Issue No 17
1985 STUDIO

Notoriety of Influence

BY Nadia Szold

Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburgers.” - Abbie Hoffman

The audience is a dark thing, a peculiar animal, an enemy that must be assaulted and won.
It doesn't matter a damn what the actor does or does not feel.
It's what the lady down there in the blue hat is feeling
.” --- George C. Scott

"We’re curating audiences." --- The Cinefamily

                            Just as the 60’s and 70’s saw the age of the critic, today is the age of the DJ, the Curator, & the Programmer. Hadrian Belove, Tom Fitzgerald and Bret Berg are just that. Founding CineFile in 1999, Hadrian employed a 19 year old Bret Berg, who quickly became the video store’s buyer, making the link to Tom Fitzgerald, noted tape trader turned film procurer. When Hadrian opened the doors to The Cinefamily in 2007, Tom and Bret joined as head programmers. This daughter of repertory cinemas past has changed the face of the American art house with its ambitious programming, infamous festivals and original trailers. Sitting across from Fairfax High, turning up the volume on what was once Los Angeles’ Silent Movie Theatre, Cinefamily enlists a steady string of volunteers to rearrange the letters on the ivy framed marquee no less than 300 times a year. This summer Bret went on to launch Mindwebs, a bookstore specializing in vintage paperbacks and magazines tucked inside Meltdown Comics on the Sunset Strip.

                             With the explosion of access, now more than ever there is a need for idiosyncratic curation coming from a place of deep digging and unapologetic taste. Without these screen blinded Tiresiases, the gaping maw of content, to use the favored word of the corporate hack, becomes an abyss instead of a wellspring. Lucky for those who wish to be lead from time to time, these guides may wander far from the herd, but they won’t lead you down the rabbit hole -- at least not without your ticket stub. To Georgie’s remark above, Hadrian would contest and gladly argue his point that no, the audience is not a dark thing, but in fact a girl, a girl you want to impress, (and so you’ve made a mixtape for her and you hope she likes it as much as you do). All I have to say is that I hope the lady in the blue hat isn’t sitting smack in front of me next time I go to the movies.

detail of Mindwebs interior

"I had to build it
so that one day
something could happen
."

Bret Berg It was irreverent. It was what Hadrian always said, “We were smart about stupid stuff and stupid about smart stuff.”

Hadrian Belove The early trailers were like “Neon Noir” -- the kind of cokey, chrome, steel noirs of the 80’s where the neon went from outside to inside. Instead of being outside, now it’s on someone’s wall as art ‘cause he’s rich. Things like that, or the Zulawski trailer.

BB That was a pinnacle of what we did at Cinefamily because it was something we wanted to do from the very beginning. We opened in 2007, and from the very start we thought, “How do we do a Zulawski series?” It took five years, but I think it represents the peek of our ability to take things that literally nobody had ever heard of and pack those shows so that they would sell out every night. It was the perfect storm of what we call our contagious enthusiasm for a subject. And we cut all those original trailers, which definitely helped because our hype could only go so far, but if we show you, “This is how nuts it is!” then you may get hooked.

HB It was kinda fun, it was folk art.

Tom Fitzgerald I was a tape trader and I had been trading for just a few years in the late 90’s. Rare films. Through this weird thing that’s just gone now, people mailing each other letters with their lists. It was a big thing. I had just moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco and I knew CineFile was the place to go because “Mr. Show” was petitioning to get onto DVD and they had a national petition at all the coolest video stores. Bret was a buyer there and heard about me from another tape trader and so we met up. The deal was something like, I got five of their rentals for one of my films. And I was helping to feed their library.

HB When I met Tom, my interest, amongst other things, was that I knew he was a VJ. And in 2006 or 7, I strongly felt that VJing, mashup, audio/visual mixing could be something innovative in a theater approach. I already had a habit of throwing parties at CineFile and making these video mixtapes. We’d be having a Valentine’s party and I’d put on a 15 minute humorous compilation of found footage, TV carnage, stuff like that.

the 5 minutes game

TF It started at CineFile. Maybe it was Hadrian’s birthday or something like that. And we were like, “Let’s watch the first 5 minutes of 15 movies. And whichever one we think we can stand, we’ll watch the whole thing.” It follows the theory that every first five minutes are interesting. And it’s true!

HB So early on we connected just on the idea of re-contectualizing found footage and live mixing audio/visual. The first “trailers” were just us playing a 30 second clip of the movie that we knew would get people’s attention. In Lost in the Desert there’s an incredible scene where the snake spits poison in the little boy’s eyes; it’s horrifying. So we would just play the 30 seconds, and Tom being a VJ, would mix it live, then cut the visuals and leave the sounds of the kid screaming. Everyone would cheer and laugh. And we sold out the show. So that became a thing.

