IN THE DARK. You can go to Casa Video and rent most of the films featured in the Friday night International Arts Society series that spans the fall and spring semesters on the UA campus. You can grab a DVD, slip it into your system rigged with Dolby surround sound, sit back on your plushy sofa and gaze up at your huge, flat-screen plasma TV. You can even make your own popcorn.

You may think you've simulated the movie-going experience, but what's missing are the collective and varied responses of a couple hundred people sitting around you--the laughs, downright guffaws, gasps and even errant sniffling.

You wouldn't see a guy like Charlie Scruggs introducing blockbusters at the mall theater as he does each week before the free IAS films. He's just a guy who's passionate about movies, and he was that way long before he became the director of the series--entering its 50th year this week.

"I began watching films at the age of 10. On a Saturday afternoon, for 10 cents, you got two Westerns, a serial, a newsreel and cartoons. It was heaven," says the UA professor of English about his weekly trips to a neighborhood theater in the south side of Chicago.

When Scruggs arrived in Tucson in 1967, the IAS had already been around for a solid 14 years, dispelling the reputation of the university as an agriculture college. Its proud parents were two UA professors--Art Grant and Bob Hammond--who ran the series on a shoestring.

In the beginning, the films were mostly what we call "classics" by 21st-century standards--Les Enfants Terribles, Orpheus, Open City.

"It was a mixed bag. Remember, this was before the big craze for foreign films was born. We're talking 1959, 1960. I remember in one of my early art history classes, the professor showing us The Seventh Seal. That was such a radical film to me back then," admits Scruggs of the 1957 Bergman film.

The English professor was an obvious choice to take over the series, which he did in 1971.

"I guess Art must have heard about my teaching the first film class in the English department here. That was back in 1969. He figured I'd be a good candidate for taking over the series."

As soon as he did, Scruggs moved it to the MLA, making the films available to a larger audience.

"It's kind of funny to admit, but for a time, the series didn't actually run on a shoestring. We made tons of money charging subscriptions and collecting money at the door. I was worried about the IRS coming after us and the bank account filling up," says Scruggs with a grin.

"All of it was by accident. I'm no businessman. We even started a film program in Kingman for a year. I guess you could say I was the Donald Trump of film."

Scruggs says he's always striving for balance in the 30 films he screens each year.

"People have joked that all the films are depressing and that's the criteria we use to select them. But what we're looking for are different kinds of narratives. So, this year, we've got the usual classics and contemporary movies, foreign and domestic, but we have a real variety of stories."

There's the opening screening this week of Tiger Bay, a 1959 English film with 12-year-old Hayley Mills making her screen debut as she builds an eerie relationship with a murderer whose crime she witnessed. It's followed by The Piano Teacher, an Austrian/French film from 2001, directed by Michael Haneke, who also directed the very weird Funny Games.

"Yeah, when we screened that one the week of Sept. 11, people actually left the theater. I think torture was not something they were prepared to see," Scruggs remembers.

This year includes a 1923 Buster Keaton film, a Chinese film from the late '90s and an Iranian film directed by Jafar Panahi. The series also celebrates actors or directors who've passed away this year. Roman Holiday, starring Gregory Peck, is a film produced the year the series began.

"We're screening Hiroshima, Mon Amour, because it's not only one of the classics of the French New Wave, but it's also written by a woman. We're always looking for women directors or writers. But we're also showing The Misfits, a movie starring Marilyn Monroe, not exactly a strong female role. You've got to realize that this Western is an incredibly intelligent commentary about modernity. And it was written by Arthur Miller."

Part of the thrill of the IAS series is seeing who shows up. Scruggs says Tucson is a town that supports film.

"The audience is very diverse. It changes weekly. Sometimes, like when we showed Some Like It Hot, it was all undergrads. But that's rarely the case.

"As a matter of fact, after we took a six-year hiatus in 1992--I was writing a book and no one else wanted to take over its direction--we found our old audience was still there. So when they renovated MLA with a DVD player, we were back in business, so to speak."

The films are free now, supported by the College of Humanities. The theme is still love, says Scruggs.

"Eros is what drives so many narratives, it's an inevitable theme."

The International Arts Society film series begins with Tiger Bay on Friday, Aug. 29, at 7:30 p.m., in the Modern Languages Auditorium, located below Second Street at Mountain Avenue on the UA campus. Free parking is available in Zone 1 lots or at street meters after 5 p.m. Call 621-3527 for more information.

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