Having started as an underground film venue 25 years ago, the Other Cinema also became a DVD label in 2003, releasing the works of experimental filmmakers such as Craig Baldwin, JX Williams and Bill Morrison. Alex Fitch talks to co-founder Noel Lawrence and finds out more about their ‘mad, bad and rad’ aesthetic. This interview was originally podcast on Sci-Fi London.
Alex Fitch: Experimental cinema isn’t that widely available in the UK; your DVDs are sold in the ICA bookshop and are region 0, so they fill a gap in the market.
Noel Lawrence: Yeah, absolutely. England was a particularly hard nut to crack for us as you’ve got that dated rating system.
AF:What sort of films do you show when you tour your programme to countries like the UK?
NL: I do a combination of things – I showed Experimental Eros in a variety of places, in Switzerland and the Netherlands this year. We show full programmes from the Other Cinema catalogue, some titles that have been released, forthcoming ones to test the market / the audience, to see what they like, that sort of thing. I’ve been in England before, we showed at The Cube cinema in Bristol and at The Horse Hospital in London. I went up to Newcastle: they have a fairly vibrant underground film scene there.
AF: Are you the main curator for titles? Do you decide which releases go ahead?
NL: I’m not exactly the main curator… Let me give you a little history of how The Other Cinema went ahead. We started as an underground film venue in San Francisco about 25 years ago and that was founded by an avant-garde filmmaker called Craig Baldwin who has done several well-known pictures composed of found footage, most significantly Tribulation 99. He started with what’s known today as the micro-cinema movement, which was the idea that we don’t have to show films in movie theatres – anyone with a screen and a couple of folding chairs could set up a cinema and show what they want, something outside of mainstream, outside of what big studios are distributing to the public. Other Cinema is based in the Mission District in San Francisco. It’s a storefront theatre with folding chairs and not the best high-end projection equipment but, how should I put it, a lot of spirit and enthusiastic audiences. The idea of Other Cinema – the DVD label too – is to show ‘outlaw’, marginal cinema that can be broken down into three ingredients; this is how Craig has always explained it: The Other Cinema programming aesthetic is ‘The Mad’, ‘The Bad’ and ‘The Rad’!
NL: Let me explain that. ‘The Mad’ being alternative subjectivity, bizarre uncommon ways of looking at things that are ‘mad’ or ‘schizophrenic’. You can make a million associations with that. ‘The Bad’ being kitsch, low culture. We’re all about high culture or low culture – there’s no middle ground! And then ‘The Rad’ is radical politics, progressive politics – the idea that film can be used as a way of changing the world by changing people’s ways of looking at things. Does that make sense?
AF: Absolutely. Those are the sort of things that are part of underground culture in San Francisco and California in general…
NL: I’d say we’re tuned into that… you know, that underground sensibility that characterised California – certainly counter-culture California – for many, many years. Some people talk of West Coat and East Coast rap; there’s certainly a West Coast / East Coast flavour to experimental filmmaking. We’re on the West Coast side of that. Of course, it’s more complex than that – we represent a great number of New York filmmakers on our label, they’re certainly not ghettoised or anything like that. But I feel that we tend to be a little more fun in what we do than some of the things that come out of the New York Film Festival in their avant-garde programme – not to say anything bad about them ’cause they do a great job – but we’re a little more playful.
AF: In a way your label is like a film festival, spread over a number of discs.
