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The Four Star podcast on cinema in the great outdoors

With special guest Rob Thomas, Jason Fuhrman, Lewis Peterson, and Grant Phipps share their thoughts on and a short history of the all-too-brief Madison outdoor movie season.
(Don't) call them "before and after" shots. Before the podcast recording, Cap Times critic Rob Thomas (right) joins Grant Phipps (left) and Lewis Peterson (center) as they pose with sunglasses in front of the Four Star Video Rental counter. The bottom photo was taken after recording without Rob Thomas, with Jason Fuhrman taking his place on the right. Grant and Lewis assume similar poses and face the camera with sunglasses again.
(Don’t) call them “before and after” shots. Before the podcast recording, Cap Times critic Rob Thomas (right) joins Grant Phipps (left) and Lewis Peterson (center) as they pose with sunglasses in front of the Four Star Video Rental counter. The bottom photo was taken after recording without Rob Thomas, with Jason Fuhrman taking his place on the right. Grant and Lewis assume similar poses and face the camera with sunglasses again.

With special guest Rob Thomas, Jason Fuhrman, Lewis Peterson, and Grant Phipps share their thoughts on and a short history of the all-too-brief Madison outdoor movie season.

Listen to and download the podcast, embedded above. Special thanks to Chris Lay for the meticulous audio engineering and editing work. A complete transcription follows.

Grant Phipps: Welcome back to this sweltering summer edition of the Four Star Podcast, and thanks for joining us. I’m Grant Phipps, Film Editor at Tone Madison. Our film team has assembled here today to chat not about one specific feature, like in podcasts of the recent past, but more broadly about outdoor screenings in and around Madison—this year and in prior years. That’s really the only season when it’s an option. So, I thought that it’d make for a more relaxed and alternative angle to our usual. So, while we’ll be highlighting just a few things that screened this past June or July, we’ll also be looking ahead to programming as we head into summer’s second half in August and September. May this podcast also serve very informally as some sort of historical record of film series that have come and gone in Madison over the years.

With that relatively simple preface, we’ll jump right into our experiences with the different sorts of programming, from experimental shorts and documentaries at Rooftop Cinema, that’s now taking place in August instead of June at MMoCA [Madison Museum Of Contemporary Art] on State Street; to more mainstream action, family friendly, and even schlocky cinema at Lakeside on Memorial Union Terrace, which always kicks off around Memorial Day Weekend; to newer spots that are popping up that sort of unusually fuse things like [The] Edgewater’s Thursday double feature series “On The Water” and Leopold’s Caffè on Regent [Street] that’s hosting a patio series Sunday nights that is looking at Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. And that extends even into early October. So without further ado, I’ll let everyone introduce themselves, including a special guest who’s graciously meeting us briefly here at Four Star.

Lewis Peterson: I guess I’ll go first; my name is Lewis Peterson. I’m the owner of Four Star Video and a Tone contributor.

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Jason Fuhrman: Hi, my name is Jason Fuhrman. I’m a contributor to Tone Madison, and formerly, I was the curator of the Cinesthesia film series at Madison Public Library. 

Rob Thomas: And I’m Rob Thomas. I’m the features editor and movie critic for The Cap Times. Thank you guys for having me, I really am honored.

GP: To begin, I’d like to talk about anything that we recently saw outside, and what we have our eye on in August and September. I’ll let Rob go first since he’s on a timer right now. 

RT: I’m trying to remember the last thing I saw, ’cause it’s been a couple years since I went to Lakeside. And that’s when I usually make a point of going. No, not Lakeside—excuse me—MMoCA Rooftop. I try and get there at least once a summer. [With] Lakeside, I don’t think I’ve seen anything there since maybe Rocky (1976) like 15 years ago. Even though I’m always tempted when there’s like a Sharknado (2013) or something. ‘Cause that seems like a good time on the Terrace. A lot of times without outdoor movies, it’s the experience as much as it is the movie. Probably more so in a movie like Sharknado or I think Mamma Mia 2 (2018) was playing there a couple nights ago. But there’s always—the Rooftop I think is a really, that’s a really cool idea, I think. It’s just a very cool thing to have a very accessible [yet] experimental film program that kinda throws open its doors, and all kinds of people go to [it] and find out [that] actually, this stuff is a lot of fun. It’s not really a high bar to clear at all. Especially on a Friday after you’ve had a couple drinks on State Street. 

