While some would rather #Netflixandchill, there are ways to go out and experience film that stretch above and beyond your typical movie theater or home viewing experience. Some will even “immerse” you in your favorite film, or at least they will try.
One of these efforts is Little Cinema, a recurring event at decadent Bushwick club House of Yes that presents “immersive screenings” of films, from American Beauty to The Fifth Element. These screenings can involve anything from live music and installation art to high-flying circus acts and magicians, depending on what the tone and themes of the film calls for.
This idea didn’t spring from the brain of a hardcore cinephile, but from audiovisual DJ Jay Rinsky, who performs under the name CHNNLS. Rather than catering to a preexisting fanbase, his modified and mixed-up takes on movies are, in his own words, “almost sacrilegious.” But, he assures me, people seem to be enjoying them.
“[Little Cinema] came from a creative loneliness, in a sense,” Rinsky explains when we met for coffee. “The premise of the idea was just being alone in a video-editing suite and wanting to collaborate with people. And to be quite frank, a large part of it is trying to find purpose in self-entertainment. Loving watching movies, [but] needing to feel like there’s a greater reason that that time is counted as productive. So now, I watch movies with a notebook.”
When I saw their seventh venture, Iñárritu’s Birdman, their brand of “immersive” was more low-key, featuring a live band rescoring the film, moments highlighted through video and sound mixing, and occasional costumed characters traversing through the venue.
Now, having recently finished their 26th project, Little Cinema has expanded into a full-length live show built off of a film rather than a screening with some embellishments. This aligns with Rinsky’s idea of “using movies as subject matter for general creativity,” where the film isn’t necessarily the focal point, but used to make a larger piece. Sometimes the film is paused for several minutes at a time to allow for an elaborate aerial silks routine between two performers dressed as characters from the film, or for a live alien opera performance, as seen in their spectacle-filled The Fifth Element screening. This tactic allows for people who haven’t seen these films to focus on the plot and original material as well as the additions and “immersive” elements.
“I set myself very simple rules, which were to every single week try to do something I’d never done before,” explains Rinsky. “When Birdman happened, people thought they were coming to see a movie. Then we dished out the band, the performance… Now, people come to see a show.”
This isn’t just film anymore; in fact, it’s a lot like theater. Just like the action of a musical pauses at a noteworthy moment for a song to happen, Rinsky often selects moments from the film to loop, creating an ambient vibe that can then be background to a dance number featuring characters from the show, or so on.
“Little Cinema wasn’t meant to be what it is, but kind of by chance I’m in this whole world of immersive theater, basically,” he said. “It’s been interesting to spectate on… Everything is assessed against expectations. I think part of Little Cinema’s early success was that expectation: no one expected circus acts in a film, so the audience would come to see a movie [that] had all this additional big stuff around them.”
While Little Cinema has been lighting up Bushwick for the past few months, the world of fine art is also trying its hand at the concept. In late October, the Whitney Museum opened Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905-2016, a sprawling group show exploring over a century of artistic filmmaking.
Little Cinema makes film immersive by adding interactive performance and multimedia elements to a preexisting source material. Dreamlands, on the other hand, seeks to cover a large amount of ground portraying the many forms in which video-based art can exist.
Is all of this immersive, per se? It depends on how you define it. Looking at the phrase as Little Cinema does, only a handful of pieces in Dreamlands fits the bill. And certainly none of the pieces have a live performance aspect to them.
Alex Da Corte and Jayson Musson’s Easternsports is perhaps the best example of “immersive” criteria in the Little Cinema sense. It is a colorful and dreamlike four-channel video playing on four massive wall-like screens facing each other, creating an enclosure. Inside the enclosure, people sit in multicolored chairs or on the brightly-carpeted floor. Small oranges litter the ground, and neon light sculptures grace each wall-screen. One can become properly “immersed” in the world and tone of the film as they view it, even down to what they’re smelling. Similar is Hito Steyerl’s Factory of the Sun, a 20-minute-ish science-fiction-esque romp tracking a video game, news updates from the future, and a quest to collect sunlight. The film is viewed in a room entirely coated in a neon blue grid, the screen is suspended from an industrial metal frame, and lounge chairs are strewn about. When you’re lying in this room, it doesn’t feel like you’re in a museum, but another world entirely.
Another is Jud Yalkut’s 1967 piece Destruct Film, taking over an entire room of The Whitney’s maze-like floor. The ground is covered with film strips viewers can freely walk over, while the very same film is projected in 3 ways across the room: a 16mm film loops on one wall while two projectors on each side play a sort of game of catch with each other, slinging images back and forth. The piece moves and feels alive, and the source material is reflected in the physical world of the room.
Other works in Dreamlands are “immersive” in slightly different, more physical ways, like Trisha Baga’s Flatlands, showing video on a screen with a disco ball nearby while viewers can lounge on couches and peek through flimsy 3D glasses. Anthony McCall’s Line Describing A Cone examines a projected image as a physical object, and Ben Coonley has crafted a geodesic dome with video playing on the inside. Some pieces are more “remixed,” to use Little Cinema’s term for modifying the audiovisual elements of a preexisting film.
Joseph Cornell created his 1936 piece Rose Hobart by cutting up a 16mm print of the 1931 film East of Borneo, focusing on emotional shots of the film’s lead actress and intercutting them with atmospheric footage of water and objects. He chose to further modify the film by projecting it slowed-down and through a glass filter, giving it a dreamy blue tint.
Others still seem to miss the “immersive” label altogether. Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus-era Das Triadisches Ballet is a truly groundbreaking piece of costume design, choreography, concept, and cinema. Shown just on a screen in a museum, it is unclear what makes it immersive. The same goes for many other parts of the show: art from Disney’s Fantasia is a pleasing peek into the process that went into making the beloved film, but any “immersive” quality these 2D works possess is unclear. The New York Times dubbed the entire show “ultra-immersive,” but its point of reference for “non-immersive” works seems to be videos on small phone screens or tucked away in film archives. Is a large screen all it takes to immerse oneself?
Earlier this week, Little Cinema presented Requiem For A Dream, a film that many may shudder at the thought of coming to life. Rather than staging it in their usual way, Rinsky labeled this version “remixed,” as he would be cutting and splicing scenes, rescoring the entire film, and shortening the length rather than focusing on a variety of live elements. Interesting that a group chiefly known for “immersive” presentations of films changes the language used to describe a show of theirs that even deviates slightly from their definition of “immersive,” yet an entire massive video art exhibition can have the label slapped upon it without question.
“I think ‘immersive’ is a bit of a buzzword now, it’s being used inappropriately,” adds Rinsky. “I’m not too sure what the definition of it is.”
It seems others may not know either.
Little Cinema’s final show of the season is Edward Scissorhands, happening Tuesday, December 6 at House of Yes.
‘Dreamlands: Immersive Art and Cinema, 1905-2016‘ is on view through February 5 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.