Elliot Lavine has cultivated a love of noir movies into a life of movie programming and teaching at Stanford and San Francisco State universities and at UC Berkeley. His latest effort: “I Still Wake Up Dreaming: The Haunted World of the B Film Noir,” from May 14-27 at the Roxie Theater, is a festival of 28 noir films.
Who has had the biggest influence on you in your life?
I suppose it would be easiest to go with a response like my mother or my wife, and in both instances it would be completely true. But in the more abstract and less obvious sense, I might just say Betty Tonkavic, my fifth-grade teacher at the John Dewey Elementary School back in Oak Park, Mich.
Where do you find inspiration?
In the pages of dark American fiction by writers such as Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford and Harry Whittington as well as the despairing 1940s and 1950s black-and-white films from Hollywood’s poverty row.
Is there something about you that people would find surprising?
When I was in grade school, I tried out for the school choir but was rejected on the grounds that I had a terrible singing voice. But I wanted to be in the choir because there was a very pretty girl that I had a crush on who was in the choir. So I convinced our music teacher to give me a spot in the choir as “guest whistler” because I was a pretty terrific whistler. Sad to say, I never got the girl.
How would you describe film noir?
I would describe it as a style of filmmaking which managed to graft a low-key, high-contrast, monochromatic visual style onto crime and suspense stories while exploring darkly psychological themes and notions of aberrant human behavior. By definition, it’s limited to those films made roughly between 1940 and 1960.
How, when and why did you begin programming film noir?
In 1990 I went to work for the Roxie Theater. Initially, my job was to write the blurbs for their calendars, but before long I was programming films that were bringing in good crowds. In fall 1991 I convinced Bill Banning, the owner of the Roxie, to let me put on a mammoth, monthlong program of film noir. The response was incredible! I left the Roxie in 2003. Last spring, Banning invited me back to curate a show that I called “I Wake Up Dreaming: The Haunted World of The B Film Noir.” It was an enormous success. Now, I’m back at the Roxie with “I still wake up dreaming!”
What is your film background?
I came out to California in the mid-’70s with the idea of learning filmmaking, which, after a fashion, I did. I studied at San Francisco State and cranked out a pair of well-received noir-flavored short dramatic films before settling into a career as a film programmer. I was with the Roxie as a full-time programmer for 13 years and also managed to curate other programs in theaters around the country. For the past several years, I’ve been teaching film studies courses for Stanford University’s continuing education program and, for someone like myself, it’s really a dream job.