“Together In A Dark Room”: New York’s Microcinemas

This article serves as my Master’s Thesis for the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. It was completed on March 12, 2020. I published it on Medium on May 19, 2020.

Humphrey Bogart smokes, his furrowed brow passing judgement. “Bogie,” as the owner calls him, is barely perceptible as the lamplight casts a shadow on the Hollywood star’s furtive gaze. Film Noir Cinema, a Greenpoint video store and microcinema, is an homage to one of owner Will Malitek’s favorite genres — and the genre’s most iconic face.

Bogie’s visage, rendered in clean black lines on a large white sign, haunts the place like a playful, curious specter. Malitek says that the building looks particularly beautiful at this time of night.

Walk inside the building on the corner of Leonard Street and Meserole Avenue, among the posters of “Eraserhead” and “Casablanca” to what Malitek says some customers call, “a museum of cinema.” There, DVDs are organized by genre, with“Hidden Planet” in the anime section or “Mama Mia” on sale. Malitek even stocks a trove of vinyl records (and the thousands more he has stored in the basement).

A few minutes before 9 p.m., and there’s a “psychedelic” film still playing (“it’s psychedelic February,” Malitek jokes) so Malitek, a man who might seem intimidating with his heavy build and thick Polish accent, is quick to laugh and shoot the shit. He waits for the credits to roll and then he goes through the double curtains to cue up the next film.

It’s a “Film Noir Monday,” when he curates a film block at 9 p.m., but doesn’t reveal the titles ahead of time. Only when the credits play do audience members, all four or five of them this night in February, learn what they’re about to see. After a series of “Pink Panther” shorts, which are surprising dystopian and paranoid (one shows a distinctly Sisyphean Pink Panther trying to recover an animal bone that other animals keep stealing, and that eventually falls down a cliff into the mouth of an alligator; in another, an “unusually destructive” fly that escapes from a lab and chews through the phone wire), the feature begins.

It’s “Bob Le flambeur” or “Bob The Gambler,” a 1959 noir about a man who gets back into a life of gambling and thieving. As the opening credits roll, the omniscient narrator talks about how attractive the young woman buying French fries in Montmartre is. Then, she gets on a motorcycle with a man she doesn’t seem to know. The film, in its moody black and white, seems to blame the woman for the titular Bob’s fall from grace, and she’s practically silent towards the end of the film, just a vehicle. Once, towards the end of the screening, a sound arises from the audience that appears to be someone waking up from sleep.

As the closing credits roll just before 11 p.m., the small audience greets Malitek. One woman says that she brought her friend there because it was his last night in New York. A man says that he’ll be back tomorrow for the screening of the horror film “Bazaar Bizarre.” Meserole Avenue is quiet when everyone has left. Bogie is still lurking, with his silent scowl and cigarette.

“Film noir is a very old genre in the cinema and this building is very old, so I think it fits,” Malitek says about the building that he bought three years ago, and was once the historic Smith Funeral Home.

Film noir may be one of cinema’s most storied genres, with a rich history, but Film Noir Cinema is a part of a relatively recent development in film culture, the microcinema, a name coined in 1991 by Rebecca Barten and David Sherman, founders of the Total Mobile Home Microcinema in San Francisco. As the name suggests, microcinemas are tiny theaters that typically have just one screen and often cater to film tastes outside of mainstream multiplex fare.

Viewers tend to go to microcinemas for niche films, and for the sense of community often cultivated at these smaller, more DIY venues. The programming that microcinemas favor veer towards the experimental, the academic, the avant-garde and the generally lesser-seen.

The Light Industry, for instance, another Greenpoint micro, organized its first screening in January, showing avant-garde Structuralist filmmakers Hollis Frampton and Owen Land. Frampton’s “Palindrome,” a film possessing neither sound nor plot, chemically manipulates celluloid so that a conflagration of color and texture washes over the screen, a supposed meditation on the Latin phrase: “In Girvm Imvs Nocte Et Consvmimvr Igni” (By night we go (down) into a gyre/and we are consumed by fire).”

