Burn, Williamsburg, Burn! A Tribute, On the Occasion of Their Crowdfunding Campaign, to the Spectacle Theater

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Editor’s Note: Five years after its founding, the Spectacle Theater, the volunteer-run Williamsburg microcinema, is raising funds to renovate and improve its South 3rd Street space (notoriously, a former bodega). The campaign runs through early next week, after which the theater will close until the new year, for renovations. Contributing film critic and Spectacle programmer/et cetera Steve Macfarlane sends this missive.

Two years ago, I curated a series at Williamsburg microcinema Spectacle (usually, for clarificatory reasons, monikered as “Spectacle Theater”) of films by the Norwegian auteur Edith Carlmar. A pioneer of Scandinavian cinema, Carlmar was also a diehard communitarian, who prized the right to collaborate with a regular roster of actors and technicians (including her husband Otto) over the laurels of feminism only-so-occasionally bestowed upon her by well-meaning critics overseas.

I needed several days to write program notes, cut (and/or assign) trailers, and commission an, ahem, spectacular poster made by Brooklyn-based artist Adria Mercuri. What took upwards of six months was this: beseeching more established—one could even say “legitimate”—colleagues to help me track down the rightsholders in Norway, explaining the theater’s shoestring budget (sometimes via Google Translate) to the respective authorities, and negotiating a fair price to show the films; receiving and ripping the accompanying Region-3 DVDs, tweaking subtitles, and getting final approval from the Norwegian Film Institute for the series, as it would appear to our Brooklyn audience. The incomplete retrospective was broken in two, each half consisting of three films: Carlmar’s comedies would play in balmy October, her tragedies in frigid-ing November. When all was said and done, our box office receipts for the series indicated that about twenty people came to see the movies.

These are the moments in life that pull me back to 1966’s neglected Ross McDonald adaptation Harper—which, incidentally, Warner Brothers wouldn’t let us show for less than $400-per-consumer-DVD screening—wherein Pamela Tiffin’s would-be teenage sexpot asks Paul Newman’s eponymous private dick, against a crudely rear-projected San Fernando valley: “What do you do this kind of crummy work for, anyway?” After five straight years of (admittedly, sporadic) loyalty to The S, I have not one concise answer but several. And plenty have asked.

Spectacle was founded in the fall of 2010 on a few radical, elysian precepts: rather than a gallery space, it would be a full-service movie theater, with screenings every day. It would show movies that were either lost, forgotten, or both. All shows would cost $5. Nobody would get paid; anybody with an interest in getting involved—taking tickets, editing previews, writing program notes, designing artwork, curating series or all of the above—was welcome. Some of these have held truer in the interceding five years than others, but the fundamentals remain; it’s to the theater’s credit, in this surreal New York epoch of self-cannibalizing art institutions and tentacular promotional tie-ins, that Spectacle has remained as anonymous as it has open, its calendar as robust as it is impossibly far-reaching.

For all the jokes about 20something Brooklynites and their penchant for obscurity, one thing I’ve learned along the way is that audiences really, really need convincing when it comes to unfamiliar cinema. When we say our movies are “lost and forgotten,” we’re not talking Zzyzx Road starring Tom Sizemore—which, personally, I have seen at two different discount DVD racks at two different 7-Elevens in two different states. We’re talking movies by Priit Parn. Alexander Kluge. Margarethe von Trotta. Bassek ba Kobio. Jac Avila & Vanyoska Gee. Roland Klick. Piotr Szulkin. Mike Anderson. Arizal. Kim Longinotto. Leonardo Favio. Sandra Hochman. Norifumi Suzuki. Arthur Lipsett. Iván Zuleta. Karen Shakhazarov. Lol Creme. Claude Faraldo. J.R. Bookwalter. Arthur MacCaig. Jamie Uys. Roberto Gavaldón. Evgeni Bauer. Stephen Dwoskin. Jytte Rex. Nikos Nikolaidis. Sohrab Shahid Saless. Julio Médem. Laura Mulvey. Yousseff Chahine. Alyce Wittenstein. Jean-Pierre Bekolo. And dozens, if not hundreds more (preferably itemized to the beat of Daft Punk’s “Teachers”).

If you haven’t heard of all the above film artists, that’s a pretty good argument unto itself for of contributing to the theater’s Kickstarter. As of this writing, our $35,000 goal has just been metbut here are a few reasons to contribute anyway. If you want a vision of Brooklyn’s moviegoing future without Spectacle, imagine a cashier stamping a Goonies prix fixe brunch ticket, forever. (We also have live scores, theater, video art, panel discussions, poetry readings, workshops, private rentals and the occasional PowerPoint lecture.) The theater demands its community of volunteers not just to stretch their knowledge of esoterica to ludicrous and occasionally life-swallowing ends, but to pile still more movies on top while forgoing name recognition, only to scratch and reset with a new lineup every single month. Its marginal, “goth bodega” status reifies its too-terse stereotyping as a leftover from that “old” Williamsburg of yore, which means patrons simultaneously pay $5 to see a movie, and for the thrill-slash-disappointment of being unable to put it in words with layfolk at the water cooler the subsequent Monday at work. (But they always want to anyway.)

Any number of concerns could underpin skepticism towards Spectacle: all-too reasonable disdain for digital projection, pearl-clutching over the source of its screening materials, maybe an early-middle-aged anxiety at the prospect of crossing the threshold of yet another dank DIY art space. (And, for the diehards: that one time in 2011 you thought you smelled onions frying behind the screen? That was somebody frying onions behind the screen.) But after leaving aside the question of “good taste”—the subject of more than a few in-house, via-email screaming matches—one has to ask themselves: which New York repertory cinema has hustled hardest to keep its doors open? If you’ve been to 124 South 3rd street even once—and rest assured, the first visit is make-or-break for most people—your gatekeeping antennae would have to be extended pretty far out to not have at least been entertained by the bewilderment, bedazzled by the commitment. Because a great movie discovery is its own reward, and deep down, there’s no mistaking it for anything else when you see it—even when it arrives in the format of a blotchy .mp4 blown up to ludicrous proportion.

When nobody’s getting paid, how many hipsters does it take to screw in a lightbulb? In DeBlasio-era New York, the answer is, as ever, “a collective”—and it’s a miracle that this one has not yet been scattered to the various winds, to transform its gravesite into yet another dyspeptic abandoned lot (waiting, one can only imagine, for the renminbi to gain further strength against the dollar) or a divorce-settlement boutique boulangerie. It’s easier to take something for granted when you can walk past it on the street every day. Having sat much of the last few years out on the sidelines to work on my lavish freelance film critic lifestyle, I’m thrilled that my favorite movie theater is making the case for—and receiving—the recognition and support it’s deserved since year one. South 3rd Street Forever!

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