JON DIERINGER with Carolyn Lazard
If you’re keen on knowing which films are screening in New York City on any given day, Jon Dieringer is your man. He’s the founder and editor of Screen Slate (www.screenslate.com), a website that aggregates screenings all over the city into a daily listing. Dieringer provides an indelible resource for New York City cinephiles: he trolls the theaters so you don’t have to. As a programmer, Dieringer has also put together over 200 programs at various venues, though his home court is the collectively-run Spectacle Theater in Williamsburg. He seems to exemplify the DIY ethos of the underground film community and he does it all while working full-time as the technical director of Electronic Arts Intermix.
Dieringer and I sat down in my kitchen one spring afternoon to discuss the state of film and video distribution, confess our anxiety-inducing cinephilia to each other, mourn the disappearance of celluloid, and dream about the future of Screen Slate, which is in the midst of a fundraising campaign to build a new and improved site.
Carolyn Lazard (Rail): What is Screen Slate?
Jon Dieringer: Screen Slate is essentially a daily listings resource for film and video in New York encompassing things like repertory film, artist videos, DIY venues, exhibitions—really anything related to the moving image. It aims to be comprehensive and to capture things that would fall through the cracks of mainstream alt weekly-type publications, which tend to paint things in very broad strokes in terms of what they list. It tends to be a little bit more curated, not necessarily in the sense of exclusionary, but in the sense of being put together with personal care and attention.
Rail: Curated and comprehensive seem to be at odds with each other, no?
Dieringer: It aims to be comprehensive within the scope of what it does, which is an ambitious goal. There is definitely a sensibility at work, in terms of what’s selected. But for better or worse, I’ve never really articulated a policy of what is or isn’t included although it tends to avoid first-run independent releases, or, you know, kinda quasi-indie stuff.
Rail: Why is that?
Dieringer: It’s mostly the practical reason that it takes a lot of time and effort to assemble the listings, and people don’t really need Screen Slate when that’s covered by stuff like Google Movies. A good example would be Birdman—that’s not something that I would list, even if it’s only showing at Angelika.
Rail: Right, because Birdman doesn’t need Screen Slate. It seems like Screen Slate is responding to the lack of support and publicity for actual independent filmmaking.
Dieringer: My personal feeling is that it is very confusing right now as to what constitutes an independent movie. Hollywood movies are obviously getting bigger and bigger right now in terms of budget and spectacle, and very shrewd insofar as how franchises like Marvel are plotted out like five-year plans. The indie movies are smaller, but that quality of capitalistic ingenuity is still there, and I don’t think really think Screen Slate needs to play a role in it. Screen Slate is a way of encapsulating the smaller side of things and being really attuned to the local community. Publications that might have fulfilled that function before, like the Village Voice, have pursued participation in larger and more lucrative markets. And in terms of both getting stuff in time for print deadlines and upholding some understood standard of legitimacy that seems to develop like osmosis from advertising, these publications ignore smaller venues that may operate on a more agile schedule or don’t accept credit cards. So that’s left a void for local commentary.
Rail: In the beginning did you exclusively list screenings projected from film?
Dieringer: I don’t know if there was any ideology initially. It was actually really simple: I am a cinephile, and when I moved to New York, I wanted to know what was showing in repertory cinemas. I mean what I was looking for is even more straightforward and conservative than what Screen Slate has become—just, “What old movies are showing on 35mm?”
Rail: But now you list digital projections as well, right? Screen Slate seems to be have become lax about its celluloid inclination.
Dieringer: Yeah. The listings have changed for two reasons: one is the vital role of micro-cinemas and how digital projection within DIY spaces can be an opportunity to present programming that would otherwise never be shown and to start conversations that would otherwise never be had. They wouldn’t be able to afford the shipping, maybe the prints aren’t available or have no subtitles, maybe the bureaucracy of hustling for funding is overwhelming, and so on. And then, of course the other thing is that with DCP (Digital Cinema Package), almost everything is video now. I’ve attempted to literally list every single movie showing in New York over the last four years, and that has been a significant vantage point from which to observe the sharp decline of film in exhibition. At this point, DCP is becoming accepted and unavoidable.
Rail: From what I hear, it seems like theaters are getting bullied by distributors into switching over. It’s complicated.
Dieringer: It’s depressing when a venue shows a beautiful 35mm print and then brings the same movie back on DCP a few months later.
Rail: And then there are people that need to jump on it for financial reasons.
Dieringer: Ironically, I work extensively with digital video and its conservation at EAI. In my opinion, a $1,000 home theater projector and a $20,000 D-Cinema system are not going to produce differing results of any perceptual significance when you’re talking about black-and-white 2K projection, which adds no additional resolution or color information over Blu-ray. Literally speaking there are differences, but braving the subway, paying the fare, and spending $15 to sit behind a pole next to someone eating celery isn’t worth it. That is what I think of when I read “new 2K restoration.”
But somehow I like when a microcinema is doing digital projection of some DVD rip and you get that ice cube effect. I prefer those imperfections to the eerie, air-brushed, motion-stabilized look of a classic Hollywood movie on DCP. The compression has life, like a beat-up print. We could argue about this, but it’s my opinion, anyway.
But the technology brings everything full circle in terms of Screen Slate’s mission to blur distinctions between black boxes and white cubes. Everything is video now, and it puts the past in a completely different light while challenging the assumptions we bring into the present.
Rail: Are you at all invested in maintaining the distinction between an artist’s video and film-as-cinema?
Dieringer: I think intuitively everyone feels there’s a difference between an artist’s video and film, but it’s one that’s very difficult to articulate. The idea with Screen Slate is to encourage more adventurous viewing habits as well as to direct attention to venues on the fringes. It might encourage people who are interested in narrative to explore experimental film or to look outside the cinema and into the gallery. I hope it’s been successful in that, I think one of the best compliments Screen Slate ever received was when Joe Bob Briggs, the host of TNT’s MonsterVision, told me that it got him interested in video art. [Laughing.] He doesn’t even live in New York!