NL: That’s an interesting way of looking at it! One of the reasons I became a film curator is that there was certainly a point where I thought, ‘Maybe I should found a film festival’, then I realised, ‘Why bother? There’s a million of them!’ There’s about 150 festivals in San Francisco alone! DVDs have an enduring material legacy that is not possible when you do a festival. Things go to a festival, there’s a big crowd and then they disappear and there’s nothing left. To a lot of undistributed films, that’s what happens: they do their festival run and they get shown in a lot of places but in a few years no one remembers what they are. Even the big stuff that’s going through Sundance or wherever. But because DVDs have this material component, they’re going to be floating out there forever. There are hundreds of video stores that have our catalogue and from today until whenever the DVDs break, people are going to be watching them and that works! So even though a DVD label can be really difficult – ’cause it’s really stressful to put out these discs – it has advantages over showing these things in a film festival… Or showing them in Other Cinema itself, which is a great venue where I’ve seen hundreds of films over the years, but the problem is that you’re limited to whatever audience happens to show up on a Saturday night to see it! Whereas the idea with the label is that we can export the magic that happens at the cinema and put it onto a disc and then everyone around the world can see it at any time.
AF: Another thing about your label is that the packaging is very well designed. You’ve made it collectable, which is important if you’re making something that you want people to keep for a while.
NL: Yeah, I think that’s very important actually. You’re right, we spent an enormous amount of time studying over the packing – there’s not the tiniest detail that is not going to be approved by Craig or myself. That materiality, that aesthetic component of the discs, is really important to what we do and I have a fear that it’s going to be lost because we’re moving into a digital age, where everything can be downloadable from the internet. Ever since I was a young lad I collected old records. When I was fifteen years old I would go to ‘the big bad city’ and go to the underground record shop and get punk rock albums and it was really a rush to go into a store and pick up something rare. I think that’s sort of getting lost today, with the internet now anything can be accessed by a few keystrokes. In a way that’s great, but at the same time, I kind of miss the idea that you have to search these things out.
AF: Definitely. I’d be the first person to argue that the loss of the corner video shop is a terrible thing, because if you’ve got shelves of esoteric titles, it’s much easier to browse them in the flesh and if you’ve got someone vaguely knowledgeable behind the counter, they’re going to point you in the right direction.
NL: Exactly! There’s a really great record shop in San Francisco called Aquarius Records and it’s not a particularly large shop at all, it’s probably the size of my apartment, which is not very big, it’s a studio! They sell a fraction of what you might get in a big HMV, but everything is so lovingly presented; they write these tiny reviews of every disc in this incredibly small hand-writing and it looks like someone has spent two hours writing this little index card review with a magnifying glass! You walk in there and you ask the person behind the counter, ‘I’m looking for this kind of music…’ and they can point you exactly to the CD you’re looking for. You can’t do that at an HMV and you definitely can’t do that on the internet.
AF: Is it important for you to balance the number of short films with the number of features that you’re releasing?
NL: We tend to put out more collections of short films than we do feature films, but it’s not like any kind of hard and fast rule. What we do, running a DVD label and competing in a market place where we’re against the likes of Harry Potter and we’re trying to peak the public interest in our work, is to curate thematically with our DVDs. So a lot of our compilations have been on a subject that everyone knows about, like a lot of people don’t know who Craig Baldwin and Mike Kuchar are but they know about horror films or they understand the concept of the seventies. I put out this disc dealing with themes of sexuality and called it Experimental Eros and everyone’s heard of sex! They might not know the particular short films on the disc, but people get interested because of the theme that gets addressed on the disc and they pick it up for that reason. I’m hoping that from there, people familiarise themselves with the artists that are behind some of this stuff and seek out more of their work.
AF: With the Eros collection, you seem to be tapping into the zeitgeist a bit. I don’t know if it’s the same in America but in Britain, there’s an exhibition of art about sex on at the Barbican at the moment, they had a collection of 70s Swedish erotica on at the ICA recently and before that there was a collection of Edwardian pornography called The Good Old Naughty Days shown in London. To get around the ratings system, you had to join a ‘sex club’ in order to see this film of sex acts that were recorded 80 years ago… So with the ‘mainstream’ becoming increasingly mainstream and people having less challenging films to watch, I guess sex is still a subject that’s somewhat taboo.
