Rooftop Cinema curator Tom Yoshikami examines the screen in the rooftop garden at MMoCA before the series' first screening in 2006.
"I've attended a lot of avant garde screenings in Madison in the last six years, and it's rare that over forty people show up to any one screening," says Tom Yoshikami, a graduate student at UW-Madison who works as a programmer for UW Cinematheque and the Wisconsin Film Festival. "When Cinemathque ran a series five years ago titled "Unseen Cinema," which highlighted avant-garde works from practically the beginning of film, there were nights I would be only one of fifteen people in attendance."
This certainly isn't the case with Rooftop Cinema, though, when it premiered last summer. "There were some nights where we had well over 100 people," says Yoshikami, who programs the four week series of short avant garde and experimental films for the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. "When we originally put this together in the spring of 2006, we had no idea as to how many people would show up," he continues.
These movies under the stars will be making a return engagement to the rooftop garden at MMoCA following this blockbuster showing, scheduled to run every Friday though the month of June.
Once again, each Friday evening screening at Rooftop Cinema is organized into a series. These are titled: "The Strange World of Science Fiction," "By Hand: The Art of Animation," "Film as/on a Battlefield," and "W.O.R.D. G.A.M.E.S." Each features four or five short works, running any where from two-and-a-half minutes to a half-hour in length, and created primarily by filmmakers from the U.S., along with a couple from Canada and the U.K.
The Daily Page recently spoke with Tom Yoshikami about Rooftop Cinema, what viewers can expect this year, and the film community in Madison. This interview follows.
The Daily Page: What was the biggest surprise last summer in the inaugural year of Rooftop Cinema?
Yoshikami: The turnout.
It surprised the museum as well, as they had no idea it would be so popular. When we started this last year, it was an experiment to see if this kind of programming would be popular. The amazing turnout proved to the museum that there is a home for it in Madison.
I do think the popularity stems a lot from the fact that people get to watch the movies outside in the beautiful sculpture garden, and not necessarily through the strength of the programming. But that helps too.
What kind of comments did you about this experiment?
The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Many attendees at the first screening were museum patrons showed up for the First Friday at MMoCA. They didn't know what to expect and weren't familiar with avant-garde films, but they decided that they would stick around.
As it turns out, came back for more. The series gained momentum as it went along. The number of people at the final screening was something like 120, and there was only night out of the four where we had bad weather.
One thing there was a lot of interest in was chairs, which the museum is unable to provide. Therefore, we encourage people to bring their own lawn chairs or blankets. Come early and stake out a spot!
Are there any connections between what was screened last year and the programming this summer?
One film I was a little bit hesitant to program last summer was Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames, because it's not avant-garde in the strictest sense and I thought that many people might have been familiar with it. People responded really well to it, though, and that inspired me in part to screen La Jette this summer.
We also screened Hold Me While I'm Naked by George Kuchar last year. This Friday, we're screening Dwarf Star, which was created by his brother Michael Kuchar. I also had people tell me that they liked films by Robert Breer, Emily Breer, and Owen Land, so we're screening more of their films this year.
One of the things were doing a little differently is that we're starting the films a little later. As the summer went on, the sun went down later and later, so we're pushing back the start time to 9:30 p.m. for this year.
Will you be using the same set-up, with the screen situated on the east side of the garden and a 16 mm projector?
More or less. We are also going to show some video creations this year, though, so we will also have a video projector and decks. Additionally, the museum is providing the screen and sound system from in house, as opposed to renting it from Overture last year.
I'll be working with Jerad Lewis, a good friend and the projectionist at Cinematheque, and we're satisfied well be able to switch formats smoothly. This is not as easy as it sounds, though.
How did you decide what films to screen this year?
They're either thematic or technique-based. Three of the series are based upon a genre, and one focuses upon technique.
Usually, the programming for a series begins with one film. For example, I saw Dominic Angerame's Anaconda Targets at the Whitney Biennal last summer, and it blew me away. This film uses pre-existing military footage of aerial sorties over Afghanistan. It's something when I saw it I though this would play very well, particularly on the rooftop of the museum.
So I began by thinking what kind of program could I build around that film, and I though maybe using the idea of the battlefield would prove interesting. Then I began to think of other films that would work well alongside of it.
What about the animation series?
MMoCA Curator of Education Sheri Castelnuovo asked if I might be interesting if programming Larry Jordan's film The 40 and 1 Nights (or Jess' Didactic Nickelodeon) for Rooftop Cinema. This is a film about an animator, so I got to thinking about other animations or films about animators. This led to the wonderful Canadian film Ryan by Chris Landreth and The Film that Rises to the Surface of Clarified Butter by Owen Land, which rips on the process of animation. Then I thought about films that have different types of animation, such as 70 where Robert Breer uses spray paint.
