Spectacle Goes MAD: Strange Little Radical Movie Theater Takes Over a Museum

July 24, 2014 | Marina Galperina

Through a nondescript door on South 3rd Street, for $5 a seat, you can catch some of the strangest, rarest, most controversial films ever made, every night at Spectacle. Starting July 24th through August 28th, the collectively-run volunteer-staffed screening space in Williamsburg is taking part in “The MAD Biennial” at the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan. The screenings are split into eleven programs — six extremely rare, internationally-sourced 35mm prints of favorites and five programs with an in-house “remix” of live scores. As long time fans of Spectacle, we’re psyched for this series.

ANIMAL spoke to Jon Dieringer (Screen Slate, Electronic Arts Intermix, Spectacle), responsible for “Strong-Thing” and the 35mm programming/print sourcing for the series. Tune in for highlights of the “Spectacle with a budget,” such as Sally Potter’s The Gold Diggers, Jackie Raynal’s Deux Fois“Nirvana Night” and Deadlock, showing for the first time in 35mm in the US — “an extremely rare, pristine print,” with a soundtrack from Can.

Spectacle Presents: Nirvana Night (w/ special musical guest TBA) Thursday, July 31, 2014 – 7:00 pm

Who runs Spectacle? How would you describe the community around it?

The space opened in earnest in late 2010. I’ve been involved since early 2011. There are about four of us who came on around the same time (Greg Eggebeen, Steve Macfarlane, Mark Freado and I) who are still holding it down along with many others who have come on in the meantime and taken on huge responsibilities. About a year after we had come on, we really pushed it as a collective and started actively bringing in new volunteers. I’d guess about 30 of us now — programming, cutting trailers, designing posters, and working the booth. We don’t have any credo or system or organization. There are no clear roles, and the question of whether there’s a hierarchy isn’t really resolved.

Spectacle appeals to people who are avid devotees of the moving image and yet don’t fit in with the dominant model of white, male nerds supporting a classical canon that favors Hollywood, with all its prejudices, and other, mostly western European male filmmakers, which are generally conservative in their structures and aesthetics. Meanwhile, this reinforces boundaries between “cinema,” “artworld,” and “experimental film,” which are rupturing faster than some can keep up with. Basically, I think we’re people who love movies but don’t feel like drinking the Kool-Aid — and here we’ve all found each other at this tiny bodega cinema.

El Dependiente (1960) Dir. Leonardo Favio Thursday, August 14, 2014 – 7:00 pm

What are you most excited about in the MAD program?

 Those two programs aside, I’m most excited about Deadlock, which is the most insane can’t-miss thing, because it’s never shown here before on 35mm ever. I’m told it probably won’t ever again. It’s a phenomenal movie — this minimalist German acid western with a soundtrack by Can, actually the first thing they recorded with Damo Suzuki on vocals. Director Roland Klick, who retired from filmmaking inthe 1980s to self-imposed seclusion and turned 75 this 4th of July, has credited Spectacle with “discovering” him. (All the English-language synopsis of his work, including a new documentary about him, were sourced from Spectacle.) This is the only projection-worthy print in existence, and they’re essentially releasing it as a favor to Spectacle.

Deadlock (1970), Dir. Roland Klick Friday, August 1, 2014 – 7:00 pm

Also there are two movies that are absolute masterpieces that are in the series just because they look stunning and have both rarely shown here: El Dependiente, which is an Argentinian proto-Eraserhead movie about the anxiety of courtship. The parallels are stunning but it also has some nods to to-the-moment contemporary American cinema like The Graduate and Mean Streets. And then there’s The White Reindeer, which is the most beautiful horror film ever made.

The White Reindeer (1952) Dir. Erik Blomberg Thursday, August 28, 2014 – 7:00 pm

And finally, Panelstory, which kicks off the series and is the first film I booked, because it’s more or less the first film Spectacle ever showed and aside from Daisies, Vera Chytilova is still totally under recognized. We actually booked it just before she sadly passed away on March 12, so it’s now also kind of a tribute screening — as far as I know, the only one planned in NYC.

Where are you getting this stuff? What is the general programming process of the theater and how is it different for the program at MAD?

The programming process at Spectacle is pretty fast and loose and allows us to be really agile. If someone wants to show something, we just do our best to determine the rights-holder, get in touch, explain the space, and ask for permission. Since we’re usually just showing stuff off a computer, we generally don’t have to deal with shipping prints or DCP drives and encryption and stuff. Someone will mail us a disc or transfer a file. A number of us are qualified in video preservation so without getting super nerdy (…which I totally could if you want!), we’ll do certain magic tricks to give video transfers of stuff the best possible presentation quality. That said, honestly sometimes people just download shit off the internet and show it at the theater. Collectivity!

For instance, when I did this Marguerite Duras series a few months ago, I got in touch with her estate. Her son said the place sounded cool and he didn’t want any money. He sent me DVDs. I made high quality rips of them (though it sounds counter-intuitive, you can definitely improve the quality of a disc by ripping it), wrote up some text, polished up the subtitles, made a pamphlet in inDesign with the text to promote the series, printed them up and dropped them around town, and then worked the booth for the screenings. The whole process took about eight weeks between the idea and the final showing.

