In this multi-part series, NEMMC sits down with Brendan Evans, curator of curios and creator/owner of one of the few independent multimedia shops left in New England, Strange Maine. An unassuming honey hole of obsolete media, found photographs, and punk rock t-shirts, Strange Maine has been a local Portland staple and out-of-towner “must-see” since April 2003.
In Part I, Strange Maine founder, Brendan Evans, sheds light on how a compulsion for collecting and binge watching horror movies on VHS led to the creation of a tiny storefront that has grown into a small mecca for those determined to feed their passions for collecting all things local, independent, and offline.
NEMMC: What was the genesis of Strange Maine? How and when did it first open?
Brendan Evans: When my friend, Shea Mowat, and I were in our early 20s we were diehard movie junkies. We watched videos until 6am almost every night–with heavy a emphasis on horror, low budget, and art films. During the day we would drive all over Maine and New Hampshire visiting mom and pop video stores–which back then could be found in every New England town. Around that time they were all upgrading to DVD and selling off their VHS tapes for $1 each, 2 for $1, even 4 for $1–and these were gems! There were so many obscure 1980s horror videos in particular. We would fill Shea’s trunk with bags and bags of horror tapes. We had shelves, milk crates, stacks of these things. In fact, once a cop pulled us over at 2am for having a tail light out and he noticed all of these suspicious looking bags in the back seat. We told him they were all full of horror videos but he really didn’t understand what we were doing.
At some point we started talking about opening our own video store–even though we really didn’t have much money. I was working as a projectionist at a third-run movie theater in Portland while Shea worked in a group home with schizophrenics and the mentally ill. Between the two of us we only had enough money to buy mountains of tapes that no one else seemed to want. Initially, we thought we would buy an old van and drive around southern Maine like a bookmobile and rent these tapes out to people: drive a circuit and come back to each town at the same time every week to recollect our tapes and rent out more, etc., all the while continuing to scour thrift stores and yard sales for new inventory.
But we never got the van.
It was an idea that we knew was absurd and, though we were sincere, it just never really took off. But the seed was planted and we had acquired all of this stuff and wanted to spread it around to people. Meanwhile, after four years I quit my projectionist job. It had become very routine. After taking a month off (and watching more movies than ever– sometimes ten a day or the same one three times in a row) I realized that I couldn’t get another job. No one wanted to hire a high school drop out with no phone, no car, and dreadlocks down to his butt–just an overall bad looking dude.
But I tried. I applied to be a parking garage attendant, a night watchman–any low impact, menial labor–but the no phone, no email thing was a major stumbling block. So, I started looking at store fronts that were for rent. Even though this was 2002, rent was still pretty pricey: it was looking like $1,200 – $1,500 per month for second story office spaces or out of the way storefronts which I would have had to take a bus to get to. It was all pretty discouraging. But then one fateful day I saw a ‘For Rent’ sign in the window of a place right in the middle of downtown Portland (and only three blocks from my apartment.)
By that time I realized that I would need to sell records, too, in order to make a shop feasible, so Shea and I decided to open a kind of media thrift store with no particular emphasis on any format. Strange Maine was born.
NEMMC: And this was back in the early 2000s?
BE: Right. We signed a lease in February 2003 and had the keys on March 1. We worked seventy hours a week for a month and had our grand opening on April Fool’s Day of that same year. In those days, most of the contents in the store I had hauled over hundreds of separate trips from my overflowing studio apartment–from my place to the shop and back again. Over and over. Pile by stack by crate by sackful. This was all during the US invasion of Iraq and my route went straight through an occupation of anti-war protesters who were camping out in Monument Square. Most days I’d take a minute and add my voice to the chorus of the disaffected–it was an exciting and emotional time for me. I felt like I was joining society for the first time in my life.
NEMMC: So, was the majority of what was sold at Strange Maine originally from your personal collection?
BE: Early on we put a sign on the door stating that we were buying records, tapes, videos, DVDs, books, etc., and that folks should just drop in while we put the shop together. A lot of the early content in the shop came from those drop-ins, most of whom were willing to trade for store credit. Tons of punk rock kids would drop by with their hardcore 7-inch records and zines, which were previously collecting dust in their closets because no one would buy.
When we finally opened for business on that Tuesday, April 1 in 2003 there was a line of people waiting to get in–many of whom had credit slips and wanted to scoop up the stuff I had been putting in the window display in order to generate interest in the shop. Most of those things were from the cream of my own collection. I had emptied my apartment in order to jumpstart the shop and many of those records, books, and videos I sold I still miss today. But, of course, it was worth it to have some cool stuff in the shop.
I was 23 years old and only wanted to make enough money to pay my rent and eat three or four 7-11 hot dogs a night.
NEMMC: It seems like, even today, that Strange Maine leans a little more heavily on cult and horror films and music. Was this always the case?
BE: I did notice that some people were really excited about particular records and movies; passionate about books; thrilled to find 80s punk demos on cassette for $1, while other folks had the look of sharks or vultures when they’d find something they could flip for a profit on the Internet. But I think the punks who came to the store really dug the socialist approach I had toward that stuff and they really championed the store. I was there five or six days a week, noon until midnight, sometimes later. It was a great time.
My vision for the space and its contents continued to grow and I became very possessive of the shop–it became my world and Shea, who still had a day job, felt excluded and left about six months after it opened. Occasionally I would close for a day or pay a friend to man the shop so I could have a day off, there were a couple of occasions where I handed over the keys to a regular who’s name I didn’t even know with the hope that they wouldn’t do anything too heinous. I didn’t have a computer still, or a cash register, and I didn’t accept credit cards…but I was proud of the fact that if the power went out the only real affect it would have on the store was that it would be marginally dimmer (though it was already the darkest record store I had ever been in, having just three or four 60 watt track lights for illumination).
