Film: Big screen, little movies
Feeling summer blockbusted? Try these films on for size.
You like great film? Then maybe you caught Fuck, the aptly titled documentary exploring the social, historical and linguistic significance of the mother of all swear words. It came out a couple of years ago and featured interviews with such pop notables as Drew Carey, Ice-T and the late Hunter S. Thompson. No? Didn’t see that?
Probably not—it never hit Sacramento theaters. Dozens of unconventional but wholly worthwhile titles are released each year that never make it to our local screens. The nearest they typically come is San Francisco or Los Angeles, which, with the price of gas price right now … well, you get the picture. Actually, in this case, you don’t get the picture.
Thanks to a local couple, though, you can at least get a taste of what you’ve been missing without investing the time and money driving to the Bay Area. All it takes is $5 and a short trip across the Sacramento River.
Every Friday night, audiences gather on secondhand chairs and couches inside a former union hall in West Sacramento to watch films, a microcinema operation called Movies on a Big Screen—or MOBS for short. Robert McKeown and his wife, DeeAnn Little, launched MOBS about two years ago, mostly out of frustration with Sacramento’s film scene. “It started out of annoyance at all the stuff that goes to L.A. and San Francisco and New York and never comes here,” says the 42-year-old McKeown. He and Little, who both managed local theaters in the ‘90s, eventually became bothered enough about Sacramento getting passed by that they decided to do something about it themselves.
They held their first screening in September 2006, and except for a brief hiatus last year, have shown a different title each week at 7 p.m. ever since. Last November, they also began running the iconic—and, of course, interactive—The Rocky Horror Picture Show at 10 p.m.
The films featured at their 7 o’clock showings tend to be truly independent, that is, made completely outside the Hollywood studio system. A lot of movies that are considered independent, including No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, are actually made by the “independent” arm of a major studio, established to capitalize on the success of the indie movement. “A lot of times, people think they’re seeing independent films, but they’re not,” McKeown says. “We want to expose people to stuff that really is independent.”
Dave Smith, a former manager of both Sacramento’s Tower Theatre and the Varsity Theatre in Davis and regular MOBS attendee, says he’s glad to see another entertainment alternative in Sacramento, especially knowing what anyone who tries to provide one is up against. “It’s really hard to get anything started in this town—unless it’s a sushi bar,” he says.
Filmmakers who’ve screened movies at MOBS certainly seem to appreciate McKeown and Little’s effort. Chris Metzler, co-director of Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea, a documentary about the rise and fall of a Southern California resort area said that alternative venues like MOBS were critical in generating the interest that enabled his film to obtain wider distribution. “If there were only multiplexes, our film wouldn’t be out there,” he said.
But filling a niche in Sacramento’s film scene doesn’t necessarily fill seats, and MOBS faces some pretty big obstacles on that front. For one thing, MOBS’ screenings haven’t been listed on the movie showtimes page of any local newspaper, including this one. “It’s definitely a handicap,” says McKeown. With his close-cropped blond hair, pale complexion and glasses, he looks, and at times sounds, like a cross between late-night TV host David Letterman and indie icon Steve Buscemi. “But not our only one,” he adds with a laugh.
Also working against MOBS is the fact that it relocated last year, after its first home, Fools Foundation in Midtown, closed. Its new location at Fourth and F streets in West Sac—provided by local “eco-urban” developers LJ Urban—has some definite advantages, like plenty of parking and the capacity to seat more than 200 people. On the downside, the venue’s off the grid—even if only a little.
McKeown and Little have their hands full. They’re relegated to promoting their screenings through local media, e-mail, MySpace and other grassroots methods. They squeeze that in between finding titles to fill the calendar, which McKeown says is like “running a film festival that never ends"; negotiating screening fees; lining up occasional guest speakers; technical duties, like compiling the trailer reel; running the Friday screenings; and maintaining the building. Yep, McKeown even cleans the bathrooms.
Which begs the question: Why do they do it?
“We both think it’s healthy for a city to have the availability of this type of entertainment, particularly a city that’s at least claiming to be supportive of a vibrant arts scene,” he says. Local writer, director and producer William Preston Robertson, whose Rock That Uke, a documentary about the use of the ukulele in post-punk music, ran at MOBS last July, put it a little more dramatically: “MOBS brings a character and a richness that is desperately needed for the cultural life and integrity of any creative scene of merit to a city’s life and without which, all you got is Disneyland.”
While the cultural well-being of Sacramento may be the overriding concern for McKeown and Little, it’s the appreciation of patrons that really keeps them going week after week, according to Robertson, who’s become fairly close to the couple since screening his doc at MOBS. He doesn’t think they “need to be hoisted onto the shoulders of a cheering mob to be validated.” They endure the work they do every week, he says, for the kid who comes to The Rocky Horror Picture Show one night “and says, ‘This is really cool! I’m gonna get my friends to come!'”
Still, McKeown doesn’t think it’s completely unrealistic to believe Sacramento could have an alternative entertainment scene that’s as active and distinctive as San Francisco’s or L.A.'s. “We would like to be at least one small part of a change in that direction,” he says.