The Reel Thing

Written by Nick Curley on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

You remember film stock, don’t you? Those whirring reels that fervidly hummed and unspooled in sexed classes and living-room slideshows, long before our iPads streamed Gnomeo and Juliet on the subway? Old-school projection will reign supreme again March 8 at The Kitchen, where curator Molly Surno presents the latest in her Cinema 16 archival series of wildly experimental short films from radicals past and present, featuring a live score from drone rock quartet Psychic Ills.

While the web has made us all aggregators of culture, the homemade flavor of Surno’s curations makes her something closer to a harvester than a hyperlinking blogger. At 28, she’s one of New York’s premier gleaners of outsider film, digging up avant-garde treasures like some love child of Agnes Varda and Jacques Cousteau. Her latest stockpile is a muchneeded collection of five works evoking the coming spring. "Someone told me that they’d never seen anything at The Kitchen where someone wasn’t naked," says Surno. "This program is very much about carnal flesh, and the conversation happening these days ecologically between melting and refreezing, coldness and warmth."

Light Sleep, a 2009 montage of bubbling, contorted Hungarian pornography from Budapest film student Peter Lichter, is a revelation; so too is Kenneth Anger cohort John Schmitz’s 1953 proto-beatnik wet dream The Voices; Ron Rice’s Chumlum (1964) brings us the Technicolor orgy featuring Jack Smith and Tiny Tim that we’d all only dreamed of until now; and earthly delights from Carcassone heroine Raymonde Carasco and iconic Chelsea duo Beryl Sokoloff and Crista Grauer ably round out the set.

Since its first screening played to a packed house of nearly 400 at Starr Space in Bushwick in 2008, Cinema 16 has staged raucous happenings in Austin, Portland, Chicago and Los Angeles. One memorable night of films was screened on a brick wall under the Brooklyn Bridge. Today, Surno seeks out venues in digs as varied as Montreal and Tel Aviv.

But Surno’s reverence for her personal icons does a hell of a job selling The Kitchen as an equally exciting venue. "People like Laurie Anderson and Arthur Russell… there’s an amazing legacy of people who’ve walked The Kitchen’s floors," she says. "It’s one of the most special places in New York, and I was initially so intimidated. Not just because it’s so revered, but because it’s so emblematic of the culture I look up to and want to keep alive."

Setting up shop at The Kitchen further represents an expanding public eye on C/16, which will also be featured at P.S. 1 April 16, screening five short films with musical accompaniment by FORMA. "These curations are moving into very established art structures, whereas my last one was an amazing night at Attic Studios, an amazing abandoned photo loft in Long Island City," says Surno, who includes the New York Public Library, New-York Historical Society and The New Museum as local Shangri-Las on her list of dream gigs. "I want the series to move like a pendulum, and to continue to work in unusual, inventive spaces, as well as the bigger institutions."

These days, she seems able to make a concert hall of any venue. "The way I curate is very musical," says Surno. "I sequence films to find crescendos and movements and end with something very intense. There’s orchestration within both the music and the films." Coupling a C/16 curation with the right musicians proves a long-term investment: Psychic Ills has had six months to prepare an original score for the evening. "The music is perfect for soundtracks: not only captivating, but actually entrancing," notes Surno. "Scoring these works live puts people into a kind of meditative state. We’re engrossed together in a way that you can’t be watching these films alone."

For all that can be said of Cinema 16 as an increasingly rare experience in a fully digitized market, most telling is its devotees urging of Surno to dig deeper into the crypt. "One of the comments I’ve gotten most is that people want to see even rougher 16mm work, rawer subjects and materials," explains Surno. "People are craving work made from handmade processes, where humanity behind the craft is present.

"In England, there’s this great uproar over the closing of one place in the country that develops 16-millimeter film. Chelsea’s galleries are evaporating, and the way people look at art is changing rapidly. Cinema 16 has the benefit of not having its own space, and not having that overhead, while remaining spaciously conscious," says Surno. "This is a space to come see art and engage with an audience, and show that you can have these physical experiences in a world that’s becoming so solitary." In short, Surno didn’t get the memo about ours being a generation of artists spending more time on Tumblr than we do enjoying one another’s masterpieces. Thankfully, we’ve got an opportunity to sit in the dark and get weird.

Cinema 16
March 8
The Kitchen, 512 W. 19th St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.)
212-255-5793; 7, $10