Long Live the Microcinema
About a decade ago, I went to see Welcome, or No Trespassing at Spectacle. It’s still the only time I’ve known anyone to project the movie, a 1964 satire of Soviet summer camps that was the debut feature of Elem Klimov (Come and See). Walking into the compact space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I remember there being only two or three other people among the cluster of seats, and I thought I spotted a sink just behind the screen, but really, the room was immediately recognizable as a cinema. A delightful time was had by all, and in the coming years, looking at Spectacle’s listings would be a reliable tonic—its programming included a Can soundtrack series, a “Spectober” double feature of Japanese ghost stories, assorted cinemas of transgression and Slavic deep dives, and directors I hadn’t seen featured at length lately, such as Peter Watkins and Kim Ki-young.
I remembered the Klimov screening while recently paging through my movie log as if it was a photo album, full of distant memories. Missing out on multiplexes is one thing, but the daily schedule of a microcinema like Spectacle Theater is an especially poignant casualty of the pandemic, which has made impossible my usual happy-go-lucky New York cinema-hopping. Though the term “microcinema” has been applied since the 1990s to describe local DIY spaces or series curated with an idiosyncratic mix of programming (whether little- or well-known movies), the word has always had too clinical a ring for such spaces and their cozy, communal, handmade, human feel. Seeing a movie at Spectacle or at the nonfiction-focused Union Docs has felt, in the best way, like crowding into someone’s living room to watch something together. Likewise, I owe a special experience to yet another such space, the adventurous Light Industry, for including me in a reading of an unfilmed Pasolini screenplay, staged among its mix of contemporary art, experimental film, outré fiction, and documentary. But what do these human spaces do when there aren’t any people?
Like other theatrical exhibition spaces, many microcinemas—which exist across the world, supported by engaged local audiences—have not been able to hold physical screenings. But they have been better positioned than larger venues for navigating the upheaval of the pandemic shutdowns through a variety of means: streaming, special projects such as publications, and drive-in screenings. What’s more, the rubric of microcinemas need not always require a single physical location, though usually there’s some kind of settled home or two. Financially, it’s helped that they’re more flexible, less beholden to the strictures and budgetary scale expected of traditional institutions, and, sometimes, inherently transitory. These endeavors grow and flourish on the margins and between the cracks.
Certainly for Spectacle, which occupies a former bodega storefront, there remains, as ever, wiggle room in tough times. “We are kind of saved by our own precarity,” Steve Macfarlane, part of Spectacle’s self-described collective and a frequent programmer, said. Donations are currently the main source of funding for the theater, which benefits considerably from operating as a corps of forty-odd volunteers at all levels and from a far-sighted rental arrangement. Last year marked the theater’s tenth anniversary and, like others with birthdays during the pandemic, they celebrated online. Streaming on Spectacle’s own custom site, the sprawling series “EVERY MOVIE IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD (PART ONE)” comes billed as “consolidating 3,600+ nights of lost and forgotten radical repertory and contemporary cinema into a digestible (but not-too-digestible) streaming program.”
The “lost and forgotten” tagline dates back to Spectacle’s founding and expresses the joys of shared discovery and cultural preservation, without a canonically oriented imperative to ordain and signal prestige. “Most of us intimately involved weren’t coming from or connected to traditional film institutions,” said Jon Dieringer, who programmed at Spectacle for several years and runs the website Screen Slate, while working as an archivist at Electronic Arts Intermix (a nonprofit organization begun in 1971 that preserves and distributes media art). Beyond cinema, Dieringer connects Spectacle to a DIY culture of defunct music venues such as Monster Island Basement and 285 Kent. That tracks with the theater’s brand of night-to-night eclecticism; when I asked the collective’s volunteer bookkeeper Chelsey Swilik for her favorite Spectacle programs, she responded with Alyce Wittenstein (1980s underground science fiction), Piotr Szulkin (Polish auteur of Cold War cold sweats), and Living Stars (a 2014 Argentine documentary of people dancing at home).
While Spectacle channels its past programming into streaming, other microcinemas plot their own paths through the pandemic. The Luminal Theater was just about to launch an event in its Fresh Black Film series when the initial shutdown of theatrical exhibition happened in March. Founded as a pop-up space in 2015, the Luminal has branched out from its origins in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, to present Black cinema–related events in other locales, including Atlanta and Columbia, South Carolina. “What we always intended 2020 to be was a return to our core, specifically highlighting the work of filmmakers who are very local and don’t really get wide national attention,” said Curtis Caesar John, executive director of the Luminal Theater. During the pandemic, their programming has featured a drive-in series in Columbia, which has shown The Last Dragon, The Preacher’s Wife, and The Wiz. “Obviously, drive-ins aren’t as ‘together’ as in a movie theater, but it’s funny, at our last edition, someone said someone [else] was laughing too loud in the car next to him!” said John, by way of underlining the energy possible in reinvigorating a storied form of exhibition. Other Luminal initiatives have occurred online such as a twentieth-anniversary screening of Brooklyn-born filmmaker Jerry LaMothe’s romantic drama Amour Infinity and an entry in their BLK DOCS nonfiction series, Back to Natural, a documentary about hair, politics, and race (with a Q&A hosted by the Belcourt Theatre & Nashville Scene’s Living Room Film Club).“The pandemic has helped me realize how our model of cultural organizing allows us to be resistant to a lot of the larger forces that are bringing some other cultural organizations down,” said the Luminal’s senior programmer, Jacqui Brown, who started there as a volunteer after attending pop-up screenings. “I argue that our drive-ins are basically an extension of a cinema garden party. We’re doing a lot of the same things.” The Luminal’s varied programming has included early work by Ephraim Asili (whose feature film The Inheritance premiered last fall to critical acclaim) and, under the pandemic, has pressed ahead with Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child online via a longtime collaboration with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and, in partnership with Maysles Cinema, the archival program Instant Ancestry. “We are breaking that elemental assumption that your grandmother who lives in central Brooklyn can’t get a three-channel installation, because she can,” Brown said of their ongoing efforts to bring exhibition to communities that might not have attended other venues. Among the alternative cinema spaces John and Brown cited in terms of fostering cultural missions were ImageNation, New Negress Film Society, and mama.film, a Wichita-originated arts organization that describes its work as comprising “a village—at the crossroads of art & advocacy—where storytellers, changemakers and nurturers come together to champion women of all kinds and our allies.”