A Conversation with Hannah Harmsen of The Lantern Cinema

From left, Dustin Harmsen, Chris Biagini, and Hannah Harmsen at a screening hosted by the Lantern Cinema. Photo: Patrick Tape Fleming

Hannah Harmsen is one of the founders and programmers of The Lantern Cinema, a film society in Des Moines that has hosted screenings of classic and cult films and also produces a film-discussion podcast with Iowa cinephiles. She shares programming and hosting duties with her husband Dustin Harmsen and collaborator Chris Biagini, with support from other local contributors.

She is also a singer, songwriter and parent, all on display in this beautiful video from the Yarn House Lullaby series filmed by Kate Kennedy and Leslie Hall:

The Informer caught up with her to find out about what she’s been watching in quarantine, Lantern’s approach to programming, and her perspective on the Des Moines film scene.

I assume you and your family have been holed up at home for most of the crisis. What have been some highlights from your quarantine movie-watching so far?

Yes, we’ve been isolating a-plenty. Our viewing has gone from crisis-mode Tiger King or Big Flower Fight into more actual movies lately: The Little Soldier, everything Joe Bob Briggs presents on Friday nights.

Smithereens and She’s Gotta Have It have been some great new ‘80s favorites. We re-watched Phantom Thread, Moonrise Kingdom, and Pather Panchali.

With the girls, we have been watching Ray Harryhausen, some Abbott and Costello monster movies, and Godzilla (they particularly like Song of Godzilla). That all helps break up the gratuitous Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom and 101 Dalmatians.

One major benefit of this time: lotsa film study time.

What’s your approach to studying film, do you key in on certain directors, eras, or movements? Do you have some favorite film anthology books you use as guides?

Well, Dustin gave me a copy of I Lost it at the Movies by Pauline Karl, and that has given me a lot of guidance on movies to watch, where to start, and how people (or, at least Kael) saw films when they came out. The American Cinema by Andrew Sarris for the same reason.

I think I started getting “serious” about movies by watching the directors whose names I heard a lot or that seemed stylish or cool: Fellini, Kubrick, Scorsese. We would pick a director and work through their (usually his) filmography. So I focused a lot on those directors, then worked my way backwards (or sideways, or forward) based on their influences and who they influenced after them. So, I guess I just go name to name. This director likes this cinematographer who works in this style, etcetera.

Lately I’ve been trying to put more focus on actively searching out female filmmakers and those of color, those from other countries. No surprise, it’s easy to get stuck with the white dudes from the ‘70s.

Who are some of the non-white-guy filmmakers you’ve been watching? Criterion Channel is good for discovery, they have a Women Filmmakers section that is updated regularly, artists from all over the world. Right now they’ve lifted their paywall for an awesome collection of movies by black filmmakers, mostly independent. Do you use that streaming service?

I haven’t used Criterion Channel! I know they have some amazing content. I’ve been using my free access to Kanopy through the public library, and they have such great stuff for adults and kids alike. Recently they pushed a celebration of Agnès Varda, who is massively influential on the French New Wave.

Maya Deren was a badass. I’m really into documentary and people who can push boundaries in that genre: William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm blew my mind.

I mentioned Smithereens before. On a similar note, I really like cinema verite, and Susan Seidelman made such a cool, punk-rock first film. I’m trying to dig deeper into Spike Lee; I didn’t realize until recently how few of his movies I’ve seen!

I’ve been watching a lot of horror lately, of which my experience has mostly been White Dude Central, but I’m excited to see what Jordan Peele is doing for the genre. I miss movie theaters most of all right now, and hope I get to see Candyman on the big screen. Curtis Harrington is a favorite in my house, and although still a white guy, he is majorly influential in horror and queer cinema, which is still underrepresented.

I really wish I’d spent more time with foreign directors up to this point, but sometimes it feels like swimming upstream with Hollywood releases.

What are some documentaries you’d recommend?

F for Fake (okay, it’s a docu-drama). We come back to King of Kong and American Movie, like, a lot.

Werner Herzog’s anything, particularly Land of Silence and Darkness and Little Dieter Needs to Fly, but even his scripted films have an element of documentary to them (ecstatic truth!). Crumb; I love comix and graphic novels, but the disturbing story of R. Crumb and his family has never really left me.

Like your personal viewing, the programming of Lantern Cinema and the podcast spans film history. What’s your process when selecting films?

Fortunately, it’s a team effort. Without Chris, Dustin, and all of the people who attend the screenings (back when that was a thing!) or interact with the podcast, our selections wouldn’t have nearly the variety and none of us would be pushing ourselves to watch things we wouldn’t normally pick. Sometimes, we’ll pick a movie and build a theme around it (a la Best Sequels or Rock in Film with the Des Moines Film Society last year), and sometimes we will pick what we’re excited about and mash it all together. Ultimately, screenings need to feel a little rock ’n’ roll — party movies — and be something rarely screened in public. I keep a list of recommendations that people share, and I pull from that all the time.

The logo of The Lantern Cinema.

For the pod, we take turns, and those choices are often a reflection of what we’re feeling or what we need at the time. Chris is really open with their mental health and how that plays into the films they enjoy, I tend to pick old favorites that make me feel good, and Dustin is a little more academic and guest-focused about it all. Above all else, my policy is, if someone is excited about it to the point of wanting to help organize an event, talk on the podcast, or just geek out a bit, it’s worth sharing.

How would you characterize the Des Moines film scene?

I would characterize it as … fluctuating? Des Moines proves to me again and again that people love the community aspect of film. When I was a kid, I would go see older, second-run movies at the Varsity or Sierra, but that became a sparse scene for a while there. Independent movies have had a comfortable home at the Fleur, which helps bring some diversity. Now, I feel like people are more interested in that sort of thing. Dine-in, brewery theaters are bringing back a party vibe to bigger groups, and our little screenings at Vaudeville Mews pull in respectable and enthusiastic numbers.

I believe that people are starting to trust us a bit and check out things they haven’t already seen and love, which is the biggest compliment I can imagine. The construction and future re-opening of the Varsity is a dream come true for me, because I feel that it will encompass all of the things I find myself searching out: community, unique screenings, broad representation, and snacks.

Do you see the scene bouncing back from this ongoing period of disruption? How can film societies like Lantern Cinema help theaters get back on their feet?

Oh man, I hope so. Everything is in such a strange place. I know the drive to experience movies with others will still be there!

In terms of helping, I think the best one can do is maintain a space to discuss film and keep the conversation alive. We can encourage people to stream films that support local cinemas. I know I’m not alone in this, but I can’t wait until it’s safe and appropriate to get out and see movies again. If all of us put that energy into the small theaters when the time comes, that will make a world of difference.

Nate Logsdon is a writer, editor, and indexer from Ames. He was a founding editor of the Ames Progressive and contributing editor at the Iowa Informer.