I purchased a video cassette copy of La Jetee long ago, and the film has recently been released on DVD by the Criterion Collection. This is a pretty well known film as it was the source for Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys. Do you think people will be familiar with it?
I'm not sure if people will recognize it. If we had screened this eight years ago, people might have, but these days, I don't know. I would hope so. It is one of those instantly appealing films that people take to very quickly and ends up sticking in your head for quite some time. I don't think I have ever met anyone who hasn't liked La Jetee.
It's one of my favorite films. It's also one of the few films that inspires me to make films, because it's told primarily through still images, with one notable and extremely important exception. I think it is a really interesting way of bridging still photography and cinema.
I actually contacted Criterion, and they put me in touch with New Yorker Films, who has the actual theatrical rights for the film. We're renting a 16 mm print of it, so the experience is simply going to be much, much richer than on videotape or DVD.
In last year's Unusual Landscapes" series, you featured Sky Blue Water Light Sign by UW professor J.J. Murphy, who also serves as curator for the Spotlight Film & Video series at MMoCA. Are you screening any works made by him or any other Madison-based filmmakers this year?
One of the things I was most excited about programming last year was JJ Murphy's film. I think there's a pretty large contingent of folks in this town that would like to see Murphy's work more often.
So I'm particularly excited to screen his film Science Fiction in "The Strange World of Science Fiction" series this Friday night. This five minute work was the first of Murphy's films that I have ever seen. It's a very different film than Sky Blue Water Light Sign and does a very good job of highlighting the diversity of his work. It was the first film I knew I wanted to program, and the science fiction series is programmed around it.
There are many other of Murphy's films that I would love to show, but due to the constrictions of each evening's program, where we only have 45 minutes to an hour, they're simply too long.
Are you still getting the majority of your selections from Canyon Cinema in San Franciso and The Film-makers' Cooperative in New York? What other sources to you utilize to acquire films for the screenings?
Yes, though we are going to the National Film Board of Canada for a couple films, as well as from an individual filmmaker. This is Martha Colburn, from whom we acquired Cosmetic Emergency for our battlefields series.
What is the role of Curator of Education Sheri Castelnuovo and the staff at MMoCA in creating Rooftop Cinema?
They're really the organizers of this whole event. MMoCA is bringing me in to curate these series.
They're amazing to work with, I couldn't ask for a better collaborator. I think they like the series, as well. They realize it brings in a slightly different audience and gives a different kind of exposure to the museum.
Why did you elect to keep the series to four weeks again this year?
Budgetary constraints. One type of feedback we got quite a bit last year were people asking why we couldn't continue these screenings all summer. Hopefully this is something that we can grow in the future, perhaps even in the fall and spring as well.
What are you plans in case of inclement weather?
We'll head down to the MMoCA Lecture Hall and screening room, which is where the Spotlight and Wisconsin Film Festival screenings take place. Although we won't be able to look up to the stars in the case of rain, it will still be a fun evening.
Forecasts call for rain tonight and tomorrow night, but for great though possibly cool weather on Friday. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
What are your goals for Rooftop Cinema this summer?
I would simply love for people to enjoy themselves. I hope we get some fresh faces who get exposed to a different type of cinema than they might have typically seen in the past. I think one of the good things about the series is its diversity, from its rigid structuralist avant-garde films to others with a pretty strong narrative that incorporate a lot of comedy.
Film in Madison is blossoming via the film festival, online video success stories, the inaugural Sundance theater, and so on. Where does Rooftop Cinema fit into this?
I hope that it complements the other film series taking place. The festival does a great job screening experimental work, and I've tried to do more of that at Cinematheque, but there's still a paucity of it in Madison. Certainly the art cinema proper in town such as Westgate or Sundance doesn't screen many experimental or short films, and the museum is one of the few places that does do that.
I hope Rooftop Cinema attracts an audience from those other places, and adds to peoples sense of the history and diversity of the medium. Something like La Jetee is an interesting example. A big budget Hollywood adaptation of a medium length short film, more or less avant-garde and told through still photos, is pretty amazing.
What is the future of Rooftop Cinema?
I would love for people to come to count on this as a staple of Madison summertime activities.
Though I am stepping down from curating Cinematheque, I'll still be here working on my dissertation and active in the Madison film community. I'll still be programming for the film festival, and I hope to do Rooftop Cinema again next year.
The first of four weekly Rooftop Cinema screenings will be held atop the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art this Friday, June 8, with the reels scheduled to begin rolling at 9:30 p.m. Once again, popcorn and drinks will be sold by Fresco. Tickets are $5, or $15 for the entire series. Each subsequent screening will be held on Friday night at the museum garden through the last week in June.