for 30 years to those who crave foreign films, obscure documentaries and small, independent movies.

"There's a very active audience out there who wants to see these films," says Helen Ruther, one of the film society's founders. "It's been really exciting to provide something that people respond to."

The Columbia Film Society is an "institution in this community," says Bernice Kish, founder of Marvelous Movies & More, another Columbia-based film series that shows Hollywood classics and silent movies with live piano accompaniment.

Hard-to-find foreign films have proved to be the backbone of the Columbia Film Society.

Masterpieces by Francois Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and Eric Rohmer are always popular, says Bob Keller, a University of Maryland law professor and the film society's curator during its nine-month season.

"If I had my way, I would always show foreign films," says Keller, who researches the foreign films being released in the United States each year and puts together a thoroughly researched package of film reviews for the society's selection committee. "The whole purpose of a film society is to show films that are otherwise unavailable."

This season, the society will show the acclaimed Brazilian film "Central Station," the French-language "The Dreamlife of Angels" and "Three Seasons," a Vietnamese film, among others.

The seeds of the Columbia Film Society were planted in 1968, when Ruther and her husband, Martin, attended a political fund-raiser for Eugene McCarthy in rural western Howard County.

Another of the society's founders, Marcia Gorrie, says everyone there agreed that Columbia would be a perfect place to live if there were a place to see movies -- any kind of movie.

"Then someone told us that if you ever wanted anything to happen in Columbia, you had to do it yourself," Gorrie says now. "The next night, we got together and the film society was born."

Getting a film series running turned out to be pretty simple.

Pick the films you think sound interesting, call the film's distributor to find out whether it will lend a 16-mm print for the reel-to-reel projector.

Ask area auditoriums or public rooms for permission to show the films and come up with a list of friends who would give up a Friday night to watch an obscure documentary about Appalachian coal miners or a tour-de-force by an offbeat underground American filmmaker.

The first night, about 200 people showed up in Columbia's Slayton House for the society's first showing of Kurosawa's "Yojimbo."

"It was sort of an apocryphal story about samurai defending a town," Ruther says. "There was a lot of cutting off of hands and heads, and people were upset. We were hiding in the bathroom."

The society quickly grew too large for Slayton House and spent a few years in the auditorium of Bryant Woods Elementary School. Its move to the Smith Theatre helped accommodate the growing subscription list.

From the beginning, organizers have stuck to a healthy cinematic diet of foreign films, documentaries and other hard-to-get gems.

There would be no need for a film society if Columbia had an art movie theater, an oversight that bewilders nearly all of the club's members and many other Howard County residents.

Columbia is "mature enough now and there's enough of a population base that an arts cinema will be supported," says Kish.

Lynn Hunter, a former music teacher at Fulton Elementary School who lives in Ellicott City and is a former society subscriber, agrees.

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