Land’s film, “Wide Angle Saxon,” decidedly more tongue-in-cheek, features a Christian man who gives up his religion after hearing a rock concert. Throughout, Land intersperses scenes from newsreels in which a broadcaster keeps flubbing lines about the Panama Canal. Land’s film works alongside, but also against, the self-seriousness of Frampton, says the presenter P. Adams Sitney, a Princeton University film professor who was invited to speak. Adams tells the audience that Frampton became one of the most studied filmmakers in history, in part because he wrote summaries of his work and distributed them to academics and film critics.

Rooftop Films, an itinerant pop up show, exhibits movies on rooftops or other venues across the city. Most of New York’s fixed location microcinemas — UnionDocs, Light Industry, Syndicated Bar Theater Kitchen, Light Industry, Spectacle, Microscope Gallery and Film Noir Cinema — are located in Brooklyn, however. Malitek says this is because “Manhattan is dead.” But one night strolling through Flatiron leads the way to a previously unfamiliar micro, a bar cheekily called The Library. There, patrons sipped while watching an unknown film in black-and-white in the back of the room.

At a time when many movie-goers crave blockbusters, a microcinema can be a risky business model. Recently, prominent New York microcinemas like Videology have shuttered, and another, lesser-known micro called The Picture Show stayed in business for less than two years before the owners had to sell. Yet as streaming services dominate the industry, with even Martin Scorsese releasing his epic tale “The Irishman” on Netflix, Malitek predicts that “cinemas will always survive, I think, because people like the experience.”

***

In terms of running his business, and especially when it comes to interior design, “it’s all about details. The big picture doesn’t matter. It’s all about details,” Malitek likes to say. In the lobby, where he sits at his desk guarding the hundreds of DVDs for rent or sale, a zombie head sits at the top of a DVD shelf. Dozens of film posters hang on the walls: Observe “Casablanca,” “World on a Wire” and “Dillinger is Dead.” There’s a “Nosferatu” poster, too — a still of the zombie standing, arms at his sides like a corpse, under a door frame.

And there’s more than just a poster of the vampire. Nosferatu is actually painted on the theater walls. Filmgoers who sit on the right side of the theater can catch a glimpse of an outline of Nosferatu sketched in silver paint. Nosferatu cowers, with an arm outstretched.

Film Noir Cinema looks, in short, like the kind of place that only someone who grew up loving movies could create. “My dream since I was probably 10 years old [was] to have a cinema,” Malitek says. “Since I was probably 8 years old I was going to the cinema everyday.” He loved directors like Federico Fellini, Werner Herzog and Ingmar Bergman. “I always wanted to have my own,” theater, he says.

He immigrated from Danzig, Poland, in 1989, “right after the wall fell.” Now he lives in Greenpoint just five minutes from Film Noir Cinema. Previously, he owned a video and vinyl store, called Film Noir but without the “cinema,” on Bedford Street for 15 years. Film Noir Cinema’s current location on Meserole is just three years old.

In that time, Malitek has witnessed, and survived, massive changes in the movie distribution business. Back when he first opened on Bedford, when the Blockbuster still existed, he says the profits came mostly from video rentals. “Two thirds were rentals and late fees and one third were sales of films. And then since I moved here, it flipped,” so now customers are buying DVDs rather than renting them. DVD sales are just “lunch money” now.

What kept him going as DVD stores shuttered was that he also sold records. Seven years ago, “There was a time when vinyl was a bigger percentage of income than the videos.” Malitek still sells records, but now he says that 95% of his income at Film Noir Cinema comes from ticket sales.

“When I opened this business 18 years ago, there were seven video stores in the neighborhood and one record store. Right now there is only one video store” — his own — ”and seven record stores… And I’m really strange because I do both.” He thinks his hybrid approach may contribute to why he is still in business when other DVD stores closed.

Malitek doesn’t just show movies. He also hosts lectures and Q&As. “I call this place more of a venue or an art house than just a cinema, that’s my formula,” he says. Malitek also tries to reach a wide demographic. His target age range is broad, 15 to 65, with “lots of hipsters for sure, because it’s Greenpoint. But they, themselves, wouldn’t be enough to feed the business.”

