In 1994, Rebecca Barten and David Sherman, an experimental filmmaking couple, began showing avant-garde films in a grungy space underneath their Mission District apartment. They built 10 unfinished pine benches that could seat two people apiece and cut a hole in the wall to fit a projector. The adjoining room, which housed the electric meter, became “the grotto” — a makeshift wine bar.
They called it “Total Mobile Home MicroCINEMA,” inventing the term “microcinema” to describe their small-scale showings of experimental work. Their word and concept provided the basis for a global film exhibition movement in the 1990s that ran parallel to the D.I.Y. efforts in music and publishing at the time. (Think Nirvana and ’zines.)
It took adventurous curators and artist-led programming to build an audience for the offbeat, weird and often hard-to-watch efforts by Bay Area filmmakers — and that audience helped cement the Bay Area’s reputation as one of the best spots in the country for alternative film and video.
Before microcinema, there was the groundbreaking Art in Cinema series at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the 1940s, the more obscure Art Movies program from San Francisco State College (now University) through the ’50s, the Canyon Cinema’s informal screenings in the ’60s and the punk-flavored No Nothing cinema in the ’80s.
“Through all different times, filmmakers have had that impulse to show things in intimate settings,” said Kathy Geritz, curator at the Pacific Film Archive and a co-editor of “Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000.”
Frequently, too, audience members who saw that distinctly noncommercial filmmaking was possible were inspired to pick up cameras themselves. Geritz says that the pioneering filmmakers Harry Smith and Jordan Belson, for instance, credited Bay Area screenings for their start.
“People come and they decide, I can make work, too,” Geritz said.
Ten years in the making, “Radical Light” was also edited by Steve Anker, the dean of the CalArts School of Film/Video in Southern California, and Steve Seid, another Pacific Film Archive curator.
At the height of the movement, said Steve Polta, artistic director of San Francisco Cinematheque, an alternative film society founded in 1961 by the principals behind Canyon Cinema distribution, one could find an experimental screening every day of the week. Places like the Werepad, a Dogpatch warehouse run by Scott Moffett, and programs like Other Cinema, a weekly screening series organized by the found-footage wizard Craig Baldwin, frequently blurred genres, mixing film with live performance.
The original Other Cinema logo, fashioned from human hair (Credit: Courtesy of Craig Baldwin)
Sherman said his goal was to foster discussion through small screenings, but bigger crowds would occasionally show up. “Over a hundred people lined up on this dingy block,” he said, when he got some rare John Cassavetes material to screen alongside “Faces.”
Experimental film will be celebrated in upcoming screenings, including a ’90s program on Sunday featuring the work of Jenni Olson, who makes meditative landscape documentaries with voiceover, and a showing of Baldwin’s masterpiece, “Tribulations 99,” in December.
The project goes on tour in 2011, with the UCLA Film and Television Archive in Los Angeles and the Museum of Modern Art in New York among the stops.
Before they closed their microcinema in 1997, Sherman and Barten staged more than 100 shows. The name lives on in a film and video distribution company, Microcinema International, based in San Francisco, but the energy around screenings has died down.
The digital video revolution and the Internet reshaped all facets of film culture, making once-rare movies more available. It’s hard, too, to know how to label “alternative” filmmaking in the YouTube age: experimental technique, like pastiche and the use of found footage, has seeped into pop culture.
Liz Keim, founder of the Exploratorium’s Cinema Arts program, sees current work that integrates live elements as an exciting direction for alternative film.
“We’re returning to this idea of expanded cinema,” she said, citing Sam Green, the San Francisco documentary filmmaker whose recent “Utopia in Four Movements” includes live narration and music.
Even with the variety of online options, Keim said, “The call for the communal experience is highly desired.”
This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.