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Infinite Fest: Station to Station

With independent American cinema in a state of confusion, how can we create alternative, sustainable film communities?
Infinite Fest is a monthly column by festival programmer and film critic Eric Allen Hatch, author of the “Why I Am Hopeful” article for Filmmaker Magazine, tackling the state of cinema as expressed by North American film festivals.
Suns Cinema
Independent film—true, actual, literal independent film production, the narrow interlocking strata of the art form that drift untrammeled atop the massive bedrock of corporate curation—isn’t only a subculture, but is also in a state of confusion. Seemingly in defiance of the homogenizing pressure the internet applies on all other aspects of society, the film landscape looks quite different from city to city. Many of those differences speak to population size and resources, but others sprout from resilient regional taste, individual initiative, and old-fashioned scene-building centered around activity from a key filmmaker, curator, organization, and/or venue. Time and time again, today’s cinema brings me back to one of my favorite questions: can we, like the underground musicians of the ‘80s who constructed today’s touring circuit one phone call and van at a time, build a viable network of alternative film communities and venues operating outside the stranglehold of the mainstream pipeline?  
An invitation from the International Film Festival Rotterdam afforded me an opportunity to city-hop further than my dollar usually stretches—and to glean some wisdom from what’s working elsewhere in building cinephile communities year-round. Before heading to Europe, I rode the MARC commuter train from Baltimore down to Washington. There I spent a pleasant hour-long visiting with the programming team of Suns Cinema, a young and exciting microcinema in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, nestled on a strip a bit less gentrified than the majority of Northwest DC. The couches-in-rowhouse atmosphere reminds me of the DC hardcore scene I got a taste of in the early 1990s, or something more likely to be found here one hour north in Baltimore; it’s a DIY space with a cozy feel that fosters a festive mood without crossing the line into irreverence. The curator-owners are proudly self-taught, and their calendar programming offers a new twist on the high-volume rep programming that thrived in many cities prior to home video. Each month bears a theme, and they have fun with them; a month with an animal theme might highlight Dog Day Afternoon or Three Days of the Condor as likely as Kedi, Cujo, or Roar. Suns print calendars go fast, and live throughout the month on their patron’s fridges, each night its own can’t-miss show for a few dozen people.
With a seating capacity of around 50 per show and a business model that essentially breaks even on the films and pays other bills with popcorn and libations, it’s a sustainable passion project. This is not a ‘90s-style cinema drafthouse where films dance as moving wallpaper while patrons bark back at the screen, but rather a subcultural space where, one movie a night 6 times a week, cinema takes center stage. That said, the atmosphere bookending the main events can feel as social as any music venue, with the audience arriving earlier and lingering at the bar after. I’ve made it down for films as different as Chantal Akerman’s Les rendez-vous d'Anna and Masaaki Yuasa’s Mind Game, and both seemed to serve as (attentive and compelling) date nights for the majority of the patrons. The ever-changing schedule and populist price point encourages regular attendance and adventurous risk-taking on unfamiliar films.
On to Rotterdam via Amsterdam (and thanks to the budget fares offered by the now-defunct Wow Air). IFFR overlapped with Sundance’s dates this year, offering me a drizzly alternative to the icy strip malls and cold-sweat flus of Park City. There I participated with interest in panels and artist talks on the intersection of dank movie memes and social media with film criticism and engaged cinephilia; essentially, the very topics which have become the core of my Patreon page. These were fruitful conversations, but the IFFR event that has stuck with me the most was a master class from Carlos Reygadas, a favorite filmmaker who I haven’t seen speak about his work since a Q&A for Battle In Heaven over a decade ago.  
Between the intense, personal imagery, idiosyncratic pacing, and often-fractured structure of his films (and, most likely, his seeming unwillingness to come to TIFF to represent his work this far into his career), Reygadas has accrued in some film circles a reputation as a recluse who speaks about his work only rarely and coyly. In my experience, however, that rep is undeserved—at least in regards to the coy part. When he does commit to an appearance, Reygadas speaks about his work in detail with generous candor. It may just be that he stands firm on an outlook on creativity that rankles many literal-minded viewers.