Sourcing prints for the MAD series has pretty much taken me all year. We started in February. I wanted the program to represented the international and gender-balanced scope of the space and the stuff that we’ve been more or less unique — but definitely not singular, except in the case of Roland Klick — in championing. It’s about what’s available, a process of detective work where you’re looking for both rights and a print. And then negotiating fees and trying to pull in favors with consulates to cover shipping costs. The detective work involves a lot of programmers. I knew two programmers who had done Vera Chytilova and Leonardo Favio retrospectives about 15 years ago, so I wrote to them to ask if they could point me in the right direction. Funny enough, the rights holders of these titles are constantly changing hands. And it’s really expensive once you’re doing it at a legit space. The difference between being like, “Hey, can we show this DVD we already have at Spectacle? — Sure thing!” and doing a proper presentation on 35mm is $2,000, a lot of paper work, and a lot of cc’ing people. Showing movies is pretty intense.

What is the difference between watching these films in the original 35 mm format and the most common one available?

There’s no way of legitimately enhancing the level of detail and beauty of seeing a film in its original format. A 4K scan is better than a 2K scan, but it’s not as good as no scan. Beyond that, there are basic physiological differences in how our eyes register film — the mechanical progression of 24-pictures-per-second, and video. This is particularly apparent with single-frame work like flicker films, which lose a lot when they’re transferred from 24fps to the NTSC video standard of 30fps. (Not as big a deal now with HD video, which is 23.97 fps…) Because film is a physical object, its subject to physical defects, and I think you read a story of a film in those. Even though film is reproducible and there are good prints and bad prints, watching a film is pretty much unquestionably seeing “the original,” which gets trickier when you’re dealing with video. And there is so much technical intervention that goes into the film-to-video process — whether it’s DCP or HDCAM or Digibeta or whatever. So to me, at Spectacle, the trade-off has always been accessibility, affordability, and community. And I think that’s legit. But a lot of times I’ve just sat there dreaming they were in 35mm, haha.

The Gold Diggers (1983) Dir. Sally Potter Thursday, August 21, 2014 – 7:00 pm

But before video projection was viable, a lot of times stuff that was shot on 35mm would circulate on 16mm to cine-clubs or universities and stuff. Most times independent filmmakers couldn’t afford to shoot 35mm. But then you get those kind of black sheep movies where the filmmakers actually did shoot 35mm, but generally would show in the kinds of venues that did 16mm projection. Deux Fois and The Gold Diggers are perfect examples of that — and since 35mm prints are overseas, and it saves you about $2,000 on shipping costs, most people would show a 16mm reduction print. So Sally Potter actually talks about this in Scott MacDonald’s A Critical Cinema.  

The first time I saw The Gold Diggers projected in 16mm, I nearly died. I felt as if all the work that had gone into creating this pristine 35mm image might as well never have existed. I even wished that I’d never allowed it to go onto 16mm, though I didn’t have the contractual power to prevent that. I suppose most of those few who have seen it have seen it on 16mm.

Jackie encouraged us to show this 16mm print of Deux Fois for free, but I really wanted to go all-out and get the 35mm if it was at all conceivable, which she eventually really got behind. I think she was just surprised that someone actually cared.

Originally we were just going to show that but then she also encouraged us to get ahold of Serge Bard’s Fun and Game(s) for Everyone, which is insane looking, and I feel like I’m definitely going to be watching it for the first time. Zanzibar were, essentially, a bunch of crazy artists in their late teens and early 20’s who were making movies on acid. And Henri Alekan, this dignified old-school French cinematographer who shot Cocteau movies, ended up shooting and processing Fun and Game(s) using this literally singular high-contrast style. It ends up looking like the kind of Waking Life digital rotoscoping stuff. 

Spectacle Premieres: State of Emergence, Strong-Thing Friday, July 25, 2014 – 7:00 pm

Are you anticipating more expanding efforts for Spectacle?

I think we’ll have to see. This was a really great opportunity. Other offers are usually tied to some kind of marketing thing, which we try to ignore, if not destroy. But mostly, I think we’re just interested in staying in our own space.

What are some of the most memorable/controversial screenings you remember at Spectacle?

I can remember this one night my colleague Rebecca Cleman and I did with Tommy Turner — an amazing, under-represented artist and Super 8 filmmaker probably best known for his close personal and creative association with David Wojnarowicz. (He’s also repped by David’s gallery, PPOW.) So, Tommy is super into heavy metal and Satan and one of his films has extremely graphic depictions of heroin use intercut with maiming lab rat corpses in such a way that he appears to be harming live rats. And that became this big thing where both audiences and Spectacle people were upset and wanted to have a Conversation. But it was very bold to share this work, and of course some people responded to it very well.

But actually, our audience is down for whatever, and I think we generally put things into an appropriate context, whether it’s challenging to personal, political, racial, ethical, or aesthetic sensibilities. Controversy manifests itself as in-fighting over whether something is or isn’t appropriate for the space in terms of it being something that’s already well-represented at other venues.