For a school associated with George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis and Ron Howard, USC has unexpectedly become one of the finest places in Los Angeles for foreign and independent cinema, due in large part to a person becoming just as synonymous with the campus and quality films in Alessandro Ago.
It certainly hasn’t been all he’s shown since taking the reins of USC’s screening series in 2009 as the Director of Programming and Special Projects, but on any given night of the week when school’s in session, the Ray Stark Family Theater has become home to some of the most diverse current arthouse cinema in town, all available free to the public with an RSVP, and often followed with insightful, hour-plus Q & As that take advantage of the bachelor’s and master’s degrees he received from the school’s Critical Studies program. What had started out as a temp job for Ago while figuring out what he might pursue next has become an established stop for any indie film or world cinema that comes to town, not to mention the many concurrent series, celebrating both the school’s alumni and the history of the medium, that he’s regularly programming to keep audiences on their toes.
“There’s three things in particular that are a little bit unique from each other,” says Ago of the ongoing series at USC. “I wanted there to be a space for young alumni to bring their projects to campus in the [SCA Alumni Screening Series] — their first films or second films, or things that they’ve worked really hard on — and that can be a really wide range of material, [then there’s] Outside the Box Office, my more curated attempt to keep the students very much in the conversation about what’s happening in world cinema that doesn’t necessarily reflect the big commercial Hollywood system, and Visions and Voices, which is a larger arts and humanities initiative that the university established, meant to be a really exciting, dynamic range of things from architecture and art, fine arts to music, dance, poetry, literature, cinema, and theatre. We pitch these kind of one-off projects that might need a little bit more support because of the scale, but they’re really open to some very unusual ideas.”
This is how Ago was able to stage a full retrospective of “Twin Peaks” in 2013, bringing in 50 members of the cast and crew, including USC associate professor and longtime David Lynch editor Mary Sweeney, or bring in Italian filmmakers such as Lina Wertmueller, Mario Monicelli, Claudia Cardinale, Dario Argento and Marco Bellocchio over the years, a nod to his upbringing between Rome and Washington D.C. At USC, Ago saw an opportunity to broaden the school’s movie schedule after realizing that while films were shown all the time, there was no concerted effort to take advantage of the unique locale to create a special experience for both the aspiring film students and the filmmakers themselves. When USC finished construction on the Cinema School Complex in 2009, literally opening the doors to two new theaters – one in the Ray Stark and one across the hall at the Albert and Dana Broccoli Theatre – Ago seized the moment.
“We’re in the heart of the American film industry,” says Ago. “And filmmakers in general really enjoy giving back by talking to film students. At some point, most major filmmakers and a lot of lesser known ones will come through the city. Having a well-respected program here with a passionate student body and a screening series that really aims to reflect the diversity of international cinema makes it a good place where the conversation is usually of a very high level — not just [asking] how did you make it or how did you get the money, but what was your philosophy, how did you structure this, how do you approach storytelling, what does this film mean in terms of what you’re trying to say?”
While the conversations may get heady, the programming remains refreshingly egalitarian, with equal weight given to big studio comedies as obscure Czech dramas (USC is the LA home of the Czech That Film festival, among other comprehensive cultural surveys the school hosts). Thanks to a collaboration with Timothy Dowling, the “Role Models” and “Pixels” screenwriter and SC alum, the school has hosted an ongoing “Movies We Love” series of ‘80s and ‘90s crowdpleasers such as Phil Alden Robinson’s “Sneakers,” Richard Donner’s “Lethal Weapon,” Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth” (Jim’s son, Brian Henson, pictured above with Ago), Joe Dante’s “Innerspace,” and Hugh Wilson’s “Police Academy” (with a full cast and crew reunion) that don’t usually get their due critically. One of the events Ago was proudest of was a 2012 series that would seem to bring these two worlds together — a tribute to the late, great producer Dino de Laurentiis that coincided with an endowed professorship at the school in his name and his wife and producing partner Martha’s, and brought together the eclectic panel of Martha and Raffaella De Laurentiis, Michael Mann, Jonathan Mostow and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“It was an opportunity to really bring some really cool films to campus like ‘Conan the Barbarian,’ ‘Serpico,’ ‘Army of Darkness,’ ‘Blue Velvet,’ but also take a look on some of the earlier, rarer films like ‘The Great War’ and ‘Bitter Rice,’ films [De Laurentiis] produced in Italy for which we got beautiful 35-millimeter prints from Cinecitta,” said Ago. “Hopefully, in the process, we inspired some young producers to go take a look at ‘70s films.”
Recently, Ago has been able to take films off-campus — way off — as one of the curators of the American Film Showcase, a partnership between USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and the State Department that brings American filmmakers to far-flung locales to screen their work. The son of a diplomat, this work comes naturally for him and it’s no surprise to learn that one of his biggest passions is for international documentary film, the initial wellspring from which the rest of the current USC film screening program was born, and while students still come to USC to learn how to make films, Ago’s work has been far more subtle yet every bit as instrumental in reminding, no matter how many can watch something on their laptop, how profound experiencing movies with an audience can still be.
“It’s inspiring for students to see this work that’s really hard to get to a theatre for, and often welcome some of those filmmakers — those documentarians and international artists on campus,” said Ago. “For me, that’s our version of the American cinema where all forms of cinema gets addressed.”
To find out about all the latest USC screenings, click here for a full schedule of events at the School of Cinematic Arts.