As with David Lynch, another filmmaker who channels a deeply personal nightmare-logic, Reygadas will describe his working methods in detail, as well his own experiential approach to film viewing—equally instructive as insight into his craft when approaching his films. As he does so, we find that, far from a random or chaotic process, he strives to very exactingly realize vivid and precise images of enigmatic, unarticulated meaning he feels compelled to bring to life through artistic inspiration. What neither Lynch nor Reygadas will engage with is literal one-to-one decoding of these images—terms in which they never think, as their imagery and narratives are not exact cyphers, and their meanings, if we can reduce visions to words, are (nearly) as mysterious to creator as to viewer. “Would you demand this of music?” Reygadas asked rhetorically. “So your cinema is like music?” he was asked. “No, my cinema is like cinema,” came the response.  
Reygadas’ brilliant Our Time has distilled his audience even further than did the feral yelp of its predecessor Post Tenebras Lux, thanks to lazy readings of its wealthy-rancher-cucked narrative as autobiographical—albeit a predictable result, given that the film was shot on Reygadas’ property with himself (out of necessity and with reluctance, he avers) as the lead. As with all his films, the critical pronouncements “pretentious” and “self-indulgent” have also stuck. But to my eyes, Our Time lands as his third straight masterwork, a gorgeous slow-simmer downer punctuated by moments of pure madness and unexpectedly lugubrious dark comedy. There’s no other filmmaker, save perhaps Claire Denis or Bi Gan, that I’d encourage to indulge themselves to their spiritual limit.
Pertinently, Reygadas shared with his Rotterdam audience an amusing anecdote about visiting the shooting location of a Mexican directing colleague with whom he enjoys a certain comraderie—Alejandro González Iñárritu, if memory serves. For miles he drove past a seemingly endless caravan of trailers and trucks and rigs before arriving at a large field at the center of which he found a shoot that, big-name stars aside, was set up essentially the same as his locations on a tiny fraction of the budget: the same camera, the same light kit, a soundman, the actors, and a DP. What was everything else for, Reygadas wondered? And, to repurpose his question: can we similarly distill film exhibition to essential experiences that honor our art form, whether or not we’re armed with deep pockets? Might it even benefit us to shed the rest?
BFI Southbank's mediatheque. Photo by G. Gardner.
In London, I made several visits to BFI Southbank, a gigantic multi-cinema complex right on the Thames that illustrates what a film organization with the resources and influence to build on some of the world’s costliest real estate can accomplish. My closest point of comparison is the Lightbox, Toronto’s sleek behemoth of a tower, but to the BFI’s credit, their facility prioritizes access to film culture in even more clear and immediate ways. Much like the Lightbox, Southbank visitors will encounter slick cafes and wine bars (but no condos!), as well as a gift shop heavy on well-curated print material and home-video offerings. But in London, it’s impossible not to notice two other incredible assets bordering the box office: a print research library packed with an impressive collection of film books and periodicals; and the BFI Southbank Mediatheque, a free-to-all space with a dozen or so streaming stations, offering access to an incredible array of films and televised content across even more expansive hours than the print library.
While I browsed some books and took in several big-screen films at the Southbank—notably that unshakeable Lee Chang-dong masterpiece Burning, which played to a packed house in their largest auditorium—it was the mediatheque in which I did most of my exploring. My initial litmus test was to determine if I could stream works by the Black Audio Film Collective beyond those featured in True/False Fest’s revelatory 2018 Neither/Nor mini-retrospective (guest-curated by BAM’s Ashley Clark). I wasn’t disappointed. While a bit dated and not quite on the level of their earlier masterpieces Handsworth Songs and (my personal favorite) Twilight City, 1995’s Mothership Connection offers an intriguing early dot-connector between musicians like Sun Ra, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Parliament/Funkadelic and the empowering possibilities of science-fiction for black imaginations in a world riddled with racism—a natural fit for a progressive collective of black creators whose approach to score and sound design interweaves elements of dub and avant-jazz. Even better was Black Cabs, an apparently little-known 1994 documentary for Channel 4’s Short Stories series giving viewers immersive access to a black-owned black-cab company in earlier years of London’s gentrification war; fans of Frederick Wiseman and Allan King need to track this one down.  
