As the cultural director at Foreign Cinema, Bryan Ranere decides if your meal will be accompanied by a lick of Terence Malick or a helping of Hitchcock. It comes naturally: before moving to San Francisco in 1999, Ranere studied filmmaking at Temple University in Philadelphia. He’s been selecting Foreign Cinema’s 35 mm films for the past decade—a task, he says, that’s become more challenging with every passing year. He talked to us about the alchemy involved with pairing dinner and a movie.
San Francisco: How did you get in to this line of work?
Bryan Ranere: [I heard] that someone had started this crazy project of doing a restaurant with 35 mm films, sort of Cinema Paradiso-style. I couldn’t believe this was happening, because I was a film student and maker, and also had been a bartender since college. So these friends of mine said, "you’ve got to work here." At the time, there was nothing like it anywhere. It was great to come to work and see beautiful films in this lovely little courtyard. So for a long time, I did the cocktail program at Foreign Cinema. Then there came a point when they needed someone to program the films. Someone else had done it from the beginning, but one of the owners said, "this is what you should be doing; you know more about film than anyone I know." So it happened naturally.
How has the position evolved since you took over?
Ten years ago, [getting 35 mm prints] was pretty easy. That was still the standard, [although] people were talking about converting to digital. But then the sea change happened. It’s never been more of a challenge, because I only book films I can get a 35 mm print of. We also have a digital projector, but we use [35 mm] because that aesthetic is still so beautiful. Almost no one else is doing it. But it’s getting harder and harder to acquire prints. Most studios are not releasing new films except digitally, and people are very cagey about letting existing prints go out for more than one or two screenings.
So where do you find them?
There are a couple of major distributors and a number of studios. But they’re battening down the hatches. Once a month, we do a late-night movie series where we show films that we couldn’t show during regular dining hours—horror, underground stuff—and for some of those I’m writing an email to an AOL address. There’s no phone number, just someone deciding whether I’m worthy of his print. I remember once we wanted to show Reds and I had to call Tom Luddy, who besides being the director of the Telluride Film Festival is a Berkeley resident and friends with Warren Beatty. I’m not sure if we ended up with Warren’s print, but that was the back-up plan. So we’ve had a lot of adventures.
What happens when sources dry up?
I’m exploring new avenues to see what juice we can squeeze out, but in the next year or so it’ll just be about I have to make the right calls. 35 mm screenings will have to be special one-off events. That’s what we’re faced with. The rest of this year we should be okay, but the next is up in the air.
Is there anything you’d like to screen that isn’t, shall we say, appropriate for the dinner hour?
[Laughs] I do a thing called “Night Terrors.” It’s a night we started doing about six months ago. We’ve showed Fulci’s The Beyond and the original Maniac from 1980, and a Russ Meyer movie. Stuff that is definitely not appropriate for children. San Francisco is a very sophisticated city, and sexuality isn’t that big of a deal, but certainly violence is something you have to consider.
So all of that aside, how do you decide which films pair well with dinner?
We want to celebrate world cinema, but it’s also an aesthetic. When the restaurant first opened there was this thought that people were going to come to see the movies and eat the food. It was naïve because people wanted to eat and wanted to talk, and the film was really just a huge centerpiece. We blew through a lot of the foreign classics early—Fellini and Godard. After a while, I started pushing independent stuff and started to look at what could have a huge visual impact. I wanted to get films where every frame is a glorious composition. Like Terence Malick’s To the Wonder [which screened last month]. It was an aesthetic film. The plot was meandering and convoluted, but it looked absolutely gorgeous. Seeing it that large, you’re in the middle of it. If you have a perfect bite of food and a delicious glass of wine you see this moment, and it doesn’t matter what the story is.