Sep 23, 2016

15 Years: Looking Back (and forward)


The day of the week was actually Sunday, however September 23 was the date, fifteen years ago, that these three miscreant little publications debuted to the outside world. I still vividly remember the night before, coming home with a banker's box full of still-warm Baxter paper, in anticipation of the next day at Canzine, where this trio of issues made its debut. After a hilarious, caffeine-fuelled, sleep-deprived day, Susan and I celebrated with a pitcher of beer at Healey's across the street. "We made it!" 

The Eclectic Screening Room would continue with another twenty-two issues (plus three special monographs), preaching the gospel of the weird and wonderful cinema it adores, until going into hiatus in 2012, for reasons still obscure to the general public.

Nothing happens over night of course. Even these early scruffy pages were borne from an ambition as early as 1994, when yours truly first had desires to start a film magazine. Of course life and work predictably got in the way, until 1997 and 1999, when I did some dry runs at content that will never leave the ones and zeroes of the old Mac IIsi Hard Drive. 

Finally, in early 2001, upon revisiting the idea one more time with the realization that I wasn't getting any younger, and armed with the proper means to do some desktop publishing even of this small scale (for now), came the ambition to further put fingertips to keys and see where this journey would go.

During the spring thaw, there was established a deadline of fall 2001 to introduce them via the season's small press fairs. The objective was to create three issues by that time, largely to show (mostly myself) that I was serious about it, and that it wasn't yet another one-hit wonder or unfinished project in my arsenal. 

When the first three issues of ESR peeled out of the printer, the internet still wasn't in our house, I still hadn't a DVD player, wasn't as yet a whiz kid on the computer, or much of a designer (still not). Looking back (rather wincingly) at this early work, the prose is rushed and uneven, but, uh, yeah, I guess the passion is there. A lot of what I wrote I'd likely not do again, but each piece is a stepping stone. You can only get better by keeping at it. 

Both of my readers probably already know this tale, but it bears repeating here.  Its original title was going to be Filmbitch. I wish I still had the artwork for the front cover of issue one to show you. It had the same screaming woman's face from Flaming Creatures as seen above in the red cover for ESR #1. (What was the reason for all the screaming faces on the covers in those days? Who remembers?) The Filmbitch picture had the screaming woman as depicted, but with a comic strip balloon emanating from her mouth, saying "Oh no! Not another $#!@?! movie fanzine!"

However, at the eleventh hour, I discovered that an LA-based magazine used the title, and hurriedly scrambled to think of another before going public with the name. Anything else I could think of with Film or Cinema in the title was too similar to something already out there, until at 11:59 The Eclectic Screening Room came forth. In hindsight, I was glad that I never used Filmbitch, as the title suggested a more confrontational tone than I would have been comfortable with. The conceit was however unchanged: to appraise the cinema that existed outside of the mainstream multiplex. Independent-experimental (insert term here) works from the underground, B genre films, Canadian movies, and even lesser known foreign cinema would be regularly examined between the covers. 

Both of my readers also probably know that I've had a love-hate relationship with the Eclectic Screening Room name ever since. While surely it sums up the gamut of cinema from Grade A to Z that I enjoy, the title was also terribly misleading to some (and understandably so). As the years progressed, when ESR was on display at numerous fairs and expos, I was always asked by some passersby, “So, where do you screen these films?”  I mean, shit, did people ask Mike White where the cashier was? 

With this misunderstanding came the recurring, though necessary, life lesson that people either get it or they don't. The Eclectic Screening Room isn't so much a place, as it is a state of mind. Despite whatever lofty ambitions one may have to change the world with a vanity press, the humble reality is that you'll largely be preaching to the converted. This back room hobby, which developed from a xeroxed zine into tabloid-sized laser print with colour covers, originated simply with a desire quoted from Andre Breton, the father of Surrealism: “One publishes to find comrades.” On that measure, it succeeded, and for that I'll be eternally grateful.

By the time the last issue (to date) came out of the rollers, most things in my life existed all out of that modest goal way back when, to get this text out into the world. Most of my current social circle and livelihood exists thanks to fellow travellers who happened along and discovered this magazine, became friends, and sometime contributors. The different screening venues I've hosted or co-programmed since 2006 were also possible simply through the people I've met because of the magazine. It's been a pleasure to see the ripple effect resulted from dipping a toe into uncertain waters. Sure, I would've have enjoyed more silver across my palm, and better distribution, but honestly, having these words touch others' lives for a moment is the greatest reward a creator can ever hope for.

Exactly five years ago this weekend, ESR had its tenth anniversary issue launch (with cake!) at Toronto's Word on the Street. It was a perfect day, reuniting with old friends, making new ones, married with strong sales. This year's edition of Word on the Street occurs this same weekend. If ESR was still being printed, it's likely that instead of typing this, I'd be doing various last minute things in preparation of my biggest gig of the year. It still seems funny not to be scurrying around in September. 

On the other hand, maybe there is still something to learn from these old zines. They had an urgency that I've lacked in recent years. That eagerness to try anything, willingness to scare oneself, living hand-to-mouth: traits also found in a lot of the renegade films I was reviewing. But the new guard of the so-called “indie scene” has moved in- the wine and the bottles are both different. Even the scene itself has mutated into something else. Sticky tables and 12-inch staplers are replaced with iPads and Kickstarter campaigns. Much of our generation now has to think about family and retirement. We've gotten softer, and more comfortable in the middle. Spending the kids' inheritance to convince three people about the subversive qualities of Ray Dennis Steckler doesn't seem like such a big deal any more.

The fifteen anniversary is much quieter by comparison. It's Friday night, and the overcast sky is getting dark. I'll put on this little party hat and smile at my reflection in the window, thinking about absent friends. Can I really call it a fifteenth anniversary if I haven't published in the past four years? Sure, why not? It's all a state of mind, right?

Yet, this Sabbatical was necessary, if to realize that this scene isn't so much about age as it is about a belief system. I had forgotten those sets of values, and have lately been re-acquainted with them, which I'll explain in future posts. It simply has taken this long to find out how to preach the old gospel, in a new and different way. 

If you've read this far, thank you. You're why this has kept going since 2001. The next phase is soon to begin and I hope friends new and old will join us for the ride.

The end, and a beginning.


1 comment:

Simon St. Laurent said...

Thanks for the insight. The creative process is always intersting to me; that includes the moment when one decides to be not only be creative, but to take a chance in combining creativity and business/marketing.

At the beginning of this year I pulled from my archives issues of "The Eclectic Screening Room" -- I was reminded how fine a publication it is. I know a fair bit about many of the subjects covered within the publication's pages, but I also discovered, or re-discovered, how much I want to know.

To anyone reading this comment: Take my advice and grab some back-issues of ESR magazine. They go real good with coffee!

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