On his computer, he opens up the Film Noir Cinema calendar to show how many Q&As he’s hosting during February, for the films, “The Queen of Hollywood Boulevard,” “Eat Brains Love,” and “The Death of Dick Long.” He’s particularly proud of the description he wrote for that last one, calling it “another cult film for A24 diehards,” a production company that has risen in popularity in reason years with films like “In Fabric” (where “the dress is the killer”), “The Lighthouse,” “Moonlight,” and “Midsommar.” “Usually when I have Q&As here… the place gets packed.”

***

On February 9 — Oscar Sunday — a crowd of 15 or so walk into the screening room to see one of A24’s least marketable films of the year, “The Death of Dick Long,” at around 5 p.m. The opening scene, the most high octane of the entire film, depicts a wild party, with booze bottles littering the ground on an Alabama farm, and a bonfire so large it looks like it’s going to consume someone. But once the party’s over, Earl Wyeth (played by Andre Hyland) and Zeke Olsen (Michael Abbott Jr.) rush to the emergency room to drop off the now-dead Dick Long (Daniel Scheinert, also the film’s director).

His corpse spills out so much blood that the backseat of Zeke’s car is stained a ghoulish red. Zeke and Earl try, frantically and unsuccessfully, to cover up their friend’s death. Scheinert’s film relishes in the slow reveal. The audience doesn’t learn until two thirds into the film the cause of Dick Long’s accidental death: He had fatal sex with Earl’s horse. The dark comedy is a thoughtful reflection on sexuality and masculinity in the American South.

Malitek has invited the film’s star, Abbott Jr., a Greenpoint resident, to talk about making the film. A24’s most challenging task with distributing the film was marketing, Abbot says. “A24 had no idea what to do with it,” and “they cut the marketing budget,” relegating the movie to a limited release to places like Film Noir Cinema, thinking that the film “has the potential to gain some sort of cult following,” he says. Christ Pratt was originally in talks to star as Zeke, but A24 thought that a big star would be distracting, he adds.

Someone in the audience asks how he got into the role of Zeke “I guess we’re gonna be known as the horse fuckers. I’ve been called a lot worse!,” Abbot says. The audience laughs riotously. Soon, a crowd grows in the lobby waiting for the next film, “The Queen of Hollywood Boulevard.” “I’ve never been to this place before,” Abbot says about Film Noir Cinema, “But it’s pretty cool.”

***

“We just have this weird penchant for being in weird spaces,” says filmmaker Daniel Hess. He owned the Greenpoint microcinema, Picture Show, with his girlfriend Katya Yakubov for just 18 months before they had to close it in 2015. The pair was “always into cinema, more particularly experimental cinema.”

While traveling the country, living in specially outfitted U-Hauls, lofts and illegally zoned workspaces in Los Angeles, Portland, and San Francisco, “We got into every city’s film scene,” says Hess. In Los Angeles, they frequented the Echo Park Film Center, which helped inspire the Picture Show. “They have a really amazing structure and plan of being sustaining as a microcinema and also being independent,” says Hess.

Eventually they returned to New York, saw a Greenpoint space and had this “wacky idea that we would live in the cinema.” A third of the building would be designated as their home; the rest would operate as a theater at night. Although it had no windows and flooded when the couple first moved in, Hess says that owning the theater “took over our lives in a way we didn’t quite anticipate.” He adds, “we were excited by it, but also consumed by it.”

Setting out to discover what would set them apart from other microcinemas, they decided to showcase local and novice filmmakers, seeking submissions from early-career directors, offering some tongue-in-cheek programming. One grew out of a common experience for filmmakers: rejection.

Yakubov had sent one of her own films to a call-for-submissions at the Milwaukee Underground Film Festival, and when that festival sent out rejection emails, a curator made a very public mistake: “Instead of BCC’ing the people who didn’t get into the festival, he CC’d everybody. Everyone saw everyone else’s email there.” Picture Show then contacted the rejected filmmakers for its own three-day festival.

