When the first sex scene started, two men in the front row started snickering. By the time of the film's climax—an orgy between a male ballerina and a group of working-class dudes, truck drivers, and construction workers—the audience in the small theater had shrunk from five to three. Perhaps it's what could be expected for a midnight screening of 70s-era gay narrative porn, but a few hours before, on a Saturday night earlier this month, there'd been a nearly packed house for a Czech vampire flick.
Founded in 2010, Spectacle is the only place in New York that I've watched porn in a room full of strangers. If you haven't been there before, you know that the volunteer-run theater has the seedy moviehouse feel you only see in actual movies these days. From the outside, it resembles a nondescript storefront with an unmarked black door, the windows newspapered over. Inside the former bodega, there's a cash-only box office cramped into one corner and five rows of five folding seats each. The hallway on the right leads to a bathroom at the back. Admission is always five dollars.
Spectacle's very existence is an anomaly. The theater's in Williamsburg, the eighth-most expensive neighborhood in New York, which, in turn, was recently deemed the most expensive city to live in the world. "Even four years ago, this part of Bedford Avenue was totally different," noted Matt Bonner one of Spectacle's volunteers,. Back then, the landscape was peppered with similar DIY-run arts and music venues. Then the next phase of gentrification happened. Despite the rising tide of condos and boutique shops, Spectacle is determined to survive. They've secured a new ten-year lease, but it's a sizable increase from what they were paying before. That's why they've turned to crowd-sourcing, and so far, the response has been overwhelmingly generous. Even if only a handful of folks come out for some of the late-night screenings, Spectacle's campaign has proved it has a community invested in keeping the micro-theater afloat.
In the case of the rare Buñuel films Spectacle programmed, some of them turned up in Brooklyn Academy of Music's retrospective on the Spanish-Mexican director about a year and a half later.
There were about 20 people getting out from the earlier screening when I arrived. One of them was Craig, a Spectacle regular and a movie-theater enthusiast. "Last year, my wife and I saw 400 movies in the calendar year, all in theaters," he told me. Craig was wearing a graphic T, and he'd styled his long beard in a ponytail. I wasn't surprised to find out he used to own a record store because he looked exactly like a guy who might own a record store. He and his wife Rachel come out to Brooklyn from where they live in the East Village in Manhattan because Spectacle plays films you really can't see anywhere else. "A lot of their programming just isn't available," he said.
Spectacle screens a wide range of genre, art-house, and experimental films, but this month has featured an unusually horror- and porn-heavy rotation. "They tend to be genres where political messages are less censored," explained Danielle Burgos, one of the core volunteers who keep this cinema-lovers' den up and running. That night, two films playing were from two different series the theater had programmed. Ballet Down the Highway (1975), directed by Jack Deveau, was from the series Man in Man II: More Gay Porn Classics from Hand in Hand Studios, featuring movies all by the same New York-based production company responsible for many of the decade's gay classics. Earlier that night, Ferat Vampire (1981) played from Spectacle's series Bohemian Delirium: Czech Horror in the 80s and 90s.
About the latter series, Burgos noted, "After the Velvet Revolution, there was a crackdown and directors started making genre films to get their political message across. It's the same in America, you get a pass with horror movies. Nobody really pays attention to them."
Because the films Spectacle is programming are so obscure—a lot of them you can't even torrent—securing the rights to screen them can be a hunt. "We always do due diligence," explained Sean Berman, another one of Spectacle's volunteers. Sometimes that means getting in touch with the small distributor who's released the film on DVD, sometimes that means tracking down anyone involved with the production that they can find online.
"I just got the OK for Shelf Life. I'm very happy!" gushed Burgos. The film's a dark comedy about a brother and sister trapped in a nuclear fallout shelter for 30 years directed by Paul Bartel, who also directed the 80s cult classic Eating Raoul. Shelf Life (1993) was never widely released—it only had a few New York screenings at small venues not unlike Spectacle. Several years later, when Eating Raoul got a Criterion disc release, Bartel started trying to get something similar for Shelf Life, but he died unexpectedly in 2000 before any distribution had been secured.
"I had to message both of his sisters on Facebook and contact the producer through LinkedIn because all the companies are gone," said Burgos. "They said it's cool to show it."
In another case, hunting down permissions led one of Spectacle's programmers to an Argentinian gentleman who owns the rights to four Luis Buñuel films, and who allowed the theater to screen the works free of charge. In some cases, Spectacle shares a portion of their revenue from five-dollar admissions with artists and distributors, but they can never offer very much. The volunteers explain that they operate at a very slim profit margin which goes right back into the theater.
There's a core team of about eight volunteers who are on the theater's organizational board and then there's a wider volunteer base of 30 to 40 people, which includes several VICE employees. Together, these committed folks manage responsibilities like curating the films, manning the box office, cutting trailers, designing posters, and updating the web site. Spectacle's trailers are especially cool. For the Claire Denis's 2001 thriller Trouble Every Day, which they're showing this month, they've cut a rhythmic minute of the blood, brains, and furtive stares to Nelly Furtado's banger "Maneater."
Even though Spectacle's a small operation, larger art house theaters seem to be paying attention to what they program. In the case of the rare Buñuel films Spectacle programmed, some of them turned up in Brooklyn Academy of Music's retrospective on the Spanish-Mexican director about a year and a half later. There's other examples, too, that Spectacle's volunteers suggest are perhaps not just a coincidence.
"We show these films and then sometimes they get picked up elsewhere and take off," noted Bonner, another Spectacle volunteer. Another example is this past September, Cinefamily, a nonprofit theater in West Hollywood, who programmed a series of industrial musicals, a genre of Broadway-style films produced by corporations and themed around Purina dog food or Ford cars. Spectacle curated a similar series in March.
I asked the regular Craig what one of his favorite films he'd seen at Spectacle over the years, and he suggested In a Glass Cage. "That's this movie about a Nazi pedophile who is in an iron lung because he tried to commit suicide and failed," piped in Berman, one of the volunteers. "It's one of the more extreme things we've played."
Burgos, another volunteer, recalled that screening. "This guy was cackling the whole movie. He was like howling with laughter. I was like, am I missing something?" she noted. "It turns out, it was an exorcism for him. He'd seen it on TV in Spain as a kid and it had scarred him. Now he was watching it again as an adult and realizing it wasn't that scary."
Digging around and finding films no one else is playing, Spectacle's an incredibly valuable part of the independent film ecosystem. But if that's all the theater was doing, they could make some sort of online subscription service, a niche Netflix like Mubi or Fandor. Instead, they're cultivating that wonderful and uncomfortable magic you get when put strangers together in a dark room to watch a film.