Remembering The Past, Segueing Into The Future

Today's guest post is from filmmaker Bette Gordon (whose Luminous Motion I produced, and will screen at the IFC Center in NYC on Monday night.  I plan on being there, and hope to see you there).  Everything old is new again! In the current culture of independent filmmaking, most of us are plugged in to the idea of DIY distribution. This is not a totally new idea.

In 1983, I had just made my first feature film, VARIETY. Its about a woman who sells tickets at a pornographic movie theatre and becomes obsessed with following one of the clients from the theatre into the world of men, money and lower Manhattan. We shot on a very very low budget, with friends and friends of friends. The theatre I used as a location, The Variety Theatre, was a porn theatre on 13th Street and Third Avenue, and after a week of shooting there from 11pm at night until 9am the next morning, we had developed a good relationship with the owner. The projectionist even played the part of “the projectionist” in the movie.

In the 80’s, there was a term called 4-walling, kind of like DIY, where you’d rent a theatre for a period of time, and do your own publicity and marketing to get people to come. At the time, my producer, Renee Shafransky, and I decided it made the most sense to 4-wall the porn theatre and have our opening there. Only problem was that the smell inside was pretty bad, and the seats were kind of sticky. But no worries, once we secured the deal, we went in the day before to clean up.

Splalding Gray, who played the obscene phone call voice in the film, and was Renee’s boyfriend at the time, lit incense to clear the air. I’m pretty sure that just made the mix of smells even worse, but we had to do something. The screenings ended up being a huge success, lines around the block every night for the 3 nights that we rented the theatre. We got press, lots of cash, more invitations to festivals; we even got a distributor and a video deal.

Today, VARIETY has become somewhat of a cult classic. The preservation fund of New York Women in Film and Television recently made a preservation print and the film screened in last year's Tribeca Film Festival. It’s about to screen again at the IFC the night before “Handsome Harry”, my new film.

There was a real spirit of collaboration among filmmakers, artists, musicians, and writers in the early 1980's. When I first moved to New York City, I worked with a group of filmmakers who started the first cinema in an old loft building in Tribeca, called The Collective for Living Cinema. (For me, this was an important/influential introductory experience to the nyc world of film) I met tons of people while working there, but what was so incredible was the program. We would show films fri/sat/sun evening, anything from old Hollywood B movies like “Pickup on South Street” to horror movies like Larry Cohen’s “God Told Me To,” to underground experimental work of Michael Snow, Ken Jacobs, the Kuchar brothers, and performances by people like Jack Smith.

Every night at The Collective was an event. The audiences were interactive and devoted, we did filmmaking workshops and conferences, and I remember we were the first cinema to show John Cassavetes “Shadows” when it had not shown in NYC for years. When we screened Jonathan Demme’s “Caged Heat,” there were lines around the block, and Jonathan came to do a Q & A, like most of the filmmakers whose work we presented. Later, he became one of our board members and brought lots of others to the organization. It was Do It Yourself exhibition, it was a way to curate, to educate and celebrate the films that were being made. We were definitely artist and audience-centric.

There were no gatekeepers back then, we did work together, helping each other out on our films, promoting the work in group shows, and in clubs like The Mudd Club and CBGB’s, at festivals, and anywhere we could find a projector and a room - sometimes on rooftops if that’s what it took. We were artist entrepreneurs - like today’s independent filmmakers who are in a position to become ‘creator -empowered and participatory’.

The technology has changed since the 1980’s, and now it’s all downloadable, but the spirit, dedication and desire was flying high way back then. “Wild Style,” “Stranger Than Paradise,” “Unmade Beds,” “Vortex” by the B;s, “Born in Flames.” The only way to make anything was to Do It Yourself, promote it and sell it yourself. I’m not saying this was a perfect moment, but just hope folks remember that this spirit of collaboration and audience building had some roots in the 80’s.

There were many years after that, in the 1990’s and beyond, where gatekeeper distributors/film companies/studios seemed to gain more control over this free spirit of doing it yourself filmmaking. But now, out of necessity, I think we’re back on track. Necessity is truly the mother of creation. Or is it invention?

Bette Gordon, a pioneer in the American Independent Film world, is best known for her bold explorations of themes related to sexuality. VARIETY (1984) marked her debut as a feature film director, followed by LUMINOUS MOTION produced by Ted Hope and Anthony Bregman of Good Machine. Her current film, HANDSOME HARRY will premiere at the IFC theatre and has an impressive ensemble cast including Jamey Sheridan, Steve Buscemi, Aidan Quinn, Campbell Scott, Jon Savage. Gordon is a Professor of Film at Columbia University's graduate film division in New York City.