Tom Blank is on a mission.
A Navy veteran and retired director who served his career in television, Blank and his wife moved in 2005 from Hollywood to Eugene, where he immediately took up the cause of advocating for movies as cultural and spiritual artifacts.
Wildly conversant in the history of film and filmmaking, Blank says that cinema is being threatened by unhindered corporate interests and “the explosion of communication devices” that are making the great tradition of going to the movies redundant. Instead of sitting together in grand theaters for the awesome collective experience of watching a movie, too many of us download movies on our cell phones (“Imagine watching Lawrence of Arabia on an iPhone!” Blank says, laughing), and the movies we do view are largely formula rehash that serve as vehicles for product tie-ins.
“It’s possible to hold cinema as a form that becomes your spiritual life,” Blank says. “Cinema itself is mostly threatened by decision makers who don’t understand it.”
Blank, then, is striving to spark local interest in the cultural and artistic value of movies; he refers to himself as an “advocate” of cinema, and this isn’t just talk; he says there’s no reason Eugene can’t develop a strong film community, which includes filmmaking. Along with hosting frequent screenings for Bijou Metro’s Classics Series, Blank also works closely with DIVA’s Shaggy Dog Project, advising on how to make low-cost short films, and continues to spearhead his Behind the Lens seminars at UO’s Baker Center.
Movies, he says, have intrinsic value not just as entertainment and art, but as an index of a person’s spiritual development as a human being. “I feel that we don’t begin to understand ourselves until we take stock of the influences that have made us the people we have become,” Blank says. “I’m often asked what my favorite movie is, and I counter the query by asking which ones have been the most important to them. The way I look at it, our favorite movies are usually those that we saw in our late teens or early twenties, movies that helped us understand who we wanted to become. Your favorite film could easily be the one that changed your mind when your mind was in desperate need of change.”
Blank says “informed viewership” can enrich one’s experience of films, and in this sense he views his role as host of seminars and screenings as predominantly educational. “What you can do is to empower the viewer to understand that his or her reaction is just as valid as anybody else’s,” he says. “I try to use Socratic techniques to elicit emotional responses from the audience. Once we deal with feelings, we can connect to the whole group.”
As for the local film community, Blank says, “People who actively talk about the movies they see are the film community in Eugene.” He asserts, “What remains to be discovered is how our local officials, our institutions and our theaters will facilitate that need for discussion.”
Blank also believes Eugene can foster a healthy environment for folks interested in making movies. “If you were in Los Angeles you would be constrained by film unions and local regulations that support the studios, so if you want to make guerrilla film, you’re always in the best place,” he says. “The ready availability of cheap digital cameras and fast lenses make it all possible. How much are you willing to inconvenience yourself and the people around you in order to make a movie? That’s up to you. There are support networks and organizations that will help.”
Blank’s new Behind the Lens series, “The Sixties: The Winter of Our Discontent,” begins Jan. 7; for more info, visit diva.proscenia.net.