by Steve Seid
Back in 1979, Chauncey Gardiner, the protagonist of Hal Ashby's Being There, declared in unabashed innocence, "I like to watch." Little did he know the prescience of his statement. To simply watch, television in Chauncey's case, has taken on unexpected implications in a society colonized, or at least distracted, by moving images inhabiting every surface, texture, and dalliance of daily life.
There's nothing new in this observation. The spectatorial sublime is, after all, where we now dwell. And in that sublime realm, images are at our beck and call-handily accessed through mobile and immobile devices alike, moving-image manna from a strangely capitalized Cloud. But something else has happened of late that is unreservedly new-moving images now validate our personal experience of all things quotidian and otherwise. They have acquired an agency that allows them to venture into the world as our proxy. No worse for wear, these moving images then report back about all things with all things leveled: natural catastrophe, political turmoil, human foible, fluffy kittens on YouTube, the perfection of democracy, or more precisely, of image democracy.
The moving image's dominant role can be seen in the way in which cultural discourse relies on the proximity of authoritative images. Specialized film festivals, accounting for every preference, proclivity, or passion, populate the yearly calendar. Conferences avoid ponderous textual delivery for the airiness of potent pictures. Commerce plunders the plasticity of the image for its persuasive spectacle. Through each cultural, aesthetic, or mercantile door we enter, a moving image acts as host, leading us on.
Of equal importance to the proliferation of the moving image is the continuing erosion of public space, the agoric forum for democracy. As community has been atomized by the rise of virtual forums, the places where we linger, where we commune, flesh to flesh, diminish, or if they persist they've been penetrated by the presence of this or that merchant. The movie theater is one of these valued spaces where we share in a kind of consensual dreamlife, seat by seat, accumulating a communal pool of sensorial responses to the world. There is great pleasure to be had in this unison of spirits.
The movie theater as a gathering concept has barely endured the waning of public space. Single-screen theaters with corporate fare have fallen to an economic model that relies on amortized loss. If the theater has challenging repertory, community-based concerns, or outright alternative programming, only uncanny perseverance, semi-annual reinvention, and a frantic scurrying after resources can keep the jeopardized screen afloat. The conversion to digital cinema further thinned the herd, crushing many neighborhood theaters with the unexpected expense of mandatory hardware. And because most theaters discarded their 35mm projectors at the encouragement of the industry, the available program options have dwindled to a paltry digital sampling of cinema's hundred-year history.
But these are times when the ridiculous outweighs the sublime. So why not pursue the sublime and declare a vigorous return to the endangered theater filled with impractical movies. Again, there is nothing new here, but it affords a chance to regroup around what I call a Cultural Cinema Center. Not a profit-making movie space, infested with industrial cinema, but a highly profitable forum for engaged viewing. Call it an alternative space, an art house, or even a cinematheque, but know it as a responsive institution that re-appropriates the audience's almost Pavlovian predilection for mediated experience and reconfigures it as a transformational exercise, performed in the dark beside confederates.
All it takes are eight simple things:
Specificity sometimes helps: The C.C.C. (Cultural Cinema Center) is an exhibition venue that begins with audience and responds curatorially to its predicaments and its pleasures. This isn't a pandering to pleasure that we seek, but a challenge to slovenly viewing and a wish to address the ills of the day. This also isn't consensus curating but a disciplined practice in which community temperament and desire are met by an acute awareness of which moving images might offer reflection or comfort. What better than a public space transformed as a public forum with telling images of the world at its base. As part of a culture that has lionized the image, we can turn that status to better ends-we can become an animated beacon pointing the way to emancipated viewing.
Programming-the purposeful films, the topical documentaries, the experimental media-is not simply content, but context as well. The lasting impact of programming is the result of such things as pointed program notes, in-theater discussions, guest appearances, and curatorial orchestrations merging into an amalgam of ideas urgently felt by the community. This is not a theme park for your distracted delight, but a wonderland of thoughtful provocation.
