The living culture of a city like Boston is a mosaic made of hidden angels, people who make art and bring audiences to art because they love doing so, not because they want to get famous. If we’re lucky, we appreciate them while we’re here. When they’re gone, we suddenly comprehend the immensity of the hole left behind.
David Pendleton died on Monday, at 53, of colon cancer. Unless you’re a movie lover who put time in at the Harvard Film Archive in the last 10 years, the name may mean nothing to you. But Pendleton was very much one of those hidden angels — a film programmer, curator, archivist, far-ranging cineaste, and much-loved colleague in filmgoing who immeasurably broadened the tastes and sensibilities of thousands who walked into the HFA’s theater in the basement of 24 Quincy St. in Cambridge.
If you were lucky, you got to see some of the rare and wonderful films Pendleton brought to town, or listen to his passionate and funny movie introductions, or you got to watch him lead a Q&A with a storied filmmaker on the Archive’s stage. If you were luckier still, you counted him as a friend.
I wish I could say I was part of his inner circle; too much of a newspaper movie critic’s daily life is chasing down commercial releases and not enough time is spent in the repertory theaters where deep dives happen. My personal regret on hearing of Pendleton’s death was selfish sorrow; I’d always meant to know him better, as many of our mutual acquaintances did, and now he was gone. The loss extends beyond his friends and family and co-workers to all of Greater Boston and the cultural lifeblood of the city. You need not have seen one of his film series to be richer today for David Pendleton having been here. But it sure made a difference.
Since arriving at the HFA in 2007, Pendleton put together dozens and dozens of series. They include complete career retrospectives of directors like Jean Renoir, Terence Davies, Robert Altman, and Ernst Lubitsch; an all-night movie marathon of Joan Crawford classics; series devoted to films of political resistance, pre-Code movies, and Chinese wuxia action; spotlights on the Korean wave of directors like Bong Joon-ho (“Okja,” “Snowpiercer”); programs on American punk, queer cinema, Indian films, Jacques Demy, and Burt Lancaster.
Under Pendleton, the HFA deepened and broadened its mission to offer up the full riches of cinema — the rest of the iceberg of which multiplex movies are only the tip. His programs shone a spotlight on foreign directors and avant-garde filmmakers whose works are rarely screened in this country. He was ahead of the curve on Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”), Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty”), and Joshua Oppenheimer (“The Act of Killing”). He championed movies you’ve never heard of and really should.
Pendleton’s influence was felt far and wide, in the world of academia — one upstate New York institution, the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, has already announced a scholarship in his name — and among the people who make movies. Says Boston area film critic Jake Mulligan, “I’ve interviewed so many filmmakers who have cited their time seeing and studying movies at the HFA as being of great value to them.” In 2009, the Boston Society of Film Critics gave Pendleton and HFA director Haden Guest a special commendation for a schedule that “has greatly enriched film culture in the Boston area.” You can read years of Pendleton’s program notes at the Harvard Film Archive website. They’re a film education in themselves.
Pendleton grew up in Dallas and studied at UCLA, earning an undergraduate degree in screenwriting and penning a PhD dissertation on the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini before spending years as a programmer at the UCLA Film and Television Archive. He was a bear of a guy, big and bearded, affable and articulate, always hanging out at the beginning and end of screenings to hear what you thought. He knew that half the joy of communal moviegoing was the conversation afterward.
Film critic Brett Michel recalls, “Few people were as social as David was as he frequently stood near the bottom of the stairs leading to the HFA’s theater in the basement of the Center. Always welcoming, he had a way of instantly disarming you, putting you at ease with his ever-present smile and warmly engaging you in conversation. Everyone’s opinion was valid, if they were lovers of film.”
Mulligan concurs: “David is and was the primary reason that the Archive felt like a community movie theater and not like a stuffy institution. Some of that was due to his programming, which was unpretentious and truly diverse. But most of it was just due to his manner — he was approachable, and approaching him was rewarding.”
Former MIT film programmer Generoso Fierro remembers Pendleton’s dedication to the Archive, its audiences, and experiences, like “the second all-night film noir marathon when David stayed the whole night working and, unlike us, never lacking a smile in between the films, even when waking the chronic snorer who kept freaking out the audience.”
Those who knew Pendleton struggled this week to come to terms with his sudden passing and tried to put his legacy into context. Says Guest, “David’s love for cinema was infectious and true, for it was inspired by a real love for bringing people together in an intimate community to embark upon the kinds of unique and mind-expanding journeys that cinema alone can bring.” Robb Moss, a filmmaker and chair of Harvard’s Visual and Environmental Studies, remembers the programmer’s “rare gift” for introducing screenings to expectant HFA audiences, how Pendleton would find “some revelatory nugget, piece of information, or charged anecdote that helped us more fully enter a film without it intruding on our experience by saying too much.”
Pendleton was also a mentor to people like Carson Lund, who stumbled upon the Archive while a film production student at Emerson and ended up working as an usher and, with Pendleton’s urging, writing program notes for film series before embarking on a career as a filmmaker and critic. “It might have all been a little intimidating were it not for David,” Lund says. “His immediately evident knowledge of cinema history was coupled with a generosity of spirit and a plainspoken intelligence that was easy to connect with.”
Lund offers a final personal memory that timestamps Pendleton in his era and place: “I could always spot David a mile away, especially in the winter, when he wore an orange beanie or a fedora. Though he always had a messenger bag on, like many in Harvard Yard, you could spot him based on his frantic and slightly awkward gait. He was always rushing to get work done!”
The work is done, much too soon. You don’t get many David Pendletons in life, and we were lucky to have had this one. Says Michel, “His presence, his guiding hand, and his insights are irreplaceable, and I already miss him terribly.”
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