The Knight of the Cinematheque

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by David C. Barnett

The Cleveland Cinematheque bid farewell to its home for thirty years, Thursday night.  The film?  The 1971 black & white drama, The Last Picture Show.  

Since 1985, the Cinematheque has won international praise for its devotion to the art and history of film --- when most movie houses specialize in comic book adventure flicks and raunchy romantic comedies.  

The Cinematheque is about to open a new digital facility.  Leading the way is the master chef behind this stew of modern movies and cinematic classics --- John Ewing.

Ewing says he was turned on to the power and the magic of the movies as a kid when the family went to a drive-in screening of the 1953 western Shane.

"It’s a great story," he says.  "I think it works on multiple levels. It’s beautifully made, it’s well acted. But, I like so many films; my tastes are so eclectic."

In 1974, Ewing’s future wife Kathy got a sense of that… the first time they went out.  "Our first date was to see Fasbinder’s Beware the Holy Whore at Kent State," she recalls.  "And it wasn’t the most romantic first date.  It was a pretty dreary film.  And I think John didn’t even like it that well." 

Over the course of three decades, John Ewing has screened a diverse selection of films in a Cleveland Institute of Art auditorium.  The New York Times dubbed the Cinematheque “one of the country's best repertory movie theaters”, in 2009.  Two years later, the French government gave Ewing a Knighthood in Arts & Letters.  But, the unassuming Canton native says he doesn’t focus on the accolades.

"As long as I can be here to provide those opportunities to see this kind of stuff, then I feel I’m doing my job," he says.

Bill Guentzler, Artistic Director of the annual Cleveland International Film Festival, says Ewing has an encyclopedic knowledge of epic American westerns… edgy European cinema --- and everything in between.  "He knows much, much more than I know --- or will ever know about film," Guentzler enthuses.  "And he loves it so much.  He lives and breathes it."     

Another John Ewing admirer is film scholar Louis Giannetti who has introduced numerous Cinematheque screenings, over the years. He says Ewing features a wide-range of movies, but largely using 35-millimeter film projection in a world where digital cinema is now the rule --- preferring the warmth of a film image over the cold clarity of digital   But, Giannetti wonders if that’s a battle worth fighting.

"There are those people --- John is one of them --- who can tell the difference between film and digital.  But, I think digital is at such a sophisticated level now that I can’t tell the difference."

In recent years, Ewing says, he’s modified his formerly purist stance, acknowledging that digital projection isn’t the biggest threat to movies in an era of flat screen TVs and streaming video.

"If it looks good, I’m okay with it," he says.   "I think, more important, is just viewing it communally with an audience --- that’s what we want to preserve."

"He's never home," says Kathy Ewing.  "He works --- I computed it once, years ago --- 50, 60 hours. John is a workaholic."  

She says she’s resigned herself to the fact that Film is her husband’s mistress

"My wife has been more than generous, letting me not be home," John Ewing muses.  "It can be a strain.  There are times when she’s resentful, and there are times when I’m resentful, actually, about not being able to be home.  But, it’s hard to complain.  I’m a pretty lucky person, actually."

The new Cinematheque theater is decked out with comfortable seats, the latest digital equipment, and even a pair of old-school film projectors. After a gala celebration this weekend, the first regular screening in this facility will be Casablanca, an American classic that --- at least partially --- is about looking for a new sense of comfort in a changing world.

Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine: "Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." 

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