GP: That’s true. Well, they’re moving that to Thursday night. 

RT: Oh yeah!

GP (facetiously): They’re screwing everything up. 

RT: [Laughs] I think people still drink on Thursday nights in Madison. I hope so.

GP: Thirsty Thursdays?

RT: Yes, exactly. 

GP: But yeah, the sculpture garden on MMoCA’s rooftop is really picturesque. And the restaurant—what was the name of the restaurant up there?

RT: Fresco.

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GP: Fresco. But that’s not there.

RT: Closed, right? 

GP: Yeah.

RT: I don’t think there’s anything new there yet?

GP: Okay. 

RT: So, yeah, eat ahead of time. Yeah, I’ve had some great experiences up there. My favorite was probably—there was this film called Girl Walk//All Day (2011) that [involved] DJ Girl Talk. It’s like a feature length dance film where this woman walked through the streets of New York. And kind of a dance party broke out to the side of the screen during the screening. It was really fun. I mean, it was very different from your usual. You know, something you couldn’t do probably at Cinematheque. There’s not a lot of room to dance there. As I found the hard way. [laughs]

GP: Is there an additional story to that comment? [laughs]

RT: I was just kidding. I have not. [laughs] But maybe I will now, just to see what happens, yeah.

GP: Well, just kind of talking about I guess maybe logistics, I wanted to see what the Terrace screenings were like down there, so I stopped down there, not this past Monday but the two prior Mondays. So I was there for Sharknado. Well, I’d never seen it, and I wasn’t going to stick around for the whole thing. [RT laughs] I just wanted to see what the environment was like, and a surprising number of people were actually watching the movie. 

RT: Interesting.

GP: Even back on the far back patio near the Terrace Store. So people were like either in couples or with a small group of people. They were watching and sort of having a good time. Maybe as the movie progressed, and people got more drinks under them, they got a little more rowdy—

RT: Right.

GP: When I was there around 9:15 p.m. or so, it seemed fine. But the one thing that struck me as kind of odd, is all the audio was projected onto the left side. I guess that would be the west side of the Terrace. So, they had the right speaker covered up, so everything was coming out of just one. 

RT: That’s very strange.

GP: Yeah, it was strange. 

RT: Yeah.

GP: I mean, it didn’t sound too odd, but it was noticeable when I first arrived because I came in like around the building, so I’m wondering if that’s for echo, or to like, if it’s intentional, or if they need to do—

RT: So, are they using the sound system they have for bands there, for the music, or is it different? ‘Cause they have a sound system there.

GP: Yeah, that’s true. I guess they would have to be using that.

RT: Yeah, that’s very strange. Huh.

GP: But just coming out of one speaker. 

RT: You really need the full surround sound for Sharknado, I’ve found, so that the shark goes to the right side and to the left side as it flies across.

GP: Stereoscopic.

RT: Yes. 

GP: And then, when I was there on, I think it was [July] 18th, for Point Break (1991), it was the same situation. But they had the subtitles on, on the Blu-ray. Which was nice for accessibility purposes, for one. And, just like, if it’s hard to hear things over like general commotion. And because the aspect ratio of the movie being, I think, is that shot in 2.35:1? It’s a very narrow aspect ratio, so like the subtitles at the bottom are along the black bar.

RT: Okay.

GP: So that was a nice addition.

RT: I would imagine films that do well there are films you don’t necessarily watch from start to finish, but you kind of dip in and out of. The original Point Break has some sort of iconic, memorable scenes that people would sort of quiet down for and then maybe start talking about again. Where [with] Sharknado, once you’ve seen 10 or 15 minutes of Sharknado, you’ve probably got a good sense of what the entire movie is. 

LP: And [Sharknado] 2, 3, 4 and 5.

RT: That’s right, sorry, don’t want to diminish the entire—

LP: [Laughs] How many are there?

GP: There’s six [in] the—C [Nelson-Lifson] wrote that article. It’s presumed that they’re done, I think. [laughs] I don’t know if Lewis or Jason want to share about any experiences this year, or what they’re looking forward to on the calendar, not just at Memorial Union, but elsewhere.

