Changing Reels

Memories of Brighton Cinematheque

By Michael Kemp

poster for I Am Curious, Yellow
I Am Curious, Yellow

Sitting alone in the darkened arena, just three people, who’ve all ventured out that winter’s Friday night to see Volker Schlondorff’s 1966 film Mord und Totschlag (one is me, another the vice-president of the Brian Jones Appreciation Society, and the third asleep); then, 87 minutes later, leaving Brighton Cinematheque in silhouette, as Michael Sippings links up the old chains to cordon off the Media Centre from the outside world.

We meet. The cinema-manager with no audience bids goodnight to the man with no future… (cue closing credits from Welles’ Touch of Evil circa 1958: “What does it matter what you say about people?”).

But, ’twas not always that sparse - I recall managing to just squeeze myself into a full house, the second full house that evening, who’d all come to witness rare Warhol factory films - including the legendary Couch (1964) and Jonas Mekas’ Award Presentation to Andy Warhol. A packed cinema for the avant-garde. Standing room only upstairs, but Ian Helliwell finds me a chair from nowhere, making me feel like a structuralist OAP.

I think the first time I was aware of Cinematheque’s existence was circa ’96 when I read somewhere they were about to screen Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious, Yellow - and, having missed this the first time around in the 60s, wandered down to Middle Street and slipped in through the imposing wrought-iron gates, for the first, but certainly not the last, time.

Over the next eight years they would reward me with the most extraordinary selection of film found since the early days of the London Film-Makers Co-op - the beautiful and the mysterious—the experimental and the obscure—everything from the hand-tinted reveries of Georges Méliès to the excremental orgies of Otto Muehl.

Marcel Duchamp’s rotoreliefs spinning silently in Anaemic Cinema (1925). The improbable shadow landscapes of Pat O’Neill. The flickering shapes & slides of Annabel Nicolson. Alexander Trocchi films with marijuana and windmills…

Slumming it in the stalls with a flagon of cheap vin rouge during an incendiary performance (the first in Brighton) by avant rockers Jackie O Motherfucker - their albums scattered for sale on a table by the door. Serge Gainsbourg night with a boyish Jane Birkin screaming through 90 minutes of anal sex with Joe Dallesandro in Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus (1975) smoothed by copious free wine & gauloises in the hallway - late arriving couples falling over each other in the aisles, but nicely - you don’t get that at the multiscreen.

Helliwell filling the area with smoke in order to project Anthony McCall’s Conical Solid (1974) - a plaintive voice from the back bemoans: “Helliwell, you’re a madman”. Jason Weaver sitting in the audience when someone behind him starts licking his neck. He turns around, somewhat apprehensively, to find it’s a stray black mongrel dog wandered in from somewhere…

The Sunday evening I went down to see My Life and Times with Antonin Artaud, only to find that the projectors had broken down - so, went for a good drink at the green-tiled Victory Inn with the projectionists instead… another option you don’t normally get at the ABC

And, after a night of excellent Peter Whitehead films (introduced by the director), Michael Sippings bringing round a VHS copy of Wholly Communion to my front door. My wife, unalerted to the fact beforehand, confronted by a tall tonsured figure standing in the porchlight shadows quietly intoning: “I have come to give you holy communion” and she slamming the door. Now, of course, she thinks he’s lovely. Often seen dropping Cinematheque programmes into the black mailbox whilst passing on his bicycle, sometimes the occasional cake from the bakery as well.

Screenings of Carolee Schneemann’s orgiastic Quest for Meat Joy. Paola Igliori’s Harry Smith: American Magus with Paola’s enthusiastic & sparkling Q&A session afterwards. (Paola, where are you?).

Previously unseen Jack Smith rarities. Alice Kemp, following to the letter the arcane gestures of the lady instructress during Man Ray’s episode of Richter’s Dreams That Money Can Buy - standing on her seat and revolving slowly in a counter-clockwise direction. As you do…

Two drunks being ejected from Kenneth Anger night. The luminous blue wash of Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936) cascading from the screen. The Open Reel evenings.

Marty entertaining us all wildly down in the foyer with tales of being thrown out of the Churchill Centre by security for trying to make a movie about surveillance. Danya, dark and distracted, waiting in the shadows. Testcard’s wonderful creaky and atmospheric soundtrack realized for FW Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) - ghostly sound emanating from every nook and cranny in the former Victorian tax office.

A private screening of 8x8: Chess Sonata (Hans Richter, 1957) with a nice little cup of tea. A wonderful and dissolute horny evening with Curt McDowell’s Thundercrack! (1975) - as much fun in the audience as up on the screen (well almost) - Danya wishes us all a good night.

Light Music
Light Music

A Mexican Luis Buñuel film El: This Strange Obsession (1952) with the whole audience turning out to be Mexican too. Opening packed lunches and noisily treating the film as a penny-dreadful thriller (as opposed to respected arthouse fare), all whoops and hisses. The only way to appreciate Buñuel.

So, it’s over, the tenure at Middle Street is almost up. No more waiting in the rain for Georges Franju movies. No more bejewelled waifs, illusory as film itself, scoffing fish’n’chips on the fire escape. No more stroppy nightwatchmen throwing me out of the car park.

Where to next? I hear rumours of guerrilla screenings, turning up at unlikely locations (my front room? yours??) with projectors and crowds and then vanishing into the night once it is done. Art on the run. And I believe I like the sound of that.