Initially, Samuel T. Adams had a condition for being interviewed: he must remain anonymous.
“I got an email,” Adams explained to me, “from Janus Films saying, ‘Hey! Saw you’ve been screening a few of our films! How’s that working out for ya?’”
Adams doesn’t charge for any of the screenings at Tenant416, the DIY cinema he runs out of his Bushwick studio loft. Visitors are encouraged to bring their own booze. Given that Janus’ titles were purchased in the form of Criterion Collection DVDs or the long obsolete 16mm format, it’s safe to say no harm was inflicted. Still, the New York-based distributor is an entity powerful enough to leave small ops shaking in their shoes. So, Adams scrubbed his name, along with an “incriminating” list of past programming, from Tenant416’s website.
In late October, he received another email, this time from Rialto Pictures. It was a bill for $600, with the corresponding films listed. He was given 30 days. Adams has yet to pay it. Neither Janus nor Rialto have taken further action.
It’s easy to see why Adams felt an interview would be “against my better judgment”— he’s a celebrated printmaker and painter who’s received press from Hyperallergic, Frontrunner, and Artinfo. On the other hand, he’s hardly reclusive. At “5 Films of Gordon Matta-Clark,” a collaboration with Chelsea gallery ZieherSmith held in November, Adams offered notes to a packed house, beer in hand.
Adams’s studio loft sits on Grattan Street, a familiar beat of Bushwick Open Studios. Upon entering, one finds a small kitchen housing paintings and prints in their mailers, plus a poster of Bergman’s Howl of the Wolf on the wall. A small hallway hosts some of Adams’ more recent prints, made from a “primitive style”— wetsanding and stretching the canvas inside out. Passing the yellow cans and tiny bookshelves, the floor immediately becomes a 225-square-foot sheet of black and yellow paint accumulated from eight years of occupancy. Planters of euphorbia hang throughout. A still from the erotic haunted house oddity Thundercrack! emits from the digital projector onto a large white wall.
Though Tenant416 lately hosts no more than five regulars, 25 people have squeezed in at once. When I first visited, it was Election Night, and only Adams, a fellow student from his grad school days of SVA, and myself were in attendance. The film, Sergei Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964), was part of a series of “Ukrainian Films Under Soviet Rule.” When it was over around 9:45pm, the New York Times electoral map was projected, glaring at us like the “big board” in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.
Though one might expect a labor of love like Tenant416 to be the end product of a lifetime immersed in cinema, Adams, at the age of 34, opened his space after only six years of serious cinephilia. His education began with basics: Fanny and Alexander led to every Bergman film, then every Tarkovsky. Polish films followed not long after. The Corridor, Sarunas Bartas’s dialogue-free film from 1995, was a major gateway, but Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) “changed my life,” Adams says.
Eastern European cinema is his preferred niche: “The films that come out of Eastern and Balkan states are so different and powerful, and they don’t get a lot of play.” Aside from combing film texts, he discovers many obscure titles, some of which don’t get proper home video releases, through an invite-only torrent hub. A Serbian cinephile friend hooked him up, giving access to a bevy of world literature, cinema, and music. The files are translated, uploaded, and shared by over 22,000 members.
But despite the anxiety that comes with illegal torrenting, even if world cinema isn’t monitored as closely as, say, Captain America: Civil War, it was the accrual of the 16mm films that caused Adams the most trouble. The first year of Tenant416 was purely digital— the first month dedicated to more “household name” directors— Bresson, Carpenter, even Polanski’s The Tenant. An in-house Super 8/16mm retrospective of avant-gardist Paul Clipson led Adams to collecting film in January 2015.
His first purchase was 36 16mm reels of dance footage from 1961, which he screened at ZieherSmith on three adjacent projectors. Running it, Adams says, “was a dance of its own.” He discovered the Janus titles through a Craigslist post: “Fifty Films Plus A Projector – $1000,” though he ended up paying double. Those films are all in yellow cans and sit on one of the cleaner spots of hardwood in the studio. He has another tall locker full of more reels (Twisted Nerve among them), and a smaller, hidden cache of adult celluloid sits under his window. (“You ever see Lunch a la Cunt? It’s great!”)
Though the last few months of screenings have been attended mostly by close friends, Tenant416 has attracted Columbia MFAs, programmers from Metrograph and Anthology, and filmmakers over its three-year history. In light of Adams’ trouble, Spectacle, the bodega-turned-screening-room that opened in South Williamsburg in 2010, is discussing the possibility of him programming there. Meanwhile, Tenant416 will be closing its doors to the public at the end of January. But Adams sees it as a step forward— “I really want to take it to a higher caliber; it’ll be a learning experience.”
As difficult as the films screened at Tenant416 may be, chances are you’ve never seen anything quite like them before. The incredible production value, the lavish costumes, the inventive cinematography— for instance, in Shadows, there was a camera attached to a falling tree, giving a POV shot— don’t come too often in even the American cinema of that era. And even if you don’t understand, the open discussion of it is what matters. Filmgoing is best when it’s a communal experience. For the past three years, Tenant416 has thrived on having its doors open to anyone and everyone, recalling film societies of the past like Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16. But due to pressures from distributors, Adams has kept things hush-hush; all you need to do is sign up for the mailing list.
Luckily, there are two more opportunities to enjoy Tenant416 while it’s open to the public— 16mm screenings of the Jacques Cousteau/Louis Malle collaboration The Silent World (Jan. 24th) and an encore of the Gena Rowlands made-for-TV film A Question of Love (Jan. 31st). Meanwhile, Adams has restored his list of past programming. His reason for reposting: “Fuck the Man.”
Correction, January 16: The original version of this post was revised to correct the year of Spectacle’s founding and to be more accurate about Adams’s relationship with Spectacle.