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Man Behind La Jolla Film Series Projects His Own Quirky World

Greg Kahn didn’t want his picture taken for this article. He’s tired of newspaper features on the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art’s film program that end up looking like features on Greg Kahn. It’s not Greg Kahn presenting the films, he explained, it’s the museum.

Fair enough. Except that any discussion of the museum’s film projects seems to begin and end with the ponytailed, 36-year-old Kahn, the driving force behind the program since its inception 10 years ago. The museum presents the films, but it is Kahn who gives the program its identity and flair.

Working relatively independently of the rest of the museum staff, with only an intern for help, Kahn chooses the films himself, and, he acknowledges, the eclectic selections reflect his own interests and tastes more than anything else.

“It’s all what I like. Like any curator, the reason I’m here is because they like my opinion of what’s interesting,” Kahn said recently as he lounged in a conference room of the museum.

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“There are two great things about working here,” he said. “The complete autonomy of the department and there’s no dress code. These are necessities of my life.”

Although his tastes include the works of such artists as Alain Resnais and Andrei Tarkovsky, Kahn never will be characterized as a film snob. Unlike some esoteric film patrons, he won’t bad-mouth American cinema. Certainly not all museum film curators would even jest about enjoying Walter Hill’s generally panned films, such as “Extreme Prejudice” and “Streets of Fire,” nor would they be open-minded enough to include the Rob Lowe film “Masquerade” on their list of best films for 1988, as Kahn does. Kahn even jokes about “religiously” watching “Miami Vice.”

“I love television,” he said.

A “Miami Vice” episode sparked Kahn to program the museum’s next series, a retrospective look at the work of American director Bobby Roth, which continues today with a screening of “Heartbreakers.” Roth will be present tonight to discuss his work.

Roth is the type of artist Kahn loves to spotlight. Despite a lack of fame, he is a working director, with credits in television as well as cinema. The museum will present his acclaimed “Baja Oklahoma,” as well as an evening featuring episodes of television’s “Crime Story” and “Miami Vice” that were directed by Roth.

“I appreciate a director with a good sense of storytelling and composition,” Kahn said. “They create their own quirky worlds. I like that.”

Kahn’s own quirky world turned to film promotion after he graduated from San Diego State University in 1975 with bachelor of art degrees in sociology and comparative literature. He went to work as a writer for several local publications, primarily the Reader.

In 1978, Kahn dived head first into the world of film promotion, starting the San Diego International Film Festival, an attempt to bring films and industry celebrities to San Diego. Although well appreciated by the San Diego film community, the annual festivals lost “gobs” of money, Kahn said, and, after five years, he opted to let the festival die.

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“It was totally a monetary decision,” he said. “This is a tough city for arts organizations, especially when COMBO was the umbrella organization (for arts fund raising). When COMBO was the umbrella organization, we’d approach companies for money, and they’d say they gave to COMBO.”

The film festival, however, brought Kahn to the attention of the museum, which was looking to expand its visual arts program into cinema.

“He has a tremendous knowledge of media,” museum director Hugh Davies said. “A lot of curators have knowledge in one area of expertise, but he has a deep sense of knowledge in other fields. I think Greg, in the hours he keeps, his appearance and his non-compromising ways, is exactly what you hope a curator to be.”

In a city relatively starved for foreign films, Kahn had little trouble establishing an audience.

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“It was easier at the beginning,” he said. “We were the new kid on the block, like a new mall opening. Everyone flocks to it.”

Since then, the audiences for the series have been relatively consistent. Funded almost entirely by ticket sales, aided by a few grants, the film program pays for itself. Response to each series is usually tied to media attention, Kahn said. The museum does little advertising.

Nothing sets Kahn off quicker than to mention the perception of San Diego as a “weak” film city. San Diego gets as many films as any other city its size, he said, sometimes more. He doesn’t understand why people complain about the lack of foreign or so-called “small” films here.

“We often run films before they have distributors, or before they run anywhere else in the country,” he said. “There is a total misconception that San Diego is a stepsister to Los Angeles. Is anyone out there going to four films a week?”

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It would be unfair to pigeonhole the museum’s series into one or two categories. For 70 nights a year, the museum presents everything from a series of films by Mexican director Arturo Ripstein to a look at rock ‘n’ roll groups on television.

“It is one of the best things in the city film-wise,” said Steve Russell, director of the four theaters in San Diego operated by Landmark Theaters. “It definitely fills a role we can’t fill here at the Ken (Theater). One of the all-time highs for me was when he did a complete, except for one film, look at (John) Cassavetes.”

If people complain or appreciate the abundance of classics and retrospective series, it’s because that’s what Kahn likes to see.

“As I get older, I get more curmudgeonly, as far as what I can tolerate,” he said. “I like fewer and fewer films.”

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Kahn grumbles about the lack of media attention and some people’s lack of understanding of some of the series subjects, but he also seems proud of the range and diversity of the film program.

“Greg has such a wonderful sense of cinema,” said Mike Real, director of the SDSU department of telecommunications and film, who hired Kahn as an associate professor in 1987. “There’s always a nice mix of intelligence and information with a down-to-earth sense of delight and joy and potential of the cinema.”

With the beautiful museum facility, Kahn definitely has one of the most coveted jobs in the local film community. People joke that it one of the easiest jobs, because he only has to book one film a week. But the depth and diversity of the offerings display just how far Kahn has integrated himself into the international film world. He often goes beyond the normal film distribution circuit to bring films without U. S. distributors to La Jolla, such as arranging with the French Embassy’s Cultural Services Office to premier six French films.

“I really like the fact that he plugs in to other sources, like the French Consulate,” said Ralph DeLauro, film program director for the Central Library downtown. “He tries to tap into a broad range of stuff, and I like that he’s branching into video. It’s a nice touch.”

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