April 02, 2003 News & Features » Cover Story


The Independent 

The long and sometimes strange career of Richmond cinemaphile Mike Jones.

Working for the James River Film Festival must offer some hefty emotional rewards because there sure isn't any glamour in it. And no money, either. Yet there are plenty of volunteers for the annual event, which this week celebrates its 10th season of bringing a hodgepodge of indie, foreign and avant-garde cinema to Richmond.

A handful of unpaid but devoted committee members are gathered around such a table and sipping from their can of choice, but most are too intent on the thrill of last-minute organizing to touch the popcorn. Mike Jones, their loquacious leader, started the festival in 1994. To him, final scrambling amid Spartan conditions is nothing new. He's been independent for more than 20 years.

With four weeks before showtime, Jones is aware of every hour in the week. "You take 168 hours and multiply it times four, and I think simple is good," he says, scrutinizing various versions of promotional posters, fliers and tickets presented by the committee. A longtime champion of some of the most left-field movies shown in the state, Jones also is a filmmaker with 14 titles to his credit. At age 48, he is working on two documentaries — one on a purple-martin world expert (the royally colored bird is an African variety bred for its love of insect pests), and another on a world-renowned archaeologist in Lynchburg named Errett Callahan. Both titles are very Mike Jones, and it's no surprise he defines any independent film as one "made without guarantee of return."

You can tell by the look of headquarters. Jones and the committee chat in a room located to the back and up some stairs inside the labyrinthine Hand Workshop Art Center. The room doubles as the home of the Richmond Moving Image Co-op, the festival's nonprofit umbrella organization founded in 1999 (two weeks before the festival) by Jones and his business partner, James Parrish, who runs a bimonthly film festival known as Flicker. "Flicker, the festival, the Co-op," Jones says, referring to this room — "it's all in there."

"There" is not a lot of space, maybe the size of the projection room in a one-screen theater. Light from a window the size of a cereal box strays onto racks of movies. The reels of film, mostly 16 mm, are stowed in their greenish-gray metal canisters, the edges labeled with tape and permanent marker. "A Place in the Sun," George Stevens' classic starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, is there. So are silents like Murnau's "Sunrise," and foreign period pieces like "Triumph of the Will." The rest of the room is crammed with lens caps, videotapes and batteries.

Festival planning is under way.

"Should we go with 'De' or 'Der,'" a committee member asks about the title of "The Golem," a silent German film. One of the festival highlights this year, it will be shown to live music by the famed progressive-jazz guitarist Gary Lucas. "Der might scare them," Jones remarks, conjuring the image of fans cautiously approaching their first weird films at the festival. "They're thinking, 'Oh my god, it's silent and it's in another language.'"

Parrish, 35, with a slight beard and chin-length hair, looks over his shoulder with a wide grin to make sure I noted that. Jones is a funny guy. Even though the event is just weeks away, he seems relaxed as he rattles off one-liners. With a tousled, nondescript hairstyle, Jones dresses in the utilitarian manner of a man to whom clothes are a slightly awkward necessity, his layers of beige, olive and brown the casual camouflage of the Saturday matinee moviegoer. With his metal, square-framed reading glasses resting on the end of his nose, he continues to go over his "Things Left To-Do" list, handwritten on white paper. ABC licenses still need to be obtained. "Should we put 'New' [before Holocaust Museum] on the ticket?" Jones asks. "Do we need a date? Some people criticize us for not putting dates on our T-shirts."

Lifelong friends and colleagues testify that Jones' work reflects a lifelong love affair with the movies. Ashley Kistler, curator at the Hand Workshop and a festival board member, draws a deep breath when asked to describe Jones' knowledge of film, simply saying, "Well-respected."

"Mike is a film historian," Kistler continues. "He's made it his life's work." Kistler first met Jones 20 years ago when she curated a film and video series at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "I didn't know what I was doing," she admits, but she was lucky enough to seek out consultation from Jones, who was then scheduling films for the Biograph Theater, a former film house now sitting idle on Grace Street. Later, Kistler returned the favor by securing the esteemed film artist William Wegman for the festival through her connection to the museum.

Kistler's story touches on an important quality, a "spirit of collaboration," as she puts it, central to Jones and the James River Film Festival. Just about everyone seems to emphasize it — Jones especially. During a photo shoot for this piece, the talkative promoter becomes unusually bashful. After the photographer thanks him and leaves, Jones is quick to diminish his role in the JRFF and emphasize the volunteers who donate time and services to the festival. Sitting close to me at the table in the Hand Workshop space, he is so passionate about this point that for a moment I think he might lay his hand on my forearm like a preacher as he reaches the sacred words, "spirit of collaboration."