TF As a kid I would get Psychotronic Video Magazine. They had quarter page ads from these guys who were tape traders. And they just had the greatest collections of VHS dupes you couldn’t get anywhere. This was the dupe era. So I would get their catalogues, and just go, oh, my god! I started working at Le Video in San Francisco for a little while, and that’s where I started acquiring tapes. The internet was still young in ‘96/‘97, and I was one of the first to put up a list of which films I had. It was casual, no commerce, not even trading. I had no intention of ever pursuing this. I was actually a DJ. But it started to get interesting, because through the internet people began to hound me constantly, including the people who had those ads. They started talking to me, and, yeah --- It’s that easy. From then on, we’d get each other’s lists. The “want list” was the big thing. People held back their want lists because it had clues about stuff to pursue. The street cred was like, aw, he’s got great stuff. So that’s how I ended up getting the want lists, which was pretty huge. Tape trading was mainly dudes, overweight, pony-tail, looking for the extended throat slashing gore scene. It’s pretty hellish. But I was looking for weird animation, or real art films or experimental shorts. Bizarre comedies. Pound by Robert Downey I tracked down actually. That was really difficult. Now it’s all through private trackers, Cinemageddon for one. It’s how I wake up and how I go to sleep. That’s a big part of this theater’s soul. The adventurism of it all. And honestly I think, as one of the founders here, the aesthetic was definitely -- we get bored very easily, let’s keep digging, and finding and looking around. Who knows where something interesting could wind up.
 

The Unbelievable Genius of Andrzej Zulawski (CineFamily original trailer)

method, theory, & the obscure

BB If I read something and then lend it to someone, I don’t need to see it back for a couple of years unless I’m passing it on to someone else after. I think people respect that, because whenever I did lend a book and they came over to my house and saw the big book pyramid, they would respect it by putting it back. My bedroom smelled like one giant used book, which is a pleasant smell here and there, but I wouldn’t hang a car freshener of old book smell anytime soon.

TF So you get hot for a movie, and then you try your best to contact someone. These are so obscure, often the best you can do is try to find the director. They might have a print. Or they digitized it somehow. A lot of times, these are so obscure that I often jokingly say, I think the rights holder, whoever that might be, doesn’t even know they own it. These things are just floating around. Grey Market is the term.

BB The books... about twenty five percent I already owned when I started Mindwebs. Then in the last year and a half I really turned it on. Library book sales, estate sales, to some extent eBay. But I feel I have better chances going to library book sales. Sometimes I’d hit two or three on a Saturday. Just have empty boxes, dump them in and take them home. And in preparation for the big day that would happen, and not knowing when or where, they would just go in my apartment. But like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, I had to build it so that one day something could happen.

HB The real question is about process. The mechanical questions are not so interesting. In a lot of ways this is just like asking, and not to state our artistic ambitions, but there is an art to what we do, so it’s like asking any artist, where do your ideas come from? There is no simple answer. And sometimes the answer is prosaic. But then it’s what you did with it later, that’s what’s really interesting.

TF There is “interesting” and then there is “rewarding & entertaining.” And they don’t always meet. I get too interested in things -- especially if there’s lot of cultural context. But to be just someone who sits through it, like, “At the movies! What’s up?” and afterward they’re like, “Uh... that was a little tough.” It happens. This is not a criticism. But some people aren’t acclimated to the lower depths of things.

BB Anybody who comes in here is definitely a niche person. There’s only a certain type of person who comes into Meltdown because there are only a few comic book stores in town. There is crossover between weird, rare, cool, strange, curious.... The world of comic books is all about curiosity and possibilities.

detail of Mindwebs interior

working with the lady in the blue hat

HB When we started, the series were completely conceptual ‘cause there was nothing coming in for us to deal with. Over time I’ve become more interested in taking films that are really brought to us and thinking what I can build around it. There’s a collaborative process with the art and the creator. Also my interest in working with outside forces. I read this thing on collaboration where they talked about hit plays; and with 1950’s hit musicals, because they require a songwriter, a director, a lyricist, a choreographer, a whole group of people, they found that there was actually a perfect sweet spot with the amount of people who had worked together before and the newcomers. So, you need a certain amount of stability, shorthand communication, but you also need excitement and randomness.

TF Take the ride. Packaging these things so that people will actually show up, ‘cause we could play anything, but there’s nothing worse than when no one shows up. Because this is good. This is of value. But if you get even just fifty people, for something that just has zero recognition, it’s a victory.

HB In a sense, if we’re not being daring, we’re kind of failing. Three hundred events a year. We’ve done thousands of events at this point. 30 Classics at Midnight. That was daring. Financially it could have ruined us. And it was really weird. I didn’t know how people would respond to it. But it worked.