Back in those days it was a very simple, funky, rinky-dink place. Some folks still view the shop this way–but now it’s very tidy, organized, efficient, and much more of a capitalist venture now than it was back then.
In Part II, NEMMC and Evans discuss the darker (at times morbid) side of Strange Maine. Coming soon…
Back in 2010, Chris Nichols, originally from Massachusetts but now residing with his wife in New Hampshire, was searching for a new way to satiate his appetite for creative output after his days performing in local Boston area bands had come to an end. As an enthusiast for not just music but also film, specifically cult, horror, and genre films, Nichols launched The Trash Pile–a blog dedicated to finding, reviewing, and in some cases re-releasing obscure and forgotten films. But Chris isn’t all that keen or interested in releasing hard-to-find weirdo gems on digital platforms like YouTube (though he isn’t against other people doing it). Instead, Chris’ allegiances lie with a format that holds much sentimental value to hoards of likeminded collectors (including the founder of this blog): the VHS tape.
NEMMC spoke with Nichols earlier this autumn and asked him to rewind for us the story of The Trash Pile–the idea idea turned web show turned blog/podcast–and to share with us what motivates him to act as one of many faithful believers in the VHS format.
NEMMC: While getting to know you over this past year it’s evident that the VHS format holds a great deal of meaning for you. Can you talk about how being an advocate and podcast figure within the niche community of VHS collectors has impacted you?
Chris Nichols: For years the VHS format was something my father and I shared and spent time enjoying together (although going to the theater was just as important to us). I started collecting VHS around 1991 and for years in my neighborhood the kids and families would ask if they could “rent” the movies I owned. Back in the early days of Excel, I would print out spreadsheets with details about what was my VHS inventory. I suppose that’s what led to me searching out more and more movies that I hadn’t seen before–this is also where the podcast came into play a couple of years ago. The podcast (and our old web show) were all about starting a dialogue around movies that had somehow skated under the radar of fandom or had never received a proper release here in the states.
NEMMC: This web show sounds intriguing. What was that all about?
CN: The show was done online and it followed the format of the podcast with the addition of covering new releases on DVD and Blu-ray (as well as comic books). We didn’t really have any guests to speak of–just likeminded friends. Mark Anastasio from Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre called in once to hype their annual Halloween Horror Marathon.
NEMMC: The Trash Pile has had some stops and starts over the years. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in keeping it going?
CN: The biggest challenge I’ve faced in the last six years of doing The Trash Pile is maintaining my own drive–having the will to do it. I’ve experienced instances of bad luck, I guess, in my personal life that has left me feeling depleted creatively. The co-host of the podcast, Jason, moved from Massachusetts to Georgia late last year, so having the ability to sync up and to record has been tricky. Really, it’s all bullshit excuses because I should just write to write, or podcast to podcast–for the enjoyment of it.
NEMMC: Can you talk about some of The Trash Pile’s limited edition VHS releases? Have you encountered any rights hurdles with talent or production/distribution houses? If so, how have you navigated those hurdles?
CN: Most of what I do is on the grey market [unofficial buying/selling/trading areas that exist outside the perimeters of authorized manufacturing channels] and my re-edits and re-releases are always of films that are not available for purchase in the States. If something has been released here [the United States] and is currently in print, I don’t touch it. In terms of the titles I’ve done small batches of, it really just comes down to if it’s a title I, personally, enjoy. The whole idea of the grey market was something that fueled my love of international and genre films. When I was in high school my friend, Jason, and I would attend comic conventions in Boston every few months in order to search for and pick up new movies. Without those conventions we wouldn’t have been able to see a lot of these films that never made it to the States by that point (e.g., VERSUS, BATTLE ROYALE, etc.) or special edits of films that were very hard to come by (e.g., the x-rated version of ROBOCOP). Of course the distribution arena has changed dramatically over the years and a lot of these once hard-to-find titles are now popping up on sites, like YouTube, for free.
NEMMC: Has the increased availability of rare and offbeat titles on places like YouTube and via other grey market retailers that are flooding the bootleg scene making your work harder and/or is it changing the focus and scope of The Trash Pile?
CN: For me, it’s all about increasing the exposure of these films. So, if there’s a rival way for people to view it (YouTube, other grey market outlets, etc.) that’s all the better. The Trash Pile was never a money or business orientated venture, but instead a way to share fun movies with people interested in seeing them.
NEMMC: I’m fascinated by your work involved with the release of THE MURDER OF SGT. MACKLIN (1993). Can you talk about the experience of both discovering and, ultimately, releasing it on VHS?
CN: Like a lot of video collectors, I try and visit weird thrift stores and yard sales, year round. You’re never guaranteed a hit every time, but it’s all about the thrill of the hunt. As far as finding THE MURDER OF SGT. MACKLIN, I was visiting a church book sale in southern New Hampshire when I saw the film while poking through any banana boxes stuffed with analog. I had never heard of it before, though that wasn’t a new thing as there’s always going to be something you’ve never seen before–but MACKLIN was different.
I’m a sucker for ghost stories, so, the film seemed like one that was worth the .75 cents. After taking the film home I looked for whatever information was available about it online, but couldn’t find a damned thing. I then looked up information on the director, Bob DuBois, and learned he was still around and living in the same Colorado town where he shot the film. I sent him an email and began a back and forth with him about how much I enjoyed his subtle little ghost story. I’ve always believed that no film should be lost and forgotten, so I asked Bob if I could do a small batch release of the film, and he agreed.
