The Georgia Straight, July 17 2003
EXTINGUISHING THE LIGHT!!
AFTER FIVE YEARS AS MANAGER OF THE GASTOWN EXPERIMENTAL-FILM VENUE, ALEX MACKENZIE SWITCHES OFF THE BLINDING LIGHT!!
By John Lucas
It couldn't have lasted forever. For five years, local film afficionados with a taste for the offbeat, the ephemeral, and the experimental have had a home at The Blinding Light!! Cinema. Since opening in July of 1998, the 110-seat storefront theatre at 36 Powell Street has played host to just about every sort of film-related happening imaginable, from screenings of long forgotten Cold War propaganda reels and bleeding-edge documentaries to live events blurring the boundaries between cinema and performance. Established directors have popped by to discuss the oeuvres and neophytes have shown their first efforts. Some visitors to the Blinding Light!! have rekindled their love affairs with underground film and others have discovered a world beyond the multiplex.
This week, however, it all comes to an end. Blinding Light!! proprieter Alex MacKenzie is closing up shop with two more nights of programming and a blow-out bash. In a recent telephone interview, he told the Straight that everything's going according to plan. "I want to get out of here before the stage where I'm not enjoying it. And I'm still enjoying it, so I feel good about leaving it in that state," he said. "I had organized it so that is was a five-year lease, so that I was sort of setting myself up with a five-year deadline in mind, with the possibility that if this was all i wanted to do - and I was continuing to think that this is all I wanted to do - then I had the option to renew. But also with the idea that five years was probably about as long as I would want to do something like this for, given the intensity and the demanding nature of the job."
MacKenzie is an experimental filmmaker in his own right, and he said the demands of the Blinding Light!! made it difficult to focus on his creative output. So why not just hand the reins over to some other dedicated cinephile? According to MacKenzie, several people expressed an interest in keeping the BL!! up and running, but none had a real sense of the amount of labour it would require.
"There have been a number of people who aren't aware of what's involved in running a space like this, who maybe have a kind of romantic vision of how to go about that," he said. "Once I start talking to them about it, and saying, 'Well, it requires these things: this amount of time, this amount of energy; you know, shipping, receiving, Fedex, bills, bills, bills - all this kind of stuff. Administration, grant writing.... It's not just putting on a show.' Once they have a better sense of what's involved, and the overhead involved - because there's obviously financial issues with anything like this - then they sort of back away."
How, then, will the void created by the Blinding Light!!'s closure be filled? Kier-La Janisse, creator of Cinemuerte, an annual festival specializing in horror and fantasy films, isn't optimistic. "I don't really think it will happen," she said in a separate phone interview. "I think there will be a kind of a hole here for a while. I think that there may be sporadic events, but it all depends on the personal tastes of the independent exhibitors. Like Dmitrui Otis, who's a friend of mine. He does exhibition, but he does all porn. That's his thing. And I'm actually leaving to go to Austin for a year, so I'm one of the other local independent exhibitors that would pop up doing stuff once in a while, but i'm not gonna be here. And I don't know that many other people so far who are really active in it. There won't be anything like the Blinding Light!!, where you've got offbeat programming every night of the week and where he's bringing in films and guests from all over the place."
MacKenzie's take is that the local alternative-cinema milieu will continue to exist, with screenings taking place in lofts, studios, and artist-run spaces. Those with nonmainstream tastes will still have their needs met. The Pacific Cinematheque will go on catering to those with highbrow leanings; Video In and the ANZA Club also host screenings. The Sugar Refinery looks to be a contender as well, hosting Portland documentarians Bill Daniel and Vanessa Renwick for two nights in early July and presenting next month's Polyester Prince Film & Music Rambling Road Show.
"Before the Blinding Light!! was around, these kinds of shows did exist, but they were much more underground, and as much as the Blinding Light!! is an underground space, it did have visibility," MacKenzie noted. "And that has to do with just making yourself visible and putting out a program that's six nights a week. Inevitably people are aware of your presence, whether or not they come to the shows. But esoteric programming did exist before the Blinding Light!! - and even before the Edison Electric, the first [cinema] project I was doing - in fits and starts."
One of the secrets to the Blinding Light!!'s visibility was the care that went into the programming. MacKenzie struck a careful balance between crowd-pleasing and the esoteric, with the hope that the curiosity seeker who showed up on a Friday night for Jeff Krulik's Heavy Metal Parking Lot or Todd Hayne's Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story would return some evening to take a gamble on something more challenging. "My personal interest is definitely of the more experimental nature," MacKenzie said. "And that's not the kind of programming that I could do here and make it fiscally possible all the time."
Clearly, an unspoken part of MacKenzie's mandate for the Blinding Light!! has been to educate. During the cinema's five-year run, he has fostered an audience for offbeat film work and nurtured those with creative leanings by providing a venue. "I was definitely pleased with the consistency of our bring-your-own-film nights and the fact that those nights really did create filmmakers, mediamakers," he said. "These people would come every month, and at the end of 12 months they'd have 12 films under their belt that they wouldn't have had otherwise."
The BL!! also spawned its share of curators. Janisse presented the first Cinemuerte there in 1999 with MacKenzie's encouragement. The festival moved to the Pacific Cinematheque the following year and has remained there ever since, but only for technical reasons; if she has been able to screen 35mm films at the Blinding Light!!, Janisse asserted, she would have happily kept Cinemuerte there. "Alex was such a huge help, and the whole atmosphere of the Blinding Light!! was so relaxed that it was a really positive experience," she said. "And I think that's how it is for a lot of people who end of doing events there, things that they would never be able to do at any other theatres in town, programming that other theatre directors would scoff off. Alex was always open to everything."
Said MacKenzie: "My hope is that people will have been inspired enough by the space to keep doing that sort of thing on their own territory. I have a feeling it's actually going to spawn a whole bunch of little things as opposed to one big thing, which is more exciting to me."
When the Blinding Light!! closes its doors for the final time, MacKenzie will turn his attention to his own "expanded cinema" works. He's also working on a book about underground media arts on the West Coast. He does not rule out the possiblity that he'll be presenting the works of other filmmakers in the future, but he makes it clear that, for now, his days as a cinema manager are behind him. "I'm certainly still interested in film exhibition, and I'm very interested in new ways of doing that," he said. "I think what I'm most excited about is moving away from the black box and coming up with new ways to present work. Everything from outdoor screenings to spaces you wouldn't normally expect to see this kind of work in. That's exciting to me. And I think it's a little easier to get excited about that when you aren't strapped with a venue that you have to maintain."
In the meantime, the Blinding Light!! is still open, but not for long. Its last show, on Thursday (July 17), is the final edition of BYO8, the ongoing bring-your-own-film night. After that, the cinema will say farewell with a closing-night bash on Friday (July 18) and a garage sale on Sunday (July 20).