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The International Arts Society is no longer the only show in town--but it's still one of the best

So you call yourself a movie fan. Or a cinéphile. Or something worse. You belong at IAS on Friday nights.

The International Arts Society has been bringing classic and foreign movies to campus since 1953, when a couple of UA professors, hearing rumors of interesting developments in post-war European film, started showing what were then called art films in the Liberal Arts (now Social Studies) auditorium.

No such thing as film studies existed, Joe McCarthy was at the height of his power, and the New Loft wasn't even a twinkle in Joe Esposito's eye, but Art Grant of the English department and Bob Hammond of French wanted to see what was up with Rossellini and De Sica. Besides, they argued, it would be good for students to hear foreign languages. But it was really about the movies.

It still is. Charlie Scruggs took over IAS in 1971 as a young assistant professor in the English department, and except for a long hiatus in the '90s, he's been running it ever since.

While doing graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, Scruggs had become friends with an undergraduate named Michael Mann, who went on to study at London's International Film School, and then to become the executive producer of Miami Vice, and director of The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, Collateral and The Insider. ("His secretary still returns my calls," Scruggs says with a laugh.)

Scruggs visited Mann in England, and it was while paling around with him in London, seeing old noir movies in tiny theaters, that he really caught the art-house bug.

"When I came to Tucson, IAS was the only show in town," Scruggs says.

There was no cable, no DVDs, no Gallagher, no Casa Video. The (old) Loft was going through a soft-porn period. If you lived in Tucson and wanted to see old movies, you could keep an eye on the late-night TV listings; if you wanted to see foreign films--well, your choices were to catch what IAS was showing on Friday night or fly to New York. (The series was cheaper: Admission was a dollar or two at the door, or $10 for the whole season of 20-plus films--a deal even then.)

"The mid-to-late '70s was our heyday," Scruggs says. "We always had two showings, and the 8:15 show usually sold out. Our biggest single night was in 1978, when we showed Godard's Week End. We almost filled the Main Auditorium" (now Centennial Hall).

His happiest IAS memory, though, was the triumph of Marcel Pagnol's great Fanny trilogy on three consecutive nights in the Modern Languages Auditorium.

"We had a good turnout on Friday for Marius, but then word got out just how good it was, and we got slammed on Saturday night for Fanny. On Sunday night, for César, we had lines, lines out the door and around the building. It was wild."

Audiences shrank in the '80s with the advent of video and cable, and Scruggs burned out at the end of the 1990 season.

"Prints were terrible, the distribution companies were squeezing us, equipment was a hassle. What I didn't realize, though, was that while people may be able to rent a lot of the films now, there's still something they like about going out and seeing a movie, sitting in the theater with other people and then hanging around talking about it in the lobby afterwards."

IAS started up again in 1999 with Faculty of Humanities sponsorship and free admission. It's been going ever since, but had a hard time last semester, when the program charged $3 a ticket to pay off its debts to distributors.

"I think some people felt like, oh, here's just another gouge," Scruggs says.

Admission is free again this semester. There's no beating that price, even at Casa.

"Plus, people like the notes we give out on every film. Our first showing this semester was Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, and Tom Willard (of the English Department) did a terrific job on the notes--the troubles Kubrick had making it were fascinating."

This Friday, Jan. 27, IAS will show Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, the movie that inspired Star Wars. Other upcoming films include Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai, Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits, the original King Kong (featuring Fay Wray in her pre-Hays Code, see-through nightie), plus the 2003 Hungarian art-house hit Kontroll and a selection of prize-winning contemporary South American films you won't catch anywhere else. The semester ends with a classic comedy, Harold Lloyd's Safety Last--in which Lloyd dangles white-faced above traffic from the hands of a giant clock.

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