10:59 am Jun. 22, 20122
The offices of the Film-Makers’ Coop, set in a building on a somewhat stodgy stretch of Park Avenue in the 30s, double as an exhaustively preserved reliquary of more than five decades of films, filmmaker’s personal letters, and ephemera.
There's underground auteur Jack Smith’s Con-Ed bill (paid for by the Coop in a time of the filmmaker's financial duress); the 1968 legal papers from the government trying to block Flaming Creatures, a film denounced by Strom Thurmond on the Senate floor; a film reel bearing the iron cross, smuggled out of Nazi Germany by Hans Richter. All of these sit neatly packed among old file cabinets.
"Even our bank receipts are still with us,” said M.M. Serra, executive director of the 50-year-old artists cooperative, which is hosting a benefit for Millenium Film Workshop tonight. The archives are part of one of New York's least known, but possibly the best preserved collection of experimental film that sprung out of the mid-20th century. Serra said the archive reflects the raw history of media, personal vision, and the art of filmmaking.
But the Coop’s real specialty is a collection of 5,000 rare works by hundreds of artists like Smith, Richter, Stan Brakhage, and Jonas Mekas, all preserved on Super 8, 8mm, VHS, and DVD, and all kept in good shape in the unlikely spot of a high-rise in East Midtown. Many of the works are purposely leftfield, with an eye toward eschewing the commercial. There are plenty of exceptions, but some are abstract, non-narrative or, like Smith's, controversial. In other words, it’s more Rimbaud than Rambo
"Experimental cinema is sort of like poetry," said Serra. "It's not entertainment."
In 1962, a group of experimental film directors including Jonas Mekas organized to celebrate and distribute the crop of experimental films emerging at the time, called the New American Cinema. Fifty years later, the Coop is still adroitly maintaining its analog legacy in an age of Netflix, Vimeo, and YouTube. Today Serra and a board of directors oversee the small operations of the almost entirely volunteer organization. Because of its limited staff, the Coop only allows students, scholars, and other enthusiasts to visit by appointment. Much of the non-profit Coop's funding comes from grant money and from selling or renting items from their vast collection to universities and film festivals.
Serra said students, particularly those from emerging film archiving programs like the one at NYU, volunteer or intern to clean and help restore the aging films.
One current Coop effort is attempting to raise $97,000 to get a film-to-video transfer machine, so they can copy (and make more widely available) rare prints like Charles Henri Ford's Johnny Minotaur, of which the Coop has the only copy. Being an anachronistic standalone in a world going digital can sometimes create problems.
"If the money comes through, they're going to take the original elements [of Minotaur] and make another print," said Serra. "But that'll take time: They'll have to find the original soundtrack, the original elements, take it to the lab. And the labs are going under, the chemicals are not being made anymore."
Still, the Coop is working to digitize its collection, putting films online and on DVDs. The Coop added nearly 50 works made since 2010, including a 3D Blu-Ray of Occupy Wall Street created by Ken Jacobs to the list of works it distributes. Once they're part of the archives, institutions (not people) can find the films on the Coop website and request physical rentals.
Still, even with continuous grantwriting and a devoted following among film scholars, funding streams that can be unpredictable at times. San Francisco’s Canyon Cinema, a similar venture, saw financial troubles earlier this year, and Serra said other avant-garde theaters in London and Berlin are seeing financial troubles boil over.
“All of us struggle to keep our spaces,” she said.
In 2009, the Coop had its own existential struggle when it was evicted from its Tribeca headquarters at the Clocktower Building. That’s when real estate developer Charles S. Cohen, a self-described film lover and producer of Frozen River, signed a one dollar yearly lease granting them space in the green-clad building (currently under renovations) on Park Avenue South.
The lease comes up for renewal in two years, but reached over the phone this spring, Cohen said they’d work to renew the lease.
"Of course, I'm sure we will," he said. "They shouldn't worry about it."
Serra is grateful for the support. On a larger level, she said, anxieties over making rent and paying bills are innately tied to supporting non-commercial art in an increasingly expensive city.
The location of the boundary-pushing repository has it's benefits. Along with saving what would ordinarily be high rent costs, the Coop also has room for a 2,000-square-foot screening room that can seat a couple dozen people. That's one of the places where they have been holding events to try and get the word out to aspiring or accomplished auteurs to join up. So far this year, ten have joined its ranks of 961 members. (That includes dead artists on the Coop's roster—when an artists dies, the Coop works with their estate to keep their work in circulation.)
"It's not a singular preciousness,” Serra said of the group. “It's inclusive, it's not exclusive. It's not an effete, elite environment."
Tom Jarmusch, brother of Jim, joined this spring. He praised what he said were “50 years of people making what they want to make and not being concerned with commercial constraints and not being concerned with the art world and the gallery world.”
He said it can be hard to navigate and get exposure among new media and an art world that can be cliquish at times.
“Yeah, you can put things on YouTube or Vimeo or this so-called video-on-demand platforms, but it’s a tricky thing to exploit, and it’s just a funny time. Like, I think in some ways more and more is possible and in some ways, less is. And I think for that reason, the Film Coop is more important and relevant.”
Serra said they would keep celebrating their half-century of creativity and expanding personal vision.
“For the avant-garde, you need to risk failure,” she said. “You need to say, this is more important than money and money has no intrinsic value. What makes life worth living is the engagement with yourself and your identity, who you are and who the culture is.”
And the expansive archive of film and paper is there to stay.
"It does not lose its color, its saturation,” said Serra, stressing the importance of preserving physical, uncensored documents.
“Like, if the media goes offline, you're not going to see it. It's gone. If the Internet goes down, it's invisible. Unless there's a global meltdown or an atomic bomb goes off, film will always be there."
This Friday at 7:30, the Film-Makers' Coop is hosting “Roots of the Underground,” a benefit show for Millennium Film Workshop featuring two films and a talk by Ken Jacobs. For more information, call (212)-267-5665.
More by this author:
- Director Andrew Bujalski celebrates 10 years of 'Funny Ha Ha' with a big fan, Lena Dunham
- A festival built on the hope that film can bridge the deep political divide over Israel