A Schoolhouse for Cinephiles: In Praise of Light Industry
After 11 years of residence in Greenpoint, co-founders Ed Halter and Thomas Beard are moving their microcinema, Light Industry—dedicated to screening film and electronic art in Brooklyn since 2008—to Williamsburg. Ed and Thomas found inspiration for Light Industry in Amos Vogel, who founded the New York Film Festival, pioneered early alternative film spaces such as Cinema 16 and once wrote that “the avant-garde’s delight in the unpredictable, its insistence on the deconstruction of ossified codes, its probing of the unacceptable, signify gestures of freedom in an increasingly commercialized cinema.” I would repeat this remark, word for word, about the indispensable work that Light Industry has done since 2008. Just as Vogel exploded conventional notions of film programming, showing unusual and overlooked films, foreign films, educational films, erotic films, experimental films–sometimes all together in one screening–Light Industry has operated in a similar spirit.
I first went to Light Industry in 2016 to see D.W. Griffith’s True Heart Susie. A few weeks after my first screening, I began volunteering at the box office; I’ve been coming back for the past six years now and seen everything from Felix the Cat cartoons to Ronald Reagan campaign films to lectures about primitive forms of cinema. Spending so much time there over the years, I formed a friendship with filmmaker Jeff Preiss, who sits with consistent reverence in the first seat of the front row (and on the Board of Directors) and let me in on a secret: “Ed and Thomas describe Light Industry as a venue for film and electronic art. It’s really a place for film scholarship. It’s kind of a halfway house for Bard grads.”
Ed was my mentor at Bard and taught me about things like video art and queer cinema. Under his guidance, I co-founded a collective with Mariana Sánchez Bueno and Sancia Nash called Queer Vault. Our foremost aim was to catalogue and archive the Kingston LGBTQ Center’s library of queer media. Housed in what used to be a bank, the their archive—mainly VHS tapes and DVDs, ranging from abysmal softcore-porn rom-coms to New Queer Cinema to home movies to educational videos—sat behind an actual vault door. Occasionally, we screened films from their collection. At a dinner for SAGE, an organization for elder lesbians and gays, we showed The Cockettes, a documentary about the hippie performance art group from San Francisco, along with some shorts they made back in the day. I was seated with four old gay men who hit on me. I remember two uptight lesbians, scandalized by the S&M getups in a film called Elevator Girls in Bondage, chastising Mariana and Sancia. At our next screening, we pushed things further, projecting lesbian cowboy porn onto the wall of a newly opened brunch spot in Kingston. We screened films like Ira Sachs’ s Last Address and Keep the Lights On and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady. Without Ed’s film knowledge, support, and firsthand experiences of Light Industry, Queer Vault would not have had the sustained spirit it did. He was instrumental in teaching us how to foster a film culture of our own.
Before Light Industry came to Greenpoint, the venue started in Industry City. Those of whom I’ve talked to who were around for the microcinema’s inception tend to recall that time with a bit of incredulity at its ramshackle origin. “For many years I thought of the Bush Terminal stretch of giant, mysterious warehouses in South Brooklyn as a forgotten zone from the world of Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn,” filmmaker Jem Cohen told me. “In the 90s, I’d roam there and not see a single soul. When Light Industry appeared in 2008 like an illuminated mushroom in one of its mostly dark warehouses, the area was still so isolated that their opening seemed to make no sense. But I was astounded to go to screenings and find them packed. Maybe people actually liked its distance from the literal and figurative territory they were familiar with. Maybe people were hungry for such an outpost.”
“I’m just proud that we still exist—that we’ve been able to show what we want, on our own terms, have that autonomy and still keep the lights on,” Thomas told me. “To state the obvious, New York is expensive, and in that regard it can be quite inhospitable to a small arts organization. I’m always heartened to see regularly sold-out screenings of challenging and little-known films. It’s proof of how an audience can be cultivated for the most advanced forms of cinema if you can make a persuasive case for it.” Tickets are usually pay-what-you-can, with a suggested donation of $8. While other institutions have had a rotating roster of programmers throughout the years, Ed and Thomas have always been the faces of Light Industry. Ed chimes in: “We’ve been able to cultivate such a devoted and intelligent audience, which is really only possible when you exist so regularly over such a long period of time. Many filmmakers who show with us tell us it’s the best and most receptive audience they’ve ever had for their work.”
