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Come Back Into the Dark 

Silent Movie Theatre’s Cinefamily is a gym for the mind

Wednesday, Oct 24 2007
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I’ve said before that the 1999 opening of West L.A.’s Cinefile video store was one of the most significant happenings in recent Los Angeles film culture, along with the American Cinematheque’s acquisition of the Egyptian and Aero theaters, and the creation of CalArts’ REDCAT space at the Disney Concert Hall. Now, thanks to Cinefile co-founder Hadrian Belove, Los Angeles moviegoers are about to experience another climate-altering event. Beginning this weekend, Belove and a team of associates will assume programming responsibilities at the Silent Movie Theatre, kicking off an inaugural season of themed film series and retrospectives, the sheer ambition of which is hard to overstate.

Christened “The Cinefamily” (a reference to Belove’s belief in the communal film-viewing experience and to the Silent Movie Theatre’s present owners, brothers Sammy and Dan Harkham of L.A.’s boutique Family bookstore), the revamped venue aims to fill the gaps in the local film-culture fossil record by giving audiences access to specific films — and in some cases entire bodies of work — that have rarely (if ever) screened publicly in Los Angeles. For example, while the theatrical feature films of the great contemporary Austrian director Michael Haneke (Caché) have been shown in retrospectives at both the American Cinematheque and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Cinefamily will be the first area venue to present seven of Haneke’s early television films, which until recently had never been seen in the English-speaking world.

Also on tap: a series of heavy-metal music documentaries; the complete cycle of Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films; and a series called “Home Alones,” devoted to movies (among them the Jodie Foster cult item The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, Steven Soderbergh’s Depression-era King of the Hill, and the titular Macaulay Culkin juggernaut) involving child protagonists abandoned by their parents. In keeping with the theater’s legacy, a series of silents — including films by Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Frank Capra and Yasujiro Ozu — is also planned.

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The Cinefamily venture represents a logical extension of Belove’s work at Cinefile, where the grindhouse has always peacefully co-existed with the art house, and which was the first local video store to offer its customers a wide selection of import DVDs as well as bootlegs of important, never-released-on-video works by Robert Altman, Jean-Luc Godard, Nicholas Ray, et al. But every bit as significant as what films Cinefamily has chosen to screen is how it has chosen to screen them: After an opening week of Halloween-friendly horror movies, the theater will follow a “vertical” model of film programming, by which a given film series is presented over multiple weeks on a specifically designated evening rather than being compacted into a single week or fortnight (as in the more common “horizontal” programming method employed by the Cinematheque, LACMA and the UCLA Film & Television Archive).

In other words, between now and the end of the year, you can stop in on Wednesdays for the silent classics, Thursdays for the headbanging docs, Fridays for Truffaut and Saturdays for Haneke. For the most intrepid of cinephiles, Saturday nights will also feature the aptly named “Holyfuckingshit!” series, which begins with a program of “threes” (Ninja 3, Rocky III, Death Wish 3, et al.), before moving on to a selection of ostensible children’s films (including such 1980s oddities as The Peanut Butter Solution and The Garbage Pail Kids Movie) more likely to traumatize youngsters than entertain them. The umbrella title for that series? What else but “Holyfucking Kidshit!” Then, in January, a new schedule of programs will begin.

The innovations don’t stop there. In advance of its reopening, the Silent Movie Theater has been retrofitted with a new screen and sound system, added leg room between seats, two rows of leather couches for those who want to get cozy, and a gourmet concession stand in the lobby. In what Belove deems “another example of our probably unrealistic goals,” Cinefamily will publish a 16-page, 16,000-word bimonthly program guide offering detailed film descriptions. And while patrons can purchase tickets to individual movies at $10 a pop, $25 will buy you a month-long “membership” that allows the bearer access to all Cinefamily screenings. It’s an idea that derives from Belove’s success with offering a similar, Netflix-style rental option at Cinefile, which he says encourages customers to take chances on movies they’d never consider if they were paying for each individual rental.

Belove’s goal is to make Cinefamily seem less like a conventional cinema — even a conventional revival cinema — and more like one of the Parisian “cine-clubs” of the 1950s and ’60s, where the young film enthusiasts who would eventually comprise the French New Wave came together to bask in their shared love of movies. “Think of it,” he says, “as a gym membership for the mind.”

Built in 1942, the art deco mini–movie palace on Fairfax Avenue was once famous as the only commercial cinema in the country devoted to the presentation of silent films. Today, it’s better known as the site of a grisly 1997 murder-for-hire that resulted in the death of then-owner Lawrence Austin. After reopening in 1999 under the aegis of proprietor Charlie Lustman, the theater continued to offer occasional silent film screenings, but made ends meet by offering itself as a rental venue for weddings, concerts and birthday parties. The Harkhams bought the theater from Lustman in 2006, then ran into Belove — a lifelong movie buff who “barely graduated” from Santa Monica High School and has been working in video stores since the age of 16 — during Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse Film Festival at the New Beverly Cinema earlier this year. “I was telling them all of these things I thought they should be doing with the theater,” Belove recalls, “and finally they said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’?”

In the day-to-day realities of programming — which include not just the selecting of films, but the time-consuming tracking down of prints (be they film or digital) and the arranging of exhibition terms — Belove will be assisted by former Cinefile employee Matt Cornell, erstwhile Cinemad magazine editor Mike Plante and video DJ/’70s cinema bootlegger Tom Fitzgerald (a specialist, Belove says, of “the deep, weird, great stuff”). As to the question of whether Cinefamily can find an audience at a moment when even mainstay revival venues like American Cinematheque have reported seeing attendance shrink rather than grow, Belove is optimistic that he can lure movie buffs away from their HDTVs and multiregion DVD players and back into the collective dark.

“Look, I opened Cinefile at a time when Blockbuster had destroyed the independent video store community,” he says, “but I believed that if what we were doing was different enough, we’d be successful, and we were. The fact that people aren’t going to revival theaters as much anymore is the very reason to do this. Movies should be seen for their own sake; they should be bigger than you are, capable of overwhelming you, and you need to seem them in a crowd with other people, like a church service, not a monastery. If it’s possible that even some of our ideas will work — and I know a lot of intelligent and hard-working movie lovers out there who are trying to crack this problem — then it’s our duty to at least try. It’s like a whole team of scientists trying to design the atom bomb — only one needs to succeed for all to benefit.”

Cinefamily @ The Silent Movie Theatre, 611 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. For more info, visit www.­silentmovietheater.com.

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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