NEMMC: What do you think the value is in chasing down and re-releasing films considered by some to be lowbrow or trashy? What excites you about this flavor of cinema?
CN: It all comes down to one thing for me: entertainment. As I said before, I don’t think any media should be lost or forgotten, so a lot of what I’m doing (reviewing, watching, re-releasing) is an effort to not let a movie be forgotten. Believe me, there are a plethora of titles that I wish I hadn’t wasted my time on, but I know that there is an audience for each and every one of those films regardless of whether or not I like them all.
NEMMC: Jumping off my last question, what is the value for you of collecting and distributing films on the VHS format?
CN: There will always be a new movie waiting if you continue to dig into past releases that may have missed the digital boat. There are a lot of solid digital distributors putting out titles for the first time on DVD and Blu-ray. However, there are still thousands of films that haven’t seen the light of a commerce shelf in decades and unless there is a push from fans a lot of these movies could cease to be. That’s really what collecting/distributing is all about to me; making sure that the right entertainment finds the right person. Life’s too short not to be entertained.
NEMMC: Do you think the VHS format will ever experience a resurgence the way vinyl has been experiencing over the last decade?
CN: That’s a tough question as a big part of the modern renaissance in vinyl can be attributed to, in my opinion, the fact that production of turntables never really stopped altogether. Manufacturers like Denon, Pioneer, Yamaha and Sony never ceased production on their turntables. It wasn’t long after VHS stopped being produced that the production of VCRs slowed. For a few years the DVD/VCR combo sold moderately well, but finding that option in stores is not an easy task nowadays. A VHS resurgence would require a company to start manufacturing new players, similar to what Crosley is doing with turntables. If we get to that point I believe you’ll see VHS again.
NEMMC: What does the future hold for The Trash Pile? What are some of your goals going forward?
CN: Honestly, I’m not sure. 2016 has been a ridiculous year for me due to a number of life-changing events, so, doing anything creative like podcasting and generating more VHS output seems like a real challenge for me emotionally. I have been focusing on doing some manufacturing of VHS for directors and distributors who want their titles on an analog format. For example, I just did a batch of VHS for an awesome indie film currently hitting the festival circuit called, MUTE, by A Color Green–a production company out of New York. And I’ve also had directors ask me to give their films a VHS release, like Jason Stephenson, who ask me to release his film STRIP CLUB SLASHER earlier this year. His film is now part of The Trash Pile catalog. That was a really fun project because I had the chance to reuse ‘Strawberry Shortcake’ pink clamshell cases for the release.
Chris Nichols and The Trash Pile project are a fun and creative insight into one of the many different ways in which collectors and VHS enthusiasts are keeping the format alive while simultaneously introducing or re-introducing the public to a variety of largely forgotten films of yesterday. Those of us who share their passion hope that Nichols can keep the creative juices flowing and continue to expose us to more analog craziness in 2017 and beyond!
“The equipment is a connection to the past. A projectionist from the 1920s could come in here and run this. Nothing has changed.” – Rick Shamel on the film projection booth,THE DYING OF THE LIGHT
As someone who grew up in film projection booths, Taylor Umphenour knew he wasn’t going to merely be a passive observer to what has been the slow, yet steady, conversion to digital projection. So in 2011 the Providence-based projectionist launched The Cue Dot, a multifaceted effort to capture the look, feel, sound, smell, and history of the film projection booth and all that dwells within them.The Cue Dot is a portal to another time when physical film ruled and the idea of living in a wireless world was still a thing of science fiction. NEMMC recently caught up with Umphenour to learn more about The Cue Dot project and to better understand how he’s taken his love of film and film projection to new, artistic heights.
NEMMC: Can you talk about the various phases you’ve established for The Cue Dot project and what influenced you to start all of this in the first place?
Taylor Umphenour: The Cue Dot started back in 2011. I’d been working professionally as a projectionist since I was seventeen: all through college, and after. I kind of grew up in the booth. I always had my own projects and side businesses going on, but working as a film projectionist was the one stable constant in my life over about nine years full of change and growth. I started seeing news stories about projection booths closing as they fell, one by one, to an industry-wide conversion from film to digital projection. I had a moment of recognition: the world of the booth, as with all things, wasn’t going to be around forever. So I put my other projects on hold and set myself to capture the energy and life of that special world before it changed forever.
Capturing the booth took four months of principal photography: with both film and video shooting, and sound recording. This was followed by many months of photo editing. The project is being released in phases mostly because it’s a personal project that cuts across multiple mediums.
The first phase was driven by gathering a group of likeminded people on social media: an audience for the project. I knew there must be other people out there like me who’d enjoy taking a trip into the world of the film projection booth, and I found them one-by-one on social media.
The next phase focused on creating physical pieces of art that tied into the main project. I wanted a way for people to bring the feeling of this magical cinematic world into their own lives. I released the first edition of photography from The Cue Dot and sold archival prints from the site to people all over the world. I can’t tell you how many people have written in expressing their gratitude for my making this project. It’s been inspiring to hear from so many along the way—and it’s what has kept the project going.
Beyond this, I wanted to take the physical film—the lifeblood of the projection booth—and find a way to repurpose it for a new generation. This became an entire apparel collection calledFilm Leader.
