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Talking Back To the Screen: Microcinema in Texas

In The Nation’s celebrated Big Media issue from this past January, there was a sobering fold-out chart depicting the “conglomerate multimedia stables” of Big Ten multinationals like AOL Time Warner, Disney and General Electric, who between them currently own most commercial television, radio, film, books, magazines, and internet services.(1)

Houston's Aurora Picture Show is gaining nationwiderecognition as one of the most original and innovativemicrocinemas in the country.

The almost unprecedented number of responses from outraged readers all wishing to promote their own “favorite alternative media outlet” seems to indicate that a growing number of American consumers are getting fed up. If, as the Supreme Court put it, the public has a fundamental right to the “widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources,” then one response to the current corporate monoculture is to create your own media outlet.(2)

In the world of film and video, the most quickly growing do-it-yourself alternatives to the mainstream model are microcinemas, which are multiplying at a dizzying rate throughout this country and abroad.

Coined in 1993, when Rebecca Barten and David Sherman started up Total Mobile Home Microcinema in their San Francisco basement, the term “microcinema” generally refers to the screening of short, independent work in small, non-traditional spaces. Equally important is the notion of an interactive space without the intervention of traditional distributors and sponsors, where the audience can view the work in an intimate, relaxed setting, and also respond directly to the curator or maker.

The creation of an active, participatory audience within an unconventional space is what most sets microcinema apart from other theaters that show alternative work, like art-house or college repertory cinemas. In microcinemas, the dialogue between audience and makers takes precedence over traditional movie theater production values, and so the whirring of a projector or the flickering of an image on an uneven concrete wall become an essential part of the total viewing experience. With the crucial addition of the curator’s personality and artistic vision, according to Austin programmer Barna Kantor, microcinema becomes “the unique, emergent feature of an engaged audience, of the programmers and their specific program: it creates cinema through the audience in the context of the presented program.”(3)

The origins of this movement grew out the subversive, clandestine screenings of the 1960s, “when artists who were unable to screen their films in popular cinemas began hosting renegade screenings in their apartments, cafes, porn theaters, community centers, and so on.” (4) Many point to Jack Smith’s notorious 1964 film Flaming Creatures as the original American avant-garde film. Packed with orgies, vampires and “pansexual queerness,” this film sparked the infamous denunciation of porn by Senator Strom Thurmond: “I know it when I see it…”(5)

In Texas, the roots of today’s microcinema movement go back to the early 60s and 70s, when the local “hippy underground film culture” was alive and merrily promoting idiosyncratic work in unlikely places. In Austin, artist Randy Turner remembers seeing “weird movies” at the black-lit Nothing Strikes Back ice cream parlor (in today’s Record Exchange building), and especially the ‘saturday Morning Fun Club,” which was organized by students at the old Union Theater on the UT campus. (6) Turner and his buddies would stay up all night then “force themselves” to go over and see the morning show, which featured such appetizers as Flash Gordon, along with a main attraction like The Mummy. Drugs abounded and presumably were a major part of the advertised fun. “As soon as the lights would go out, people would start lighting up joints,” Turner recalls. Almost as entertaining was the audience’s abundant verbalizing of alternative dialogue at the screen.

The local ‘surf film” scene in Houston in the 60s and 70s involved similar viewer participation. Art car artist Pepper Mouser remembers watching early, silent Bruce Brown films in places like Lamar High School, where amidst the “hoots and hollering,” someone invariably would get up with a microphone and start improvising narration.(7) Word-of-mouth seems to have been the main mode of publicity back then, along with frequenting the right places.

“If you were a surfer in the 60s or 70s,” states Houston’s Surfhouse owner Lloyd Sandel, “and you hung out at shops like this one, you were definitely hooked into the scene.”(8)

Filmmaker Bill Daniel remembers driving all the way from Dallas just to attend surf film screenings in Houston or Port Aransas, which like today’s microcinemas targeted a very specific (and highly mobile) audience.(9)

By the late 60s, the St. Thomas Media Center on Montrose, which later became the Rice Media Center, was exposing a new audience of local super-8 filmmakers to early underground work like Bruce Baillie’s Castro Street. Jean and Dominique De Menil had invited filmmaker James Blue to head the Media Center, and in the early 70s he sought to reproduce his own experience in Europe at the French Cinemateque by bringing in filmmakers with their work. Lucky film students in that era had the opportunity to brush elbows with the likes of Terrence Mallick and Francis Ford Coppola, and have their super-8 films critiqued by artist-in-residence Roberto Rossellini.

