VIDEO ESSAY: Rough and Ready: The Return of the Microcinema

VIDEO ESSAY: Rough and Ready: The Return of the Microcinema

Earlier this week, Google
released an app called “Previews” for Google Glass users. The app allows users
to view a film’s theatrical trailer by simply looking at that same film’s
theatrical poster in a theater lobby. This immediacy, this growing interest in
instant access, is another advancement in our culture’s shift from the group
experience to the singular experience, in regard to the cinema. Believe it or
not, there was a time when a moviegoer might go up to the box office cashier
and simply ask: “What’s that movie about?” And get an answer!

In a diabolical twist of fate, the
technological wizardry provided by Google Glass, smartphones and tablets have
in fact put mainstream moviegoers back into archaic roles. Specifically, these
personalized smart devices are removing viewers from their respective, physical
audience groups and positioning them to heavily rely on their own digitized
versions of a Kinetoscope. The Kinetoscope was an early motion picture viewing device that
allowed only one viewer at a time to watch a film through a peephole.
Kinetoscopes were all the rage in 1894. Today, we have the same thing—except
it’s in the form of an iPhone, or a computer.

For all of the gadgetry and instant
gratification that comes with such technological advancements, there has been
one constant in the movie-going world: the limited access to the experimental
(or underground) film catalogue. Sure, one can search for and watch a Stan
Brakhage small-gauge short film on YouTube, for instance, but that is not how a
Brakhage film should first be viewed. It would be like watching Star Wars
on your phone before having seen it in a theater. And while a Brakhage film
doesn’t necessarily require an IMAX screen or stadium seating, it does come
alive in a special way when it’s projected on a screen by a—dare I say
-gauge film projector. Why is this? Because that film projector comes
from the same technological arena that gave birth to Brakhage. It’s one thing
to watch a cute cat video (that was more than likely recorded by a smartphone)
embedded on someone’s Facebook page. It’s an entirely different thing to watch
an 8-minute impressionistic work that was filmed, spliced and then further
manipulated on physical celluloid, sitting in a dark room filled with equally
engaged and fascinated cinephiles.

While the access to this catalogue of
experimental film is hindered by the limited places of exhibition to actually
watch them, some cinematic havens exist. These “microcinemas”—as they have
affectionately been called since 1994—aren’t as common as they once were, but
they are still championed by small circles of artists and curators in certain
pockets across the country.  In Chicago,
Illinois, there is a wonderful gem of a microcinema called the Nightingale (
, located in
the city’s Noble Square neighborhood. Earlier this winter, I visited the
Nightingale for one of their special exhibition programs, where they showed
films that were thematically linked to the writings of Studs Terkel. Artists
read excerpts of his writings to an eager audience between each of the films.
It was quite a sight to see. The level of engagement between orator and
listener, between abstract film work and viewer, was truly special. The
Nightingale was offering an alternative to the instant gratification culture:
it gave viewers intimate gratification instead.

And in a time of such technological haste
and overt content consumption, the microcinema offers up an old-school
rhetoric that invites moviegoers to look back on films that challenged norms,
to look forward to the new works that are breaking the traditional narrative
structure, and to open up an offline, in-person dialogue with their fellow
cinephiles. It’s the kind of feat that no Google Glass app has yet to achieve.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content
creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually
contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the
London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW
which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A
Prehistoric Value System.” You can follow Nelson on Twitter

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