Light Industry’s Greenpoint space, the place I’ve always known as Light Industry, was frank in its simplicity: a few rows of folding chairs, benches alongside the side walls, a table in the back where I’d sit and sell beer and a small screen placed high up on their wall. After all, Light Industry has always labeled itself a microcinema, as opposed to the have-it-your-way hedonism encouraged at places like Alamo Drafthouse, where you can recline in a leather seat and have someone serve you a three-course meal. The minimalist design of the space didn’t always impress everyone: Chantal Akerman, after introducing a screening of Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale, infamously excoriated Ed and Thomas over the state of their theater. Letterboxd user Kevin Cecil relayed the event in his review of the film:
“This film should take up THE WHOLE SCREEN,” she waved her hands across the white wall, and began a presentation manifesto: “And this is not even a screen, it’s just a wall. Maybe with the right paint, but not…this. There is too much distance. When I saw it, we were in the film, it was projected so big. Because it was a piece of art. It is a piece of art, and the best it has to be screened. This is a stamp post. Is that how you say? A post stamp.” The programmers tried to defend themselves; they spoke of alternative film spaces throughout history. I thought of legendary screenings in Henri Langlois’ staircase. They tried to move Akerman away from a dichotomy and into a difference of opinion, but Akerman wasn’t having it. “It is my opinion and it is true,” she declared, “If Michael knew…if he knew how his art was being treated… If he saw this, he would die here.”
Ed and Thomas named the wooden booth that now houses their projectors in Akerman’s honor, after she became apoplectic that no such apparatus had been built at the time of her visit. A necessity born out of a traumatic encounter, now it’s Ed’s happy place. “Some of the happiest and most fulfilling moments of my life have been projecting experimental films out of our little wooden booth in the back,” he told me. “I’d all but give everything else up in my life just to be a 16mm projectionist.”
The space certainly was micro. In 2019, Jason Simon showed selections from his personal collection of 16mm films. These were rarely-screened works by Agnès Varda, Alain Resnais and Chris Marker. The house was packed, so I sat on the floor in the back behind the seats. I could barely see a thing. People stepped on my hands. I suffered in silence for the sake of cinema.
Thomas let me know how this new location would compare to their spot in Greenpoint: “The space is larger and we’ll have a modest lobby. That’s a first and will have an effect on the social architecture as well. There’s room for people to hang out before and after shows—previously, on Freeman Street, that space was the sidewalk outside. Crucially, we have new, incredibly comfortable seats. Our old benches and folding chairs could be pretty unforgiving.” “And it’s off the L train, rather than the G, which is huge,” Ed added.
Their first show back after the COVID lockdowns was a celebratory gathering that brought a line down the street to get in for a 16mm screening of James Benning’s Ten Skies. About five minutes into the film, before even a handful of clouds in Benning’s first sky had crept across the screen, there was some commotion from the back. “Stop the film!” Ed called out. Someone had apparently passed out, overwhelmed by the reverie brought on by a potent mixture of experimental cinema and magic mushrooms. An audience member asked if anybody had Narcan, used to reverse opioid overdoses. Ed assured them that no such intervention would be necessary. The person was swiftly seen to and brought outside for some fresh air. After some time, Ed returned to the front of the room. “New York City is back, baby!” he declared. “They had the order all wrong,” Jeff told me. “You don’t take magic mushrooms and watch Ten Skies. You take magic mushrooms and look at the real sky. The film by itself is what gives you the psychedelic experience.”
Three months later, in collaboration with the New York Film Festival, Light Industry commemorated Amos Vogel’s centennial. Marking the reissue of his landmark text Film as a Subversive Art, Ed and Thomas programmed a screening of films described by the author as ones that tackled “forbidden subjects.” One film shown, Warren Haack’s Selective Service System, was described as follows by Vogel himself: “One of the most shocking documentary films ever made. A young anti-war American, to avoid the draft, calmly aims a rifle at his foot and shoots. For several endless minutes, he thrashes about the floor in unbearable pain, in his own blood. The filming continues. There was no attempt to alter the proceedings that took place.” At the sight of a huge, gaping hole in this valiant protestor’s foot, the first person passed out. Once the audience member went outside to sit on the curb and get some air, the show started up again. As the screening went on, some time between the first collapse and a diary film of a home birth, we heard at least four more thuds. Surely this event was setting some kind of record. Even Jeff, who had ridiculed the thought process of the shrooms-addled cinephile from months back, told me he slipped out of consciousness. Amos Vogel would be proud.
Light Industry is one of few true queer cinemas—Ed and Thomas are not only film scholars and programmers, but former romantic partners. The bond that the two men share, however, is a true love irrelevant to romance. I earnestly view Light Industry as a queer safe haven. It is a place where we can go and be together. Ed reaffirmed this point: “I think queer film has always understood the inestimable value of spaces that allow like-minded people to come together for a shared experience, a shared understanding. These moments are powerful and formative instances of solidarity.”