In Austin, Super-8 was also the medium of choice at Bill Daniel’s Monday night screenings in the basement of Voltaire’s Books, starting in 1985. The “poet bongo lightshow night” soon morphed into “run what ya brung” screenings, which included a mix of “walk-in” film work and performance.

Dallas’ trendy Starck Club was showing experimental work in the early 80s too, albeit under different circumstances: “There would be monitors over your head as you went to the bathroom,” recalls Video Association of Dallas director Bart Weiss. (10) People of both genders mingled in each bathroom, amidst great quantities of cocaine and Ecstasy. “It was very 80s,” Weiss notes.

In the mid-90s, Bill Daniel hooked up with touring filmmaker/programmer Craig Baldwin, who is largely credited as the great synthesizer of today’s microcinema movement. For the past twenty years or so, Baldwin’s Other Cinema in San Francisco has been programming a wide range of underground media genres, including ethnography, porn, experimental documentaries and “media archeology pieces.” (11) But it is Baldwin’s hitting the road to distribute his own award-winning work — as well as eclectic compilation programs — that has made him something of a legend in the microcinema world.

Deeply influenced by Baldwin’s renegade spirit and innovative programming style, Daniel’s Funhouse screenings at Austin’s Ritz Theater in the late 90s were soon traveling to venues in Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston. Barna Kantor credits Daniel with revitalizing the microcinema movement in Texas at a time when places like the Austin Film Society and Rice Media Center were retreating from showing underground, contemporary work, focusing instead on classics of world cinema. More conventional institutions, especially those associated with universities or museums, have to be far more careful about “testing the boundaries of cultural acceptability…Subversive art really requires a subversive setting.”(12)

Microcinema programs are incredibly diverse, ranging from local amateur digital videos to award-winning experimental films by established artists like Miranda July or Jay Rosenblatt, with every possible alternative genre in between. “It’s about breaking with the monotony and hegemony and oppressiveness of mainstream culture,” asserts filmmaker Kyle Henry: “this work helps those of us that aren’t on Prozac cope.”(13) Above all, this media exists outside of any commercial or conventional distribution system, indirectly providing “a mirror of what profit-oriented programming is not.”(14)

Indeed, most microcinemas operate as non-profit organizations, with the idea that a diverse community is best served by organizations that don’t have to worry about generating profits. One exception is Microcinema International, a for-profit venture founded in 2000 by partners Joel Bachar and Houston resident Patrick Kwiatkowski, which curates a monthly screening series in microcinemas worldwide, including Houston’s Firestation 3. Based in San Francisco and Houston, Microcinema International generated resentment among some in the community with their decision to acquire the domain name, thus taking a collectively-held word and turning it into private property. Bachar and Kwiatkowski make no bones about seeking to make money for the filmmakers they represent and their company, which is largely self-funded: their network of syndicated venues is ever-expanding, and they will accept corporate sponsorship for certain projects.

The prevailing argument against this more corporate model is that the moment a company is concerned with profit rather than advancing a public or community interest, then homogenization of content is never far behind. But Bachar argues that ethics are not determined by a company’s fiscal status: there are plenty of “nefarious” non-profits out there paying outrageous salaries or charging unseemly fees. As Bachar asserts, “what’s the difference if we receive sponsorship from Ford Motors and if a non profit receives a grant from the Ford Foundation? At a certain point, it’s splitting hairs, isn’t it?”(15)

Ultimately, the main point is to screen the best of this traditionally underrepresented media. “I may not like what the funders represent,” observes Kyle Henry, “but if good work is being shown, I don’t care who shows it.”

More crucial than the profit-status of a microcinema is the caliber of the people involved. Microcinemas survive on the dedication — and organizational skills — of the highly committed and underpaid people who run them. Most microcinemas get started as labors of love, usually to fill a perceived void in the cultural landscape. Many don’t survive the countless hours of unpaid work involved, and the difficulty in drumming up sufficient financial support.

Up in Amarillo, Parie Villyard’s Beanbag Theater, located behind her flower shop, managed to generate small crowds for fare like Plutonium Circus and Waco: Rules of Engagement before time and financial constraints forced her to close in 2000. Today, local filmmaker Carol Salazar screens occasional programs like Dallas Video Festival’s touring Texas Show at an Amarillo college venue, but still runs up against the challenge of building a reliable audience: “In Amarillo, the population base is not big enough to allow much irregularity,” notes Villyard. (16)

Houston’s own Aurora Picture Show, now in its 5th year of operation, might just be the poster-child of a successful microcinema. Founded by executive director Andrea Grover, Aurora has garnered a large and loyal following for the bi-monthly screenings, which are now funded by local grants and private donations. Local and national press have praised Grover’s innovative programming, as well as the quintessential microcinema appeal of her venue, which is a converted 1924 church located in Houston’s ethnically diverse Sunset Heights neighborhood. Almost as noteworthy as Grover’s obvious talent for creating an informal yet stimulating environment for her intelligent programs is her acumen for establishing a network of filmmakers, curators, artists and business-savvy people around her, all of whom contribute to Aurora’s ongoing success.