The next big phase of The Cue Dot will be to build a solid community from the audience of social media followers. This work will begin with the opening ofFilmProjectionBooth.comas a new expanded home for the project. My focus there is on creating a place for anyone who loves the world of the booth to come and experience it whenever they so desire. While social media is full of lively conversation and interaction, it’s very easy for work to be easily buried in an avalanche of distraction. My hope with this third phase is to create a web-based experience that allows people to get as close as possible to the experience of what it was like to be a projectionist in the old carbon arc film projection booth.
If FilmProjectionBooth.com is a success, it may pave the way for some surprise phases I’ve already laid the groundwork for—but those will have to remain surprises for the moment since each phase depends on the completion of the prior one in order to move forward…
NEMMC: Are there other ways of capturing the essence of the projection booth that The Cue Dot is not yet doing?
TU: Absolutely. There’s technology that’s around now that wasn’t around when I shot The Cue Dot. I still think someone could do an amazing VR project taking people back into the booth. And there are potentially thousands of untold stories. When I first started the project back in 2011-2012, this was a story that hardly anyone was telling. But after the widespread conversion of theaters from film to digital projection, the story has become part of the zeitgeist—with quite a few other projects and pieces out there that have been made about this particular transition point in cinema history. It’s great to see so many people trying to tell this story in different ways—whether in short videos, feature films, articles, and so on. One of my early insights when I started making this project was how sad it was for something so beautiful to slip quietly into the past when so few people had a chance to appreciate it and experience it. It was as if the film projection booth was a special exclusive world that very few people were even aware of—and then one day, it was gone.
NEMMC: What kinds of challenges have you faced and anticipate facing as the project evolves?
TU: Funding is always the biggest challenge for personal projects that cut across multiple mediums. But the core challenges of this project are the same as with any project: keeping it compelling, telling a good story, being specific and clear, and creating an emotional connection with the audience. I tend to find that most projects have the defects of their virtues: that is, the very things that make them challenging are also the things that make them compelling to begin with. With The Cue Dot, I’ve chosen to focus on a place, a feeling, an era, and a process. It’s a challenge because there isn’t a main character to piggyback on. I’ve chosen to try to create something that stands at the crossroads of many different mediums, symbols, and historical shifts: mechanical vs. digital, human vs. machine, film vs. video, past vs. future. And yet to do this without focusing on a singular main character who can take us all through it has been quite a challenge.
NEMMC: We’re living in an era of remakes, reissues, and pop culture resurgences. Do you feel film projection will ever see a mass rebound the way vinyl records and other formats and mediums have?
TU: I’m a romantic about the subject matter of The Cue Dot, but a pragmatist when it comes to the economic reality facing many theaters, especially single screen operations. I don’t think film projection will ever see a mass rebound, but the key word there is “mass.” The economic model of theatrical exhibition has remained essentially unchanged for decades, and it’s now being forced to evolve, confronting real challenges with deeply rooted issues that go way beyond film vs. digital projection.
That said, no technology ever invented by humans has ever gone away entirely. People are still making all sorts of things by hand that can be made with machines. And there are still a core group of theaters out there running films, some of them with reel-to-reel projectors. More important than a mass rebound, I think it’s important to keep the culture of it alive through storytelling, which I believe to be the foundation of community building. I do think there’s space in the market for a loosely affiliated network of film-based theaters, and that the novelty of such a thing will only grow, further adding to its appeal. My hope is that these theaters find a way to band together, pool resources, and create a strong film culture around what they’re doing. It’d be very gratifying if The Cue Dot can help inspire people who want to be part of keeping that culture alive.
NEMMC: Is the act of repurposing (or recycling) and possessing a willingness to adapt critical to keeping something–like the physical medium of film–alive? Have these approaches been part of your work with The Cue Dot?
TU: Repurposing and adapting is critical to keeping the medium alive, both in the big macro paradigm and at a smaller scale. The film medium and arguments about whether or not it’s “dead” are largely an issue of point of view, where in the chain you spend most of your time and focus, and how close you are to it. I’ve personally grown tired of these debates because they miss the point: from an aesthetic standpoint, film and digital are capable of being symbiotic… as symbiotic as painting and photography or television and radio. It’s also important not to confuse the medium for the economic model that has been built around the medium. This frequently gets lost in the debate about the way in which film technology needs to adapt for the future.
The Film Leader T-Shirt
Film Leader Phone Case
When it comes to The Cue Dot, I chose to shoot a lot of what I created for the project digitally. Ironically, it was done this way for the same reason the theater I was photographing was converting from film to digital: economics and flexibility. I knew that for the amount of material I wanted to shoot, I’d have to stop and spend six months raising money to buy the film stock I wanted. Only, we didn’t have six months to wait. A date had already been set for the theater’s conversion. If I’d waited until we had the funds to shoot on film, there would have been nothing left to photograph.
I’m interested to see how the economic model around theatrical film exhibition can be adapted, now that we’re almost 20 years into the 21st century.
35mm Canvas Tote / Film Leader
B&W 35mm Leader Stripes Summer Dress / Film Leader
NEMMC: Of course filmmaking has long been considered an art form, but the way you write about film projection may lead some to think you view the film projection process as another type of art form…
TU: Without getting deep in the weeds of semantics or touching off a huge comment thread about what constitutes an art form, I’d say: yes—I absolutely believe there’s the potential for film projection to become an art form. Whenever a technology or practice reaches the end of it’s “useful life” for its original purpose, you reach fertile territory for a new art form to emerge. When painting no longer had to shoulder the weight of capturing a likeness in vivid detail, it was able to evolve and grow in ways that created a new aesthetic vocabulary. When LPs were no longer the medium for listening to everyday music, DJs repurposed them and a new art form was born. Film projection—especially dual carbon arc reel-to-reel film projection—has that potential. As for the expressive potential of the medium outside the context of a cinematic theatrical presentation, who knows what the boundaries are. I’ve often thought it’d be fascinating to have a stage show where a team of a dozen projectionists used a dozen on-stage projectors to mix between different reels and create a kind of hybrid cinematic/dance piece.