As one might imagine, the screening library offered ample short and feature-length work hard to access in the U.S. from major across-the-pond figures like Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears, Andrea Arnold, and Alan Clarke; its landing page also gave me my first awareness of the 1980 dub-scene-in-Brixton narrative feature Babylon (a few months ahead of its serendipitous first-ever U.S. theatrical release). The vibe in the screening cubicles reminded me a bit of the internet stations and chess sets in Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt library downtown; people from all walks of life were welcomed there whether doing research for a term paper or simply needing a warm, dry, or less lonely place to pass some time, all engaging with cinema in some way. London friends did temper my enthusiasm with insights into the population displacement that made way for today’s many neighborhood cultural centers on the south bank—as well as some BFI-specific frustration that their ratio of film prints to digital within their rep programming doesn’t more heavily skew to celluloid. But I did get the sense on each visit that, in daily practice, those who work in the facility conduct their business with respect for both film culture and each visitor, (whether a paying customer or not).
Meanwhile, north of the Thames, I stopped in on a smaller operation called Close-Up, which deservedly topped my list of recommended London stops from fellow film addicts and physical-media hold-outs. A compact two-story space stuffed with all the best things in life—a micro-cinema, a video store, a coffee shop, and a film-text library equal to that at the BFI—Close-Up illustrated a model of year-round film-festing more repeatable in smaller markets. No one element of the space pays the bills, but together, even in what I understand to be a quite trendy neighborhood in woefully pricey London, they make it work. Like the non-profit video-store project I’m part in Baltimore, Beyond Video, Close-Up offered a place of quiet discovery and conversation. While he made me the tastiest Americano I had in Europe, I introduced myself to the barista—who, remarkably, had heard of Beyond Video, and was able to point me to a dreamy coffee-table book about the Black Audio Film Collective that I’ll somehow need to acquire before relinquishing this mortal coil.
While I’ve heard many a screening at Close-Up sells out, the screen was dark during my visit, and I didn’t encounter many other DVD or book browsers. This led me to reflect on how much the overwhelmingly positive response to Beyond Video owes to it being a mourned thing reborn; it’s been several years since Baltimore had a video store, and perhaps it needed to be missed before it could be truly appreciated. London, don’t let that happen to you. While the value of any one DVD in your personal collection may by negligible, the value of tens of thousands made available to an entire community is incalculable in this chaotic era of splintering streaming services and ever-shifting rights for film catalogs.
In Lisbon, a respite I scheduled purely for pleasure, I popped in on Cinema São Jorge, a 3-screen complex on the main drag of Avenida da Liberdade amidst 5-star hotels and posh shops catering to the one percent. It reminded me of a glitzy ‘50s cinema you might see in La dolce vita… and, while I was very glad it was there, it did not quite feel like I’d found my temple. Luckily, a few blocks off the main drag led me to the Cinemateca Portuguesa, where, for a couple of euros, I took in a 35mm print of Josh and Benny Safdie’s Daddy Longlegs (screening under its original title, Go Get Some Rosemary). The 225-seat house was perhaps a third full for this weekday matinee screening, the crowd an archetypically familiar mix of eccentric retirees and art-school students, who, as they took in the film grain and Portuguese subtitles (digitally projected on a dedicated panel beneath the screen), reacted with appropriate measures of titters and tension.
Even more than I realized as I took my seat, Daddy Longlegs has become a very personal film to me. Shot by Sean Price Williams, long ago a co-worker of mine at Baltimore’s Video Americain, I programmed the film a few years into my 11-year run at Maryland Film Festival at a moment when I was becoming comfortable in my role as an (ugh) influencer and starting to see some national ripples of appreciation and response to my work—simultaneous to some of the filmmakers whose early works I’d supported coming into their own in both art and industry. Now that I’ve left MdFF, the film has taken on a different, bittersweet poignancy, conjuring a moment that seemed to offer clear utopian possibilities along a very specific path I expected to walk the rest of my life. I’m not typically prone to tearing up in public, but on my way back to my sublet, not every drop that landed on the cobblestones of old town was rain.
