by Mary Billyou
This is the first in a series of articles covering current film and media work which expands the traditional space of the cinema. These investigations will include communications of “unofficial” culture, ephemeral pieces “not going anywhere,” bootlegs (and their sale), and the decay of “pink prints.” The emphasis will be on small-scale productions emitting from satellite alternative spaces.
Contingent upon calendar time, previews announce and then are tossed away. The trailers of Williamsburg’s Spectacle Theater principally do what other trailers do: they give a sneak peek of what’s coming next. Lasting about two minutes, the trailer format fits into the time frame of today’s preferred viewing habits. As improvised gestures, they are hastily compiled, and are only sometimes given an attribution. Luring viewers into a casual proposal, Spectacle’s trailers go a few steps further. Immediately, accepted commodity forms are questioned, spectator positions become political, and even the symbolic authority that haunts the cinematic apparatus is addressed.
The microcinema has twenty-five seats and is run by approximately the same number of volunteers. A skulking, healthy disregard for squares motivates the programming, which, per the website states, “encompasses overlooked works, offbeat gems, contemporary art, radical polemics, live performance and more.” A DIY attitude, with punk scene prices, contextualizes this rarified taste for the marginal. Most of the movies that Spectacle presents never actually had previews, or if they did they are not in circulation.
Fleeting, the first frame of Spectacle’s trailers subverts the iconic Motion Picture Association of America rating card. Originally addressed to fabled “concerned parents,” Spectacle shifts this codified communication by mimicking its graphic design. For Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (1961), a red card reads, “Because I feel the sea water in my veins […] because I listen to the roar of the sea and it speaks to me like a mother’s voice.” The rating is “S” for Spectacle, and next to that is a poetic statement broken into two boxes: “The face of the moon / fills my soul with a strange longing.” Some words are emphasized by larger-sized fonts, imitating the authority of the normalized cinematic title card, as if in the silence it were shouting. These words are: FEEL, VEINS, ROAR, and SPEAKS TO ME.
Hailing an oppositional audience, the parody of the MPAA’s rating cards signals this space as underground cinema. A mutation of the avant-garde, the underground further engages the language of war, but from a less idealistic perspective of its aftermath. Lampooning the MPAA and its paternalistic regulation of the film industry, these Situationist-style subversions imply the quasi-governmental group is exhausted and out of date. In reality, most mainstream movies today have a shrugging PG-13 stamp, underscoring the dominant market’s primary target: teenagers. Nearly all of Spectacle’s online trailers have a red “MATURE” stamp rating. These shifting terms show a new language developing and a new community organizing around film viewership.
The official rating card’s colors are like a traffic light, simulating a slowing down: green, yellow, and red. Each color refers to acceptable screening contexts, either in association with a particular feature or directed at a chosen audience. What has fallen away: in the 1990s, the racy X rating disappeared, along with independently run cinemas across the country and Times Square’s notorious XXX movie houses. With the unceremonious transformation of the X rating into the nondescript and technical-sounding NC-17, shocking cinema fare seemed at last to have been eviscerated and cheap thrills were something to be put away.
By introducing ambiguity where once there had been none, Spectacle’s trailers recall both Jasper Johns’s Flag paintings and the Samba-inflected FBI Warnings of The Artwork in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility by Walter Benjamin as told to Keith Sanborn (1996). By recontextualizing signs of authority, questions pop up: are these signs merely pixels, electronic signals, or paintings? Who and what is the symbolic authority? What is intellectual property? This is culture jamming, suggesting that it is our consensus as passive consumers that repeats this kind of threatening, condescending authority. What are we being warned against? Ourselves? Life? The world? Exchange of ideas?
The trailer for Buy Our Toilet on Kickstarter mentions class twice in the space of forty seconds. Church music sings over a blurry handheld shot of a door, and when pushed, squeaks to reveal a toilet, with a wine-colored dahlia draped over the top. Before this, on the opening red card, Spectacle is described as a “Community Screening Space.” This particular proposal asks in a glowing font, “Hey, so, buy our toilet?” There’s a tilt up over the open toilet (with the seat up), revealing the wall behind, and “your name here” appears, with “(like on a plaque)” underneath. The Kickstarter ended on Halloween. Bratty and angry, bravado hides the grim reality of the cinema’s precarious position. Demands by local community boards and the landlord have required multiple recent renovations to the space. Now, the rent has been raised to the point that it may be unaffordable to the group.
