Red House brings a different breed of cinema to Syracuse

'Overcoming the Spectacle' series part of an effort to show edgy films locally.

You’d be hard-pressed to find an art house film buff who thinks Syracuse is a haven for alternative cinema.

There are the three area Regal Cinemas (all located in malls) that offer the general public the top studio releases of the month in less-than-regal atmospheres. Those seeking an alternative to the generic multiplex have to venture 30 minutes by car from Syracuse University's campus to the Manlius Art Cinema, which screens films of a more independent variety in a decrepit environment resembling a grimy tunnel.

"We can’t really do what the mall is doing (cinema-wise), but we can’t really be an independent house as well. Just look at the independent houses that closed because they weren’t very lucrative. We’re trying to find a happy medium."
- Natalia Mount

Enter the Red House, a gallery and theater located on the periphery of Armory Square, vying to become an edgy cinema venue with annual film programs.

Their latest program, Overcoming the Spectacle: A Cinema of Pure Means, which opened in October and runs into late April of next year, features a total of 18 films. Billed as a series of films that “look specifically at the cinematic strategies that refute fabricated meanings, thoughts and desires,” the films range from Marxist-minded 1960’s French Situationist cinema to current-day leftist work by such auteurs as San Francisco’s Craig Baldwin and Hungary’s Peter Forgacs.

Though Red House is not easy to pin down as an arts venue - it houses a black-box theater, an art gallery and a bar – all of its exhibitions and programs are connected through a broad mandate of “transforming lives through intimate and distinct experiences in the arts.”

Seated on the third floor in Red House’s communal office space, executive director Natalia Mount said the avant-garde slate of films chosen by curator Lawrence Kumpf fulfills that mission. The program was conceived with the intention to both educate and advocate, Mount said. 

“We want people to think about the issues we present, through the types of plays, the types of films and types of art we exhibit,” she said.

Mount met Kumpf through a past collaboration between Red House and Brooklyn’s ISSUE Project Room, where Kumpf is house manager. The two galleries have been working with the New York State Council on the Arts to establish a connection between upstate and downstate arts organizations in Central New York.

Kumpf – a longtime admirer of Red House – proposed the idea for his film program to Mount.

Over the phone from his office at ISSUE, Kumpf says he wanted to address a question that founded the basis for his interest in politically charged cinema: “What is the political action of the individual?”

Kumpf, who studied the work of Situationist filmmaker Guy Debord at Stony Brook University during graduate school, took four months to finalize his program for Red House. 

For the uninitiated – the kind of audience Red House is hoping to attract - Situationist cinema was a product of the Situationist International, a group of international artists and activists founded in 1957. French Marxist writer Guy Debord was the first Situationist to use the film medium when he adapted his highly influential book, The Society of the Spectacle, into a feature film.

His technique was to edit together pre-existing film and news footage in an effort to, as Kumpf put it, “charge the audience with creating a new meaning.” Given Debord’s influence, Kumpf chose to open the program with his early works.

With their lack of narrative structure, the films of Debord and other Situationists are challenging to even the most adventuresome of viewers, in Syracuse or elsewhere.

“They’re definitely difficult-to-watch films,” Kumpf said. “I sort of like to think about Debord’s use of the image in relation to pop art. Pop art uses images, so the viewer has to construct the meaning of the image. Debord uses popular imagery in his films. But what he’s doing is allowing the popular imagery to show how it’s constructed meaning, and show the fertility of that meaning.”

One of the few contemporary filmmakers who works in the same vein as the Situationists is Craig Baldwin, whose film Mock Up on Mu is being screened on December 3. Using the editing technique spearheaded by Debord, Baldwin sees his films more as essays than movies, and himself as a painter, not a director.

“My cinema is self-reflexive. It doesn’t try to suspend disbelief,” Baldwin said from his home in Los Angeles over the phone. “I wouldn’t say they’re an easy ride. I don’t make films that you can escape into. They’re more of an intellectual argument.”

Ultimately, Mount says, Red House is trying to provide people with something they can’t see anywhere else in Central New York.

“What we’re showing marks a huge departure from what’s at the mall or the Manlius,” Mount said. “We can’t really do what the mall is doing (cinema-wise), but we can’t really be an independent house as well. Just look at the independent houses that closed because they weren’t very lucrative. We’re trying to find a happy medium.”

Go see a movie

Films are shown at 6 p.m. on the following dates at the Red House, 201 S. West Street in Syracuse. A suggested donation of $5 is requested. For more about the movies in the series, visit the Red House Web site.

Jan. 28: Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952)L’Anticoncept (1953); Cine-tracts (1968)

Feb. 11: La gai savoir (1969)

March 11: Flaming Creatures; Mama und Papa (1964); Leda und der Schwan (1964)

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