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‘Searching for Mr. Rugoff’ Review: Man Behind the Movies

Not every documentary features its director calling his subject “kind of a terrible person.” But Ira Deutchman’s “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” happily looks at the man in full: Donald S. Rugoff, the influential distributor, New York City theater impresario and certifiable “piece of work” (to quote one testimonial).

During a blazing run in the 1960s and 1970s, Rugoff went after visionary movies that made audiences sit up and take notice: “Z,” “The Sorrow and the Pity,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Scenes From a Marriage,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “Harlan County USA,” “Nothing but a Man,” “Putney Swope,” “WR: Mysteries of the Organism,” and, yes, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

As a former employee and later a distributor and producer, Deutchman brings firsthand insights into the indefatigable Mr. Rugoff (who died in 1989). He assembles an amused and bemused circle of fellow veterans of Rugoff’s distribution company Cinema 5, old-school commentators, Rugoff’s ex-wife and sons, and grateful filmmakers (Lina Wertmuller, Robert Downey Sr., Costa-Gavras). Deutchman, a professor at Columbia University, also visits Edgartown, Mass., for traces of Rugoff’s life after his company was taken over.

As someone who grew up going to some of the theaters Rugoff once ran — which included Cinema I and II and the Beekman, among others — I got the warm-and-fuzzies from seeing the love here for moviegoing and exhibition, which he goosed with gonzo showmanship. Equally so for the brief inclusion of Dan Talbot, fellow distributor and theater maven, whose cinemas and unparalleled New Yorker Films catalog also remain at the heart of the medium. It’s all part of an essential history of film culture that continues in new and different ways today.

Searching for Mr. Rugoff
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Google Play, Apple TV and other streaming services.

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