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

Press Play By Nelson Carvajal | Press Play March 19, 2014 at 11:54AM

In a time of 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.
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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 it?—small-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 (http://nightingalecinema.org/), 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 here.

This article is related to: Video, NELSON CARVAJAL


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