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[whitespace] Sprocket Ensemble
Sound track: The musicians of the Sprocket Ensemble will accompany the first night of short films at the Film Cafe at the Sonoma Museum of Visual Art.

The Film Cafe returns for another quirky summer of quick flicks

By David Templeton

THE EXPECTANT babble of excited art lovers mingles with the clink of forks on plates, while the sky over Santa Rosa slowly darkens. Fresh patrons continue to trickle into the sculpture-dotted outside courtyard at the Sonoma Museum of Visual Art. The newcomers jockey for position at the tables laden with delectables and desserts.

But food is hardly the main course tonight, and as the dusk deepens into darkness, all the patrons hit their chairs for a good view of the conspicuous silver movie screen. The lights need not go down, since Mother Nature has already arranged that. With the stars now beginning to twinkle in the heavens, a projector leaps into action. The screen shimmers, glistens, and bursts into life as everyone leans forward to absorb the sudden image of ... dancing eggs?

Sure, that and a whole cinematic array of offbeat visions, animated and otherwise, many lasting less than 30 minutes and most less than five. Welcome to the Film Cafe, a quirky event that premiered last year--for three astonishing Friday nights--only to see attendance more than double, from 75 souls to over 150 between the first and the third unique presentation.

"Apparently there is a pretty big audience in this area for alternative films," affirms Gay Shelton, director of SMOVA (formerly the California Museum of Art). "There are evidently lots of people eager to see strange, non-narrative, non-commercial ... cinema. These films are humorous, they're fun, they're irreverent--some of them are pretty weird. People need a little weirdness now and then."

To feed that need, SMOVA will be expanding the series this summer. Beginning May 7, the Film Cafe will be held on five Friday evenings, once a month through Sept. 3. Many of the filmmakers will be present throughout the series to introduce their work, though not necessarily to explain it.

"There is no way to explain some of these films," Shelton says. "And most of the filmmakers prefer to have them stand on their own anyway. It's more interesting this way."

The cafe setting itself, Shelton says, only adds to the fun.

"We wanted to create an event that existed somewhere between being a cocktail party and a kind of wacky film festival," she explains. "You can eat cake and have a movie too."

As for holding the event outside, under the stars, Shelton says she insisted on that: "It's summer in Sonoma County, dammit," she says, laughing. "I want to be outside at night."

The short films, a mix of amateur efforts and professional fare, are mostly the work of California filmmakers, the unique products of a special community of visionary artists whose efforts are often seen only by other experimental filmmakers.

"There's not a burgeoning market for short films," Shelton notes, pointing out that she specifically chose not to show feature-length movies at the Film Cafe.

"We're all used to having a certain kind of experience at the movie," she says. "You go to the theater, you buy your popcorn, you sit in your seat--and you psychologically live this one drama for 90 minutes or a couple of hours. What we offer at the Film Cafe is more like going to a poetry reading than like going to the movies. There are several films made by several different filmmakers--so you are exposed to many different voices."

The opening event this year will be "different" indeed. In addition to the premiere of Stupor Mundi by Monte Rio artist Rock Ross, an assortment of animated shorts will be shown, with live musical accompaniment provided by San Francisco's Sprocket Ensemble, a high-energy team of concert musicians who specialize in live performance to short films. On June 11, Liz Keim, film director for the renowned Exploratorium in San Francisco, will present a selection of visual treasures from the science museum's archives.

SONOMA COUNTY filmmakers will take over on July 9, as Healdsburg's Toney W. Merritt plays host. Among the offerings that evening will be the very funny two-minute romp Lonesome Cowboy, and a special screening of J. Rosenblatt's Human Remains, a disturbing 30-minute work that explores the banality of evil by employing "outtake" footage from the everyday lives of five infamous historical figures, including Hitler and Stalin.

Aug. 6 will feature San Francisco father-and-son filmmakers Michael and Eli Rudnick. The elder Rudnick will show a number of offbeat shorts by Bay Area experimenters--including several of his own, stunningly poetic pieces. Eli (age 10, and, according to Shelton, "already an ingenious, accomplished filmmaker") will show his own work. After the intermission, the audience will be treated to a selection of audacious--and "rather adult"--animated shorts by Baltimore filmmaker Martha Colburn, whose work includes such titles as There's a Pervert in My Pool. (Colburn is a self-taught filmmaker, but her work is accomplished enough to have been featured at such venues as the Museum of Modern Art.)

The season wraps up on Sept. 3 with an evening of hyper-surreal, elaborately costumed fantasies by one-of-a-kind director Relah Eckstein (creator of last year's Film Cafe hits Eggy Time and Oatmeal), who will screen her new work, Lucy's Dream, along with a hand-picked bouquet of shorts from prominent Los Angeles artists.

Asked to choose one adjective to describe the films patrons will see this season, Shelton insists on two. "They're wacky films," she chuckles, "but they're quite sublime. And isn't that a wonderful combination? At the Film Cafe, we offer a peek into a world that most people never get to see. You get to come and view amazing art being done by artists purely for the sake of making art.

"It is," she concludes, "a very cool thing to do on a warm summer night."


The first Film Cafe opens at 8 p.m. May 7; films begin screening at dusk. Order tickets in advance by calling the museum office at 527-0297. Ticket prices vary: single-night tickets are $12 for museum members, $15 for non-members, and season tickets (for all five nights) are $50 for members, $60 for non-members. Tickets will also be available at the door.

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From the April 29-May 5, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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