As it originally existed, and as I captured it in The Cue Dot, I believe there was an art to being a good projectionist. A skill, but also a sensitivity. You were part of the performance. You were the last person whose hands were entrusted with those ribbons of celluloid. As time went on, the responsibility of that performance was gradually shifted from the human to the machine… until in the end, it was the machine’s responsibility entirely. At some point along the line, the sensitivity required of projectionist was shifted and the art was lost. At some point, it had more to do with the machine’s performance than with the projectionist’s. I’m not sure if that was when platters were added, or perhaps earlier with the end of carbon-arc… but at that point, a bit of the “art” of film projection died.
NEMMC: Has your geographical location of Providence, RI, played a role in the creation and evolution of The Cue Dot? If so, how?
TU: Providence is a great place to live for all sorts of reasons, but it’s most lasting contribution to The Cue Dot is that Providence is the home of the Avon Cinema. The theater opened in 1938 and has been run by the same family for three generations. Almost eighty years of continuous operation meant the projection booth at the Avon was unique. My friendship with the owners and their willingness to let me turn this project into such an elaborate endeavor played a determining role in The Cue Dot being as thorough and substantial as it was. I should also say that great credit is also to be given to the other projectionists, who happily allowed me to photograph and film them for months on end while they worked. The booth is a solitary place and that kind of invasion—with the lights and gear, and everything else—can be overwhelming. Those guys were troupers and their patience with the whole process is part of what makes this little time capsule so special.
NEMMC: On your website it states, “The Cue Dot is far from over.” What does the future hold for The Cue Dot?
TU: The future is all about expanding the audience for this story and telling it in increasingly complex ways without losing the soul of what makes it so special. FilmProjectionBooth.com will be undergoing an expansion as the next phase of this project starts to click in to gear. I continue to receive messages from people with deep roots in this world, and that only reminds me that there are lots of people out there still waiting to hear this story and experience the world of the film projection booth and everything I was able to capture there.
Interested in more stories about film and film projection? NEMMC has you covered! Check out these links below:
Plot: A trio of children, traumatized by the death of their mother, and their father get a very special robot grandmother to assist them.
It’s a joke in my family that I have no memories before my teenage years. “Don’t ask Eric, he won’t remember,” my sister often quips. To justify this, I tell myself that new learning has had to shove old memories further down the memory-hole. But why do some memories stick and others don’t? This question has become somewhat of a preoccupation of mine as I approach my third decade. Trauma can’t explain all the memories I do recall, because some are pleasant: there is the giant water fight on Bayberry Lane where we all got soaked, even mom. Then further along when us Tucker Street boys lit an enormous dead pine tree on fire in the town forest. Like that pine tree, these moments, though few and far between, illuminate small pockets of space through my formative years.
It was during this same time that movies began to mean something to me. I didn’t just let them fade, I would watch and rewatch them. I wanted to know how they were made. “How can they do that?” I apparently asked upon seeing the chimney sweep scene in Mary Poppins. I use the word ‘apparently’ because this is a memory passed along by my family.
One film firmly planted in my mind was the 1982 television movie The Electric Grandmother, which for some reason, my parents let me watch. This film stayed with me. And create memories it did. Although scene details were hazy, I could remember the unsettling feeling it gave me and the questions it posed. Does Grandma have to plug herself in in the basement too? Did she come from a factory?
And everyone’s personal favorite: My wanting clarification that my grandma couldn’t actually shoot orange juice out of her fingertips for breakfast. Something about the subject matter affected my small mind. I would reference the film as I grew up, and now, strangely enough, I have to remind my parents what the film was even about.
The difference in these memories was not in images but rather in mood. In terms of TEG, I remember being unsettled by the grandma being delivered by helicopter (it was later I would learn she was delivered in a sarcophagus, an object I didn’t know yet). I remember Maureen Stapleton’s calm, almost robotic tone throughout the film. And being stupefied when she descended to the basement and performed her before-bed (or shutdown?) mechanical exercise, before plugging herself into the wall and rocking alarmingly in her rocking chair. Something about this image scared me good; I was never totally comfortable in my grandmother’s basement ever again.
It was later that I learned that this film was based on a Ray Bradbury story, in a discussion with John Campopiano, who had tracked the film down after I referenced it in a discussion about obscure movies from our past. In a stroke of chance, another of John’s friends, Adam, also referenced TEG stating that he had an extended version on 16mm. This serendipitous reference spawned a night of revisiting The Electric Grandmother projected on 16mm film.
For Adam and I, the film is still unsettling even upon second viewing as adults. The collective cringing of our fellow audience members validated our unease from scene to scene. This time it was the sound effects that proved most peculiar for me; the positively frightening opening noises of the sarcophagus and awakening/activating of the grandmother, and the sound of liquid coming out of her fingers. When I think more about it, even the word choices one uses in regards to describing TEG are significant, too. Was she awakened or activated? Was she turned off or did she go to sleep? Did she actually love the children or was she merely programmed? Such questions may form the ethical subtext of the Bradbury story. Perhaps my small mind wasn’t ready to ponder these questions yet, and why it has held onto them so many years later.
