On a recent Sunday afternoon, I was one of nearly a hundred spectators at Film at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater taking in a program of shorts by the protean Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Less than two hours later, I was downtown at Anthology Film Archives for a sold-out screening that played as part of the third edition of Prismatic Ground, a festival devoted to (mostly) new experimental work of varying lengths and genres.
This is not an atypical day for a cinephile in New York, where resolutely non-franchise fare — the experimental, the underground, the unclassifiable, the avant-garde — has been a vital, if not a defining, part of the filmgoing ecosystem since at least the founding of Amos and Marcia Vogel’s Cinema 16 in 1947. That spirit seems especially apparent in the past two years. Multiplexes may be going dark (the Cinépolis in Chelsea and the Regal UA Court Street in downtown Brooklyn are now shuttered; soon the Regal in Union Square will be), but micro-cinemas, notably Light Industry and Spectacle in Williamsburg, are thriving. Plans are currently underway for a brick-and-mortar space for Alfreda’s Cinema, which since 2015 has hosted screenings throughout the city devoted to underrecognized titles that, per its mission statement, “celebrate Black and non-Black people of color.” If my own moviegoing experiences since 2021 (following the year-long, Covid-mandated shuttering of NYC cinemas) are any guide, the audiences for works made far outside the conventional financing and distribution infrastructures are perhaps more heterogeneous — in age, race, gender, sexuality — than ever. I am optimistic about very little in our bleak world. New Yorkers’ seemingly unslakable desire to assemble with others in the dark to experience uncommon sights and sounds together, though, is a rare sign of hope that algorithms haven’t completely dominated viewing habits.
Melissa Anderson is the film editor and lead film critic of 4Columns.