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The Mad, The Bad, The Rad: An Interview With Noel Lawrence

Interview by Aline Duriaud.

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Noel Lawrence is a co-founder of Other Cinema Digital, the DVD distribution arm of San Francisco-based Other Cinema. He answered questions about Other Cinema and current projects including his latest venture, Provocateur Pictures, and his work on the legendary J.X. Williams.

3:AM: Please describe the history of, and your current involvement with, Other Cinema.

NL: Other Cinema began about 25 years ago as an underground exhibition space in San Francisco. The idea was to show marginal film that would not get exhibited in multiplexes or museums. Craig Baldwin put it best when he defined Other Cinema’s film programming as “the mad, the bad, the rad”.

The Mad as in alternative subjectivity and the repressed perspective.
The Bad as in camp, kitsch, low-culture.
The Rad as in radical, progressive politics.

We launched the DVD label about five years ago with the idea of promoting alternative work to an international audience through home video. The twenty-title catalogue we built speaks for itself and I am very proud of the work I did there.

3:AM: Can you talk about the interaction between “high” and “low” in the films you distribute, and in the modes of distribution and exhibition of films and compilations?

NL: I like to think of the work I curate as a mixture of the “high” and “low” or, better put, breaking down the barriers between “high” and “low” art. For example, when I first exhibited my Experiments in Terror program around Europe back in 2002, I would program ‘70s horror trailers with “fine art” films from Peter Tscherkassky and others. This juxtaposition rattled some audiences who thought I was mixing garbage together with legitimate art. However, I see parallels, interactions, and influences between fine art and mass culture and I like to underline that in the programs that I curate.

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Further, the DVD market is, to some extent, a mass audience that is looking for “entertainment”. For me, however, the Other Cinema Digital project was a chance to show innovative and challenging work within the “Trojan horse” of entertainment. The programs were fun but they also had deeper resonances and meanings. For example, a lot of people enjoyed The 70s Dimension at the level of nostalgia for silly commercials, but it was also an anthropological document of consumer culture.

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3:AM: Is there a performative element to the screenings you organise?

NL: As for the screenings I have organized, I really like to include a performative element, especially when it involves providing the unexpected. For example, I once did a program called Medical Madness (old education and experimental films about hospitals) and Craig came out before it started to announce I couldn’t do the show because I had a terrible accident. Then, an ambulance siren sounded and a bunch of our friends in nurse uniforms wheeled me out on a gurney. I was covered in blood-stained sheets and my head was wrapped in bandages. I then proceeded to introduce the program while screaming in pain. I wonder where my video of that might have gone…

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3:AM: Where do you currently distribute and screen Other Cinema films?

NL: These DVDs are distributed through a combination of commercial outlets like Best Buy and institutional spaces such as universities and museums. That goes the same for my new distributor Microcinema.

3:AM: How is Other Cinema funded?

NL: It’s always been a hand to mouth kind of thing.

Almost all of my projects have been done with very small resources. I am a believer in a variation of the Einstein theory of e=mc2. In my theory, energy is not just matter but money. The more creative energy and inspiration you put into a project, the less money you need to make it happen. That’s why George Kuchar can make a masterpiece for $200 while Hollywood makes a piece of garbage for $200 million.

3:AM: What are your projects involving the J.X. Williams archive?

NL: I have several irons in the fire. I am currently editing a book on the great director which includes a number of critical essays as well as historical documents from the Archive. I am hoping to see that come out by the end of the year.

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I am also working on a documentary called The Big Footnote which will be a tell-all on the life and work of J.X. I am raising money for that right now. Meanwhile, I have a smaller but very interesting project called J.X. Williams L.A. which is a video tour of the seamier side of Los Angeles. I show the viewer where important events happened in the life of J.X. Meanwhile, the Archive will be unveiling a few fragments we have recovered from lost films by J.X. Williams later this year.

3:AM: Please also talk about any other projects you’re involved in currently.

NL: I guess you can announce it here first but I just teamed up with Microcinema International to launch Provocateur Pictures. Mission is about the same as my past efforts: when Hollywood and Sundance reject your work, I’ll screen it. When your film is called weird or subversive, I’ll embrace it. I am interested in taking chances on great films that others don’t have the guts to show. As always, I want to get work out there that is different and possibly helps people think different.

The first release, Rob Nilsson‘s Words For The Dying will be out in the fall. It’s a documentary about Brian Eno and John Cale. I have several other titles on the horizon. Among them, I am planning to release an amazing documentary on Fidel Castro where he hangs out with the filmmaker for a whole weekend. We get to see the Cuban dictator play baseball, tour farms, give four-hour speeches, etc. Really unique stuff and a beautiful film portrait.

I will be focusing more on feature documentaries, but I will continue to release more short film collections too. People have been nagging me for a third volume of Experiments in Terror, so I think I will need to do that sooner or later.

Until I find myself lying in a gutter, I will continue to get cool stuff out there.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Aline Duriaud is a writer, curator and mental health advocate. She is currently curating an exhibition at London’s Vegas Gallery, which will open in February 2009.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 9th, 2008.