In the earlier moments of Ira Deutchman's compelling feature doc Searching for Mr. Rugoff, I couldn't help but have a flashback of sorts to a similar feeling I experienced while watching last year's riveting film The Assistant.
The Mr. Rugoff at the center of Searching for Mr. Rugoff was most certainly a different sort of fellow, though there's an underlying tone here that plopped itself in the pit of my stomach and didn't really leave throughout the film's 94-minute running time.
This Rugoff, or Donald Rugoff, was a cinematic genius who brought arthouse cinema to the masses or, at the very least, to a much wider audience than it had ever experienced before and to a much wider audience than anyone would have ever expected.
Director Ira Deutchman is a former employee who, much like most of America, largely set aside his Rugoff experience until, one day, it was out there in the forefront once again. Rugoff was the founder of mid-century theater chain and distributor Cinema 5. Cinema 5, essentially Rugoff, changed the arthouse landscape largely on the strength of Rugoff's marketing genius and outrageously brash confidence. Rugoff practically willed films to succeed and, yes, it would often end up being films that Hollywood would pass on because they were seemingly so difficult to market.
As much a genius as was Rugoff, so to was he known as more than a wee bit of a bullying sort. Rugoff had influence and he wasn't afraid to use it. He was an eccentric genius, some would have called him crazy, but his marketing brilliance was undeniable and Rugoff's influence on arthouse cinema and impact on overall cinema culture is absolutely undeniable.
So, how did the film world forget about Rugoff?
This question is the crux of Searching for Mr. Rugoff, a film that finds Deutchman acknowledging Rugoff's influence on his life and career but also acknowledging that once he was out of Rugoff's world he never really looked back.
The same seems to be true for an awful lot of people.
Searching for Mr. Rugoff is, somewhat surprisingly, the feature-film directing debut from Deutchman, a noted producer, distributor, and marketer himself who spent three years post-college working for Rugoff. We know rather early on, even for those who didn't know in advance of the film, that Rugoff passed away in Edgartown, Mass. in 1989. It is largely here where Deutchman begins this layered, involving story that explores Rugoff's life after he lost Cinema 5 to William Forman and along with it his prized power and influence. Rather than continue to exist in a less powerful and influential form, Rugoff would follow this up largely by escaping to a quieter life on Martha's Vineyard. Of course, Searching for Mr. Rugoff explores the wonder that was Donald Rugoff. Rugoff inherited a mini-kingdom first built by his father, a chain of once silent theaters that Rugoff would turn into more cutting-edge cinematic showcases. These would serve as the foundation for Rugoff's decision to distribute difficult to market films. It has to be fair to say that any number of indie distributors, for example an A24 among today's distributors, owe at least a little debt to Rugoff's visionary distribution and marketing techniques.
Then, there are the filmmakers who owe their successes to Rugoff including Bruce Brown, Robert Downey Sr., and Lina Wertmüller. It's practically inarguable that Costa-Gavras's Oscar win for 1969's Z was a crowning accomplishment for Rugoff.
Nearly without exception, those who've worked with Rugoff acknowledge him to have been an absolutely difficult human being to work with AND an absolute movie marketing genius as much by bluster as brilliance.
Searching for Mr. Rugoff captures it all quite beautifully with both intelligence and emotional resonance. Leo Sidran's original score is exquisite and Deutchman inserts himself into the film's structure in all the right ways. For devotees of indie history, Searching for Mr. Rugoff is an absolute must-see. While others may not necessarily recognize every reference the film makes, it doesn't take much to realize the reverence and respect with which Deutchman approaches Rugoff's story and a true sense of bewilderment at how such a genius movie mind could be relegated to some obscure and forgotten corner of movie history.
Finally, perhaps, Donald Rugoff gets his due.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic