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City Of Big Shoulders Interrogates Dennis Nyback

May 14th, 2010 by Anne Richardson · No Comments · News, Oregon film archivist

Today the Chicago Tribune published this interview with Portland based independent film archivist Dennis Nyback.  This weekend Nyback is in the Windy City to screen his Forbidden Cinema series at Chicago Filmmakers.

Here’s the interview:

“I’m always looking for films that reveal America’s history,” said Dennis Nyback when I rang him up last week at his home in Portland, Ore. Over the past three decades Nyback has built up a massive collection of short and hard-to-find vintage films — everything from industrials to educational films to Warner Bros. cartoons.

He owns somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 titles, a number of which he has organized into 90-minute theme-oriented programs called Forbidden Cinema. “Name a subject and I can make a program about it.”

What he has amassed is essentially America’s scrapbook from the last 100 years, on film. “It’s really been very well documented, the 20th century.” His programs — horrifying, awful, hilarious — have been screened at museums and film festivals around the world, but this weekend marks Nyback’s first local appearance, with three distinct Forbidden Cinema programs at Chicago Filmmakers.

Friday’s lineup is “I Know Why You’re Afraid,” which Nyback created in the 1990s. “I was kind of appalled by these radio ads I would hear for home security devices, and I was thinking, ‘Wow, why are we so paranoid?’ And then I got this film called ‘Death Zones’ that was a bus safety film, and I’m looking at it thinking, no child should ever see this film. And that was my ‘voila’ moment. No wonder we’re paranoid; we were exposed to these films as children in school that warped us for life.”

Judging by a quick scan of the Internet, “Death Zones” (1975) is a particularly notorious example that Nyback describes as “really effective filmmaking and paranoia-inducing. It’s done in a very clever way that increases the gore as you go along.”

On Saturday Nyback screens “Terrorism Light and Dark,” a program he conceived “in the last few years because our country became very aware of terrorism. And having all these films, I realized that we had been aware of terrorism before 9/11, and there were these two ways of looking at terrorism. One was just to use it as a joke. So I have examples of these very hey-terrorism’s-funny kind of stuff. In the 1939 cartoon ‘Ali-Baba Bound,’ which is Porky Pig against the Arabs, they actually have a suicide bomber as a punch line.

“The other way was to look at it is as a serious subject. I’ll be showing a U.S. government film called ‘What You Need to Know About Biological Warfare,’ which was made in 1952 and it’s warning Americans that our food supply could be poisoned, or our air supply could be poisoned, and mass death could result.”

Nyback wraps things up Sunday with “Bad Bugs Bunny,” a bill of old Warner Bros. cartoons that he has subtitled “The Truth About American History: Sexism, Violence and Racism in Cartoons.”

“You can learn a lot about history by watching old cartoons. I teach a class at Marylhurst University (in Lake Oswego, Ore.) called social history through animation, and the interesting thing about cartoons, especially from the ’30s and ’40s, is that they weren’t made for children. They were made for the general audience who went to the movies, and animators really only wanted to entertain. They didn’t really have any political agendas. And as any entertainer knows, you have to understand what your audience wants, so these cartoons reflect the society they were made for.”

Nyback brings his Forbidden Cinema series to Chicago Filmmakers at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $8. For more info go to chicagofilmmakers.org.

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