New classic film club reels in community fans

Out with the old and in with the new — that’s an old adage that many of us know to be… uh, well, just plain wrong. So many things are better with age; think of a fine cheese, a vintage bottle of wine, how about grandparents…? You get the idea.
A new club in Middlebury wants to add classic films to that list of oldies but goodies.
“One day I was thinking of ‘All my Sons’ — a play by Arthur Miller that he wrote before ‘Death of a Salesman,’” said Steve Gross, founder of the Middlebury Community Classic Film Club. “I would have loved to see that on film, but it was made in the ’40s before I was born. I got to thinking, we’re going to lose these great cultural treasures if we don’t do something about it.”
And that’s how the new film club was born.
This Friday, Feb. 23, the new club screens its first film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” It kicks off a series of four films that will be shown monthly, from 3-5:30 p.m., in the Community Room of the Ilsley Library. They are free and open to all.
The theme of this winter/spring series is “Politics, Politics, Politics!”
“While it is almost always a time to reflect on the state of our world’s politics, we seem to be at a heightened time for such thoughts,” Gross wrote in a press release about the film club. “This series includes classics about politics in the U.S., Sweden and Indonesia.”
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” features James Stewart and Jean Arthur. “This is one of Frank Capra’s greatest films, and its theme of youthful idealism battling entrenched corruption at the highest levels of our government is as relevant today as it was when the film was released in 1939,” Gross said.
The series continues on March 23 with “Queen Christina” (1933), followed by “The Year of Living Dangerously” (1982) and a final film in May to be determined.
Chris Kirby, who’s been director of adult services and technology at the Ilsley since 2006, is enthusiastic about the film series coming to the library. “I think this is the first time we’ve attempted to partner with others to screen films on a regular basis,” Kirby said. “We’re very excited about this. Film screenings such as these support our mission to serve as a space for community discussion and cultural enrichment.”
As partners with the local library, the Middlebury Community Classic Film Club can draw on the library’s collection of 10,000 films in 40 different languages. Most of these films are contemporary, Kirby said, but they do have films from the 1930s on. About 95 percent of the films are on DVD and the remainder are Blu-ray. The collection is growing too; each year the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival donates films to the Ilsley’s collection.
“I couldn’t have done it without Chris Kirby and the library,” said Gross, who has lived in Middlebury since 1987. “I had the idea, but that’s nothing without the permissions and facilities to show the films… I am so thankful to live in such a supportive community.”
With the official launch of the new club just around the corner, Gross has a lot of aspirations.
“Hopefully our audience will be intergenerational,” voiced Gross, a longtime educator with background as a high school social studies teacher, the Curriculum and Staff Development Director for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, Chief of Curriculum and Instruction for the State of Vermont, Associate Professor of Education at Trinity College of Vermont, and Professor of Educational Administration at Temple University in Philadelphia. Oh, and just to keep things interesting, he holds his master’s in modern Chinese history, a doctorate in Educational Leadership and studied Mandarin in Hong Kong.
The worry is that classic films might easily become forgotten relics of the past. By taking action and forming this club, Gross hopes that “younger generations will at least know about these classic films as part of our culture.”
Another goal of Gross and the film club is to generate discussion. He hopes to have an open conversation after each screening; and starting in March a pre-screening talk.
“These movies could be vehicles for real discussion,” said Gross, who is now in his first year of retirement. “Sure, I have more time on my hands, but it’s more time to keep on acting on things that I value. I’m still an educator; that’s a lifelong commitment.”
But don’t worry, Gross won’t be assigning homework and there will be no mid-terms.
“My role is to help facilitate a structure that will allow viewers to get more out of the films,” he said. “It’s a new thing and we’re hoping to get as many people involved as we can.”
If you’re one who only watches new releases it’s time to branch out. These classic films just might surprise you.
“The surprise will be how many connections we will make from a different era to today, and how that might help us understand our current situation differently,” Gross explained. “But the biggest surprise of all is that this discovery will be a lot of fun.”

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