by paul a.
Since the start of November, I’ve been part of a special film club of sorts: one hosted weekly at the Filmmakers Co-op in New York, within the Charles S. Cohen screening room, with the ever-lovely and generous MM Serra serving as both projector and moderator. I regularly attend with my good friend/brother-in-arms Manny (notoriously known as pops baron on letterboxd) who’s been going with me for five weeks now.
Usually a day before the screening, we jointly select what will be viewed for the hour we’ve carved out. We diligently research what hard to find titles — what many in this community might call “grails” — the Co-op has collected over the years, attempting to find gems that experimental film history has simply forgotten about. Some of the artists and their work that we’ve been lucky enough to witness includes, but is not limited to: Paul Sharits, Will Hindle, Chick Strand, David Gatten, Peter Gidal, Warren Sonbert, J.J. Murphy, Peter Kubelka, Storm De Hirsch, Marie Menken, and of course, one of the founders of the Co-op, Stan Brakhage. But there have also been many works we’ve seen by makers whose names don’t resonate as immediately within these circles: those of the likes of Esther Shatavsky, Gary Doberman, and James Cagle, to name a few. For every print selected, there’s usually a great story Serra has: whether it be studying with former Brakhage protégé Doberman (calling him one of the most intense people she’s ever met) or seeing Kubelka give one of his famous lectures on cinema. She’s also just as likely to mention how much she fucking loathes our former Commander-in-chief, once mentioning how eagerly she wished to call Ken up to discuss the good news that the dullard was voted out of office. So it’s as educational an experience as it is a deeply enjoyable one — this all actually emerged out of the desire to research a masters thesis I’m currently working on (but keep pushing off to write stuff like this, go figure) and has blossomed into something else entirely.
But if anything, with online screenings and Zoom conferences becoming the new normal for the time being (as it 100% should be for the public’s general safety, by the way), seeing these works on film celluloid — good ol’ 16mm, with the occasional use of a VHS player for some ‘80s pieces — is a great reminder of the power that resonates from analog’s imperfections. The small hairs and dirt that rest on the edges of say, Brakhage’s My Mountain: Song 27, help to imbue the work with a humanistic subjectivity; that nature’s alluring beauty must intermingle and ultimately be altered with the camera’s abstracting recording process. Some of these prints have faded beyond belief, or beyond even basic repair: their copy of Will Hindle’s Chinese Firedrill was practically soaked in bright red, providing it a new materialist quality that helped to heighten the moody mytacism. But I mentioning these qualities not to nitpick, but to revel in the human experience that bind this community together; the many stories and misadventures of wrong projection speeds, misuse of music, and the like that place the “experimental” in “experimental cinema.” So while this weekly appointment will hopefully continue even after the pandemic passes, I can’t imagine any other place I’d rather be experiencing the seeming lost “theatrical experience” than on the 6th floor of the Co-op every Wednesday. Okay, maybe the Anthology Film Archives… or the MoMA… or even the MoMI… actually, scratch that, it’s still got some stiff competition.