reel cheap

A mushrooming microcinema movement shows just how creative local filmmakers and mini-theaters can be on a shoestring.

November 03, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

What is microcinema? Is it a movement or a philosophy? A budget or an aesthetic? Digital or analog? A very small room or an expanded state of mind?

The answers will surely be at hand at this year's MicroCineFest, a five-night marathon of no-budget short and feature films that represents the originality and quirky production values that have come to be known as microcinema.

Almost every genre will be represented, from science fiction to horror to drama to musical comedy. The films range from the aesthetically and politically radical ("How to Make a Revolution in America") to the notorious ("The Last Broadcast," best known as the movie that did the "Blair Witch" thing long before "The Blair Witch Project" was a gleam in the Internet's eye). Most of the program is comprised of rough-looking short films, but there are a few ringers: Such slick numbers as "Herd" and "Peep Show," for example, were made by directors who clearly have an eye on Hollywood.

And "Existo," a deliriously funny, deliciously subversive musical satire that will close the festival on Sunday, was made by the team that brought you the "Ernest" movies.

Still, whether they were shot by pros on glossy color 35 mm film or in someone's bedroom on scratchy Hi-8 video, the 98 films being shown at MicroCineFest have one thing in common: a passion, resourcefulness and absurdist humor that are so often missing in mainstream movies.

What's more, many of them are hits already, having traveled a circuit of local microcinemas that has grown exponentially in recent years. Indeed what started out as a few impassioned artists and their friends has grown into something of a national trend.

It's everywhere

In Albuquerque, N.M., Basement Films shows traveling experimental films in the cafeteria of a local arts center. The group also stages shows in coffee shops, record stores, the surrounding mountains and local raves.

In Shreveport, La., architect David Nelson has been showing films in art galleries and cafes around town, and last year he invented the mobile mini-cine, a riding lawn mower and trailer outfitted with projectors and a vertical screen, which he takes to street festivals for "drive-by cinema."

In Athens, Ga., a group called Flicker has been staging monthly screenings of local small-gauge (8 mm or 16 mm) films at the legendary 40 Watt nightclub for eight years.

New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, Chicago, Austin and Houston, Texas, Pittsburgh, Boulder, Colo., Greensboro, N.C. and Tacoma, Wash., all boast a regular or occasional venue for screening local and touring work by do-it-yourself filmmakers. Rumor has it that a microcinema exists in the back of a flower shop somewhere in the Texas panhandle.

"Right now I think every city has a microcinema scene," MicroCineFest founder Skizz Cyzyk says before pondering the eternal chicken-and-egg conundrum. "I don't know whether it's new that every city has it or that I know about it."

So far, studio scouts haven't been seen lurking in smoky lounges or coffee bars, looking for the Next Big Thing. But with the success of "Blair Witch," whose rough-hewn mix of film and video, use of unknown actors and straight-faced parody of mock-documentary horror films would have been welcome at most microcinemas, the subculture may be ripe for co-opting. But most of these films and their makers are so off the grid that they're even more indie than most indies.

No one can say for sure when the current wave of the microcinema movement started. There had been an active underground filmmaking and exhibition network during the 1960s, when cinematic radicals like Bruce Conner, Jonas Mekas, Kenneth Anger, George and Mike Kuchar, Stan Brakhage and John Waters showed their experimental and often subversive films in friends' lofts or church basements.

There was a waning of such outlaw spaces in the late 1980s, when moviegoing seemed to be defined alternately by the multiplex or the art house. But by the mid-1980s, screenings of local and touring micro-budget movies, as well as important work from the 1960s repertory -- most with no hope or aspiration of commercial distribution -- began popping up again in non-theatrical settings.

In Baltimore, the curiously named filmmaker tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE and Rebecca Barten formed the Horse Opera Meanderthal Encounter (H.O.M.E.) Group, which showed their films as well as other local works. And Laure Dragoul showed the animated Super-8 collages of local filmmaker Martha Colburn at the 14 Karat Cabaret, a monthly performance and screening series held at Maryland Art Place. Cyzyk, a graduate in film from Towson University, took over the H.O.M.E. Group screenings and made them monthly events at the Mansion Theater in 1993, helping make the local documentaries "Heavy Metal Parking Lot" and its sequel, "Neil Diamond Parking Lot," underground cult hits. (The Mansion stopped showing films in 1998.)

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