It's always healthy for a long-running cultural event to try something new. But the Denver Film Festival's unprecedented decision to offer a night of curated flicks in advance of the official opening night for its 42nd edition was made for tragic reasons. The screening of three movies at the Sie FilmCenter tonight, October 30, serves as a salute to Brit Withey, DFF's longtime artistic director, who died in a car crash on March 31.
The films were among Withey's favorites, with two of them — the challenging 2007 indie Frownland, unspooling at 6:30 p.m., and the idiosyncratic 1999 documentary American Movie, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. — perfectly representing the dark and quirky sensibility he brought to his programming over the years. As for the third, the 1969 romp Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, set to roll at 7 p.m., it initially seems like an outlier except for the fact that (half-century-old spoiler) neither of the lead characters get out of the film alive. But festival director Britta Erickson says that Withey's devotion to the Paul Newman-Robert Redford blockbuster was as deep as it was consistent.
"He always claimed it was one of his top ten films," Erickson recalls. "And every year when I would be putting together the Film on the Rocks schedule, he'd come to my office and kind of slyly say, 'You know, you could put in Butch Cassidy....' And I'd say, 'Funny you'd suggest that for the nineteenth time.'"
Still, Erickson will miss hints like this one, and plenty more. "Obviously, losing Brit is a huge loss to the organization. He had been there for over twenty years, and he'd probably done almost every job. I think he made our first website, which was pretty much a holding page with our logo on it — but he was so proud of it. He ran membership for a while. He ran volunteers for a while. Then, under the mentorship of Ron Henderson" — co-founder of the Denver Film Society and the acknowledged father of the fest — "he became what I think was one of the best programmers in the United States."
Among the keys to his skills in this area was focus, Erickson believes. "He dove into his film knowledge. He just loved to watch film. He'd sit at his desk all day and work and do the things he needed to do administratively, and then he'd go home and watch movies — and then he'd watch movies all weekend."
Erickson describes Withey as "my work husband for twenty years — and he was a prankster. But he could also be serious when seriousness was in order and things needed to be done, and so low-key. He hated the red carpet. I'd have to force him to do that; it wasn't one of his jams. But he loved being in front of audiences and introducing films and doing Q&As with filmmakers he loved. And he wasn't afraid of challenging an audience. He'd stand in the lobby when they came out upset and have a dialogue with them and hear them out if they didn't like it."
After Withey's passing, Matt Campbell, a member of the team that had been working with him on programming, was asked to serve as interim artistic director. It was a natural choice, Erickson feels. "Brit really mentored Matt, which I think you'll see through the line of this year's program. Matt started with us as an intern, and he learned so much from Brit. Just the way they talked about films was wonderful."
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Not that Campbell is a Withey clone. Before his death, Withey had talked about devoting a section of the festival to films from Iceland, but that changed. According to Erickson, "We sent Matt to Cannes for the first time, and when he came back, he said, 'I'm the artistic director now, and I feel it would be better to go with Brazil.' So we switched to that."
Nonetheless, Withey's influence will be felt throughout the festival. Two Icelandic movies made the final cut (The County and A White, White Day), and twelve selections from the past and present are grouped under the heading "Remembering Brit Withey." The roster will be capped on November 10, the festival's final day, by a showing of A Woman Under the Influence, an explosive 1974 offering directed by John Cassavetes and starring Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk. "Brit loved that film, and Ron, Matt and I do, too," Erickson says. "It's a film that reflects the aesthetic of the Denver Film Festival."
Seeing the movie under these circumstances will add poignancy to an already emotional experience, Erickson knows. But she sees that as appropriate. "Brit made such an impact on such a large number of film-goers over his 23-year history with the festival. If you met him once or just saw him introduce a film, you could sense a very kind soul, and people loved him. He was just really good at connecting with folks around film — when he wasn't holed up in his condo, watching one."