By DENNIS LIM
Published: September 2, 2011
ONE way to trace the history of the movies is to look at the evolution of alternative cinemas — to consider, in other words, how an inventive approach to showing films can foster a new way of understanding them.
Inspired by the ciné clubs that flourished in 1920s Paris, Henri Langlois started the Cinémathèque Française in the mid-1930s to present prints from his collection — he salvaged thousands during the Nazi occupation — and in the process created a breeding ground for kindred revolutions in criticism (at the journal Cahiers du Cinéma) and filmmaking (with the French New Wave). New York film culture as we know it began in 1947 when Amos and Marcia Vogel founded their society, Cinema 16, which introduced the likes of Robert Bresson and John Cassavetes, along with a wide swath of revivals and avant-garde works, to a membership that grew from a few hundred to a peak of 7,000.
These may seem like fables from a bygone time. But even in an age of personal screens and instant access the type of engaged, site-specific programming that creates a communal experience remains alive and well in New York City.
New Yorkers have never gone wanting for movie screens, but what has been notable in recent years is the emergence — or perhaps re-emergence — of small, scrappy sites, many with distinct ambitions and identities, located in most cases far beyond the art-house precincts of downtown Manhattan and the Upper West Side. Throwbacks to the folding-chair cinematheques of yesteryear, many microcinemas — to use a term often applied to these intimate spaces — are also very much of this long-tail moment, content to stay small and specialized, and quick to respond to an artistic landscape that is changing with ever greater speed.
The most enterprising microcinemas promise not just a film that isn’t showing anywhere else but also an experience tailored around it. Context is everything. For example, atLight Industry, which has occupied a few different spaces in Brooklyn, a standing-room crowd of about 150 people last summer saw the critic Douglas Crimp present a double bill of the artist Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Day’s End,” a record of his “intervention” on the West Side piers in 1975 — he cut enormous holes into a metal hangar, exposing the interior to water and light — and a vintage piece of hardcore gay erotica by Arch Browncalled “Pier Groups” that functions, among other things, as documentation of the Matta-Clark piece.
At UnionDocs in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, last winter the photographer Nan Goldin introduced a showing of a beloved film, Michael Roemer’s civil-rights-era drama “Nothing but a Man,” then led a discussion that lasted as long as the movie. At theMaysles Cinema in Harlem the publication in the spring of Manning Marable’s “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” occasioned the screening of videos by Mr. Marable’s stepson, Michael Tyner, and a panel on Malcolm X’s legacy that featured the poet Amiri Baraka.
Despite different sensibilities all three organizations share a utopian vision of cinema as a space of social possibilities. At Light Industry, which started in a studio in a converted Sunset Park factory and is moving to a long-term home in Greenpoint this month, a central impulse was to bridge the gap between the film and art worlds. Its founders, Thomas Beard, who programmed the Williamsburg microcinema Ocularis, now defunct, and Ed Halter, a former director of the New York Underground Film Festival, described Light Industry as a crossroads destination.
“There’s an embarrassment of riches in New York, but the scenes are fragmented,” Mr. Beard said. Since 2008 Light Industry has put on nearly 150 programs drawn from spheres that have much in common but in the real world rarely overlap: avant-garde cinema, video art, new media, international art film, underground movies. Guests have included the Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa (presenting work by the radical duo Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet) and the media artist Cory Arcangel (performing a glockenspiel version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”), and a wide range of experimental filmmakers, from canonical figures like Yvonne Rainer to younger talents like Jennifer Reeves and David Gatten.
One of Light Industry’s goals is to provide a cinematic context for moving-image works typically seen in galleries and museums as looped installations. (Mr. Halter and Mr. Beard will be co-curators for the film and video selections of the 2012 Whitney Biennial.) “Cinema’s an event, not an object,” Mr. Halter said. “It happens over time and has to be thought of as such.”
UnionDocs, which has occupied a building on Union Avenue in South Williamsburg since 2005, also emerged from the desire to fill a perceived void. “It wasn’t a gap in the film world so much as a gap in culture generally,” said the founder, Christopher Allen . “We saw the need for a place that was trying to have a critical understanding of what’s happening in the world through media.”
Taking an expansive view of nonfiction, the site runs a yearlong collaborative program for emerging media artists and twice-weekly events overseen by Steve Holmgren, who also brings in guest curators. Recent programs have included a rare showing of “Coup Pour Coup,” a 1972 French film about a factory strike, and a discussion with its director, Marin Karmitz, now a leading movie producer; a “listening session” of location recordings with Ernst Karel, a musician and anthropologist; and panels on long-form journalism and documentary criticism.
When the documentary-focused Maysles Cinema was founded in 2008, the filmmakerAlbert Maysles had just moved his family and production office from the Upper West Side to Harlem. He recalled that he and his wife thought the neighborhood could use an art-house cinema; what emerged was a kind of community center, with an education program and a 55-seat theater (with a basement screening area for overflow). “Whatever we did here had to benefit the neighborhood,” Mr. Maysles said.
Jessica Green, the director of the Maysles Cinema, said, “This had to be a partnership between Al Maysles and his family and a cooperative of multiracial, multi-class artists working to create a grounded community space.” The idea was development, she said, “not gentrification."
The cinema presents one-off programs, theatrical engagements and annual events like a Congo-theme series and the Black Panther Film Festival. Ms. Green has also organized Rent Control, a series on changing New York neighborhoods. Livia Bloom, an independent curator, programs a regular series — designed in part, she said, to challenge “the expectations and definitions of documentary film” — and books exclusive runs of movies like the recent “Summer Pasture.”
All three cinemas are nonprofits, financed by ticket sales, grants and the odd Kickstarter campaign, and generally rely less on press coverage than on e-mail lists and social media. And all are acutely aware of existing within a larger and growing ecosystem that often thrives on collaboration. (Mr. Maysles has presented his work at Light Industry and has a program coming up at UnionDocs.) New theaters in Brooklyn alone include ReRun in Dumbo and Nitehawk, Indie Screen and Spectacle in Williamsburg, and Manhattan repertory theaters are now supplemented by programs at places like 92YTribeca andExit Art and the popular Stranger Than Fiction and Queer/Art/Film series at the IFC Center. ( Web sites like screenslate.com and altscreen.com offer comprehensive guides.)
In this crowded terrain “there’s a real agility that comes with being a venue this size,” Mr. Beard of Light Industry said, adding that events can often come together in a matter of days. While Light Industry was waiting for a new home, organizers put together “Couchsurfing,” a nomadic series, at like-minded sites. The final event, a swift reaction to the recent riots in Britain, was a screening at Film Forum last week of “Handsworth Songs,” an essay film from 1986 inspired by civil unrest in Birmingham, England.
The DIY ethos of a microcinema also encourages more risks and idiosyncrasies than institutional settings might allow. Scott MacDonald, a scholar who edited a book about the history of Cinema 16 and who has presented programs at UnionDocs, said in an e-mail that events he has attended there — in a storefront that seats about 50 — have had an energy he seldom sees in established forums for experimental work. A youthful home like UnionDocs has, he said, “a healthy sense that the older definitions of what constitutes ‘experimental’ cinema and what constitutes ‘documentary’ are up for grabs.”
Light Industry’s five-year lease in Greenpoint suggests a new degree of permanence. But the weekly screenings will still take place in a plain room with around 70 folding chairs, and there remains a makeshift aspect to the philosophy of reducing cinema to the bare essentials of a set time and space, projection equipment and an audience.
“The concept is that the cinema is basically something that can be constituted in the moment,” Mr. Halter said. “It’s a venue that’s taken up and put down, so the cinema is literally built anew every week.”