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By Jonathan Kiefer | November 25, 2003

When I was a film student in Boston a few years ago, my first short movie–an absurd, 16-millimeter scatology starring my best friend, lasting three minutes and scored, improbably, by Shostakovich–enjoyed modest success among local (living room) audiences (other friends). In this context, even the most spontaneous applause can seem patronizing, so I decided to try getting the movie shown somewhere else. For a long while, there were no takers. I no longer felt patronized, and seemed to have gained some perspective. Then came the welcome from a wacky little film festival thousands of miles away, in San Francisco, and my delusions and ambitions were restored. I should have known I could count on San Francisco.

It would still be years before I moved here–years spent honing an almost crippling cynicism about the art and business of motion pictures, another absurd scatology. The later school projects were more ambitious and more earnest but in some basic way never as good, and after graduation came a few cliché screenwriter-getting-screwed experiences, plus the demeaning gruntwork of production–and worse, criticism–of other people’s movies. Thus established as an embittered film parasite, I naturally formed some doubts. Today, I am as skeptical about the massively boring, pointless, uninhabitable and unreasonably abstract gibberish too common to the alternative movement as I am about inhumane prefab empty-calorie multiplex hogwash.

So it’s good that I finally got here, where something in between still exists, and there’s refuge for what might otherwise count for refuse; where if you can dream a moviegoing experience, you can probably live it; and where cinema’s last chance seems to reside. If there’s hope at all, it’s here in San Francisco.

The standard model of urban moviegoing has evolved into something passive and remote and really quite depressing: tickets bought in cyberspace, patrons whisked from enclosed suburb to enclosed parking lot to an enclosure of stadium seating, from which they submit to being stuffed with overpriced, empty junk–whether it’s the Milk Duds or the latest Affleck dreck. Then, with mind or soul or at least teeth decaying imperceptibly, it’s home again, sufficiently protected from having actually felt the city’s perspired and throbbing pulse, and distracted from another day’s quota of real life.

To this a local resistance has been staged, and screened. It involves things with names like Other Cinema, Microcinema, Cinematheque, Super Secret Cinema Bunker, Portable Pirate Cinema, and appropriately evocative experiences to go with them. It has allowed for a neverending spree of moving image festivals, some tenacious rep houses–the Red Vic, the Roxie, the Castro–and a throng of bars and lofts and parks and subway tunnels to host our city’s sprawling and bawdy cinematic cabaret.

These are the warm, dark spaces where cultivation occurs, and San Francisco cinema is organic and unruly; it comes in high and many low forms, but mostly it just keeps coming. Our undergrounders might not be broadly franchised, but what do they care? They are ambitious, educated, and unflappable, if sometimes jittery from being strung out on cinematic overstimulation. They’re mutually supportive, and they have voices, points of view, politics, and experimental attitudes, all of which they use to churn out documents, personal essays, narrative and anti-narrative stories, and formless weirdo orgies of color and sound and movement. They’re self-reliant, and will even make their own audiences, as they sometimes have to.

I recently asked Sean Frechette for details about his Portable Pirate Cinema, which once in a while shows experimental films with experimental live music in experimental venues. “It’s usually in parks, kind of spur of the moment,” he said, “as often as we can do it. We don’t get permits.” Yes, that’s the spirit.

And what else would you expect? This is not an industry town; it’s an artistry town. Absent is that Los Angeles smog of film industry intermediaries: developers, agents, producers, money-minders and other middling middlefolk. Here you get the sense that everyone’s out curating some kind of quirky film series, not to mention making movies as well.

Which, of course, also gets depressing. Imagine an inbred colony of arty, self-made pioneer-types who didn’t like the creative mandates of Elsewhere, USA, and came here to get outside those and other boundaries, to make and project their anti-Elsewhere screeds and rule-breaking f**k-yous. What’s visionary soon becomes myopic; many such works won’t be distributed to Elsewhere or anywhere else, and the now provincial pioneers wind up preaching their f**k-yous to the f**k-you choir. Again patronage become patronizing, and even the resistance starts to bear a whiff of putrefaction.

But somehow, so far, I still have an appetite. In this regard, the local subterranean film scene is rather accommodating–from the Film Arts Foundation’s occasional bring-your-own-barbeque screenings to filmmaker/exhibitor Xandra Castleton’s experiment, some years ago, with meringue-made edible screens. “We called it ‘Eat my Shorts,’” she told me. “Then we ate it.” San Franciscans can and deserve to feel good about their habits of cultural consumption.

That leaves the question with which I seem to have been preoccupied since the very beginning: How to deal with the waste? The answer, I think, is to treat it like the fertilizer that it is. To employ the very democratic idea that it’s better to risk bad art than to risk not having any at all. I think we’re agreed that Hollywood, with its oppressive command economy, has injured this ideal. But San Francisco, however rakishly, honors it.

Consider the urgent wisdom of Microcinema co-founder Joel Bachar, who still cares enough to interrupt his honeymoon in Portugal and tell me the two things he likes to tell his audiences: 1) “You never know what you are going to get at Independent Exposure.” 2) “If you liked all of the films, then I have done something wrong.”

What may seem like permissiveness is actually the core of progressiveness–the willing provocation of complacency that so many of us came here for in the first place. Besides, I like the neatly subversive idea of programming something for everyone alongside something offensive for everyone.

Yes, there’s the crap, but unlike the mainstream’s crap, this is crap in shorter form and without a massive marketing budget, so at least the offense will be quicker and less ubiquitous. And there’s also the very real undiscovered brilliance, waiting to be found or made. There’s that unsettling postmodern kind of inspiration: the feeling of “For crying out loud, I could do that!” coupled with the nagging question of “So why don’t you?”

We’ll all be media artists sooner or later, if we aren’t already, so we’ll need a safe place to practice our craft. This one looks good to me. I suppose it’s only as depressing as you make it, and it’s up to you to make it at all. I still find a strain of optimism in that first crude little film of mine, and in knowing that this is where it found a home. I have no idea whether anyone liked it, or even if they showed up to see it. But in case they wanted to, here it was.

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