Introducing the Alloy Orchestra’s "Wild and Weird" collection of short films on Friday at Ebertfest, film Professor David Bordwell said it offers "a quick trip in a time machine of 20 years of cinema."
"These films are from quite early in the history of cinema," said the University of Wisconsin professor who wrote a textbook that became a standard in film courses.
"You’ll see some remarkable things."
Indeed, the 10 shorts lived up to the title that the Alloy Orchestra gave its hand-picked collection. The subjects of the shorts ranged from rarebit-induced surrealist dreams to impossibly cute insects performing acrobatic tasks or having an extra-marital affair to a satanic skeleton wearing a long dark cape and performing magic tricks employing comely women.
"Then, as now, some of the most experimental work is done in short subjects," Roger Ebert wrote in his review "Wild and Werid." The screening was sponsored by his favorite restaurant chain, Steak ‘n Shake.
The three-piece Alloy Orchestra, using odd instruments, performed a live accompaniment of the new music they wrote for the shorts. Their music was unobtrusive, smart and appropriate to subjects. The trio of Terry Donahue, Ken Winokur and Roger Miller have performed at nearly every Ebertfest since the festival began 13 years ago.
Festival director Nate Kohn said many festival-goers have told him the Alloy program is the highlight of the festival.
Bordwell said most of the shorts in "Wild and Weird" are known only to film historians. He gave the Ebertfest audience a short summary of the early years of cinema, starting with the period of 1894 to 1920. It'is fascinating to film historians because it contains the "core and crux of what cinema later became," he said.
He also compared the first 25 years of films to what you see on YouTube today — short little gags, funny things, and subjects filmed, or shot in video, locally.
Bordwell said the early films were shown at fairgrounds, vaudeville houses and other places, sometimes with live acts. Each short generally ran for 10 minutes or less, as did the ones in the Alloy collection. They included "The Red Spectre," "The Thieving Hand," "Artheme Swallows His Clarinet" and "Princess Nicotine or the Smoke Fairy."
Bordwell called 1905 to 1912 the nickelodeon period, when storefront buildings were converted to movie houses. The films shown at those tended to be shorts, too. The programs of shorts would rotate throughout the day; people would go in and out and watch them for 20 or 30 minutes at a time.
Then came the period of "purpose-built" movie houses or theaters dedicated almost wholly to films. The films then became longer in length, 20 to 30 minutes each. Then, through the ‘20s, "picture palaces" were built.
"You’re in one now," Bordwell told the Ebertfest audience at the Virginia, which opened in 1921.
Picture palaces would offer whole programs of feature films, shorts and sometimes, live acts, the professor said.
He told local folks they actually live in a "layered history of cinema," because several movie houses existed in C-U at one time. Besides the Champaign Park District-owned Virginia, which offers a variety of programs, not just movies, the only old movie theater in Champaign that continues to show movies is the Art Theater on Church Street. It shows independent and art films and also is home to a variety of film festivals.
A group of area residents is now working to turn the Art Theater into a cooperative. So far about 670 people have bought "shares" for $65 each to be members of the co-op, which hopes to purchase a new digital projection system. The effort began less than a year ago, when current Art Theater operator Sanford Hess told the community he believed the only viable way to keep the Art Theater going as a movie house was to transform it into a community-owned cooperative. If it succeeds, it would be the only one in the country, organizers believe.
The folks behind the cooperative are distributing information and selling shares during Ebertfest. They are located in the western-most white tent outside and in front of the Virginia,.
Disclosure: I am a member of the Art Theater Co-operative.