One ray of sunshine in our current fearful era where police, guns, Trump, and terrorists are big players is new film viewing opportunities in ways both big — the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission Theater’s 543 seats in five theaters — to small at the Peephole Cinema — a free alley delight with no seats at all. (Peter Lawrence Kane ably covered the Alamo Drafthouse, slated to open in the Mission District in T-minus three days on Dec. 17 in a revamped and restored movie palace.)
Although they had me at queso and adult milkshakes coupled with the ability to walk to a flick, the devil’s going to be in the Drafthouse details: There’s silent service of food and drink, beauty from the walls to the seats, and cinematic light and brightness from a high end Sony 515DS Dual-4K projector (a first for all of North America). This is a place to kick off Star Wars viewings (a thing) in a space that calls to mind other Bay Area Cinematic Velvety Ladies with a long past of looking good in gold accents, the Castro and Paramount Theaters.
[jump] A few blocks away from the Alamo Drafthouse is Peephole Cinema, which is a great way to nab a much shorter viewing experience. Around the corner from a Salvation Army thrift store (look for men in fluorescent vests moving rolling racks of clothes), mortuary (try not to gape if an actual body lump on a stretcher is stealthily removed from a van and wheeled in the light green building by two men), Anthony’s Cookies and AL’s Place (often cited as the country's best restaurant), 280 Orange Alley at 26th Street has a pleasant surprise: peephole cinema, a “miniature cinema” that plays silent film shorts via a dime-sized hole 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For free.
When I first stumbled on the peephole cinema, I was walking with my small rescue dog and young son on a sunny day. Before getting to the Peephole Cinema, we walked past a tired looking tan man with dirty fingernails camped out with liquor, blue sleeping bag and other belongings. Sometimes I spot street finds in this alley: an olive green Pottery Barn blanket in decent shape, or used up food wrappers — a reminder that city life can be gritty. The garages and walls of Orange Alley have a variety of murals, and the Peephole Cinema is on the ground floor of a home that has a maroon red base color.
As you gaze at Peephole Cinema, each film is under or around two minutes, with pleasant images like colorful moving circles or a (real) dog moving in a calm fashion inside a house. Laurie O’Brien, whose background is in animation, created Peephole Cinema, and works with guest curators — the current S.F. program is curated by Bay Area artist Sarah Klein and is called Wish You Were Here with experimental shorts by Ellen Lake, Jacob Rivkin and Charles Woodman. There are satellite peephole cinemas also running in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. O’Brien attended Cal Arts and visits L.A. often. The films do rotate and O'Brien is hoping to find funds to pay the curators and artists.
Once I peered into the peephole on that first warmish day, I made it a daily point to stop and peek at the now familiar films for a few seconds (if my dog decided to take a crap or growl at an errant pigeon or dog), or longer. There’s usually no one else around on my weekday jaunts into Orange Alley, but it’s a guarantee that I’ll hear announcements of “corner!” from the AL’s Place kitchen staff carrying trays of food ingredients, or school kids playing if it’s in the afternoon. Muni and tech busses provide an ongoing low hum, as well as the steady stream of cars of Valencia and 26th Street. At nearly six feet tall, I have to bend and hunch a bit to look into the peephole, but the pleasure of viewing helps me feel like a kid again because it is wonder and fun on the other side of the hole. Enjoying art that is free is, well, freeing. There’s also the palatable and pleasant break from the violence and unrest of the world, as well as my own daily world: dog waste, working and too high medical bills. Finding the peephole cinema has been a fabulous mini-surprise in my urban Mission existence of late.
Via phone interview from New York where she now lives, O’Brien told me she lived in San Francisco for 20 years and still has family here. The project came about when she was looking for a way to share film with a wider audience than, say animation festivals that are attended by other animators. When asked about the tech logistics of the installation, O'Brien shared, “I’ve done a lot of different peephole installations but never done one with moving media. It was a real challenge to technically keep it running 24/7.“ My unplanned way of finding and falling for the peephole cinema is a sometimes-typical experience, according to O’Brien. Because the peephole cinemas are set up on public streets in three cities, the way of finding it is by happening on a blue glow (at night) or via word of mouth.
“I really love when people accidentally discover it. It’s my favorite part about it. When I lived in San Francisco, people were doing small gestures of creativity. One of the reasons I love having it in an alley is that it gives a feeling of discovery.”
O’Brien also explained that a peephole in modern times is often used for security. By getting me to gaze with my right eye into the hole in the wall, O’Brien is reversing that purpose, and creating a layer that is safe. Being able to pop in and watch as little or much as I want in a handful of minutes is the opposite of committing to a two-hour screening in a traditional theatre or my own comfy couch at home. Having short and sweet options in an alley is part of the fun.
Alamo Drafthouse, opens Thursday, Dec. 17, in the New Mission Theater, 2550 Mission, 415-549-5959.
Peephole Cinema, open 24/7, 280 Orange Alley. Free.