For over a decade now, while most moviegoers see summer blockbusters at ground level, film lovers have been going up on the rooftop of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art to see something different.
MMOCA’s Rooftop Cinema series offers experimental films — ranging from the trippy to the cryptic to the purely fun — on Friday nights in June. The films are free for museum members, $7 for everybody else.
Longtime programmer Tom Yoshikami, who moved to Vancouver, handed the reins of the series over to James Kreul for this summer’s program. Kreul, one of the programmers of the first Wisconsin Film Festival back in 1999, is a film critic who has written for Isthmus and maintains his own movie site, madfilm.org.
“I’m excited for the opportunity to catch up with experimental films that haven’t been making it to Madison over the past few years, and then sharing them with audiences who are willing to seek out challenging work,” Kreul said.
What actually makes a film “experimental” is open to debate. The term was originally used to classify films that didn’t have a narrative or linear structure. But some experimental filmmakers resist having their films labeled in the first place.
“Most attempts to define experimental film just inspire filmmakers to make a new film that doesn’t fit that definition,” Kreul said. “But, broadly speaking, many experimental films organize sounds and images based on abstract concepts rather than a narrative structure. Sometimes this can be purely abstract, emphasizing color, shapes or movement.
“Other times the images are representational, but they are assembled for a reason different than telling a story. The game you play watching them is therefore different than watching a narrative film.”
Kreul has structured this summer’s Rooftop series by showing the most accessible films first, to draw curious audiences in, building toward more challenging work later in the month. The series starts on June 1 with “No Maps on My Taps,” a delightful 1979 documentary with three veteran tap dancers talking about their lives.
On June 15, in conjunction with the Madison Reunion conference on campus, Rooftop will present two experimental films from 1968 that capture the spirit of the time, “Yippie!” and “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One.” The five-film series ends on June 29 with the kaleidoscopic “INAATE/SE/,” based on an ancient Ojibwe tale.
“I deliberately began with a crowd-pleasing, inspiring documentary with the plan to get more challenging progressively through the course of June,” Kreul said. “I hope that new and returning audience members will share that journey. But I don’t think any of the films are radical departures from the spirit that Tom established.”
Kreul is saving some of the most challenging experimental films for Mills Folly Microcinema, a new, monthly experimental film series he is starting in July at Arts + Literature Laboratory. He wants that series to focus more on contemporary experimental films, and is looking to build connections with filmmakers in the Midwest to show their work.
“I don’t want to say that Mills Folly will be more ‘serious,’ because that will scare people away and actually I have in mind films that might simply be too audacious for unsuspecting audiences to casually wander into. Mills Folly will aggressively get Madison up to speed on what’s going on in the world of experimental film regionally and nationally, and hopefully foster local experimental filmmaking.”