Editorial: What is Public Cinema? (1978)

From The Thousand Eyes, Fall 1978. -– J.R.

I can remember what it used to be like, living in New York ten years ago. New Godard movies and Beatles records were being consumed the moment they arrived, with the kind of impatient enthusiasm that must have greeted the latest installments of serialized Dickens novels when they hit the New York docks a century before.

During the same decade that saw the birth of the New Wave, our first glimpses through film of part of the Third World, the flowering of the North American avant-garde, and a corresponding leap forward in film criticism, one was witnessing the growth of a new kind of audience, a new cinema, and a new kind of thinking about movies that started from the bottom up.

From the looks of things, that bottom has dropped out. What has happened to this passionate complex of forces, this pluralism of tastes and possibilities? No film by Godard has been released in the U.S. since 1971, and the last movies by directors ranging from Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson, and Jacques Rivette to Chantal Akerman, Marguerite Duras, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet remain undistributed. And we can see what’s happened to the legacy of the Beatles if we consider a typically cynical industry product like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band [the movie], where nearly all the working-class references and communal overtones of the original songs get converted into complacent superstar status symbols.

What seems to have changed so markedly since the Sixties isn’t so much an audience or a cinema as an industry whose business is supposedly to bring movies and audiences together. The industry that we have today has been split down the middle into virtually autonomous camps, each with its own narrowly specialized turf.

On the one hand, there is a group of conglomerates comprising producers, distributors, exhibitors, publicists and critics — most of whom work for equally faceless conglomerates — whose central concern is that we restrict our time and money to a relative handful of commercial blockbusters. Look at the media campaigns that have already been at work on us for some time to see films like Superman or Apocalypse Now, months or even years before they’re completed, and you start to get some inkling of how the relative open-mindedness of the Sixties has shrunk so drastically. In effect, a few overgrown bullies rule the block, and no one else need apply.

On the other hand — and largely in response to this sort of reductive ruthlessness –we have the phenomenon of cultural containment in the academic and art worlds, as well as in such institutions as the New York Film Festival. Equally limited and specialized in its own terms, this colonized notion of alternate cinema is geared to the specifications of term papers, grant proposals and cocktail parties, and sequestered in the relatively sheltered worlds of museums, concert halls and universities.

What is happening as a result of this polarization? Dozens of exciting, interesting and/or important films from the U.S. and abroad remain unseen and ignored; many gifted film artists and technicians find work f0itfully, or not at all, with no audience to support them; spectators are forced to choose between two essentially restricted spheres of filmgoing; and neighborhood theatres everywhere are closing down — not only for lack of “product,” but for lack of neighborhoods.

The Center for Public Cinema has come into being as a response to this crisis. What it proposes, quite simply, is alternate structures to meet the requirements of an alternate cinema — enabling spectators, filmmakers, distributors and exhibitors (not to mention producers, publicists and critics) to discover channels of expression and communication where few currently exist.

How can this come about? The Center’s first aim is the establishment of a nation-wide network of affiliated community theatres, each to be run by individual entrepreneurs devoted to serving and developing public interest in an alternate cinema.

While the center is emphatically a non-profit organization, structured so that no individual member will be able to dominate its operation, the separate affiliated theatres will all be self-supporting commercial entities, and the Center’s role is to help establish these entities through multiple forms of support: actively seeking out and encouraging independent entrepreneurs, helping them to locate and/or train personnel, arranging financial loans when necessary offering special film programs with accompanying materials, assisting in promotion, and so on.

The advantages of such a network are manifold. In contrast to present outlets for alternate programming, most of which are obliged to operate in isolation from one another, the Center will provide a means of centralizing and disseminating information, and consolidating (rather than conglomerating) diverse resources. Within this structure, for instance, new movies that lack distributors could be seen in affiliated theatres all over the country, and new prints of rare classics could be obtained for these theatres with the guarantee of multiple outlets, accompanied by program notes, booklets and other forms of documentation prepared by the Center.

Working in concert rather than in competition with each other, these theatres will aim at becoming cultural and social centers within their separate communities. Each could draw upon the combined resources of the Center, which is already planning a library for film research from which members can order the materials that they need.

Starting from the principle that an alternate cinema can flourish within a commercial context if it can find a social context and provide a meeting-ground for its diverse members and supporters, the Center will finance its own operations solely through its membership-the public and affiliated theatres.

Although I began this by evoking New York in the late Sixties, I don’t mean to imply that the Center for Public Cinema is interested in harking back to the practices of the last decide. On the contrary. it is just these practices that have led to the polarizations, exclusions and stalemates cited above. The Center’s principle, rather, is to take up a vital thread that first appeared in the Sixties — the emergence of a new cinema and new audience — and to develop it into a self-sustaining industryrather than rely on the practices of the commercial cinema and the university-museum axis, each of which serves to divide and alienate substantial portions of the audience while offering a limited repertory of choices. In the process of expanding this repertory the Center for Public Cinema hopes to fill a void that is occupied, in one way or another, by everyone reading this sentence — creating a community of interest and channels of communication that will make a public cinema possible.


We wish to thank Jonathan Rosenbaum for the guest editorial above. This page will be reserved for a guest editorial each issue.

Sidney Geffen, Editor-in-Chief

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