Greenpoint Gazette
Bruno Navarro

Speak Easy Series: Cinema 16

BY Alana Levinson

With her Speak Easy Series, Cara Cannella hopes to “give a voice to people who are creating” and “focus on constructive, creative activity.” Once a month, she hosts and curates a live discussion between artists and entrepreneurs. Being a journalist, Cannella asks each panelist thought provoking questions, which give insight into their creative process.

For her third installment of the series at Veronica People’s Club, Cannella brought together the curator of Cinema 16 Molly Surno, musician Julianna Barwick and experimental film maker Joel Schlemowitz to talk about their collaboration.

Cinema 16 is an experimental film collective that was founded in New York in 1947, which after a period of dormancy, Surno resurrected three years ago. It aims to create a communal viewing experience by merging art, music and film. After moving to New York from Los Angeles, Surno had a “lust for a creative community” and wanted to be an “umbilical cord” between different kinds of artists. Under her direction, Cinema 16 gives vintage silent films a new life by finding the right musicians to compose music for them.

In 2009, Surno went outside of her comfort zone in choosing a film by a contemporary film maker, Joel Schlemowitz. Schlemowitz has been making experimental films since the 80s and is a professor at The New School. Surno thought his 3-minute piece, “1734” (after the Emily Dickinson poem he hand-painted onto 35 millimeter film), would go perfectly with Barwick’s experimental compositions. Barwick grew up in Louisiana and Missouri singing in church and her school choir, but didn’t start pursuing music as an adult until 2005 when a friend gave her a loop petal. Now signed to Asthmatic Kitty, she uses mainly this, her voice and light instrumentation to craft her unique sound.

The creative process was such that Schlemowitz gave his film over to Barwick and didn’t see the final product until he showed up three months later on August 29, 2009 at the Brooklyn Yard to watch it. “Cinema 16 was a different collaborative process,” Schlemowitz said. “It was more handing the work off, surrendering it and showing up at the screening. It made it that much more exciting.”

Cinema 16 was Barwick’s first formal collaboration. Her process is mainly solitary; she records in her room using her own equipment (when she first started, this meant just a tape recorder). But when Barwick saw Schlemowitz’s film, she was inspired. “I thought it was really original, short, and beautiful,” she said.

Although Barwick claims to never have used her photography degree, Surno thinks her background helped make the collaboration successful. “In working with musicians I don’t expect them to have a history in art,” she said. “[Barwick] had a very strong aesthetic sensibility.”

This sensibility may be one reason the music and film seem to fit together perfectly. Schlemowitz admits he is sensitive to the way sound and music interact with images in films. But when he saw his once silent film set to Barwick’s music, he felt that “the audio score didn’t impede on the visual.”

If anything, it only made it stronger.

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