Summer Regattas, Peter’s Cove, Blue Hill, Maine, 1934. Alida Donnell Milliken Camp filmed a 1934 sailing regatta and many other summertime activities, spending every summer of her life on the coast of Maine. To read more about this video, the collection it comes from, and to explore more of the holdings at Northeast Historic Film please visit oldfilm.org [Mrs. Frederic E. Camp Collection, Northeast Historic Film, Acc. 0672]
There may be no greater magic in cinema than achieving the intangible out of the tangible. Yet, we’ve all seen movies filled with blood and fog that aren’t scary, or yawned through a car chase or fight scene because it didn’t quicken our pulses. Mood, atmosphere, or whatever you want to call it is a slippery quality that requires a lot of cinematic elements to fall into the right place in the right sequence. When visuals, sound, pace, and dialogue are working together in unison, as they are in John Hancock’s 1971 film, LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, the resulting atmosphere immerses the audience in the experience of its characters and the world they inhabit.
The story of LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH focuses on a married couple who have moved out of New York City and relocated to a rural town in nearby Connecticut. The titular Jessica, played by Zohra Lampert, is recovering after a stint in a mental health care facility. Her husband, Duncan (Barton Heyman), is a former symphony cellist; and their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor) has tagged along to help them work in the orchard adjacent to their Victorian-style farmhouse.
The townspeople they encounter largely consist of standoffish older men, but the trio find a similarly aged woman named Emily (Mariclare Costello) squatting at their house when they first arrive. She provides a friendly warmth that slowly morphs into something potentially more sinister and supernatural as the film progresses — though Jessica’s unreliable perspective casts ambiguity over much of what the audience observes.
The most basic and immediate visual aspect that informs the atmosphere of a film is the physical setting, expressed through its locations. For LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, the filmmakers chose a cluster of towns in southeastern Connecticut, partly out of the quality of the locations but also due to film’s producer Bill Badalato’s familiarity with them. After befriending Charles Moss, Jr., during their time at a commercial company one summer, the pair discussed collaborating on a feature film. When Moss, Jr., and his father pooled together some financing later on, the wishful chatter began to take on a real shape. With a finished script and Hancock in the director’s chair, the team started discussing locations.
“My wife and I had a weekend house in Chester, Connecticut,” Badalato recalled via email. “We loved the area and shared our feelings with John [Hancock] and the Mosses. After a preliminary scout we all agree that this was where JESSICA should be filmed.”
The Chester locations added solid production value to a modestly budgeted film. The filmmakers utilized a storefront near the intersection of Main Street and Maple Street for the “in town” visits. Featuring a front porch with an overhang and a plain, white paint job, the unremarkable store recalls the humble notion of “Anytown, USA.” The store’s unassuming appearance juxtaposes well with its elderly clientele, whose increasingly hostile behavior towards Jessica and company remains a mystery until the final act.
Just a short drive away is the Pattaconk Reservoir, surrounded by the lush green trees of the Cockaponset State Forest. It was used to great effect for various water scenes, some playful and one that’s truly menacing (and features one of the more memorable shots of the film — a ghastly Emily wading out of the water and onto the beach). Other locations we see in the film were purely serendipitous. According to both Hancock and Badalato, the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry crossing was an unexpected but beneficial discovery that they were able to use as something of a narrative bookend.
Essex, a 15-minute drive from Chester, provided the farmhouse’s interiors via the Dickinson Estate (a 19th century mansion once owned by witch hazel mogul E.E. Dickinson). In discussing the importance of location scouting, Hancock noted that “noise, too, is a tremendous factor… the absence thereof.” The house was a perfectly quiet set for more dialogue-heavy scenes, and its interiors were visually compatible with a farmhouse exterior that was, in reality, located three miles away in Old Saybrook.
Large, old Victorian houses have been woven into the American horror lexicon as inherently spooky in everything from “The Addams Family” and 1986’s House to Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. “That scary house exterior was a real find,”Hancock said. “I’d hate to see the movie without it.”
The Victorian-style “old Bishop House,” with its distinctive tower, is one of the more consistently striking visuals in the film, mostly framed in long shots against an overcast sky at dusk or bathed in a dreary fog. Originally built in the 19th century, it still stands to the present day. “Given the period houses, beautiful foliage, and picturesque country lanes, the Old Saybrook area is ideal for filmmaking, especially the horror genre,” Badalato added.
Like a number of places in New England, the Connecticut towns chosen by the filmmakers offered the ideal blend of rustic features and grand, historical homes that resonate both visually and thematically for many fans of horror film.JESSICAperformed well commercially during its original theatrical run but has gained even broader appreciation among fans who viewed it on cable or home video releases over the years. At least part of what may have fueled its renewed popularity as a hidden gem is genuine and sustained fan interest in its locations. From message boardthreads to blog posts and guided YouTube visits, fans have connected online to puzzle together where various Jessica scenes were shot (and from what angles) and how the locations have changed since they appeared in the film. From where does this interest originate? And how does it affect how viewers connect to films they love?
While the filmmakers always move on, the locations they leave behind remain. In a recent interview about his decades-long fascination with visiting film locations, Horror’s Hallowed Ground creator Sean Clark likened the feeling of going to a location to that of reconnecting with other parts of one’s past. “To me the feeling of visiting a famous filming location is much like revisiting your childhood home or school,” Clark said. There’s a familiarity in visiting filming locations–as if you’ve been there before. And if it’s a location from a film you’ve cherished for years, it may even feel like a place in which you grew up. The mixture of these spaces feeling foreign and familiar simultaneously is both fun and strange.