NL: It’s interesting you should mention that. Even today, as ubiquitous as porn has become because of the internet, there are still a lot of difficulties in distributing sexually explicit material on DVD and I don’t just mean porn – with Experimental Eros there were a lot of stores that would not pick it up and I couldn’t get it replicated at certain factories that wouldn’t handle that kind of material. There’re a lot of problems that are still present when you’re showing that kind of material and in America they still occasionally do arrest porn directors on obscenity charges and that sort of thing. I don’t know if that happens in England or not… It’s strange because the legal status of porn is still very ‘grey market’ in the United States, particularly under the Bush administration, which is a lot more puritanical than some of the more recent democratic administrations like Clinton’s.
AF: The demarcation between porn and erotica in this country seems to be very much delineated by the artistic intent of the filmmakers. You can show full penetrations and erections in films if you can show that they have some kind of artistic meaning.
NL: There was a famous court case in the United States where the Supreme Court talked about obscenity being offensive to community standards and having no socially redeeming value. So as a result, back in the 60s and 70s when this court case was first decided, you would always see these naughty books that were just wall-to-wall sex, but the first page would always have an introduction by some kind of professor with a PhD who would say something like, ‘This is talking about the social conditions these people are living under’, which is absolutely ridiculous because it was just a pornographic book. But, in any case, our work is erotica and supposedly it has a socially redeeming value! There’re a lot of arguments to what constitutes socially redeeming value, in the sense that all porn – even the most gutter porn – still has relevance in terms of its documenting of social behaviour. There still could be arguably an anthropological argument for that! I heard about a university, I don’t remember if it was Berkeley or not, they were keeping an archive of all of this 70s porn, basically to study the furniture that was used on the sets because most Hollywood films are not filmed in real places – they’re filmed on sound stages, they’re completely make-believe – but 70s porn films were shot in someone’s living room. So people can get an idea of what actual 70s furniture looked like by looking at porn!
AF: It’s funny you should say that because there was a documentary on the very subject on BBC Four a couple of months ago. It was very much looking at these 70s interiors in California in particular, and how the look of these 70s porn films have a certain cultural cachet that has outlasted the films themselves.
NL:Oh yeah. It’s very interesting to watch that stuff – the sex is boring – but they have these really bizarrely tacky soundtracks and I’m particularly enamoured with the bad acting between the sex scenes because it seems like something straight out of some Warhol movie! So, it’s downright bizarre at times which I really enjoy a lot! It’s kind of experimental film, unintentionally.
AF:All of your stuff – the Eros collection particularly – does demonstrate the fusion between high art and low art because it shows an aesthetic quality and at the same time it’s being appreciated for its trashiness.
NL:Exactly! You’re right – that’s the Other Cinema aesthetic right there: the work in Experimental Eros tends to be footage that’s been appropriated from porn, which is pretty much the lowest rung in the totem pole of genres, and it’s been taken by avant-garde filmmakers and made into something completely different. It’s strange; it’s made very beautiful in a lot of cases – I’m think about, for example, the film The Color of Love by Peggy Ahwesh. Do you remember that one?
AF:Yes, it looked really good.
NL:Exactly. Basically what happened was: she found a decayed reel of super-8 porn, took it into her workshop, dyed it, massaged it, changed the look of stuff and made it into something incredibly beautiful. In terms of the low-brow and high-brow ends of the spectrum, she’s definitely in the high-brow end. She’s a published academic, she teaches over at Bard College, she’s a serious artist from New York. That is definitely a good example of our programming style.
AF:I’m glad you mentioned that title because it leads on to Decasia, which is possibly one of the most famous films, at least over here.