Mike Jones may be a film-lover, but that doesn't mean he loves all films. One of his earliest movie experiences was particularly distasteful.

Jones grew up on a dairy farm that his father and mother worked with other family members near Berryville in Clarke County. The closest theater, The Plaza, in Winchester by the Sears, was not exactly the Cinema Paradiso. Built more like Italy's tower of Pisa, "You could actually see it leaning," Jones recalls. He and his brother thought that if they sat on the left side they could balance it.

For two years, the only feature at The Plaza was the Richard Rogers' epic, "The Sound of Music," which ran while Jones was in the fourth to sixth grade, he says. It was rare children's entertainment. And for two years, Jones sat on the left and watched the film over and over, every time a friend or classmate had a birthday. The effects of repeated exposure remain with him to this day. "'Sixteen Going on Seventeen,'" he says — "That song still gives me the willies."

There was other entertainment, though. Jones says his father would sit the kids down in front of the television on Sundays to watch old movies. (He says he kind of liked those '30s and '40s classics then and now turns to them whenever he gets depressed.) But it wasn't until he left the rolling hills of the Virginia countryside for the pavement of Richmond that Jones got to see what film had to show him, things he says would become "a big part of my education."

He enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University as a journalism student during the Watergate scandal in 1973, dreams of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein filling his head. While unpacking at Rhoads Hall, Jones says, "the first thing I noticed from the window was the Biograph."

The Biograph was for more than 15 years the epicenter of film culture in Richmond. More than that, it was an integral outlet of the counterculture, built in early 1972 out of two row houses in the heyday of art-house movie theaters. Jones attended the events there religiously, and after graduation, he applied for a job.

Actually, Jones applied in three different fields, as an usher at the Biograph, as a bus boy during the lunch shift at the Magic Pan, and as a scab for UPS, which was embroiled in a strike. Jones ended up working the lunch shift at Magic Pan and nights at the Biograph, where he started at $1.85 an hour. He almost didn't get the job, he says, because the assistant manager, Trent Nicholas, voted against hiring him. It seems his hair wasn't long enough.

"I thought he might be uncool because of his hair," Nicholas admits today, laughing. Now statewide media-resource coordinator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and a fellow cinema instructor at VCU, he finds the familiar story quaint. "Mike likes to tell it that way," he says, though he did not actually vote against Jones, "but mentioned that his hair maybe wasn't long enough." Long hair was a defining characteristic in those days, Nicholas says. "It was a fair barometer about who thought what about what." Nicholas says he quickly learned not to judge every person by looks. Inside, Jones had long hair.

Jones started taking tickets at the Biograph when the counterculture was as counter as it had ever been. Streaking was big, and members of the prim business crowd would congregate on Shafer Street at lunchtime to get a look. The area had grown up around the Richmond Professional Institute, the precursor to VCU, an institution known for its groovy art school and the even groovier beatniks who inhabited it. Nicholas recalls it as a mini-Greenwich Village or a mini-Haight Ashbury. "You might even see Bruce Springsteen walking down the street in those days, with his long hair," Nicholas wryly asserts, apparently referring to recent stories in the local media, including Style, that made a big deal out of the time Springsteen spent in Richmond as an unknown in the '70s.

The Biograph opened in 1972, Nicholas says, with a lot of optimism, idealism and any other ism that defined that spirit of collaboration so important to the time. "There was sort of a feeling that we were part of an artistic movement that was in the air at the time that was helping to change the world," he says. "I think that was a dedication that was echoed up and down the strata of art, from the most grassroots to the most commercial movies and rock music." Most of the employees were in college or just graduated. The old man of the bunch was an assistant manager named Chuck Wren, who was 27.

"It was a fabulously run business in many ways," Nicholas says. "The motto was 'Have a Good Time,' … and it was "the Alamo of cinema in Richmond," a holdout for movies that were "sophisticated, artistic and intelligent," and "not always just pure entertainment, though we had no problem with entertainment." The Biograph was a repertory theater, which means it showed a little bit of everything, from classics and silents to independent cinema and art movies, the last of which satisfied what Nicholas calls "the snob appeal."

