Los Angeles adores the movies — excuse me, the cinema — absolutely reveres the art form, worships the craft to near fetishistic levels. No surprise, since it is a company town, home to studios big and small, where theaters seemingly outnumber those other places of worship: churches.
Given this milieu, it’s also no surprise that revival and repertory theaters flourish in L.A. at a time when in much of the country, vintage films are streamed in the comfort of your living room. Art-house staples such as the New Beverly Cinema, American Cinematheque at the Egyptian and the Aero, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and the Nuart curate classic, cultish and curiously idiosyncratic offerings to audiences with a deep sense of history and equal amounts whimsy.
But you haven’t truly experienced Los Angeles’ celluloid culture — forget digital; we’re talking primo 35mm prints — until you spend a night at the Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre in the Fairfax District.
Since 2007, a group of film buffs has turned L.A.’s erstwhile lone silent movie house into a tabernacle of talkies with offerings that even movie mensch Peter Bogdanovich wouldn’t recognize. The Cinefamily offerings are at times willfully obscure (anyone familiar with “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce-1080 Bruxelles”?), at others quirkily nostalgic (Bogey & Bacall in “Dark Passage”) and campily creepy (“Blue Sunshine”). The flicks may entertain you, mystify you, occasionally infuriate and disgust you, but they are like nothing you’ll ever experience either in a chain theater or at home with a Redbox selection.
It’s more than just a revival house; it incorporates films into broader entertainment. About once a month, a program called “Doug Bensen’s Interruption” takes a cheesy movie — December’s offering: “Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas” — and has comedians and actors (Sarah Silverman and Zach Galifianakis, for example) sit on the couches in the first few rows, microphones in hand, providing snarky commentary, a la “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Cinefamily plays vintage Saturday morning cartoons on, well, Saturday mornings, hews to its roots with a Saturday night silent movie, and often presents curated compilations, such as “The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy,” hosted by author Kliph Nesteroff.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a cinephile, even if your idea of edgy is the oeuvre of Garry Marshall, you’ll feel smarter and hipper hanging out with these cool kids.
If possible, try to schedule your SoCal trip to coincide with Cinefamily’s monthly “A Band and a Movie” night, in which a musician pairs a movie that best encapsulates the aesthetic of her or his music. After the showing, the crowd repairs to the back patio for a short set by the musician. In late December, for example, drone metal artist Dylan Carlson picked Sam Peckinpah’s bloody “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.”
The interior of the 180-seat theater is noir chic. It’s dark and slightly dank, with framed photos of silent-screen icons (from Fatty Arbuckle to Clara Bow) lining the walls. The velvet-backed seats clearly have seen better days, but early birds willing to pay slightly extra can lounge on the couches in the first few rows. A DJ is camped in the far left front of the stage to provide pre-movie entertainment, but most of the crowd hovers in the narrow lobby, getting caffeinated and talking movies under framed posters of John Cassavetes and Buddy Rogers.
Everyone’s a critic here, or so it seemed. I overheard a confab about the plot ambiguities of “Eraserhead” and how it presaged the psychosexual pathology in “Blue Velvet.” But then I ran into Steven Gonzalez. He was no cinephile, thank goodness.
“I just think this place is cool because they have all these strange movies,” he said. “One time I came, they showed a documentary about some religious cult. They showed infomercials from the cult from ’70s TV. Craziest stuff you’ll ever see.”