After the PFA: Shelley Diekman, with colleague Judy Bloch, celebrated transitions out of the Pacific Film Archive this summer.

Shelley Diekman Reflects on Well-Spent life

Hilary Hart July 27, 2009

Shelley Diekman is one of the lucky ones—blessed with the gratifying and rewarding chance to merge her avocation with her vocation. A transplant from the midwest in the mid-‘70s, she was delighted by the wealth of cinematic viewing options in Bay Area theaters and soon segued from avid filmgoer to producer’s assistant to filmmakers cooperative manager to programmer, eventually settling into and making her mark as the Pacific Film Archive’s publicist. The publicist’s job is to talk up other people, but what was always revealed about Shelley herself as she worked was her love of film, appreciation of filmmakers, depth of knowledge of the history and craft of cinema, calm demeanor and thoroughness. Now that she’s free of the publicist’s mantel asked Shelley to exercise a new muscle and talk about herself and how she plans to take full advantage of her new personalized lifetime pass to PFA—worth its weight in gold to a cinephile.

SF360: How did you get started in publicity and what brought you to the PFA?

Shelley Diekman: First, I want to say how happy it’s made me to be able to be part of PFA for so many years.

I’d worked in a number of film jobs—for several producers of short films; as a manager of Canyon Cinema Co-Op; and at SFMOMA when they had a film exhibition series, which had been revived by Edith Kramer, and later programmed by Mel Novikoff, Ken DeRoux, and briefly by me. When SFMOMA eliminated their film programs, I started working on publicity for John Buckley, who ran the Bridge Theater, Cento Cedar Theater, and the Mercury Theater. John later joined forces with Allen Michaan’s company Renaissance-Rialto; its theaters then included the Four Star and the York.

By this time, Edith Kramer was head of PFA, and she asked me for the names of some critics to invite to a press screening. I guess she was pleased by the turnout, because shortly thereafter she asked me to apply for a new position at PFA. For several years, I was publicist for PFA and for the art cinemas.

SF360: Did you study film in school?

Diekman: Universities didn’t have film studies then. My degree is in French and Art History, which essentially allowed me to study 20th-century art, drama, music history, and world literature.

SF360: When did you realize that you loved movies and could actually make a living working in film?

Diekman: When I moved to San Francisco after college, I was excited by the wealth of film viewing opportunities—at SFMOMA, the terrific art and repertory cinemas, PFA, the Cinematheque—and proceeded to see hundreds, then thousands of films. It was an extension of my studies and interest in the arts, and it was wonderful not to be limited, as I had been during school, to the weekly screenings of film classics that we had brought to our small campus.

As to making a living, I worked two or three jobs until I was in my mid-30s, and made very, very little money. When I occasionally review my income history from those years, I’m amazed that I was able to live on what I made. Thank goodness, we didn’t have to pay much in rent then, though I did manage to become a one of Northern California’s notable parking criminals by amassing tickets in three counties while I lived in Sausalito and worked in SF and Berkeley.

SF360: What filmmaker who came to PFA surprised you the most and how?

Diekman: PFA co-presented a film preservation fundraising event with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences—a screening of a restored print of (the 1954) A Star is Born, introduced by James Mason (who had a glorious speaking voice) and Lillian Gish. It was so amazing to get to meet her, and to listen in during her interviews. She had directed while working with D. W. Griffith, and when a photographer from The Examiner came to her hotel suite, she instructed him precisely how to set the lights, and to station his camera above her face, all while telling a cautionary tale about a magazine cover photo of Helen Hayes that showed ‘nothing but nostrils.’ She also told a funny story about our mutual friend William K. Everson, a wonderful man and pioneering archivist who frequently came to PFA to screen films from his collection. He was English, and only liked the simplest foods, and she noticed him surreptitiously (he thought) stashing the prawns from the omelette she was serving him for lunch into his pocket. After the meal, she told him not to leave them there too long.

SF360: What was the most unusual request that you ever got as part of your job?

Diekman: Probably something that gave me a headache, and that I’ve repressed.

SF360: What was the hardest part of your job?

Diekman: The great thing about PFA is the sheer number of programs screened each year. So, this required always being aware of our schedule, and of how it meshed with the deadlines of all the journalists and their publications or shows. But it was still really enjoyable to work with the critics.

SF360: Did you ever want to make movies?