This is also a risky, fragile, and radical endeavor. Perhaps the most perilous path is to not pander to the lax instincts of your own audience, but to insist on intellectual and emotional risk-taking even when the audience doesn't easily gravitate towards it themselves.
A bit closer: The programming at the C.C.C. is expressed through three basic components: experimental media, nonfiction film, and selections from global cinema. These components are orchestrated to advance a curatorial enterprise, not a random accumulation of images. The above-mentioned amalgam deploys experimental media as a way to defamiliarize our surroundings and through that alienation reinvent vision. What better way to re-educate the senses than to upset the expected order. Through poetic tropes, abstract traces, temporal acrobatics, and other destabilizing strategies, viewers come to question what is before their eyes. Rest assured, alternative media is appreciated for more than its renovation of sight. The dismantling of filmic language is intrinsic to a disruptive practice that refuses the aesthetic and cultural limitations of industrial cinema. The C.C.C. is part of that disruption.
Nonfiction film serves a different purpose. Again, the C.C.C. is a cultural site with film at its center. Expanding centrifugally from that center is a conversation with the community. Nonfiction film becomes the kindling that sparks this discussion, relying on the inciteful scrutiny of environmental justice, cultural suppression, economic inequality, and other issues. Chosen not for their currency but for their steadfast observation, these works will also be admired for stylistic departures. After all, cinematic convention breeds complacency and an undue trust in the moving image. For the C.C.C.'s conversation to thrive, both the medium and the message must be held accountable.
The final component, clumsily called "global cinema," is where the fun lies. From all eras of production and all regions of practice, these curated examples of global cinema are the core of programming. If any single component promises entertainment it is this one, but that is not the incentive for choice. The history of cinema offers us a trove of riches, from the saturated silver nitrate of the silent era to the glistening pixels of computer-generated imagery. But the key word here is "history." The film industry itself is committed to the present, or more precisely the daily box office. If it were possible, they would bulk erase all memory of previous film releases in favor of the next rollout. As a consequence, cinema's past, the tens of thousands of earlier films, is discarded except when its revival has a suitable return. This valued cultural legacy is then turned by an accounting trick into mere inventory. Stripped of historical context, the audience is left with an appetite maximized for current releases. So, the intention of the C.C.C. is to return the audience to the history of cinema and by extension to history itself.
Not just history: whether narrative fiction, documentary, or avant-garde practice, cinema can return you to the world as well. Cinema of sincere intent, cinema of artful aspiration brings you back to yourself… and the world.
And that is where one should dwell.
At its most fundamental level, cinema is a travelogue of the world's diverse surfaces. Those surfaces are marked by immense natural beauty and populated by cultures of every fragrance and form. To partake in cinema's great global palette is to be reminded of one's place in it. In the movie theater, a seat adjoins yours and a place is afforded each to each, a contiguous bond formed, a partnership in place and placing.
Where television and web technology disperses its simultaneity of reception-the passive audience is everywhere and nowhere-the C.C.C. crystallizes the collective. Activated members of the audience meet in a union of remarkable reception where each individual gains from a communal symbiosis. Not through startling revelation, but slowly over time the audience acquires a renewed sense of place, a renewed sense of cultural engagement, a renewed sense of principled worth.
Here, the programmer is the front-line rep of the C.C.C. ethos, an ethos of transformation. Without a continually adjusting alignment between the programmer and the audience no transaction of value will take place. And further, the programmer's presence must be felt (in person or by proxy). Not pacing the deck like Ahab, but as a perceived sensibility permeating all aspects of the public program. The C.C.C. is not a corporate outpost, removed and rapacious, but a joyously animated cultural cinema center tied to the pulse of the community. We offer up a plastic medium capable of carrying forth a conversation, a conversation within a community and for its members.
This is not an enterprise for the faint of heart. This way lies fiscal disaster. That way, industry ire. And perhaps in between, the ambivalence of the community itself. But when the art is back in the house and the house is full to bursting, you'll know the resulting illumination is more than just a xenon bulb.