NL:Well, that’s Bill Morrison, he’s a good friend of mine and a very nice guy. We released it – the DVD – in something of a limited edition. The idea of it was that he had a print of Decasia that he didn’t need, so we cut it up into pieces and with this edition they would not only get the DVD but also an actual piece of the film. We’re going into that materiality which is very important to the work we show on DVD. What else can I say? It’s a masterpiece, it’s a very important film – one of the most important experimental films that came out in the last decade or so – and I’m a big fan of it! It’s kind of hard for me to find the words to describe it, to be honest with you. I was also really pleased because we just released a new DVD called Experiments in Terror 2, which obviously follows Experiments in Terror 1, and Bill gave us a new film that he made called The Mesmerist for that. Bill took this silent film called The Bells with Lionel Barrymore and Boris Karloff and worked his magic on it; I don’t know exactly what it is that he does in his studio but he creates… When you see a Bill Morrison film there is a certain look to the film that is magical and that film definitely has it.
AF:There seems to be a new interest in silent movies. People have looked into this phenomenon and it seems to be that when a couple of generations have died off and there’re no longer family members left with memories of, say, the 1920s, that’s when young people get into it. It’s the opposite of what you might expect.
NL:Yeah, I don’t know! I guess! I really like old stuff – even my parents seem kind of archaic! It is fascinating the way film can be used that way, to give people the ability to go back in time. What fascinates me is that watching an old movie is an experience that can literally be unchanged from 50 years ago. You see a film like Casablanca in 1942 when it came out or whenever and when you see it 50 years later, it’s still essentially the same experience in a dark room watching this movie and in that sense it’s really the ability to go back in time. Does that make any sense?
AF:Definitely. Particularly when they restore old movies for the film print and not just the DVD; about ten years ago they did a new print of Vertigo where they went to the trouble of finding the cars that were in the movie and matching the colour of the celluloid cars to the paint colour of surviving models so that they looked exactly the same.
NL:Of course, and this being a San Francisco film, I know it well! In fact, speaking of Vertigo, there’s a film on Experiments in Terror 2 called Between 2 deaths and the filmmaker, Wago Kreider, went to the church known as Mission Dolores with a video camera and he retraced Jimmy Stewart’s steps through the church in that scene that was filmed 50 years ago. The film very carefully fades in and out from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to the filmmaker’s version of that scene. It’s really amazing, ’cause he synchs up all of the architecture perfectly, so you see it constantly going from the past to the present, from the present to the past…
AF:…and that exemplifies exactly what Vertigo is about in the first place, by trying to recreate the past using…
NL:I hadn’t even thought of that! That’s a brilliant point that you’re making there. I don’t know if that was the thought that Wago had when he was making it or if he was just being clever… I just took it on a literal level – I just enjoy watching it. I hadn’t thought about that part.
AF:Thinking of the ‘Rad’ aspect of your catalogue, another title that’s well-known over here is Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y…
NL:We’ve enjoyed a lot of success selling that title. It’s especially popular in Europe and it continues to sell very well to this day.
AF:How did you pick it up for your label?
NL:Johan came to us with that actually. I think he had probably tried to sell it to somebody else and it hadn’t worked out. We take weird stuff that other mainstream distributors are not going to be interested in. At the same time, I think it’s a fairly accessible work. It’s an experimental documentary without any kind of cohesive narrative but it’s surprisingly watchable.
AF:It’s weird that the kind of documentary films that are popular in the cinema these days – the sort of Michael Moore titles – are very polemic and try to make you adhere to a storyline, in comparison to documentary footage that lets you draw your own conclusions.
NL:You’re right. I like Michael Moore’s work, but there’s a certain authoritarianism with that A to B, ‘this is the point’ kind of filmmaking; you’ve got to follow all these steps to what the conclusion is. It’s much more fun to have this ambiguous kind of work like Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y that lets you draw your own conclusions. We had another documentary too called The Net, which is basically the same thing but is more of a ‘talking heads’ documentary. But it wasn’t there to say, ‘this is the point we’re trying to make’, it just offered a sort of polyphonic view of a certain subject, which was the links between the internet, the Unibomber and LSD…
Interview by Alex Fitch
Read the review of Experiments in Terror 2.