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  • "Shown in 16mm on a Giant Screen":Adventures in Alternative Exhibition with The Secret Cinema—An Interview with Jay Schwartz
  • Elena Gorfinkel (bio)

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Jay Schwartz. (Photo by Silvia Hortelano-Pelaez, courtesy Jay Schwartz)

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Jay Schwartz's Philadelphia-based micro-cinema, The Secret Cinema, named after the 1968 Paul Bartel short film of the same name, has for sixteen years been devoted to the screening of a wide spectrum of 16mm films. Culling from his vast collection of educational, industrial, amateur, and no-budget films, cartoons, lost classics, and cult oddities, Schwartz's programming exemplifies the historical labor of cinephilia in an era of digital reproduction. In a cultural moment in which DVDs and online "clip culture" rule, and small gauge film formats have become historical curiosities, Schwartz tracks and lovingly re-circulates the traces of the popular—and unpopular—film culture of previous eras. The Secret Cinema gained its underground reputation as a floating repertory space, setting up shop in unexpected, nontraditional spaces, such as nightclubs and coffee shops, transformed into film venues for an evening by Schwartz's creative programming. His early efforts were part of a larger trend of emerging alternative exhibition spaces in the United States in the 1990s, as art houses and repertory theaters began to suffer—the flourishing of indie film notwithstanding—with the advent of home video and the hegemony of the multi-and megaplex. What distinguishes The Secret Cinema from other ongoing series such as Other Cinema in San Francisco, which focuses on experimental film, or micro-cinemas that feature work by contemporary filmmakers, is Schwartz's attentiveness to the ephemera of film history—from Scopitones1 to home movies to travel shorts to "exotica" music films and vintage stags. In bridging his film collecting and public exhibition, Schwartz's long-running project sustains an atmosphere of perennial [End Page 115] discovery and cultural archeology, in which the traces of the past are unearthed afresh, for both the devoted cineaste and the curious viewer. As a mobile space of film exhibition that champions the collective pleasures of filmgoing, The Secret Cinema continues to thrive in Philadelphia despite the economic and cultural challenges of running an ongoing film series. I met with Jay Schwartz in March 2008 to learn about the genesis and meandering itinerary of the Secret Cinema from its beginnings to its current location at the Moore College of Art & Design.

Elena Gorfinkel: When did you start collecting, and what kinds of films did you collect?

Jay Schwartz: I started collecting films very randomly. My parents had an 8mm Kodak Brownie projector that I liked to watch get used, and later use myself. I began reading about silent movies and watching them on TV, and I would get these tremendous catalogs of 8mm and 16mm films from Black-hawk Films. At that time I would use my mother's home movie projector and watch them on regular 8mm. I bought up this little library and would watch them over and over again. I was interested in all kinds of old movies at the time. I didn't have a sound projector, so though I knew about the Castle catalog, which sold cut down versions of features, and subtitled editions of sound films for people that only had silent projectors, I wanted complete films. That was chapter one of my film collection, which took me from tenth grade till the time I went to Temple University, majoring in Radio, TV, Film.

I saw a classified ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer for a used 16mm sound projector for $100. I called the guy—he told me he would throw in some movies with it. I thought it would be a neat toy to play with, and since I was starting film school it would be a good investment for watching my own films. So I bought this early 1950s DeVry projector. The seller threw in five or six reels of films he thought were junk films, which were educational: an Encyclopedia Britannica film about pilgrims, and a sponsored film that I still use called Figure Forum—it starts off and says Warner Brothers Presents...


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