They kept ticket prices significantly cheaper than admission to most movie complexes. Picture Show charged only $5 per screening, selling alcohol (without license) to make ends meet. Microcinemas, which tend to charge $5 to $10 a ticket, often scramble to try to stay afloat. Picture Show sold alcohol. So does Syndicated Bar Theater Kitchen and Spectacle Theater and the now-closed Videology in Williamsburg. Film Noir Cinema has the video store. Others, like Microscope Gallery, get funding from grants.

Picture Show couldn’t afford to pay distributors for screening rights, Hess says, so “we started showing things and not getting rights,” while also emphasizing local creators who gave them permission to screen films. “It kind of became a hodgepodge,” he says. Other microcinema owners told them that they often also screened films without acquiring the rights. Take a bar-hopping trip to Brooklyn, and you might see several bars playing films — without the rights — in the background.

“When you decide to not bring other people on board, and you’re doing it all yourself, you do have a lot of freedom,” Hess says. “But obviously it’s very difficult to stay sustained that way because you don’t have any support or help.” After a year and a half, Hess and Yakubov had to close the Picture Show. Both partners had full-time jobs and felt unable to continue running the microcinema alone.

***

“Some microcinemas are short lived and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” says Lisa Marr, director of operations at Echo Park Film Center in Los Angeles. You can have organizations that are super dynamic for two year or three years and then people move on to something else.”

For Marr, “in the case of the [Echo Park] Film Center, that passion continued and things have just evolved.” She found the Echo Park Film Center by chance on the first day that it had opened, and was interested in getting involved, after being immersed in Vancouver’s vibrant microcinema scene. Now, the microcinema and educational center will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. Marr came to filmmaking from creating music videos for a band that she performed in, called The Beards.

Microcinemas like the Echo Park Film Center, she says, are more intimate than multiplexes or even independent theaters, which “are still a lot more formalized than a lot of microcinemas are.” Proximity itself plays a role, says Marr. “You’re not sitting in a giant multiplex, looking way down at the screen, you’re rubbing shoulders and elbows with maybe strangers, maybe friends, maybe people you’re meeting for the first time that could become very significant in your life because you’re there because there’s some sort of common interest bringing you together, not just the latest Hollywood blockbuster.”

Indeed Marr has been in a relationship with Paolo Davanzo, a co-founder of the Film Center, since soon after she became involved. “First I fell in love with the Film Center and then I fell in love with Paolo and we’ve been a couple ever since.”

Microcinemas reflect an “outlook about life and community and cinema and what it can all mean. Already there’s a lot of love in the room when the films are screened and room for discussion and arguments and debates. It’s not just people filing in and out. I think most microcinemas encourage dialogue between the filmmakers and audience,” says Marr.

Beyond screening films, the Echo Park Film Center, a nonprofit organization, hosts artist residencies, free filmmaking workshops and also takes movies on the road. Its mobile cinema, an old school bus that runs on solar power and vegetable oil, travels throughout Los Angeles and to farther destinations, like Canada, New York and Mexico.

The microcinema promotes lively engagement with film, and an open mind to the multitude of ways that people can experience a movie in the 21st Century. “Even though we show a lot of stuff on film, we’re not saying ‘film is better, digital is horrible’ or ‘film is dead, digital is the way to go.’ We embrace all mediums, we embrace all forms,” Marr says. “We just want to provide a place where people can make films,” says Marr.

***

As microcinemas come and go, definitions of what it means to be a film viewer have expanded. Take Peephole Cinema. The Peephole Cinema Collective, a chain of microcinemas with a theater in Bushwick and others in San Francisco and Los Angeles, is probably one of the smallest of New York’s microcinemas.

The name is apt: Peephole Cinema really is a small, free “peephole” inside a brick storefront on Wilson Avenue. A small sign encourages passersby to peer into the hole where, according to the sign, they can see short films on a constant loop made by students at Achievement First Bushwick Middle School. On one January day, however, a look inside the dime-sized hole reveals a blank canvas.

