Aliza Ma’s black bob, razor sharp bangs and winged eyeliner appear uniform to her look as she makes her way into the kind of afternoon light that makes you squint, the kind of light that found its way into Metrograph on a bright, sweaty afternoon in May. She wears a graphic t-shirt with floating heads of The Cramps and dark-washed jeans, which seems like a given considering Aliza is head of programming at the city’s youngest independent theater devoted to screening 35mm films. Working at Metrograph requires a natural coolness that can only be acquired through a collection of experiences like Aliza’s’; from spending periods of time in Beijing as a child, to learning to work a projection booth during university, and cataloguing films retrieved from 80’s and 90’s chinatown theaters.
Metrograph creates a special paradox: a tangible experience. Movie-goers can read a curated program booklet with a custom typeface, linger over cocktails and sneak in words to a friend or stranger they meet at the bar between glasses clinking to post-film existentialism. When you leave, perhaps with a program and leftover skittles in your purse, you’re left with the memory of how the film’s grain took on a character of its own and how you felt when the credits rolled and reality greeted your consciousness. Aliza is largely responsible for actualizing the experience movie-goers pocket at the theater through programming that’s meant to create dialogue about who we are.
We caught up with Aliza in The Commissary, the theater’s in-house restaurant inspired by studio eateries from Hollywood’s golden age, to speak about the experience of watching movies on 35mm prints, how programming allowed her to connect with her Chinese identity and her admiration for talents like Maggie Cheung and Isabelle Huppert.
Do you remember your first movie-going experience?
Yeah, it was bizarre. I grew up in Beijing and my paternal grandmother happened to manage a movie theater. My parents were always working so she frequently took me from school and would put me in a dark theater. I would just watch movies non-stop. At the time they were malice propaganda films because that was the culture. There was a lot of stuff that was literally illegal to show, but I think that’s what drove me to explore film later on; the fact that there was this history literally erased from my culture. At that point I was so young it was just moving shapes and colors on screen—I was canalized by these films.
What kind of experience do you think movie-goers incur through watching 35mm prints at Metrograph?
Since the beginning we’ve always been very dedicated to showing films on their original, intended format. I think we live in a time when you expect simulacra for the real thing because there’s just such a lack of authenticity everywhere. That’s fine for certain things, but when you’re watching classic films you have to realize that it’s not just information, it’s also an exhibition. Especially now that the prints are so rarified, programmers owe it to the audience to find the best copies from archives around the world for their exhibition. I think there’s something very human about it. The notion of authenticity is still there when you know you’re watching a print that’s been painstakingly hand-inspected frame-by-frame and is being projected reel-to-reel behind you in an invisible performance. And on top of that every single time a print shows it’s going to degrade a little bit, so there’s this imperfect quality to it which I think adds a certain amount of authenticity to the experience. When you watch a film cred you see the patina of age on the film so you’re experiencing film history right in front of your eyes. I find the experience to be the ultimate fulfillment of all of my very disparate tasks as a programmer because I spend all this time looking for copyright, copies, requesting for the print to be shipped, writing the program note; I do all these things that are incredibly random tasks, then the ultimate fulfillment of all of that is the projection of it on screen. It’s always interesting to watch a film hit the screen for the first time, hear it and see the transition from reel to reel.
How do you think elements of your identity play into the programming?
I have a co-programmer who comes from a very different background. He’s a Jewish guy who was born and raised in New York City, and I’m a Chinese girl who’s been everywhere. The interplay between our two tastes is very interesting and they kind of offset each other in very extreme but dynamic ways. He went to school for American history and came into film; I studied art and came into film. Also, film became a way for me to reconnect with my culture and my background because I had never even seen half the Chinese films that I’ve shown at Metrograph growing up.
There’s this incredible film starring Maggie Cheung called “Comrades” Almost a Love Story” and it’s set partially in Hong Kong, partially in New York Chinatown about two star-crossed lovers who never quite get together but have this deep friendship, and they keep coming together and losing each other. It’s an incredible melodrama that’s shot on location in New York City. When we opened I knew I had to show it because it’s so much a part of me, but it’s also such a product of this neighborhood. Programming should open up dialogue about the work and about who we are, instead of me just being like this is what I like. It’s me presenting something that I truly feel excited about to an audience that may or may not be receptive to it and asking them to engage in a dialogue with me about the work.
What have you noticed about the moviegoer today?
Some people keep diaries of what prints they’ve seen incase they’ll never get another chance to see it in their lifetime. There’s something very melancholy about that by the way. With a younger generation of cinephiles who grew up with digital distribution and this notion that everything can be accessed online or streaming or somehow digitally, I think theatrical exhibition on an archival print is something that they can’t actually get anywhere except for in the movie theaters. I think people are realizing the importance of that now, which is wonderful for us because that makes them kindred spirits.
What series are you most proud thus far?
Maybe the Maggie Cheung retrospective that I did. Here’s an example of a woman who is a true international icon who is fluent in four different languages, moves fluidly through the Chinese film industry, the French film industry and the American film industry. She’s so iconic on screen and she’s worked on some of the most important Asian films of our time. She brought her own unique identity to the roles she played. She and Isabelle Huppert, are people whose careers are just a through line of some of the most interesting historical points in international cinema.
