Cinema, the Seaside, ‘It All Clicked’

Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan brings vast film programming experience to Sag Harbor
Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood is rich in film history. The Cherry Lane Theater was the set for “The Seventh Victim,” a 1943 film noir produced by Val Lewton in which Kim Hunter uncovered a Satanic cult in the Village. Ms. Hunter also lived in the building. Mark Segal

Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, whose career as a film curator, programmer, and writer spans three decades, traces her love of movies to summers she spent as a teenager in Monterosso in Cinque Terra on the Italian Riviera. Because there were no cars in the village, she and her sisters could walk unsupervised to the open-air theater there. 

“I remember very eclectic programs — ‘The Searchers’ and Walt Disney, spaghetti westerns and Charles Bronson, lots of Ford, Hawks, Dario Argento, Nino Manfredi. Not quite like today’s art house.”

During a conversation at her Greenwich Village apartment, Ms. Vallan, the head of the programming committee for the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center, linked that experience to a winter evening in Sag Harbor during the early 1990s. “Not much was open then, and we went to dinner at the American Hotel. I saw this theater sign and it was just like — cinema! It all clicked with the seaside and my summers in Monterosso. The way the cinema sort of anchored Main Street, it felt like home immediately.”

Fast-forward to 2008, when Sag Harbor Cinema’s owner, Gerald Mallow, put it on sale for the first time. “I remember talking to a producer friend who has a house there and saying that it was crazy, someone should do a nonprofit art house,” Ms. Vallan said. “A lot of people in the village had the same idea, so we got together and started to prepare a plan for it. It went back and forth for a while, but it seemed Gerry was not ready.”

In 2016 Mr. Mallow contacted the artist and activist April Gornik, who had been central to the original conversations, and said he was interested in reopening the discussion. “I updated the original proposal,” said Ms. Vallan, “and we came up with the idea of another theater upstairs. We had been in talks with Gerry for months before the fire, but I think when the fire happened it changed the equation.”

Now that the money to purchase the theater has been raised and the construction is underway, several committees are in formation. “We are all volunteers right now,” she said. “I thought it was important to start presenting programs even if the theater is not here yet, because the community has been so generous that to disappear for a couple of years would have been wrong.”

“It also gives us a way to better know the people in the community and to establish relationships with some of the institutions we might collaborate with in the future. Pierson High School has been wonderful, but everyone has been welcoming to us.”

Ms. Vallan, who has had a residence in Sag Harbor for almost 20 years, brings vast programming experience to the committee. She was born and raised in Turin, Italy, and earned a doctorate in cinema studies at the university there with a dissertation on Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope studio. She was also a Fulbright Scholar in the film and television program of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

“I love movies,” she said. “I have always liked being in a dark place where you can travel into all these stories.” From the beginning, her primary focus has been American film. On her first visit to New York, when she was still a student, she met one of the film editors of Il Manifesto, an Italian daily newspaper, who suggested that she write something about American film and submit it.

“It was a progressive newspaper, and they were very open to young contributors. It was the beginning of the black New Wave, early Spike Lee, so I could write about films that were not in the mainstream and not covered by other newspapers in Italy. That was fun on a personal level, but it was also interesting professionally because the readers discovered these movies through my writing, and local Italian film festivals starting contacting me.”

She began working with smaller film festivals and eventually found herself writing press releases for the Torino Film Festival while still a college student. She subsequently organized several retrospectives for Torino and a yearly series called Americana that introduced in Italy a new generation of American independent directors. She was asked to run the festival in 2003 and did so for four years.

Since 2007 she has been the United States programmer for the Venice Film Festival, selecting the American entries and handling the relationships with the American film industry, the filmmakers, the archives, and the film institutions. She is also part of the selection committee, so she helps choose films from the other countries as well. She is already working on the 2019 festival, which will take place in September.

Among the American films that premiered in Venice this year are Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate,” “Vox Lux,” whose 30-year-old director, Brady Corbet, is one of her favorite young American filmmakers, the Coen Brothers’ “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” and “Carmine Street Guitars,” which was shown at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor earlier this month as part of Hamptons Doc Fest.

In addition to her festival programming, she has written a dozen monographs about American directors and organized more than 30 retrospective tributes in the U.S. and abroad to filmmakers as varied as John Ford, Russ Meyer, George Romero, and Arthur Penn. 

Many of her books are about directors who came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s, among them John Carpenter, John Landis, Walter Hill, and William Friedkin. One of her favorite monographs is about Robert Aldrich, whose career spanned the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. 

“I love him and his work, and he was very important to the next generation of directors because he had a very strong independent spirit and was such an advocate for directors’ creative rights. I worked very closely with Aldrich’s daughter, who gave me great access.”

She has worked directly with most of the subjects of her books, each of which was designed with the particular filmmaker in mind. All of her books originated in Italy except for her most recent, a stunning 2014 volume on Robert Altman that she put together with Kathryn Reed Altman, the director’s widow, who provided hundreds of previously unpublished photographs and documents.

“My curatorial work and my writing have always been parallel because each feeds the other.” Of her programming, she said, “I love to present film, I love to share with the audience. When someone responds to what you’re showing, it’s such a joy.”

“I really see the Sag Harbor Cinema as a way to bring the community together. It has been very interesting to see how much the audiences like the question-and-answer sessions. It’s a very passionate audience here, very curious, very engaged.”