Filmgoers can also experience movies through interactive programming, such as Secret Speakeasy, an immersive experience in which audiences view a selection of 16mm movies alongside a collection of antiques that fit a particular theme. Recent shows have included programming around children’s toys, or films and antiques connected to New York City history.

***

Microcinemas are one way that “people that are claiming their right to see cinema collectively in the way that they want to see these films that is not beholden to what the entertainment industry wants you to do,” says Robert King, a professor of film at Columbia University. “The ‘micro’ in microcinema is a description of size as well as ethic,” says King.

He sees its origins in the midnight movie phenomenon that began in the 1970s, when theaters exhibited low-budget genre films in the early hours of the morning. ”The experience is somewhat carnivalesque,” in opposition to “the normal conventions of moviegoing,” he notes. ”It’s moviegoing in a way that defines itself as different.”

One way that the microcinema experience differs from the traditional theatrical model is that there is often something “illicit” about it, King says. “What you remember is the person who brought a bottle of wine” that then goes rattling down the aisle. says King. But as was the case with the Picture Show, microcinemas “have this sense of being in a legal grey area,” in which the tiny spaces might not always be following copyright or other laws.

In return, microcinema audiences can escape the algorithmic experperience of Netflix or Amazon Prime and can “assert taste in a collective and social way.”

***

Kyle Conway, who teaches communications at the University of Ottawa, is intrigued by “the openness of the definition” of a microcinema. It can be something unofficial, like a screening series in someone’s basement or at a bar or it can be a dedicated screening space like Film Noir Cinema.

“What they all have in common is an openness to experimentation, a friendliness that comes from watching movies together in a dark room,” Conway says. Although the term may be recent, the idea of experiencing moving images with a small group of people is not new at all.

Discussing an idea from Tasos Lagos, a lecturer at the University of Washington, Seattle who wrote a Master’s thesis entitled, “Do Not Reveal the Ending: Technology and the Rise of Microcinemas As an Alternative Form of Exhibition in the United States,” Conway says, “His argument…was that the cave paintings were a time when people got together in a dark room and created images and told stories about them. So it’s sort of the same experience of storytelling in an intimate way.”

Conway adds,“it’s very much that person-to person level of interaction that gives you an experience of watching things together…You’re in a room and it’s small and you gotta ask the person to pass the popcorn.”

***

For the February 17 screening of “Reflektorische Farblichtspiele” (Reflecting Color-Light-Play) by Kurt Schwerdtfeger, Microscope Gallery in Bushwick draws a packed house. Once the 40 or 50 chairs are taken, attendees begin sitting on a carpet placed directly in front of the screen. The audience stews in anticipation: The show supposed to begin at 7:30 p.m. doesn’t start until around 8:15 p.m. In the interim, one attendee is heard saying “CBD oil is all the rage,” and a child takes pictures with a yellow miniature pinhole camera. Some moviegoers purchase bottles of Stella Artois or glasses of wine.

Describing the abstract live piece is challenging. From behind the curtain, Rachel Guma operates a switchboard of Foley sounds as Joel Schlemowitz and Bradley Eros manipulate a switchboard of vibrant stenciled shapes. The result onscreen looks like a keyboard of geometric patterns and colors, or maybe a helix, constantly rearranging. The audience, from children to seniors, observes light mutating on a screen in a small, dark room.

When the performance ends, the audience chants “open the box!” asking the artists to show the switchboards. Many audience members cram into the back to ask the artists questions or to comment on the technology.

Elle Burchill, the co-owner and director of Microscope Gallery in Bushwick alongside her husband Andrea Monti, says that “a lot of places in New York weren’t showing emerging artists” when they opened the microcinema and gallery space in 2010 — just two weeks after a neighbor started Spectacle Theater, a Williamsburg microcinema.

Burchill says Microscope is the only microcinema in New York that operates as both a theater and a functioning gallery space. It allows filmmakers to showcase “their full body of work” — photography, sculpture, or painting — while the films are screened. “We always thought that there should be a gallery space that should be able to show it all, every type of work that the people who are doing these film screenings are doing,” says Burchill.