BB Paperbacks were only sold in gas stations, airports, drugstores. Not respectable book sellers. And it remained that way pretty much forever. The paperback has not really had a true place in the book pantheon. There’s the hybrid -- the trade paperback. And for some reason this is respectable to sit on a shelf. But these are not. I went to New York last month before we opened the store. And I do what I do. I go book shopping. And I thought I would hit a lot of the stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn that I had never been to before, just to see if I was missing anything. And these little guys are sorely under represented. I went to a bookstore near BAM and the only paperbacks in the whole store were on a tiny shelf marked “Miscellaneous.”

 

 
Le Revelateur (CineFamily original trailer)

moving culture, one movie at a time

HB You know, you go to Paris and it’s part of the culture. Which theater? And you have the Pariscope, where are you going to go? Having options makes it more of a solid prospect. Going out to the movies in LA in 2007 was not an instinctive option for most people. But now, the repertory scene is brighter and better attended and more alive than it was seven years ago when we opened. We’re not taking sole credit for that, but I think we contributed to it by adding energy to it. Now there are even pop-up screenings, it’s flourishing. And the competition doesn’t come out of the audience, because the audience is potentially larger than the number of screens right now.

BB One of my theses is that people don’t read that much anymore, not so much because of the time thing that everybody thinks, but because everything in our life is on the go. If you’re going to have a book, it needs to go on the go with you. So, if I concentrated on paperbacks, which is what I liked anyway since I was a kid, people might be more likely to pick something up and have it on them. And if they’re bored for 10 minutes somewhere and go, “Oh! I have a book!” They pull it out and start reading, thereby starting the avalanche that they may start reading more and making it a part of their life.

TF I have this whole theory -- I believe in what I call “hurt films.” It’s so hard to make a film and it’s so hard to make a great film because so many things have to work right. Even if you’re a genius, things can go wrong. So I always say, look, sometimes a movie is interesting, just as sometimes an album has 4 great songs and then it kind of gets bad in the second side. But does that mean we don’t check out this album? My thing is: if there’s a hurt film, with a lot of interesting things happening but the lead sucks or there’s something that dings the film kind of badly, still, let’s take a look at it, at least! For christ sake. Or it’s just going to disappear, or it’s never going to even exist! It’s like Schrödinger's Cat -- it just doesn’t happen at all! So that’s been happening here forever. You could critique “Miss Nude America” in having no narrative thrust or thesis, but it’s like, are we not going to show it?!

the singular & the universal

HB The closer you are, the more butting heads there’s going to be. It’s like Sunnis and Shiites, right? If you’re really close, then you can argue over the most negligible point. People who have widely different tastes don’t argue. “Oh, you like those things. That’s weird. I don’t even watch movies like that.”

TF I’ve always been inclined towards films on the margins. Personal expression. Idiosyncratic. I don’t know if they’re always good, but I will always check them out. Hadrian and I talk about “films of singularity.”

HB The Sexperiments program is a universal show. I’ve said that I want art that a child or a grandma could enjoy. And Tom will say, “I want art a caveman can like.” You should be able to roll into this with zero context and be able to enjoy it. So much of the art world is the dot with a big, lengthy description next to it. You know? So everything in Sexperiments you could show to someone who had never been to an experimental film, and they could end up going, that was very cool.

BB Obscurity is not really my bag because the vast majority of books are obscure. So if obscurity was the only benchmark, then this shop would be filled with garbage that nobody wanted to read. Obviously the covers are hugely important. You can judge a book by its cover. It’s complete horseshit that you can’t. You can totally judge it. The cover is the first thing that draws you in. It makes you go, “Oooh!” And then you flip through it. There’s a reason that great cover art was designed. It’s to attract you to pick it up and take a look at it.

TF The way I always see it is, culturally, there was an explosion in the late 60’s  and the explosion went on for years, in slow motion like Zabriskie Point, and it rippled and all this debris kept falling down in the 70’s. I’m just being specific with cinema, but it kept falling, and people thought the explosion was over, or they didn’t hear it anymore, but amber would just fall and it would wind up being The Kirlian Witness or something. That film really wouldn’t have happened in the 50’s. It just wouldn’t have happened. And this continued through the 80’s.

BB Just the fact a novelization of Basic Instinct exists. I don’t know if that’s outrageous anymore, but as an object, that’s pretty silly. “Why does this exist?” is a good metric. Pop culture artifacts, sure, there are many of those. The movie novelizations section is one. But someone attracted there then may go, Oh, what is that psychedelic sci-fi section? I have literally not heard of one of those authors because that’s not typically my zone.... But maybe the attractiveness of the covers will draw me in to discover a complete new area of literature I hadn’t thought of before.