Diekman: Not really. I’ve always loved music, and I remember being glad after seeing Les Blank’s A Well Spent Life, about Mance Lipscomb, that there was a talented filmmaker preserving the work of some great musicians.

SF360: Have the tastes of movie audiences changed in the past 29 years, and has that impacted the programming at PFA?

Diekman: PFA has some of the most intelligent and discriminating audiences in the world—and their interests span genres, and eras, and national cinemas, and themes, and styles. Can’t really say how this has changed over time, but it’s intriguing that fans will emerge to embrace previously unexplored realms of cinema. What has influenced programming to some extent is the vastly greater availability of films on DVD, download, etc. It may decrease attendance to some extent, but it offers everyone a lot of opportunities to expand their knowledge, and I think PFA audiences appreciate the great experience of seeing a film properly projected on the big screen with an enthusiastic group of fellow viewers.

SF360: What can you tell us, at this point, about the new PFA theater?

Diekman: There will be an absolutely beautiful building in downtown Berkeley—the first in the United States by the Japanese architect Toyo Ito. [Get the virtual tour here.] A lot of the money for the building’s construction has been raised, and the fundraising campaign is continuing, though it’s not the easiest of times for non-profit projects of this sort. So I don’t know the exact timetable for the completion of the building, but it will be lovely to reunite the theater and the galleries, and for them to be in a pleasant and transit-friendly location.

SF360: Do you remember the first movie that you ever saw?

Diekman: Vividly—It was Walt Disney’s Peter Pan, and one of the scenes with Captain Hook frightened me enough that I hid under the seat. I also remember seeing a serial on TV: Ramar, Boy of the Jungle, and realizing that in one of the scary scenes, they never showed the boy and the tiger menacing him at the same time, and that it was just a picture (that is, film footage) of a tiger, and that the boy wasn’t really near the animal. So I had a very early, though literally childish, understanding of editing.

SF360: Is there a movie that changed the way that you watch films, changed your life or your outlook on life?

Diekman: There are too many. One of the aspects of film that I love the most is that it so often can transform our understanding of life in different situations, societies, eras, and on and on.

I might mention that at one time I didn’t really respond to some of the frame compositions in Jean Renoir’s films. They didn’t always seem to be constructed in a formally elegant, restrained fashion, but I came to realize that sometimes characters seemed to be bursting in and out of the frames, and that this created a joyful sense of liveliness and energy.

SF360: What are your three favorite films?

Diekman: These would probably change from time to time, but I dearly love:
Ozu’s Late Spring (and many other films by him), John Ford’s They Were Expendable (sadly, when I’ve seen this one on TV, they cut the scene that explains the title), and then maybe Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth, (starring the same actress as Late Spring), or Bresson’s A Man Escaped, where he constructs all the tension of a thriller almost without words, by showing small, mundane activities leading to the prison break.

SF360: Who are your favorite directors?

Diekman: I suppose Ozu and Renoir, for their compassion.

SF360: What are you planning to watch at PFA in July and August?

Diekman: As is so often the case, there are some amazing films this summer that I’ve never seen. I hope to catch David Lean’s The Passionate Friends in Britta Sjogren’s "Into the Vortex: Female Voice in Film" series, Frank Zappa’s 300 Motels from Steve Seid’s selection of eccentricities, Joseph Losey’s The Prowler in the series of gems from the UCLA Archive’s restorations, and Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and The Family from the Italian series. And I’d like to recommend in passing, although I saw it long ago, and it seems heretical to single out one film from all the possibilities, We All Loved Each Other So Much, directed by Ettore Scola.

SF360: What movie are you going to see this week or what movie are you most looking forward to seeing soon?

Diekman: I’m looking forward to Soul Power, a film of a music festival that took place in Zaire in 1974 at the time of the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. It features B.B. King, James Brown, The Spinners, Miriam Makeba, and as they say, many more. And I’ll probably belatedly start working my way through DVDs of The Wire, which should keep me occupied when I’m at home.

SF360: What opportunities, interests and projects will retirement allow you to pursue?

Diekman: It’s so odd to be talking so much about myself and not PFA. I’m just beginning to adjust happily to life without ten trips a week across the Bay Bridge. I have an enormous list of too-long-deferred house repair projects that I’m working on at the moment. But it’s already fun to be away from an office and I’m delighted, right now, not to worry in the slightest about What I’m Going to Do. After so many years of working, I just don’t think it’s going to be any problem at all.

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