I’m back home now, and, as a local writer recently said, I still have a chip on my shoulder. Here’s why. If we agree that Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody are closer in form and familiarity to Disney-owned franchise films than they are Our Time or Kaili Blues, we need to be honest about an identity crisis in film culture that has a very clear solution: to nurture, support, and, in many markets, create from scratch spaces that provide a true alternative to bland corporate prestige pictures. While traveling, I geeked out on Barbara Wilinsky’s Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House Cinema, which intriguingly discusses the “little theater” movement of the 1920s, smaller spaces that catered to filmgoers hungry for variety that in many ways set the stage for the emergence of the art house following WWII. At the time, a small venue in an urban space might still number several hundred seats—but today, when such capacities are the multiplex norm, intimate micro-cinemas like Suns in DC, Spectacle in Brooklyn, and Ragtag in Columbia, Missouri offer an attractive and repeatable model. The film clubs and promoters who filled the little theaters in the 1920s welcomed foreign fare, screen silent films beyond their supposed expiration date, created their own print materials, and underscored their programmatic focus with teas and newspapers from around the world rather than the opulent palatial atmosphere Hollywood favored in that era.
Today’s alternative film venue needs to prioritize event cinema. But this need not mean a special guest, Skype session, or DJ seven nights a week, and certainly doesn’t mean venues have to sacrifice rigor in their programming or reverence in their auditorium; you might not even need to offer booze or CBD gummies. But every bit as much as the multiplex or a club, alternative venues need to compete with the comforts, viewing options, sexual possibilities, and substances offered by the home space, to incentivize leaving that space of ever-escalating luxury and lassitude.
So what else makes cinema-going an event, if notions like “the communal experience” and “the magic of the big screen” largely preach to the dwindling numbers of the already converted? Of course, programming offers the most compelling opportunity for cinephile spaces to connect and self-define: to bring to their communities films that would not otherwise screen outside of, perhaps, one or two higher-priced shows within a festival; to cultivate younger crowds for whom the nostalgia zone has crept into the ‘90s and even the 2000s; to highlight diversity and works hard to legally access at home (which often are, unfortunately, one and the same). As Suns Cinema illustrates, a one-and-done screening approach creates event framing that may motivate attendance more than multiple opportunities.
But beyond programming? The common thread I saw across my travels was: welcoming access and a demonstrable commitment to deep engagement with cinema that extends beyond the viewing experience. Today’s cinema should be safe spaces affording surprising access; that can mean streaming stations; disc rentals; print libraries; couches and armchairs; historic neighborhood photos; art galleries; artist access; community panels; trivia nights; board games; original print materials and institutional archives; tangible interactions with their neighborhood and other local businesses; surprisingly late, early, and/or long hours; and dozens of other awesome things beyond my imagination but within yours. These are IRL cinema play-spaces in which the internet is largely absent—and, when present, only there in the service of film. 
Over the years I’ve read quite a few non-fiction cultural-history texts that, distilled to their core, demonstrate the world-changing impact of scene-building. Whether we’re talking about Stax, Dischord, and Sun Records or the Tropicalia movement, Italian Neo-Realism, the French New Wave, and Dogme 95, transformative sights and sounds have been born with small groups of friends (friends, at least, at first) encouraging each other when no one else would, sharing information and resources along the way to making dreams come true. Not incidentally, many of today’s powerhouse film institutions, like long-established music venues in the DC/Baltimore area I’ve observed such as The 9:30 Club, Black Cat, and the Ottobar, had modest bohemian origins—and if and when they outgrow their grassroots audience and mission, they open up a niche for someone new to occupy and explore that space. 
What once would have had to be built with rolodexes and address written on napkins can now harness the crows-sourcing power of the internet. What’s brewing for cinephiles in your city? What could—or should—be? The possibilities are endless—and the comments are open.

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