A leftist political leader earns the support of his country's poorest citizens; an alien lands in Harlem and fits right in; a film director struggles to capture an authentic sex scene; a woman's grasp on reality unravels while physicists and neurobiologists provide commentary.
Remember that public-service TV commercial that went something like, "You can find it all at your local library"?
In 1984, Ralph De Lauro walked into San Diego's Central Public Library and told administrators they needed a regular film series-and he was the guy to do it. He's not absolutely sure, but he thinks his first film screening was the classic 1931 Fritz Lang film, M, starring Peter Lorre as a child killer who eludes both Berlin's police and underground bounty hunters.
Since then, De Lauro's picks have become no less smart or provocative. Each week he holds at least two screenings (Sunday, Monday and the occasional Wednesday), almost always films he's selected himself, for which he provides a charming introduction. "For tonight's sinful pleasure," he said of last week's Bright Young Things, "we have the glitz and glory of hedonism."
De Lauro showed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Maria Full of Grace long before the Academy made its nominations. Sometimes he'll go out on a limb, showing movies neither he, nor probably most of his audience, have ever heard of. The only limitations: no pornography and only films the library has a license to show.
And no controversial left-leaning films too close to an election. De Lauro scheduled Fahrenheit 9/11 the week before Election Day, pissing off KOGO radio's Roger Hedgecock, who urged his listeners to call the library and complain.
"I was in the principal's office a number of times for that," said De Lauro. He rescheduled the film for the following week.
De Lauro moved to San Diego from San Francisco in the early '80s. He remembers the films San Francisco's main library offered.
"Granted this was the late '70s," he said, "but even then, it was an incredibly cheesy production. It was in a little meeting room and they literally put a projector on a table and had one of those little pull up screens that your Aunt Mabel has... and I'm thinking, a sophisticated city like San Francisco and their library does something of this quality?"
When he came to San Diego, he lived in an artists' colony at Fifth Avenue and Market Street downtown. He'd borrow movies from the library and show them on the roof of the building.
"Then it dawned on me," he said "I'm getting these films from the library, yet they don't even have an ongoing program. So that was the impetus for me to go in and see if we could start something."
The library auditorium holds 189 people. Films like Eternal Sunshine attract maybe 100 people, De Lauro said, but sometimes he prefers it when a lesser-known film draws maybe 50 or 60 people who are there because they truly want to see something new.
"That really gives me the most satisfaction-that there are people willing to take a chance. Yeah, it's free but you've got to get off your butt, go down and do it," he said."I do show my share of mass-audience type things, but in general they're the smaller films, foreign films, they're offbeat, independent, they're just strange and different and drawing an audience to those kind of films is the challenge I like the best."