When Burchill and Monti were looking for spaces, they came across this large space in what looks like a refurbished factory. They immediately turned to leave, because it had a wall in the middle which would prevent them from using a projector. They ended up buying it, however, and knocking down the wall.

They found a screen somewhere in Chelsea, bought some reels, got slide projectors and lenses from filmmaker friends, and found chairs that a bar had left over from the World Cup. In the beginning, they piled up books to serve as projector stands. Part of what makes Microscope stand out now is the quality of its projector. They bought an expensive Super 8, and can transform the space so that it achieves a total darkness.

“Don’t get scared,” Burchill jokes, getting up from her chair to turn off the lights. The gallery theater does, indeed, become darker than commercial theaters with their noise, lights from hallways or cell phones. Monti says that they sometimes turn off the neon EXIT sign for greater darkness, but Burchill shushes him because that’s illegal.

The owners designed Microscope so that everything in the space — video displays and the seating arrangement — can be taken down or put up quickly. The base of the projector is magnetic, so it can be moved with ease. Burchill says that she never allows volunteers to help her set up or take down the room because they have a precise system.

To demonstrate, within five minutes, Burchill and Monti remove the 30 or so chairs from a screening the night before, prepare the projector, throw away a few stray beer cans, and set up a film projected on a cluster of TV screens on the right side of the room. As a video sequence of a woman with some kind of liquid being poured on her face flickers on the screen — the gallerists place a small sculpture of a woman’s face in the middle of the room. They’re preparing for the 1 p.m. screening of short films from New York filmmakers Will Bragger and Matt Whitman.

Microcinemas like Microscope offer a certain programming flexibility that mainstream independent theaters like Anthology Film Archives often cannot always provide because they program many months ahead. “It adds an energy of openness. It’s not so strict and confined, that we need three months in advance,” Burchill says. “This is a place, that if you know you’re travelling through you can call us up and we’ll get you on the schedule if it works.” It helps that Burchill already has a long established list of filmmaker contacts from working as an editor for the late Jonas Mekas, and that Monti ran an avant-garde film festival in Tuscany.

“That’s the beauty of the micro, that one person, two people are able to do it,” Monti says. “And also it eludes the economical problems that come with having a large venue with big films. We can show whatever we want. We’re completely free because it’s so small.”

***

“I put my heart in it,” says Malitek, referring to his business, where he works every day, usually starting at 4 p.m. until past 11 p.m. during weekdays. He usually gets in around noon on weekends, settling in among the dozens of posters, the hundred of DVD titles organized numerically in large bookcases behind Malitek’s desk, and — one of the details he insisted on when renovating the former funeral home, the Bogie, outside of the theater. Malitek laughs. Although he likes the work that his artists did, to him, it looks like Bogie is smoking a blunt.

It took two months to create Film Noir Cinema. Malitek hired a crew of 10 to convert the funeral parlor to a screening room — installing the screen and the red velvet seats — but to the outside world it appeared as if the process only took two days. “I wanted to keep the other [location] open so I didn’t have a gap…so I was only closed for two days.” It took one day to move and one to prepare.

“That was a good decision because I was already giving away fliers with this address. The day I moved the whole neighborhood knew already… ‘tomorrow we’re coming here.’ So it wasn’t even like moving.”

Malitek hired his friends, the artists Chris Kristina and Abby Lloyd, to create the design on the walls, whose puke green color belies its intricacies. They used sponges that they deliberately put holes in and dabbed four colors — white, gold, light and dark green — on top of one another. They even created a fake “stain” on the right corner of the wall so that the paint “looks one hundred years old.” In a nod to the building’s prior life as a funeral home, Malitek keeps a small, plastic arm underneath the screen, in the spot where caskets were once kept.

On running Film Noir Cinema, Malitek says, “To me it’s fun, I do what I like, it’s very simple.” Coming soon: Andy Warhol’s “Frankenstein” and FINT’s “Fonotune: An Electric Fairytale.”

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