Revisiting Austin’s First Film Society with Cinema 40 Founder Gregg Barrios

November’s Essential Cinema series spotlights Cinema 40—Austin’s first film society. The program starts Nov. 7 with Films from the Cinema 40 Archive, with Cinema 40 founder Gregg Barrios in attendance. Details and tickets here >>

Foundational for Austin’s contemporary film scene is a little-known 1960s campus film society: Cinema 40. Born of the mid-‘60s student counter-cultural movement, their tireless efforts helped create the University of Texas’s film department, brought avant-garde films and luminaries like Jean-Luc Godard and Jonas Mekas to Austin, started an experimental filmmaking collective and archive, and published a quarterly that featured original writing by Susan Sontag, Ernest Callenbach, and others.

Here in his own words, Cinema 40 founder Gregg Barrios shares the story of how this influential group got started:

I was and remain a die-hard film buff and critic. Movies were my life as a young Latino growing up in 1950s Texas. My small town could have been a template for THE LAST PICTURE SHOW.

My father moonlighted as a movie projectionist at local theaters including the Tejas-Aztec drive-in. My favorite experience—my brother and I sitting in lawn chairs atop the twin drive-projectionist booth on a sultry summer night. We would view Spanish language films on one screen and English language Hollywood films on the other.

I came to the University of Texas Austin campus in the summer of 1965 after my service in the military. The Austin scene offered little innovation, instead traditional works in music, museums, and theater. However, my curiosity was piqued when I heard about film history in one of my classes and then in magazines (Film Culture, Film Quarterly, etc.)

Student film clubs or societies were far and few in the mid-1960s. The few that existed were found in large universities such as UCLA, UM-Ann Arbor, and NYU.

I was in the elite Plan 2 so I benefited from the best teachers. A few referred to films as secondary sources. UT had no film appreciation classes—nary a Film-Making 101—although its RTF department would later bring film luminaries versed in cinema history.

The more I read about film, the more I searched out reviews of classic films, foreign language films, and new American work. It was only after I actually saw a film with subtitles that I was riveted by the experience (ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS was one and Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA, another). I was not alone. A new appreciation was looming as a new criticism emerged. Experimental films and hand-held documentaries were all the vogue, ushering out the old perception of movies as mere entertainment.

As the savant Marshall McLuhan issued the battle cry: “The medium is the message” and “The medium is the mess age,” the counterculture was born. And yes, we had gained an appreciation of our homemade student films.

In NYC, the midnight movie like a Humphrey Bogart Festival became a staple, a must-do for college hipsters. “Had Bogie influenced Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character in BREATHLESS or vice versa?”

Back in Austin, none of these were staples despite a 30,000+student population. I lived in the first university co-ed housing, the excellent College House, which selected from a cross-section of disciplines and majors. UT faculty members served as fellows. We often shared meals with them and heated discussions ensued—literary and political, the Vietnam War, the Draft, Bob Dylan, and surprisingly pop art, etc. Of course, everyone at the dinner table would reference films.

I decided to bite the bullet after and approached College House fellow, Greg Lipscomb, the president of the UT Students Association. I asked to start a film club on campus. Reluctant at first as I made my case, Lipscomb promised to present it before the S.A. board. We lucked out and they gave Cinema 40 a temporary “go” for one semester.

We were assigned use of the then state-of-the-art Academic Center as our home base. It had 16mm projection, multi-screens, and a great sound system. I scheduled five films for our first season. Godard’s VIVRE SA VIE with the amazing Anna Karina was the first. Influenced by Cinema 16 and the Bleeker St. Theater programming, I reached out to these successful NYC programs to secure distributors; members would prepare film notes for our main feature presentation—something we continued with each film.

After a successful first season, the Students Association gave their approval for Cinema 40 as an official on-campus group. Artists, poets, musicians, and those curious from afar engaged in lively discussion in off-campus coffee houses before and after our screenings.

Cinema 40 had become a mainstay, a vital part of Austin’s cultural life.

Recalling some of the milestones in Cinema 40’s history has been a daunting project: from a Hollywood in the Thirties Series, an Orson Welles retrospective, an Antonioni trilogy, to Kenneth Anger’s MAGICK LANTERN CYCLE. We brought in special guests like novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet (LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD), and critics Andrew Sarris, Ernest Callenbach, Jonas Mekas, Dwight MacDonald, Judith Crist, and Hans Richter, the German avant-garde cineaste. Filmmakers who visited included Jean-Luc Godard, D. A. Pennebaker, Bruce Connor, Gerard Malanga, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Billie, etc.

I left Cinema 40 in 1969 to teach in a rural Texas school. David Berman, an ardent film buff, took over the group, and under his stewardship it continued to grow and break new ground. One was a screening of Warhol’s two-screen masterpiece THE CHELSEA GIRLS. Later in the 1970s Cinema 40 was banned from the campus for screening another Warhol film, TRASH. And earlier we had the Austin vice patrol shut down a screening of Jack Smith’s FLAMING CREATURES. Still we continued to forge ahead.

I’d be bereft if I didn’t include the following who helped shape Cinema 40: Peter Soderbergh (yes, Stephen’s dad); Stanley Donner, head of the RTF department; William Arrowsmith; Roger Shattuck; and above all, our membership and those who led the discussions and edited our Harbinger quarterly.

Today, remnants of what once was remain—but more importantly is the influence Cinema 40 had in making Austin a major film center: the UT film department, the Austin Film Society, Cinema Texas, and yes, SXSW. If Cinema 40 contributed to bringing film culture to Austin, it succeeded.

To quote Jonas Mekas, who passed away this year: “Film is light and sound. It continues to re-invent itself, offering visions that we couldn’t image existed.”