Don't Cry, It's Just a Movie

David Pendleton and Gay Spectatorship

by Joseph Boudreau

Before going to his first film, David Pendleton made a promise to his mother: he would not cry. No matter how scary the big storm looked in Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson or how terrifying it was to see anyone in danger, Pendleton was to remain tear free, fearless, and mindful of what his mother loved to say. It’s only a movie.

These four words stuck with him. Twenty or so years later, in the final days of the 80s, David, with a P.h.D from UCLA in film studies, began to reconsider his mother’s words. Did she think that being impacted by a film was feminine? Was her comment a warning?

In the only published article he ever wrote My Mother, The Cinema, David grappled with these questions.  Calling his father “not much of a movie buff,” he tried to make sense of how his mother impacted his aesthetics as well as his sexuality: “What was it that excited me [about Midnight Express]? How had my mother known that it would excite me? And why was it necessary to disavow this excitement? I’ve never told my mother about this. In fact, I couldn’t say any of this if she were here.”

Theories about gay spectatorship of film have placed the mother as the pivotal role in the development of sexuality. David described how his own experience aligned with this theory. Most nights eagerly anticipating his mother’s return, rushing through his homework, knowing that when she arrived they could go to the movies, David was submitting himself to a cinematic universe defined, prepared, and occupied by his mother. So, few years down the road, when his mother passed around her copy of the Cosmopolitan that featured a nude centerfold of Burt Reynolds, David was as fascinated and attracted by the image as his mother was. It seemed only natural. They watched the same movies.

art by Sabrina Ortiz

art by Sabrina Ortiz

Writing about how film possibly impacted his sexuality made David unable to deny that movies were more than just movies; they were pieces of art that dramatically impacted people’s lives, choices, affections - almost irreversibly so.  After his graduate work at UCLA, he worked there as a professor and curator until 2007, when he was invited to become the programmer for the prestigious Harvard Film Archives (HFA). It was here, in the basement of a brutalist style building, tucked away from most Harvard happenings, that David found an all-encompassing outlet and far-reaching audience for his infectious love of film.  From 2007 until his death in 2017, David worked as a film programmer, curator, archivist, and tutor to local Boston filmmakers.

David was a big bear of a man. He had a scruffy beard and loud voice. He would dress down to the point of appearing disheveled, preferring the no-blazer look with an untucked and unironed (possibly stained) button-up. When spotted running around Harvard’s campus with his awkward, shifting gait he could easily be perceived as someone who didn’t belong there.

When it came to the movie screenings, though, there were no questions asked about where he belonged. “David took it upon himself to do more film introductions than any other programmer in the history of the archives,” says John Gianvito, a previous HFA programmer. “He often offered comical insights into how the film was made and what its intention was.” Much of David’s legacy was built on doing things that were not assigned to him. He welcomed more In-Person speakers than ever before, he made introductions light-hearted but informative and found a way to effortlessly induce audience members into the film world. “He was always willing to talk about films and somehow managed to never show signs of arrogance,” recalls Andrew Lloyd, a frequent visitor of the HFA.

David also broadened the selection of films screened at the archives, introducing more experimental directors (Abigail Child, Warren Sonbert, Bruce Conner) and cutting-edge European, Asian and Latin America cinema. He had complete retrospectives on Jean Renoir, Ernst Lubitsch, and Robert Altman. Many of his screenings had perceived gay sensibilities. “Some of the bigger respectives were Visconti or filmmakers who were not necessarily gay but whose work were predominately focused on male eroticism,” Gianvito says.

David’s desire as a programmer to establish an intimate community allowed him to embrace what HFA’s Director, Haden Guest, called the “kinds of unique and mind-expanding journeys that cinema alone can bring.” (Possibly a direct opposition to his mother’s curt introductions.) David believed in the power of cinema to move and shape people. Like famed film critic, Roger Ebert, he saw it as a tool to generate empathy. At the heart of the cinema was the audience, and it was David’s job to not only understand their preferences but also challenge them.  Gianvito admits that “most people when they think of curators if they think about them at all, is they perceive them as the people with the good taste to show the great work of others. But rarely do they think that curating can itself be an act of creation, can itself be an art form. I think the best curators are exercising their creativity through programming.” By forcing audience members into unfamiliar, even uncomfortable, territories, David created a community excited to learn, be perplexed, and feel vulnerable.

As a programmer, David spent sometimes over a year trying to find out who owned the rights to what film, if there was a subtitled copy, what condition it was in, what was it going to take to get it scheduled to Harvard on a specific date. It was a taxing and laborious job, one that somewhat prevented him from living a larger social life. “I’m gonna be the last gay man standing,” he declared, when friends tried to set him up with a date.

His refusal to go out with someone was much like his refusal to talk about himself. To strangers, this was his charm, his humility, the reason they liked and trusted him; to others, though, people who were close to David, this was a hurdle that blocked intimacy. “He was very private,” Giovanni says. “I wish I could have talked to him more about a lot of things.

He did, however, stay close with his mother. If she found herself in Boston, they would grab lunch and catch a film. One time they saw Gone with the Wind. It was one of his mother’s favorites. (Couldn’t say the same thing for David, though.) By the time the film was over and the lights were turning on, David caught his mother wiping away a few tears. He smiled. It was like being a child all over again, except the roles had changed, and David knew to never say: It’s only a movie.