Underground Cinema

Total Mobile Home puts avant-garde film where it belongs - in the basement

In these days of corporate cinema ownership, it's not often one finds the proprietors greeting patrons at the door, offering them a free soda, and shaking their hands on the way out. Or putting on a performance after the main attraction.

But those are regular features of the year-old Total Mobile Home Micro Cinema, a rough-hewn screening room run by Rebecca Barten, 32, and David Sherman, 28, in their unfinished basement at 51 McCoppin. Fast becoming the Mickey and Judy of the local cinematic avant-garde, the two present offbeat and experimental works on a 4-by-5-foot screen for a $3 to $5 donation. As with M&J, the rough edges -- architectural and otherwise -- are part of the operation's charm, and the duo's exuberance compensates for any artistic mishaps.

A recent Friday night program was typically atypical. The main event was Jean Epstein's silent version of Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, on which Luis Bu–uel worked prior to Un Chien Andalou, his famed collaboration with Salvador Dali. Composer Jack Boos had worked up an original score, which he played on a donated '50s pump organ. ("People love giving us stuff," Barten says. "They know we'll make good use of it.")

The 16mm print was a tad ratty, and the subtitles were in French, but none of the dozen-plus attendees complained. Usher is a mildly surreal gem, and everyone appreciated the effort Boos had put into his score, a subdued affair that often provided shrewd counterpoint to Epstein's imagery.

The evening's second feature hadn't materialized, so Sherman and Barten improvised a multimedia experience. Rocking in a chair at screen right, a flashlight strapped to her forehead, Barten began reading from a Gothic novel. Sherman fired up a reel that included Dali's dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound; Abel Gance's mad-scientist caprice La Folie de Docteur Tube; and a wacky cartoon, The Farmer and His Cat. Then, clad in a skeleton costume, Sherman scampered to screen left and danced to the footage, occasionally flashing a strobe light.

The melange was a film-purist's nightmare, but when it worked, it worked well. The live mayhem heightened Gance's already nutty film. Sherman delighted the mostly under-30 crowd with audio snippets, including a timely one from Multiplication Rock that accompanied the animated farmer's attempt to dynamite his cat, which produced a shower of kitties.

Amid the chaos it didn't matter that Barten's recitation didn't really click. The next day over diet Coke and a half-dozen Camel cigarettes, she conceded as much, but said she didn't mind: "Obviously this becomes a workshop for our own ideas. I was thinking about how the surrealists were influenced by early vampire films. ... I thought, 'Why not add some dense, impossible-to-follow language?' "

Fear of alienating the audience would be one reason, but Barten knows her crowd: "We have our share of walkouts and people getting restless, but for the most part they go along."

"The only complaints we get are about the seats," Sherman adds. "George Kuchar commented on how hard they are."

"Yeah, those seats are hard," local filmmaking legend Kuchar says. "But I always enjoy going into a basement. I like it when movies go underground -- the farther the better. Also, their cinema smells so good because of Rebecca herself, that lilac aroma she exudes. I even made a little video about David and Rebecca because they're such fun characters on the scene."

Total Mobile Home has also captured the attention of San Francisco Cinematheque Director Steve Anker, who has lent equipment and moral support, as has the Canyon Cinema cooperative.

"Total Mobile Home complements the work of more formal organizations like Cinematheque and Pacific Film Archive," Anker says. "I especially like that they enjoy the humble conditions they've created. More than anything else they want a homey atmosphere in which to share art publicly."

Things moved well beyond the informal after Boston-based filmmaker Luther Price turned the space into a clown environment last fall, complete with multicolored balloon chandelier. His performance included obscene phone calls to numbers provided by the audience. One of the "victims" was hilariously abusive right back. Later, Price slathered himself with ice cream, "which led to a post-show ant invasion," says Barten.

For all the shenanigans, an awareness of film and art history underlies the Total Mobile Home goings-on. (For a schedule, call 431-4007.) Barten often prepares pamphlets about dadaism or more obscure artistic movements. Sherman stapled together writings by and about John Cassavetes for screenings of Faces and a rarely seen French documentary about its creation. A vaudeville-inspired event emceed by karaoke singer Richard McGhee intentionally harked back to cinema's early days, when movies served as "filler" between live acts.

"We get a lot of equipment from flea markets and garage sales," Sherman says with pride. Barten adds that as conventional arts funding diminishes, inventive, low-budget programming may again take precedence over grant-writing in the arts organizer's repertoire. If so, Sherman and Barten, with 65 shows already behind them, have steered Total Mobile Home onto the road to success.

 
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