I’ve seen films there that were foundational to me as a bisexual artist, like William E. Jones’s Massillon and Todd Haynes’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. In 2009, Eileen Myles introduced a screening of Wakefield Poole’s erotic gay fantasia Bijou. “I’ve watched ten-year-old arts institutions move around and sometimes die and entire scenes and I’m thinking film now exists by the fact of certain institutions,” the poet told me. “Light Industry mimes all those and holds the love of film to heart by showing such great shit for years and making our New York good.” Years later, at a screening memorializing Nob Hill, a shuttered historic San Francisco theater, I saw Poole’s Take One. With this film, Poole wanted to realize the sexual fantasies of each of its subjects. I still remember a scene where two brothers had sex. That same year, curators Kelly Rakowski and Ainara Tiefenthäler showed excerpts from Dyke TV, a public-access series from the ’90s. More recently, with an introduction from author and historian Sarah Schulman, Light Industry screened tapes from the similarly-named DIVA TV, a media collective born out of the activist movement ACT UP. I wrote about that night for Art in America:
After the screening, [George] Plagianos and Robert Buck, another member of DIVA TV, came to the front to answer questions. Buck expressed gratitude that we had seemingly found our way out of the Covid-19 pandemic—that more sensible leadership and the vaccine program had prevailed. Things were wrapping up and we applauded the queer elders, when Plagianos silenced our claps. “Wait!” he snapped. “Health care is still a fucking mess in this country!” The crowd, as if coming to its senses, responded with an immediate, indignant agreement. “I mean, what are we going to do? Who are we going to choose?” he said, referring to the city’s dismal mayoral primary race. Gauze hugged his skinny leg. Suddenly, it felt as if we were at an ACT UP meeting rather than a screening. Before shuffling out into the Brooklyn night, we chanted together, “ACT UP! Fight back! Fight AIDS!”
Light Industry has always been a comrade to the LGBTQ community, but they’ve also been a friend to workers as well. Early into the pandemic, along with Screen Slate, they co-founded the Cinema Worker Solidarity Fund, an act of mutual aid that gave some financial assistance to the suddenly screwed employees of the city’s movie theaters. Since then, efforts to unionize at Lincoln Center and Film Forum have indeed materialized. Anthology Film Archives recently went on strike. Light Industry has begun to compensate their volunteers. “They also care about paying filmmakers; they can’t pay a lot but they insist on paying,” Jem Cohen added. “The venue subscribes to W.A.G.E. fairness protocols, which is important to note and all too rare.”
Toward the end of Light Industry’s time in Greenpoint, Thomas opened a bookstore in an empty room of the space in order to get rid of all his old books. He called it Monday Night Books. In a profile of the pop-up shop by Naomi Fry for The New Yorker, Thomas called it “a slow-motion garage sale.” I wandered in every few weeks to gaze at his eclectic library. I would’ve taken everything if I could, but ultimately went home with Capital Vol. 1-3 by Karl Marx, Negative Dialectics by Theodor Adorno, Masscult and Midcult by Dwight MacDonald, The New Spirit of Capitalism by Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski and This is Not It by Lynne Tillman.
“Usually, the point is to get rid of things you don’t like, but I’m selling these books because I love them,” Thomas told Fry. “He spotted a book and remembered it was disappointing so he took it off the shelf—he didn’t want to sell it,” filmmaker Dash Shaw told me. “He only wanted the store to sell his own books that he actually liked. Amazing. That’s curating. Even though the project was to get rid of all of his books.”
While Ed and Thomas haven’t yet opened their new space, the duo did screen Mary Field’s Ebb-tide from 1936 and Eugène Lourié and Ray Harryhausen’s 1953 monster movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms at a Memorial Day barbecue at Arverne Cinema in Rockaway. They’ve been fundraising by selling editions by artists like Paul Chan, RH Quaytman and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
What has Light Industry dreamt up for their return to regularly scheduled programming? “Nellie Killian is organizing a Chick Strand weekend. Strand was a pillar of experimental cinema in the Bay Area, though I feel her films are still underappreciated in New York. Kelly Reichardt will be presenting a new restoration of Jeff Kreines’s The Plaint of Steve Kreines. Kreines is perhaps best-known for his remarkable documentary Seventeen, made with Joel DeMott, but this early work is no less fascinating, and for years has been impossible to see. Charles Broskoski, one of the co-founders of are.na, will be presenting a show about skate videos. Jean Ma will be giving a lecture, a little history of sleeping at the movies. Plus an Ida Lupino picture, an early Soviet film about the Paris Commune. You know, the usual…”