At the time no one had heard of renting a movie, let alone dreamed of the DVD. Home Box Office first aired the same year the Biograph opened, but movie channels didn't infiltrate homes until the cable television boom nearly a decade later. In those days, if you didn't catch a movie in its original run, you had to hope some suspiciously shorthaired network executive at NBC or CBS decided to show it on television. You could only see the kind of movies the Biograph was showing at places like the Biograph. Working there was the equivalent of working at an independent video store. Jones and Nicholas were the era's Tarantinos. "Those were fun years," Jones remembers. "Nobody wanted to leave."

In fact, Jones refused to.

After outlasting countless ushers, assistant managers and managers, he bought the theater in 1985 and put his seemingly boundless energy to work bringing in as many as eight films a week. Friends call Jones' determination to bring film to Richmond, then and now, an art, and Jones' canvas was the screen. Unfortunately, sometimes when you're an artist and not a business person, it's obvious.

He was young and inexperienced, and the way he bought the theater was "the dumbest thing I ever did," Jones says. "Never assume someone else's debts," he warns. He thrilled at the idea of Fassbinder Fridays and Woody Allen marathons, but put off growing debts in order to surmount the monthly rent of more than $3,000. As a theater owner, he explains, you have to pay your rent and electricity, and you can put everything else off.

To a point.

Jones, buried under a pile of bills, was in his office one day in 1987 during the Last Gasp Film Festival (he says he knew the end was at hand) when agents of the landlord came to padlock the front door. Jones was defiant. He holed up in his office, refusing to leave. So they locked him in. For a while he just sat there, contemplating his predicament. Eventually, he climbed out the fire escape, but only after rigging the back door for re-entry so he could go back later to collect some personal belongings.

After the Biograph closed, the flame of independent film had almost been snuffed out in Richmond, and for a few years, Jones gingerly kept it going with minifestivals like his Art Afternoons at the Byrd Theater in Carytown. In 1994, he found the support he needed to start a new festival. VCU agreed to sponsor the James River Festival of the Moving Image. It premiered in the spring, in seasonal opposition to the venerable Virginia Film Festival (which used to be called the Virginia Festival of American Cinema), held every fall in Charlottesville.

The contradiction symbolized that this festival intended to do things differently. Charlottesville got blue-chip stars like Gregory Peck, Jones says. "We got Yoko Ono." The Virginia Film Festival was mainstream, loaded — the tuxedo of film festivals; the James River Film Festival was fiercely independent, and it was OK if you showed up at the gala in a flannel shirt.

Today it remains "the little festival that can," Jones says. With such a tenacious personality behind it, it's easy to explain how. But it's harder to figure out exactly why Jones does it, especially when the inspiring names of filmmakers involved — Mekas, Brakhage, Deren — can sometimes inspire anything from a puzzled look to a yawn.

We need them, he says, "because they are the films that relate to your life. … We can't be James Bond … These films are more intimate."

They're also good entertainment, Jones says. "I want people to realize these [independent] films are fun," he says. "It's not so hippie. They are art films, but they are often whimsical, funny, entertaining … it runs the gamut."

Jones is quick to point out that he appreciates Hollywood film as much as the next guy. Married for eight years, he lives in a row house in the Fan and makes his living teaching Welles and Spielburg at VCU and Randolph-Macon College, offering an encyclopedic knowledge of his course materials to his students at what is surely an impressive pace. But for the most part, he says he thinks a mainstream film today "is little more than the first point in a very calculated advertising campaign. Then they'll use that for all these tie-ins. The film is there to sell CDs, theme-park passes and hamburgers. If you're looking for cinema that has any integrity, you have to look at independent cinema."

Jones wants people to find it at a reborn Biograph. And he wants to create it. His dream locations include the soon-to-be expanding Hand Workshop, but it could be any place where Richmond filmmakers can find the facilities to make, store and show their work. The James River Film Festival is to Jones an annual reminder of this goal. With Parrish on board, the odds seem to be better. A professional fund-raiser with more than a decade of experience. The festival budget this year will exceed $10,000 for the first time. "All of a sudden it's not so little anymore," Jones says.

The money has helped boost programming. Festival champions are proud to have landed such indie icons as The Brothers Quay, Gary Lucas and Gordon Ball this year. Kistler calls it a "tremendous opportunity to see film, to see artwork and to meet artists and filmmakers that you would never get to meet otherwise."

Jones says those connections help make his work worthwhile, "to see some of these young kids, aspiring filmmakers, face to face with some of the talent who are doing it — you can't put a price on that."

That opportunity to share ideas and collaborate in art has always been important to Jones. It's what attracted him to the Biograph, and what attracts all the volunteers to his festival. You could say it's their guarantee of return.

Jones may be independent, but he's not alone. S



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