It’s four in the afternoon, and Jacob and Paul are painting the huge projection screen out on ICA’s terrace. “You want some Aunt Polly’s fence action?” Paul asks, offering me a roller.
I don’t, but I always like seeing what’s happening in and around the building on a Wednesday afternoon, as the staff gets ready for the coming evening’s Whenever Wednesday progam. The big sandwich board is set up outside the front door, and people go up and down in the elevator toting tubs and tables, while downstairs in the back of the lobby microphone stands, video cameras, and computer carts emerge from locked closets like flocks of black birds. There’s a different kind of energy at ICA on Wednesdays, as though people are getting ready for a party. Which in a way we are.
Tonight ICA is hosting Secret Cinema, a program founded and run by Jay Schwartz, in which he screens pieces of his extensive collection of obscure films and other “celluloid treasures.” Jay began Secret Cinema in 1992 “after sensing a need to expose new audiences to neglected films of all kinds,” he writes on the Secret Cinema website. “As the media conglomerates abandon chemical-mechanical technologies in favor of direct electronic distribution schemes and ‘virtual’ realities, it will be up to the cineastes and collectors to keep real movie screens lit, and to introduce new audiences to the joys of the collective film experience. That is the real mission of the Secret Cinema.”
The theme of tonight’s screening is “Summer Means Fun!” Summer also means thunderstorms, and a big one threatens to blow in at dusk, just as set up is running full tilt out on the terrace. For a few minutes, with the tree tops whipping and waving, it looks as though the program will have to move indoors to the auditorium; but then the clouds blow away again, and everyone sighs with relief and crosses their fingers.
By nine o’clock close to a hundred people have shown up. Some are Secret Cinema regulars, some are ICA regulars, and some are newcomers to both groups. The first film we see is Swim Parade (1949), a ten minute documentary short by Robert Youngson featuring visions of Coney Island bathing beauties from 1917. “You could see debutantes there, but you couldn’t see much of them,” the narrator deadpans, and then lots of other women in scanty(ish) swimming costumes appear for a few moments, representing the various decades of the first half of the twentieth century. Mostly what we see throughout the film are women, though we do get a glimpse of Johnny Weissmuller in his pre-Tarzan days, in a one-piece bathing suit that covers much of his powerful chest. After some shots of extraordinary high dives, the narrator sums up portentously (with perhaps just a hint of camp?): “Dreams and desires, fads and fashions, you’ll find them all on the Swim Parade!”
The next short—heart-wrenchingly sweet—contains a different kind of camp. It chronicles the adventures of mid-century New York City school children taken out to the New Jersey countryside to experience nature. The vision of girls in dungarees making beds in the open air and boys brushing out the fur of stolid mules would be hokey if it weren’t so utterly sincere. That’s the feeling I get from many of these films: a flickering glimpse into a lost world where young women swim in heavy bloomers, city children learn to cook eggs on hot rocks, and cowboys twirl ropes and lasso calves like, like…something out of a movie!
After a while the wind picks up again, and Jay walks around checking the speaker poles for stability and staring worriedly at the sky. But we’re lucky: the weather holds, and the films delight. In “Helter Swelter” (1950) there’s even a sing-a-long, and we all join in, following the bouncing ball. “In the good old summertime,” we sing, half out of tune, under the dim, twinkling city stars. And for a moment, under the spell of celluloid, even this twenty-first century crowd is suddenly washed clean of cynicism, enjoying pleasures so old fashioned they almost seem new.
The second Secret Cinema screening at ICA, coming up on Wednesday, July 27 at 9:00, will feature short films about art and artists.
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