It also seems that film location hunting–particularly among those in the horror community of film viewers and filmmakers–has been largely rooted in two things: access to fellow fans on social media networking platforms like Instagram and Facebook and a desire to physically connect with films by way of meeting talent at conventions and, of course, visiting the geographical places where films were shot. Much like memorabilia collectors who bring pieces of films home with them (e.g., screen-used props, memorabilia, and fan art) in an attempt to get closer to the films they love, location hunters appear to be trying to establish a deeper, tangible connection to certain films by stepping directly into the places where they were shot.
Today there are so many ways to connect with people who share similar interests. For location enthusiasts, Instagram has become a vehicle for the quick and easy sharing of film location photographs while other online social networking services like Facebook allow for more in-depth discussion about these places and how to reach them. If you’re someone who isn’t able to actually travel to the film locations of your dreams, odds are there are others who can, and not only that; they’re likely to post their findings on social media. This was the genesis behind Clark’s desire to start HHG in the first place. In that same interview Clark revealed that the reason he started HHG “…was to be able to share these locations with those that are unable to go see them for themselves and to help others to go see them if they are able.” For some fans and location hunters, it’s not enough to merely see a photograph or watch a video of someone else in a location. Part of the thrill seems to also be in stepping into the physical locations themselves.
There’s a kind of out-of-body experience the moment you step onto what was an active film set–a real, tangible space–that you’ve explored and gotten to know from afar. Stepping into a film location can almost feel like stepping onto a live set. You can hear the faint echoes of actors reading lines and can fantasize hearing the sound of a director yelling, “Cut!” and feeling the buzz of crew members bustling about. It’s as if there lies a dormant energy that is suddenly awoken when a fan comes into contact with it.
For some people–like New England-based filmmaker Stacy Buchanan–film locations in the New England area, in particular, possess a haunting quality due to its dark and storied history. “I can’t remember the last time I walked into an old New England building and didn’t immediately feel a sense of historical foreboding,” Buchanan said. “New England locations make good settings for horror films because they’re loaded with history, often a dark history. This is the place where the country began…” A place with a complex history dating back several centuries is bound to carry with it plenty of filmmaking fodder–in terms of not only atmosphere and style but also in stories and infamous legacies. “And with that legacy,” continued Buchanan, “come the legends and myths and tales that evolve over time and influence the stories we now tell on film.”
There’s a third element to film location hunting which may not apply to all location hunters but that most certainly does to some: mourning the passage of time. Each time I visit a film location, a melancholy feeling overwhelms me. Some hunters, however, actually enjoy seeing the evolution of landscape. “I actually like seeing that a little bit of change has taken place over time,” James Gelet, a prolific film location hunter and freelance editor, told us. “Not to the point where it’s unrecognizable,” he continued, “but seeing a little bit of evolution is pretty cool.” Gelet was profiled in a Boston.com article where he discussed at length the genesis of his film location fascination. Regardless of which way you lean, one thing is for sure, and that is locations nearly unrecognizable today are a reminder that the passage of time is inescapable. Thankfully, though, these places–regardless of changes–are immortalized in the films we’ve watched and continue to watch as the years march.
If fans can evoke the feeling they had when first watching a film by visiting its filming locations, this begs the question: Do the filmmakers themselves ever revisit these same places? In reference to the old Bishop House, Hancock remarked that he “drove around the area several years ago without finding it. I wish I could see it again.” It was interesting to hear that even a director can feel an urge to revisit the places in which he or she made films — places in which they are at their most creative and challenged.
On the contrary, due to his personal connection to the area that preceded the filming of JESSICA, Badalato has resisted any revisits. “The Old Saybrook area is a place of many heartwarming memories both personal and professional, and somehow I feel I need to keep everything as it is in my mind of one of the best times of my life,” he said.
A spooky scented candle. A black-and-white photograph of a man emerging, phantom-like, from a cloud of steam. A hand-drawn word search. An enormous chromolithograph of the puppet-like false head of a pre-Incan mummy. A screen-printed, articulated paper robot with chicken legs.
This unlikely assemblage, holding court with dozens of other colorful items in glass-sheathed museum cases at the Providence Public Library in Providence, RI, tells a larger story about the library’s approach to visual research, collaboration, research-based art, and the role of historic collections in a digital world. Juxtaposing old and new, source material and derivative product, our current exhibit is the culmination of more than six months of creative collaboration between the library and local artists, makers, and library users.
How Did This Happen?
How did the Library get our (collective, bibliophilic) hands on so much research-based and collections-based art?
Some of the items–such as futuristic fashions on miniature dress forms–were created during library programming, as part of our annual exhibition and program series; others–such as an illustrated series of rainbow portals bursting forth from household objects–came from independent artists who frequent our Special Collections; and the majority–such as a comic strip featuring 19th century German geologists Wilhelm Reiss and Alphons Stübel–stemmed from our annual Creative Fellowship.
The Creative Fellowship offers funding and support for a local artist to perform research in our Special Collections and to create new, derivative work. Our 2016 Creative Fellow, Walker Mettling, a Providence-based storyteller, illustrator, and one of the forces behind the Providence Comics Consortium, went above and beyond in creating and instigating a veritable avalanche of artwork. Walker spent months combing through Special Collections, occasionally honing in on certain gems (scrimshaw featuring a stylish lady, etching of a bear getting stabbed in the mouth, distressing-by-modern-standards book of nursery rhymes). Some of these discoveries led to new illustrations from Walker’s hand, while others became “research assignments” that he created for local artists, asking them to visit Special Collections, view a designated item or items, and then to use that research as the basis for a new comic or illustration.
Walker consolidated the products of these assignments into a tremendously large-format, color (risograph!), Special Collections-themed comics newspaper called The Providence Sunday Wipeout, which was released during a storytelling event at the library. After the release, he collected drafts, notes, color separations, and other documentation of his and his artists’ processes.