TF I think that one of the things that distinguished Cinefamily was that we’re coming from irregular backgrounds for film curators, film programmers. I don’t think people call themselves film curators, that’s the thing! Maybe only recently. When I would see film programming it was pretty straight forward. It was cool but it felt like film school or more like a film book.

HB When I started looking around, I realized that quality is not a common denominator for most non-profits. There are many, many other values that are on their minds. You have mission driven people. They’re fulfilling a mission, which could be education, could be diversity, or it could be a specific angle of the cinema world that’s underexposed. Like Anthology Film Archives is there to support experimental cinema. So you might talk with a programmer, and you’re chatting over lunch and you’re like, “What did you think of that movie?” And they could actually say, “Yeah, I kind of hate that movie.” And it’s a movie they programmed!

TF Originally it was, you just play the same films over and over again. And the big news is a restoration of Contempt, or a Bresson film or something. And it just stayed on that strata. If you’re an institution, you probably have a mission statement and a role to fill and people to keep happy. I don’t know whether it’s necessarily negative, but we had nothing like that at all. We actually were going in the opposite direction. And we’ve been breaking a lot of our own rules over the years. We had no interest in lauding a particular director or following the auteur theory. We were making up genres. We came out of the box really differently. And people took notice in the indie film programming world. Often when film programmers would do Blaxploitation, they’d show some films they believed in but also many others they don’t. Volume being key. We would go, no, not Blaxploitation at all, we would do a thing called Funkadelic Fairy Tales. And it was fantastical Blaxploitation like Ganja & Hess,  which has elements that aren’t gritty and realistic. We were doing sub-categories, you could say.

HB Part of our mission is to support films through our excitement as sort of non-profit marketers. And one of the great losses is that when we build up a cult around something or we have a hit, we can’t let it live on, because it’s gone so fast. Or we can’t let things build slowly, because we just don’t have the screen space. In an ideal future, we’d have another screen… or two.

a hyper-personal midnight movie experience

TF This is Cinefamily 101. It’s our first year anniversary. Late 2008. We just said, “I know up to this point our programming all seems like an indulgence, but let’s really go for it.” So we showed stuff that probably to this day we really wouldn’t do. These films were more than hurt. Some Call It Loving, for example. About this guy who falls in love with this woman who’s a sleeping beauty at a state fair, and he buys her from the handler and she never wakes up. He’s rich, and she sleeps in his castle. He hangs out with nuns. And Richard Pryor's in it as a jazz musician junky. It’s very weird. 1972. Both Hadrian and I picked that one. And then there’s this thing called The Orphan. 1979. I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s totally nuts. Hyper-personal programming. Even back then we were trying to figure out, well, I think that some people would appreciate this... here we were just like, no. We want to play this. You’re not even coming? I don’t care! God, I played this one thing from Baltimore, The Passing, which is incredible. 1983. That’s about as far as we ever got, but it was important. The way certain things are curated in culture, they’re often highly personal, whereas film programming has been somewhat impersonal. Like someone else would do this in exactly the same way, or somebody already did. Like it’s a package that played in New York and it just comes to LA. All we’re doing is what the rep theaters did back in the 70’s and 80’s. The old Nuart in Santa Monica. The Strand in San Francisco. So many in New York City, the Thalia, of course. Not only did they have the repertory, they had the midnight movies. If you look at the calendars, every day two completely different films. What they would do to express their personality is play the A film, something like “Death in Venice,” and then have fun with the next one, some weird 30’s film maybe. And there’s a perverse connection between the two films. They were very playful. And they changed every fucking day. It was like this: started in mid-60’s Manhattan. Idiosyncratic theaters. In ethnic neighborhoods there were these dirt cheap theaters -- a Ukrainian movie theater, where they play only Ukrainian films. And often, these beatnik programmers would say, “Hey, can we play movies at midnight? When you guys are closed can we play these avant garde films?” And the owners would say, “Yeah, who cares. We don’t make anything at all on this screen, especially not at midnight.” So that grew and became a real phenomenon so that by the mid-70’s you had blockbusters like Pink Flamingos, El Topo, and on and on. In a way, the midnights helped the reps fill out their calendar for the rest of the week, their prime time programming. Again, this worked out because they were feeding people. Film was huge then, and people wanted to be able to see De Sica and the next day a John Waters film. So that happened up until its death -- a one-two punch. Cable and VHS in the 80’s. A lot of theaters went out of business. In the beginning VHS was very expensive, it was just for hobbyists, but by 1987/88, forget it, it had taken over. And it’s never been the same. The only people remaining were more on the side of academia and institutions. And it became pretty rigid and stodgy. The wildness was just gone.

HB I curate the audience first. We’re curating audiences.

 

Menage (CineFamily original trailer)