Have you noticed the lack of female programmers in New York City?
Yeah, I do notice. Film is a fairly young art form—it’s only about 100 years old so when programming began we were halfway through the century. There hasn’t been too much time for things to sort of shake down to truly reflect the demographic of people who are coming to see the films. In New York we have such a range of different programmers with different tastes, but still a lot of them are guys. I never worked to be directly defined by that tradition and I do think opportunities came quite easily for me because people were looking, for better or for worse, to diversify their curatorial staff. I think it’s something that’s changing with the tides, but it’s definitely something that’s going to take a while. Unlike Metrograph, a lot of cinematheques are non-profit; they’re older places that are run by boards and the boards are usually older and male. That’s why I love being here! There aren’t pre-established notions of what programming can be; we get to create the reality of that for ourselves.
It must have been special entering a place that was limitless.
It was daunting! We didn’t even have an office when we first started. I was hired a year before the construction was complete, so I was organizing and conceiving the structure and identity of the programming before there was even a physical space that corresponded with it. I had to keep working with this trust that eventually there would be a real movie theater. I was creating all these models in my head of what it could be to go to the perfect movie theater, to perfect this movie-going experience, and to tread that perfect balance between what people want to see and what I know they haven’t seen but have to see. Arguably New York was the last place that needed another art house movie theater, but you create your own sort of niche of what doesn’t exist yet. For us, we really wanted to create a space in which exciting conversations could be had about film, both in the space and before and after each film, for instance here in the bookstore or over a drink. Most movie theaters you go in and you don’t want to linger there for too long after the screening. I think that’s such a shame because all I want to do after Iwatch a great film is talk about it with my friends.
Who or what are your latest personal discoveries?
In terms of older films, one program that I did that I still think about a lot is this Kenji Mizoguchi retrospective. I hadn’t seen some of the films in the retrospective before showing them because of how inaccessible they are—some of his films are on Criterion, they’re easily accessible, then some of them are super rare and unheard of. This is a filmmaker who basically started in the silent period and ended in the color period. In those years multiple wars happened, he went through the studio period, he also went through an independent period. He never quite saw himself as an auteur, but you look at the body of work in retrospect and he definitely steered his career in in a particular way and that was very fascinating, both in the way the films were made aesthetically and in the way he portrayed particularly female characters. He had made close to 100 films and only 40-something survived. I was able to bring those surviving films over from Japan and show them. A lot of them, like the early silent films, I had never seen before and they’d never been digitized. Using those well-known films in his filmography to draw people in and then invite them to watch these other more obscure titles was also a way for me to see that myself.
You also write for publications such as Film Comment.
Programming can feel kind of ephemeral because you do all this work and then the film get here, the guests get here, the screenings happen, then you send the films back and then that’s it. Well, it’s not it—you have the memory of it. Sometimes I crave something that’s more permanent, a sort of way to interface with the art form but also I think as a programmer I end up doing a lot of clerical and logistical things, then writing suddenly seems like a more pure way to engage with the art form. For that reason, I feel writing is a necessary complement to programming. But I only write about films that I truly love. I don’t see any reason why I should waste time doing takedowns.
How many films are you watching a week?
I think it averages out to be one or two a day, which isn’t a lot, but if I’m putting together a big program it’ll be more concentrated. If I’m organizing a big retrospective and I have to do research it becomes more condensed, so I’ll spend a whole weekend watching 10 or 12 films.
Where’s your ideal place to watch films?
I do it at home so I can not wear pants, but there are amazing resources in New York City. You can go to the MoMa research center—you make an appointment and there’s somebody there who can project 16mm prints for you. Same with the New York Public Library, there’s somebody there who can project film for you there as well. Sometimes I’ll get a print sent here—I don’t want to piss off the projectionists more than I already do—but sometimes if I’m curious about the quality of the print, whether it’s projectable or not before I program it, I’ll get the print sent here. There’s nothing more luxurious than sitting in the balcony of the big theater and watching a film projected just for you.
Across other industries, what inspires your work?
I still love art and galleries. I try to incorporate that as much as possible because there are filmmakers on the experimental side who also exist in the gallery worlds like Tasida Dean or Gregory Markopoulos, and it’s great to work together. When I do programs with these artists, it’s important to collaborate with their galleries so we can create as much tension around the screenings as possible because these are films that don’t have commercial distribution behind them. They can use all the help they can get in terms of promotion and getting people’s attention around them. They’re more considered to be in the realm of visual arts, but they’re also temporal based works that have to be projected.
Are there any other theaters in the city that you frequent?
I think the O.G theater has to be Film Forum, right? They’re evergreen. Even though the space has its quirks with the cement poles in the middle of the room, I still have such a romantic association with it. I go to Lincoln Center a fair amount and I like going to the Museum of the Moving Image because they are the only venue that can show 70mm prints in the city.
What’s your ideal Sunday?
I love walking around the city. I get up and I have a whole routine of making matcha and reading and playing with my cat. If I don’t have to be here, ideally, I could go somewhere and watch a matinée and then go to a bar and hang out with my friends. Maybe go see an exhibition. It’s pretty simple.
Visit The Metrograph
7 Ludlow St.
New York, NY 10002
Photography by Les Mauvais Garçons
Interview by Sydney Obberfeld