Rail: That’s amazing.
Dieringer: I’ve always felt like the art world tends to embrace cinema more than cinema embraces what’s happening in the art world. But at the same time, that embracing of the cinema can often be very superficial, you know? It’s like the way Fassbinder or Tati are a “thing” in the art world—referencing certain specific points in cinema where that gesture of referentiality is an end in itself. I appreciate work that appropriates genres and tropes in broad strokes, like Bruce and Norman Yonemoto or Takeshi Murata’s recent video OM Rider, and how they are singular riffs on the melodrama or horror genres and subvert cinematic narrative structures.
Rail: Screen Slate facilitates a small community of people’s obsessive cinephilia. I know that you’re one of these people and that I’m one of these people. I don’t know how many movies you’re watching, on average, in the theater but I’m sure you’re watching a lot more at home. If I’m on a kick, I’m averaging two to three movies in the theater a week. But honestly, it’s not even that consistent. New York cinephiles are constantly tracking the city’s filmscape. Also, if you are focused on repertory listings, cinema becomes this sort of ever-expanding field. It’s actually infinite which is terrifying because you want to be able to see everything. Maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but I stand by it.
Dieringer: I could be giving us too much credit, but I think cinephiles are some of the busiest people in New York City because, you know, you’re not only working 9 to 5 to make a living, or whatever you have to do to look out for your well-being and make rent, but then you have to see all these movies. And that takes time. And you are not only confronted with the time and cost of seeing the movies, but the transportation and logistics thereof. For that reason I think cinephiles develop a particular understanding of New York’s infrastructure. I have days where I feel like I’m in The Warriors, you know, hopping buses and trains on some interborough urban odyssey.
Rail: There is definitely a veritable community of marginal cinema lovers in New York. Often I show up to screenings alone. I would rarely call or text anybody, but I would just show up and most likely run into a few people that I know and like to be around.
Dieringer: Yeah, totally. Maybe that’s what’s behind that invisible guiding ethos determining what is and isn’t listed on the site. If I go see The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel at Sunshine, I’m not going to see my friends. But it’s nice that if you go to certain venues enough, you’ll see people you know. You have a conversation beforehand, you might go get a drink after, compare notes on other movies that you’re seeing. So this shuffling between cinemas and spending so much time in the dark is ostensibly a solitary thing, but there is a very beautiful personal and social aspect to it.
Rail: Yeah, it’s great, you talk to people for five minutes and then you sit in silence for two hours and then you talk to people for five minutes and it’s like, great, good to see you. Bye-bye!
Dieringer: Yeah. I mean, because you have another movie to run to.
Rail: These screenings create spontaneous, autonomous moments of community in a city that’s becoming increasingly stratified economically, but also culturally. There’s the huge, spectacular, tourist-driven experience, and then there’s the really small end of it: microcinemas, small artist spaces, and all. We’ve talked about this in the past: about the microcinema renaissance in New York over the past decade or so. It’s a small but significant victory. Smaller-scale cultural communities are in a long, drawn-out fight for their own survival as space becomes increasingly difficult to afford. Screen Slate seems to be fighting the good fight: doing the publicity for a lot of these smaller venues along with the more mainstream ones. So why are you trying to expand the site?
Dieringer: For most of its life, everything on the site was done by me: from the logo design to the website layout, to the listings, to the write-ups. I was still a fairly new transplant to the city and just didn’t know anyone. Now there’s more of a regular team of people who contribute editorially. Our regular roster of writers—Vanessa McDonnell, Cosmo Bjorkenheim, Patrick Dahl, Rebecca Cleman, Danielle Burgos, and Dana Reinoos—they write features and help me break out the listings so it’s beginning to feel less like an obsessive solo project than like a team effort. There are also a lot of other people advising or jumping in on special projects, like Anny Oberlink, who I consider to be Screen Slate’s design guru and is spearheading some ambitious printed projects.
So while this team is assembling, our goal with the fundraiser is to get the site run as a proper database—have it become much more searchable and sortable. It would just make it a lot more functional in doing things like being able to add things to your calendar. I want to turn that aspect over to professionals to just make it more useable for everyone. This will allow us to spotlight the editorial content more, whether it’s more general, thoughtful essays or irreverent things, like, you know, best places to get high near a movie theater.
Rail: Jon, this seems like critical information that you need to share with the people.
Dieringer: The database listings could be, as the site matures, a huge resource for scholars and programmers in the future. Programming is a lot of detective work. For a well-known Hollywood movie, a programmer might be able to call the studio and say, “I wanna show this movie,” and they send out a print. Probably now they send a hard drive or whatever. But, you know, the more “out there” you get with programming, it can be difficult to sort through rights and track down prints. One method of doing it is to see who else has shown it and when, and reach out to them. So even beyond New York City, it’s an essential resource for programmers, because so much passes through here. I hope it can network people that way.
Rail: Scholars will surely be interested in examining exhibition and screening trends, because they document a cultural moment in the city. It archives people’s interests at a given time.
Dieringer: Yes, that would be great. I often use the phrase “ebb and flow” to describe exhibition trends. On an institutional scale, you have all kinds of histories and politics that trickle down to programming choices. There are cultural moments and trends. Art spaces or DIY venues have to contend with trends in funding or gentrification—and, in their own way, all kinds of small-scale or interpersonal politics. So maybe that’s the sense in which it’s curated: it’s meant to provide an ongoing, living portrait of the city in cinema.
CAROLYN LAZARD is a writer and artist living in Brooklyn.