What’s missing from contemporary film culture? That question is the real subject of Searching for Mr. Rugoff, the new documentary exploring the little-known career and forgotten reputation of film distributor and exhibitor Donald Rugoff whose Cinema 5 company set an unmatched standard for the serious appreciation of movies in the 1960s and 70s.
The search, literalized in director Ira Deutchman’s personal investigation into the background of Mr. Rugoff — his first film-industry employer — starts with a peculiar misstep: Deutchman quotes Steve Jobs as if to contextualize Rugoff’s genius. In doing so, though, he confuses Rugoff’s role in the humanities with our era’s worship of Jobs’s role in our technological dehumanization.
Fact is, while researching Rugoff’s past, Deutchman actually explores his own — which is to say our own past relationship to movies and the humanities. The arts that influenced our imaginations and understanding of the world and human behavior were overseen by unique men like Rugoff.
It was through Rugoff’s Cinema 5 that mid-20th-century film-watching shook off Hollywood domination, taking advantage of the new visions being created by European auteurs as well as domestic independents. New York native Rugoff, the son of a Depression-era theater owner, extended the family business by advancing his individual taste in theater design and available fare. Rugoff’s unconventional personality and comportment is remembered through fellow employees’ anecdotes about the boss’s personal traits and irascible style. But these stories also recall the specifics of working for a pioneer in film exhibition and a curator — that currently misused term — whose presentations helped film culture to rise, mature, and climax during that great period of American movie renaissance.
Deutchman’s own career as a film producer developed out of the film appreciation cultivated by his early exposure to Rugoff’s methods and the notable movies that he brought to the attention of American audiences — The Endless Summer, Putney Swope, Z, Trash, Scenes from a Marriage, Seven Beauties, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and others.
Deutchman’s perspective on Rugoff was changed when Dan Talbot of New Yorker Films first paid tribute to Rugoff for being “the greatest distributor of independent films this city had ever seen.” Talbot’s praise reverberates in the Steve Jobs era — when movies are now reduced to “content” and all sense of social and moral and artistic priorities are scrambled. Deutchman’s quest for Rugoff’s past — “It was shocking to me that someone who was that important had become a virtually forgotten figure” — is not only an act of homage, it also searches for the foundations of his own professional and cultural commitment.
Finding out what made Rugoff tick sets this doc in the believe-or-not-category of Searching for Sugar Man. Banal scenes of Deutchman traveling to Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, where Rugoff retreated after losing his company and was rumored to be buried in a pauper’s grave, differ from Sugar Man’s fame-and-mass-adulation tale. How Rugoff took on the scabrous, X-rated, 1969 satire Putney Swope, telling its maker Robert Downey, “I don’t get it but I like it,” exemplified the era of running a risk but believing in art. This search for cinema’s past respectfully inquires into men like Rugoff, Sid Geffen, and Amos Vogel who cared about cinema, promulgated film as more than a business, and made the culture thrive.
Deutchman uses sociological classifications — Chapter 1: Crazy; Chapter 2: Entitled; Chapter 3: Genius; and Chapter 4: Insatiable — to get at Rugoff’s peculiarities and drive. But like the memorable Marlene Dietrich line, “What does it matter what you say about a man,” Deutchman preserves Rugoff’s bequest to film culture — the bold new patterns of distribution that broke films out of the art-house ghetto into the general culture (especially in the case of Costa-Gavras’s political thriller Z and Marcel Ophuls’s epic documentary The Sorrow and the Pity); the innovative, eye-catching advertising graphics (such as Putney Swope’s audacious sexual semiotics that 20th Century Fox quickly imitated for Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H); and the chain of single-screen New York movie theaters that were exceptionally designed to elevate and maximize the movie-going experience. The Sutton, Murray Hill, Cinemas I and II were unrivaled modernist updates to the old-style ornate movie palaces. (The neo art-deco Beekman theater was the setting for Woody Allen’s classic Marshall McLuhan scene in Annie Hall.)
Rugoff set standards that would change the future of film presentation eventually imitated by Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax and now Netflix to distinguish their product as sophisticated and key to the zeitgeist. That was Rugoff’s modern knack — inscrutable to those who lacked his sensibility but irresistible to the film world. His personal and professional decline, due to what businessmen artfully call a “hostile takeover,” is astutely explained by producer Peter Broderick: “It wasn’t a fallen-hero thing. Physical things happen and relationships change.” Deutchman’s accounts looks back at the figure whose singular vision created a debt of obligation and never-forgotten inspiration. In the arts, as in politics, we’re still searching for leadership.