The past of experimental cinema may be overtaking the present. Two of the longest-standing local microcinemas devoted to contemporary filmmaking—Williamsburg’s Ocularis and
the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema—no longer host weekly screenings. Anthology still garners larger (and younger) crowds than a decade ago, but the hottest experimental tickets lately have been revivals and historical surveys rather than new names. (And what does it say about an art form when its preeminent venue is an archive, anyway?) Once considered a hotbed of fresh faces, the Whitney has likewise caught the nostalgia bug, lauding figures of past generations like Robert Beavers and Morgan Fisher. Important work by a new generation continues to show at festivals, but a retrospective impulse pervades.
The attitude itself is neither new nor necessarily bad. The avant-garde has always had its aprés element, a tendency toward ancestor collecting. In the ’60s, Jonas Mekas celebrated Maya Deren’s work of the ’40s, while Andy Warhol aped Thomas Edison. And standard histories rarely venture beyond the ’70s, so intelligent programming of the recent past helps fill the gap.
The latest backward glance is “On the Collective for Living Cinema,” an ambitious tribute to a long-running downtown exhibitor of alternative film that closed its doors in the early ’90s after almost 20 years. At both Anthology and the Orchard Street Gallery, the show raises the question of how to revive not simply the older films themselves, but a whole history of experiencing them.
In the early ’70s, a group of students from Harpur College at SUNY-Binghamton, who had studied under filmmakers Ken Jacobs and Larry Gottheim, arrived in New York City eager to continue the kind of visionary cinematic environment they had enjoyed at school. But the venues were limited. According to one of the founding members,
Ken Ross, “in a way, the Collective was started in reaction to Anthology,” which he feels had by that time retreated from the openness of the previous decade, sticking to a limited coterie of artists. “It was holy ground,” Ross says, “a very closed system.”
The first few seasons of the Collective took place in uptown churches, with programming that distinguished itself through its eclecticism: not just then-canonical works of the avant-garde, but works by filmmakers just out of school, old rarities like Yiddish dramas, early African-American film, silent cartoons, and live performance. This love of cinema in all its permutations “was most related to Ken Jacobs’s vision,” Ross explains. “Anything personal in film. Anything that pushed the limits, consciously or unconsciously.” Jacobs’s own neologism, paracinema—works that expand the practice of film exhibition beyond its established technical boundaries—served as a key theoretical touchstone.
Though the group’s name smacked of brown rice and Mao shirts, the reality was far less doctrinaire. “It wasn’t communism or anything,” says Phil Weisman, another founder. “No sort of polemic or pure manifesto.” The collective organizational structure “evolved out of the ’70s aesthetic of cooperative stuff. It had a very central core, but we were accessible. We were fairly open because we were ourselves emerging filmmakers, so we liked to show emerging filmmakers.”
Goaded by grants and a desire to expand, the Collective moved to Tribeca after a few years to set up a permanent space on White Street. “At that time, no one lived down there,” says filmmaker Bette Gordon, who oversaw the Collective’s education wing. “It was empty—almost a movie set in itself. Three blocks south of Canal—that was frontier. If you told a cab driver to take you to Tribeca they’d think you were crazy.” But the Collective nevertheless cultivated a loyal audience for its three-nights-a-week programs.
A random sampling of the Collective’s black-and-white printed calendars of the ’80s reveals an experimental smorgasbord: premieres of features by Yvonne Rainer and Wayne Wang, Nan Goldin’s slide show The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a tribute to Felix the Cat creator Otto Messmer, Super-8 films commissioned to respond to U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, in-person screenings with avant-gardists like Paul Sharits and Warren Sonbert.
The physical flexibility of the space was a hallmark. “I remember seeing video,” recalls Jeff Preiss of the Orchard Gallery. Video projection hadn’t yet become the norm, so “the theater was flanked by television monitors. It was almost like seeing a movie on an airplane.” Mark McElhatten, the Collective’s program director in its final days, recalls a show by filmmaker Esther Shatavsky, who “pretty much moved her whole living room into the space” to create a special environment for her screening. But the Collective also hosted the fledgling new independent-cinema crowd—Jim Jarmusch, Susan Seidelman, Todd Haynes, and Gordon herself—at a time when no line separated the avant-garde from feature filmmaking. “The Mudd Club was one block away,” says Gordon. “The convergence of art, music, and film downtown was very important. People went from the Mudd Club to the Kitchen to the Collective to the Wooster group.”
As to why the Collective ended, accounts vary. “There were a lot of philosophical differences about what direction it should take,” says McElhatten. Rent rose sharply in the late ’80s; the Collective scrambled to find another space nearby. It suffered a rash of break-ins. The group moved to extend programming to seven nights a week, but later canceled whole seasons. “The real crisis was when a letter came saying that the NEA was defunding the Collective.” And as indie film commercialized, some apparently saw the Collective’s rough-and-ready outlook as past its prime. “There is something in a name, and the Collective for Living Cinema’s is irrevocably dated,” film critic Amy Taubin sniffed in the Voice in 1989, noting that any director with an eye on distribution might no longer choose to premiere at such a bohemian venue.
Now that the Collective’s archives have been taken on by Anthology, the institution has absorbed its former upstart in more ways than one. “I look at these calendars, and what they’re showing could be Anthology today,” says archivist Andrew Lampert, an organizer of the tribute—referring not just to some of the same names (once new, now not), but to a general philosophy of eclecticism that hasn’t always been the case at Anthology. In order to evoke that spirit, Anthology and Orchard will screen films by both well-known and obscure Collectivites (Shatavsky’s Bedtime Story, for example, a cutout animated psychodrama that well deserves to be spliced back into the consciousness). In order to extend the philosophy of “living cinema,” they’re also hosting numerous programs of new works: some by still-working Collective mainstays, others by filmmakers too young to have ever attended. Old publications and ephemera will be on display at the gallery, but the real historical data will likely come from the mouths of the filmmakers themselves, most grayer but far from retired.
Hopefully, the celebration will help unshoulder a particularly sticky chip: Many Collective alums have taken to calling themselves a “Lost Generation,” still overshadowed by the ’60s. “I feel the work of the ’80s will appear as a golden age of experimental cinema, rivaling the work of Brakhage, Frampton, Mekas,” says one, filmmaker Abigail Child. “That’s why this show is particularly important, and should only be a beginning.” She needn’t worry: With an increasing amount of avant-garde history behind us, the archival urge is only bound to grow.
“On Collective for Living Cinema” runs at Anthology Film Archives (212-505-5181) from April 6 through 8 and at the Orchard Street Gallery (212-219-1061) through April 29.