Aurora is also involved in a new joint microcinema venture in Austin. Spearheaded by Cinemaker Co-op artistic director Barna Kantor and Blue Screen co-director Kyle Henry, the forthcoming Cinescape screenings will take place at the Hideout Theater on Congress and will feature additional programming from the Austin Film Society and the Rude Mechanicals. While each group is responsible for its own programming, the collaboration will publish its own seasonal calendar and maintain a promotional website.

Cooperation prevails in the world of microcinema. A fledgling microcinema effort in San Antonio will involve the participation of all of the city’s major art organizations, according to organizer Robert Ziebell. In Dallas, John Preston’s XPOsed screening series is co-sponsored by the Video Association of Dallas, which sends out programs statewide. Andrea Grover has curated a program in Houston for Microcinema’s Patrick Kwiatkowski, who in turn is working with microcinemas in the Rio Grande Valley and Corpus Christi. Competition is not an issue even in Houston, which now boasts three venues, with the recent addition of Mixture Gallery’s outdoor “film speakeasy.” As Mixture’s Lisa Cooley puts it, “anything that contributes to the cultural life of the city would naturally complement what other people are doing.”(17) In Austin, Barna Kantor hopes that Cinescape’s participating groups will have enough resources and institutional autonomy to create a stable framework for presenting the work of local, underground films and putting these screenings “within the context of a national movement.”

Why the current boom in microcinema?

“I think people are tired of big theaters trying to constantly bombard them with blaring music, banal pre-movie trivia questions and formulaic movies,” asserts Lisa Cooley.

Andrea Grover points to the advent of new digital technologies that permit cheap and easy access to mediamaking, duplication and projection, as well as the unifying role of the internet, which, adds Joel Bachar, “has played a big role in showing people all the choices that exist out there.”

Above all, there appears to be a burgeoning desire for community, particularly in the smaller Texas cities where “you have to make your own fun.”

Dan Garza’s new “Movie Nite at the Patio” series in Corpus Christi is “a new life form” for locals, who don’t have anything like it “even four hours in any direction.” The Tuesday night screenings, which are advertised as “good company, good spirits and good films,” take place on the outside patio of the Executive Surf Club.(18) Garza sees his mission as bringing together the rich local talent and starting a community of like-minded souls. In this lively, diverse crowd, businessmen and university students clutching $2 pints mingle with local ‘surfer dudes” in sandals.

1: ‘something Old, Something New: Media Policy in the Digital Age,” by Jeffrey Chester and Gary O. Larson; The Nation, January 7/14 2002, p. 12.2: Ibid.3: From an email questionnaire with Barna Kantor, Monday September 2, 2002.4: From the Cinescape website, written by Andrea Grover.5: “Flaming Revival,” by Elaine Blair, Village Voice, page 1, Week of November 14-20, 2001. (From Granary Books: Reviews online)6: All remarks attributed to Randy Turner from a private phone conversation, 9/10/02.7: From a private phone conversation with Pepper Mouser, 9/16/02.8: From a private phone conversation with Lloyd Sandel: 9/5/029: From a private phone conversation with Bill Daniel, 8/24/02.10: All remarks attributed to Bart Weiss from a private phone conversation, 9/13/02.11: “Cave Paintings, Churches, and Rooftops: Microcinemas come of age,” by Angela Alston, from The Independent, September 2002 issue. Page. 28.12: “Microcinemania: The Mansion Theater and underground movie-making in Baltimore, Maryland, USA” by Joseph Christopher Schaub, originally printed in LINK: A critical Journal on the Arts in Baltimore and the World, issue 2: “You are Here”, 1997. reprinted on Microcinema website.13: All remarks attributed to Kyle Henry from a private telephone interview on September 1, 2002.14: From email questionnaire with Barna Kantor.15: From an email received from Joel Bachar, Sept. 12, 2002.16: All remarks attributed to Parie Villyard from a private telephone interview on Sept. 9, 2002.17: All remarks attributed to Lisa Cooley from an email dated 9/20/02.18: From a private phone conversation with Dan Garza, 9/11/02.

Laura Harrison is a documentary filmmaker working in Houston.

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