Keeping It Reel

Serving up the totally unexpected, microcinemas make going to the movies fun again.

The Aurora Picture Show in Houston is a decided departure from the average movie house. For starters, the admission fee of $5 hasn't budged in six years. Popcorn is sold on the premises, but you can also bring a packet from home to pop in the microwave at the front of the theater. The audience sits in wooden pews. Capacity in this deconsecrated Church of Christ sanctuary, built in 1924, is a snug 96 persons, when everyone is obeying the law.

But what really distinguishes a night out at the Aurora from a soul-killing trip to the megaplex or, say, a Robert Bresson retrospective at an art cinema is the chance to have a movie experience you can't get anywhere else in Houston. Aurora director Andrea Grover founded the theater in 1998 to show films that, as she puts it, "defy easy categorization."

The offbeat and always wide-ranging mix runs from experimental film and video by well-known artists—Laurie Anderson, Sharon Lockhart, Tony Oursler, and William Wegman are just a few who have shown there—to low-rent creations by utterly unself-conscious auteurs. To celebrate Home Movie Month in August, the theater featured selections handpicked by archivists who specialize in this peculiar genre, as well as 16mm, 8mm, and Super 8 films from local residents' own libraries. Audiences were treated to footage of a double wedding in Michigan, a vacation in Mazatlán, Mexico, and some anonymous reels from the seventies billed as "a conceptual city symphony of impressions, obsessions, and digressions by average and atypical New Yorkers."

The Aurora is part of an expanding phenomenon known as the microcinema, which is defined loosely as any venue that presents freewheeling media art to a small audience. Since taking root in Europe a decade and a half ago, microcinemas have sprung up in American cities as diverse as Cleveland and Los Angeles, New York and Shreveport, Louisiana.

Typically nonprofit outfits, these theaters emerged partly in response to disenchantment with the mass commercialism of Hollywood and the impersonal solitude of watching DVDs or streaming video online. They tend to emphasize nontraditional narratives and low-tech formats, screening everything from artist-produced works to footage made as corporate PR in intimate, often interactive settings. Ultimately the microcinema is about creating a community to celebrate the remarkable scope of nonmainstream movies. It is, in a sense, a return to cinema's origins as a clublike experience.

"There's a definite social and performative aspect to our screenings," says Grover, 35, who lives behind the Aurora with her husband, Carlos Lama, and two of their children. "The people who come are invested in being here." Located in the Sunset Heights section of Houston, the theater has an informal atmosphere that attracts a young, sophisticated crowd. There are usually a fair number of artists and filmmakers. Kids are welcome. Socializing before and after the screening is encouraged, and on an average night strangers end up chatting across the pews. "We are extremely nostalgic for the sixties," Grover remarks.

Craig Baldwin, whose Other Cinema in San Francisco is also a landmark, ran light shows and projectors for punk rock bands in the seventies. He sees a similar "subcultural" energy in the microcinemas of today. His belief is that you should experience film "as something visceral, with the hot beam going past your cheek and the reflection off the screen hitting you in the face."

Alcohol and coffee are served at Other Cinema, and screenings have the casual, and sometimes obstreperous, atmosphere of a bar scene. When possible, Baldwin invites the filmmaker to the theater to meet—and, if things go really well, debate—with the audience afterward. "Everybody's crammed in," he says. "There's a sense of sharing in a specialized experience with a self-selected group. That's part of what we're about."

In the wake of the digital revolution, many artists and filmmakers have been looking backward and experimenting with antiquated equipment and processes. The Rockefeller Foundation and a New York organization called Creative Capital are funding a slew of 16mm-film projects. Notably, last year's Whitney Biennial, a barometer of trends in contemporary art, presented far more film than it did video. Chrissie Iles, one of the biennial's three curators, remarks that "there is something corporeal about film. It is more like painting or stained glass—it's about light shining through a substance." Artists are utilizing film in fresh ways, combining it with other mediums and incorporating it into performances.

This spring, an energetic crowd turned out at the Aurora for a show put on by Adelaide, a band from Portland, Oregon. The group's drummer, keyboardist, and two guitarists performed their own brand of minimalist rock in front of a movie screen, while another member at the rear "played" a pair of old-fashioned 16mm projectors in the style of a deejay. He would switch the machines on and off, periodically overlapping loops of grainy images—grass and sky and animals and snippets of children in home movies—so that they splashed over the musicians in visual counterpoint to the droning, hypnotic music.

No regular movie house or art gallery would have been so right for this collaboration or added so much to the homegrown vibe. The Aurora and places like it prove that innovations sometimes happen when artists hop backward or sideways, staying in the present while hanging on to what is best about the past.


Let It Roll

Microcinemas have cropped up everywhere—from Boston to Pittsburgh to Seattle—and are as varied as the films they show. Some have become established institutions, but most are pretty informal affairs. Perhaps the purest expression of the microcinema's mercurial sensibility is HUNTER MANN'S HIGHWAY CINEMA. A self-described nomadic film screener, Mann visits towns across the United States on his bicycle, hauling a 16mm projector, a folding screen, and a stash of movies in a trailer hitched to the back. His stated purpose: bringing "the dancing light of film images" to people living far from theaters. For links to information on microcinemas around the world, visit the Web site Flicker (www.hi-beam.net/org/showindex.html), which lists more than 50 venues in the United States alone.