A green card opens the trailer for Tighten Your Belts, Bite the Bullet (1980), which merely reads, “If we could we would but we can’t.” This sentiment is reiterated on the voiceover, one of Spectacle’s favored techniques. The shag rug sound of the microcinema’s equipment adds to the hyperreality and the sense of urgency conveyed by the disembodied voice. This peculiar voiceover however belongs to a squawking Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City. A film about the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, a melancholic feeling pervades this piece. Senators, fat cats, overworked emergency room doctors, and locals talk about the situation. The unique history of Williamsburg’s People’s Firehouse is included as well. The piece ends with another repeated statement: “It’s cruel that it has to come out of the hides of workers, but that’s the way it is!” The website’s appended synopsis provides impeccable detail. It reads:
A fascinating eye-of-the-storm glimpse at what would become Reaganomics—a vast cancellation/turnover of municipal and state services to private companies, further marginalizing the political viability of their utility in the name of something called ‘fiscal responsibility.’ […] You’ll see the ‘redlining’ of specific neighborhoods struggling to pay rent, (insurance?) fires running untreated in Koch-era Greenpoint, and the neighborhood’s eventual promise of being repurposed (and thus, reopened for gentrification) in the future.
We are now living this future.
Spectacle’s programming brings the weirdly defiant and apocalyptic imaginary of what might be a “vanishing New York.” It’s definitely not safe fare for those looking to raise their property values. The films at Spectacle reveal delusions actively in process, where man and machine have combined to produce social machines in endless vicious circles, repeating too quickly, as if on fast-forward. Hosting a “Blood Brunch” every other Sunday, a surprise horror movie is screened—with possible Satan worshippers! For those with finer tastes, Claire Denis’s 2001 horror movie also screened here with plenty of dead-eyed beauties whose mouths overflow with blood.
The cinephiles that populate Spectacle are not purists. Silent films are presented with live accompaniment when none was intended. Remixed and re-edited features appear in the programming. Early cinema is transformed into 3D anaglyphs, requiring special eyewear. Fan culture and its obsessive investment bring together alternative communities through these kinds of labors of love. Experimentation is allowed and encouraged.
Sound and its looser connections with the moving image are an area that opens up a lot of the free play that happens here. Tough Guys (2012) by Jon Dieringerwas made to prove a point about Hollywood and its collusive relationship with the corporate music industry. A small removal took place to produce the critique. The revered Mean Streets was kept intact except for its famous music score: it was replaced with amateur productions found on YouTube. Hilarious, this tactical editing directs attention to the endless, infuriating cycle of committee approvals for big industry films and the proprietary interests involved in squashing what might be called “creative” today.
The trailer for MIL KDU DES present: THE SOUND STAGE MASSACRE represents another one of these free-form edits and engagements. Again the synopsis is fully detailed as to the original film’s provenance and what’s happening around it now, and everything that was not initially intended, “including smoke machines, terror, surprises, and no refunds!” As this experience is real, it happens only one night, and the screenings are called “sets,” changing the emphasis from the pre-recorded to the live.
The ethos of access that accompanies internet use has peeled back the grip that Hollywood has had on moving pictures. In its faltering, the wildly eccentric programming at cinemas like Spectacle has revealed the incessant creativity associated with this kind of low-budget madness. This activity feeds pirate culture just as much as it does conventional consumer culture. Similar to the Situationist belief that plagiarism is the necessary correlative of progress, amateur reproduction is integral to many of these films’ distribution. How else would we have the chance to experience them in our over-determined and boxed-in lives where everything is against the law? Not on Netflix. Maybe there’s the alternative: MANDATORY MIDNIGHT at Spectacle: Turkish Netflix!
Spectacle is located at 124 South 3rd St in Brooklyn. www.spectacletheater.com
MARY BILLYOU is a practicing filmmaker whose work accesses cultural memory by directing attention to institutional frames and their supporting mechanisms. Combining the amateur, punk and feminism, she consciously engages film as a readerly text. In Spring 2016, she completed a new 16mm film entitled GUN, HAT, GIRL?