Reel-to-reel, politics in the park

Stevens Square’s Music and Movies festival goes civic on a shoestring

On July Wednesdays at dusk, Stevens Square’s 14th annual Music and Movie series will again lure fans to the neighborhood park – but this year’s free fare is a little different.

Moviegoers will enjoy a miscellaneous canon of short films shown from an old projector. Some of the movies will be colorful; others, black-and-white.

Part of what makes this year’s series unique is that the films have been deaccessioned – thrown out by libraries and other archives to make room for digital mediums.

These obsolete films and technology testify to a bygone era, or film industry politics. Some are politically driven, which complements another festival angle: moviegoers will have the chance to talk to local politicians running for offices in City Hall or the Park and Library Boards before the show begins, in Q&A sessions and moderated forums.

Hence this year’s theme: "Reel Politics." Rare and unusual finds span the lifetime of the 16-millimeter format, from the early 20th century to the ’80s. Most aren’t more than 10 minutes long, so multiple movies will be screened each night instead of a single feature-length film.

There’ll also be a potluck, DJs and an open mic. The festival is being co-produced by Stevens Square Community Organization (SSCO) and the University of Minnesota’s "Search and Rescue" program, which screens discarded movies weekly and has gained a cult following (attracting more attendees than any other U Film Society events).

"Reel Politics" has a link to real politics because its offerings are partly budget-driven. Unlike in past years, SSCO didn’t have the funds for the Red Eye Theater, 15 W. 14th St. to produce it. The only way to offer the festival this year was to produce it on a shoestring. That led to some creative substitutions – and a new audience.

The grassroots series is symbolic for the action taking place in the neighborhood right now. That is, as government budgets shrink, the community thrives, most notably in changes such as apartment conversions to condos.

SSCO board member Liz Wawrzonek, a dancer with local Time Track Productions and a waitress at Hubert’s Bar and Restaurant, 601 Chicago Ave., spearheaded the series. She’s part of a volunteer team with Adam Sekuler of "Search and Rescue" and guest artist Matt Bakkom; Wawrzonek herself will operate the projector.

The series is a result of feedback from Stevens Square resident surveys. When they asked what kinds of art activities people wanted in the 1801 Stevens Ave. park, the responses included more art, potlucks, barbecues and political talks.

Short films

Everyone will be free to come and go and socialize during the random mix of brief documentaries, experimental and animated titles. While it’s a cheaper way to produce the movie series, Wawrzonek has high hopes that it will be more original, productive and meaningful, too.

She’s optimistic that the experiment would foster community discussions and encourage participation in local government.

As for the art, Wawrzonek sees the screenings as a preservation measure – with historical significance for the city.

Not only are people gathered to enjoy artistic achievements, but also to celebrate their finite existence. "The most exciting thing for me is finding the parallel between technical changes in the art of film and development in urban planning in business and housing development," she said. "It becomes a beautiful metaphor. It’s easier for us to celebrate older formats in the arts."

Similarly, Bakkom, who returns as a guest artist after pioneering the series from 1995 to 1997, looked forward to returning to a neighborhood that had changed a lot since he left.

"I never guessed the Delmore Apartments would be condos less than 10 years later," he remarked.

Bakkom has also led film series in New York City, Paris and Dublin. As a University of Minnesota graduate student, he’s received a grant to sort through the films and condense the collection.

The offerings show ingenuity: For example, to commemorate man landing on the moon, moviegoers will watch "Project Apollo" on the 36th anniversary of that historic day (July 20).

Also on the roster are other less timely but still entertaining works such as the 1970s movie "Mountain Music," about a bucolic setting that blows up to the accompaniment of amplified acoustics. The unintentionally funny tale is supposed to be about environmentalism.

Another clip, "That’s My Name, Don’t Wear It Out," advertises the sarcastic ’80s teenage mantra, while "Dream of Wild Horses" is "very French," Bakkom said, with the unexplained yet mesmerizing slow motion of horses’ movements.

One movie visually explores powers of 10, incorporating a macro view of the universe with a micro perspective of the body. There’s also a tour of Paris from the perspective of a camera strapped on a car’s hood, along with a close-up view of ant community life and local geography. There will also be more familiar phenomenon such as Betty Boop and Thomas Edison’s "The Great Train Robbery," among many others.

Deaccessioned

Sekuler and Bakkom pull their "simultaneously mundane and delightful" reels out of a storage locker in Plymouth that’s packed with 6,500 reels of 16-millimeter film, accumulated as libraries cleared out reel films to make room for DVDs and other digital media.

Sekuler and Bakkom inherited the erratic films (most discarded by the university) when they couldn’t find another home for them. Until they decided to create an archive themselves, they didn’t know what to do with the hand-me-downs. The collection is so overwhelming (and ever-growing, as films continue to be deaccessioned) that they aren’t indexed.

They browse the collection four to six times a year and sift through it like going to the grocery store. Sekuler and Bakkom shop the aisles and grab titles that sound interesting, a randomized process Sekuler called "poetic." Bakkom refers to it as a "literary operation" since what stands out are catchy words, phrases or ones that they string together amusingly.

For example, titles such as "Slightly Drunk" jump out. The duo generates a program thematically, prescreening to ensure that the films are appropriate. They weed out some – like the one on special oral surgery, complete with step-by-step instructions for replacing a tongue – that don’t exactly complement the outdoor series. Some films are too fragile to tote into the park.

Still, there are gems in the racks such as "The T.A.M.I. Show" of ’60s concerts, with early footage of rock and Motown icons such as Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones.

Fortunately that movie is in good condition. "The films themselves are interestingŠthey’re a cultural relic of the past and this puts it in a new light," said Sekuler, a Wedge resident.

Discarding films is a common trend in libraries and other archives, as they shift focus from celluloid to digital media. "The DVD has become the wave of the future. Is there still space for these films to exist? Do they have cultural relevancy?" Sekuler asked.

"Most librarians are very upset, but it has nothing to do with them. It’s the people who work in finance," he said.

Originally, many of the films were rent-able, but once the archives shifted focus, they got rid of the projectors. Even if companies continued to produce celluloid films, they weren’t going to be distributed.

Said Sekuler, "We thought that the program could translate easily to the community as a metaphor for the gentrification going on right now."

Lyndale resident Schnae Matteson, an avid "Search and Rescue" attendee, Schnae Matteson, appreciates the series for its campy-ness, humor and historical significance.

As someone immersed in the history of science and cultural studies, one of Matteson’s favorite "rescued" flicks was a documentary about the "Willmar 8" 1977 bank employee’s strike (ironically, now the subject of a feature film starring Charlize Theron being filmed in the state).

Recently, Matteson attended the Red Hot Art Festival and plans to go to "Reel Politics" because, "Some of them are really cool films, not just because they’re old and campy," she said.