In each of our cases during this exhibition, we juxtapose historic and contemporary objects in the hopes of capturing both the research and artistic processes, both inspiration and derivation. While research-based art can breathe new life into research materials, our hope is that by illuminating both process and product across time, we’re also tapping into the human-ness of the creators and the ways in which we relate to and interact with archival objects.
Why Research-based Art?
The city of Providence is creatively fertile, and the library, in its central location, exists in close proximity to AS220, Trinity Repertory Company, the Rhode Island School of Design, and other creative communities. By tapping into local performance, printmaking, comics, storytelling, and writing, we hope to offer a service (i.e. inspiration, research support) to our local community, to bring new users into the Library (and especially Special Collections), and simultaneously to document contemporary creative work as it unfolds, which is essential in accurately reflecting the city’s history. We think a lot about our role as the Special Collections in a public library, which needs to be responsive to and accessible to the variety of people our library serves, while also documenting elements of local history that may not be captured elsewhere.
Through open creative research hours, research appointments, and ongoing relationship-building with artists, we try to cultivate a research experience that is participatory and immersive, where an artist can surround him- or herself with remnants of past visual worlds and the seeds of new ones. We feel (and we’re certainly not alone in this) that there’s something special about physical materials, that which can be touched, felt, and smelled. Through repeated visits to the library, researchers form intimate relationships with research objects, which work their ways into ideas, sketchbooks, studios and homes.
Lots of places are doing amazing work along similar lines, and we’re paying close attention! We’ve been inspired by places that integrate creativity seamlessly into their library missions, like the Hatchery at the Glasgow School of Art (what a great name!); by community-driven archival projects like the Interference Archive; and by community-based art projects like Fun-a-Day and PARK(ing) Day.
You can see the exhibition at the library during our regular open hours, from now through August 15th. Artwork is on display in the Rhode Island Room on the 1st floor of the library, and in hallway cases on the 3rd floor of the library.
You can buy (super limited!) copies of the Special Collections-themed Providence Sunday Wipeout comics newspaper through the library or at Ada Books. Beautiful candles printed with historical images can be purchased through the Burke & Hare Co. website.
Filmmakers of all walks of art in Boston are coalescing around a single desire: to launch a broader conversation about our wants and needs as artists. Recently, at the 2016 Independent Film Festival Boston, there was a panel entitled All For One: Film Co-Ops and Collectives convened by the LEF Foundation. The panel was recorded and can be viewed here. It was held in the Somerville Theater micro-cinema, an instrumental location for many film related organizations. The panelists were Liane Brandon (Co-Founder of New Day Films) Jesse Epstein (Founding Member of the Film Fatales Boston Chapter), Eric Gulliver (Co-Founder and Co-Chair of the The Non-Fiction Cartel) Robert Todd (Founding Member of the AgX Film Collective and Artist-Run Film Lab) with moderation by Anne Marie Stein (Dean of Professional and Continuing Education at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and former Executive Director of the Boston Film and Video Foundation). That last part of Anne’s title is important – as it became fodder for the discussion as example of prior times Boston has tried to come together on this front. It was a lively discussion that touched on broader points about what motivated each group, how to sustain oneself, and ultimately why Boston is a tough town to organize.
The panel discussion evolved into a lively discussion with the audience. Helpful suggestions emerged along with fruitful recommendations. There was an energy in the room; one could sense the topic resonated with many attendees and panelists. At the end of the event, the conversation was far from over. Inspired by the Film Fatales meeting format, a potluck was suggested for a follow-up to the panel. The new analogue film collective AgX would host and all invitees would bring the food. Rob Todd of AgX (and also of Emerson College, perhaps the most tireless filmmaker I’ve ever encountered) took the initiative and organized the details.
The First Potluck
The first potluck to continue the conversation was held in Waltham at AgX’s Moody Street warehouse space and was open for anyone who wanted to attend. 15-20 attendees sat for a group dinner, surrounded by classic film equipment perched like spectres. One forgets how large equipment used to be! The revived detritus was a warm encouragement towards the spirit of meeting: we were trying to repurpose something also. Filmmakers, media makers, educators, curators and interested parties came to voice input and participate.
All of the excited voices joined in this single conversation that reiterated a larger message: we need more conversations like this. There are many efforts happening across the Boston media landscape, but they’re all happening separately. Indeed, the word “silos” kept being repeated. I heard numerous group names I didn’t even know existed. This night was mainly an introduction and brainstorming session, and a helpful one at that. The potlucks are an attempt to formalize some efforts that might overlap (i.e. with screenings, resources, or networking opportunities). Genevieve Carmel of the LEF Foundation, AgX, and The Non-Fiction Cartel had this to say about the night:
“…Saturday was a really meaningful first gathering…that set some basic needs and shared some initial ideas about creating more common forums of sharing information and getting a wider circle of filmmakers together regularly.”
I was glad that former members of the Boston Film and Video Foundation were there. Being the founder of one of these local collectives means that I’m curious as to what came before and what was beneficial about it. Sure enough, the consensus weighed in that media equipment is cheaper these days, information is more decentralized and physical spaces may not be as important as they used to be. There was agreement, however, that face-to-face interaction is paramount. This meeting of strangers and friends, a nascent community, seems to benefit from organic growth. Perhaps in formalizing something new in the digital wilderness it will, in fact, require it.
The next potluck to continue the conversation will be happening on 8/11/2016 in Jamaica Plain. Contact Gulliver.firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.