LP: I think I’m realizing—well, my whole relation to the topic—once you suggested it, Grant, I was kinda like, “Oh, all the outdoor screenings that I’ve been to in Madison are ones that I hosted as Four Star fundraisers.” But I think the last one I actually went to was at Robinia Courtyard. It was shortly after we moved to this location [at 459 W. Gilman St.]. It was a double feature of Lady Terminator (1988) and Riki-Oh: The Story Of Ricky (1991). So, also movies that you can enjoy pretty much at any point [during] the movie. Not really story-heavy, just extreme violence, and one of them is ripping off dialogue from The Terminator (1984). Anything to add, Jason?

JF: I guess to just touch on what Rob was saying about the MMoCA Rooftop Cinema, I’ve had some really great experiences there. I’ve been going there for years. And it’s a unique space, and I do think there’s something about the fact that they’ve always emphasized more experimental fare, and usually short films. So it feels more like it’s kind of an outdoor art installation. You can just kind of walk in and out, and you don’t necessarily fully pay attention. But then if you do, of course, it’s like standing and contemplating a sculpture or a painting for a long time. But you know, you don’t really need to see it from start to finish. It’s kind of a unique opportunity, I feel like it sort of makes you a little more open to things that people might not be inclined toward. I notice it’s interesting how a lot of people would come, and some people would get dressed up. It was like Friday night, and they’re having this night out, and maybe having a few drinks—having this cultural experience and maybe being exposed to things they wouldn’t necessarily see otherwise. So I think it’s just kind of interesting to have that collective experience. 

GP: Yeah, that’s especially true at Rooftop Cinema, I think, because of the restaurant.

JF: Mmhmm. Definitely. Yeah. 

GP: Before Rob has to dip out, I just wanted to ask him if he’s looking forward to anything specific? Or if has any further comments he wants to ask us so we can ramble on.

RT: Not really. I want to let you guys talk about the Rooftop [Cinema]. I’m usually like, “I can go this night. I’m gonna go and see whatever is playing there.” And I try to go at least once. With kids and stuff, not every night can be free. But like Jason said, it is a very low pressure way to enjoy those films. Especially a collection of shorts I find is really a lot of fun. And yeah, so, there’s a couple things Lewis pulled out that seemed really interesting, but whatever shows up, I think you’re almost guaranteed [to] see something good. 

GP: Yeah, Jim Kreul, who programs that series, has shifted away from shorts in recent years. I think that kind of—when he assumed duties for that from Tom Yoshikami, who used to program Rooftop Cinema, he was—I don’t want to say imitating what he was doing exactly in programming. But he stuck to that more or less, and I think we’re seeing more features and, especially this year, I think all the films in the August Rooftop series are documentary. So, that’s an interesting shift. And I kinda wonder how that’ll change the audience in attendance as a result.

[Rob Thomas unfortunately had to leave us at this point due to a work-related responsibility that came up at the last minute. From this point on, Lewis, Jason, and I continue our conversation in his absence.]

GP: We’re talking about Rooftop.

LP: Yeah, [at] Rooftop, they’re all documentaries. 

GP: Yeah, since you’ve seen multiple films in the series, and I haven’t, and I don’t think Jason has, do you want to elaborate on sort of who you think the series is targeting, and who would you recommend check these out?

LP: Mmmm. Well, I was kinda trying to think of, like, thematic resonance between the three out of the four that I’ve seen, which are The Village Detective: A Song Cycle (2021), Poly Stry— Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché (2021). For some reason I always want to say “Poly Strynene,” which is not right. And then The American Sector (2020). So I dunno, I think the thing that all of them have in common is kind of this prodding of collective experience and like, “What is history? Who gets to decide what history is?” in different ways.

To maybe give a brief synopsis of the movies: The American Sector is all about segments of the Berlin Wall that are in different areas of the U.S. It’s pretty interesting just in that people assign wildly disparate meanings to them, but it’s also maybe almost a little bit comedic, cause it’s literally just a fucking piece of concrete with some rebar in it, but it is historically significant!

And then Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, is about Poly Styrene, the singer of X-Ray Spex. The interesting angle on it is one of the directors is her daughter [Celeste Bell], so it’s kind of like her reconciling her firsthand experience of her mother and difficulties she had in her life versus this public persona that’s literally a character. I mean like Poly Styrene is a name that she took on when she became the lead singer of X-Ray Spex, and there’s a lot of stuff about like “Okay, she left behind her archives she passed away. I have to go through them, and I’m like, carrying on the legacy of this person.” Maybe she doesn’t feel personally connected to Poly Styrene, because it was before she was born, so there’s that interesting aspect.

And then Village Detective, that’s Bill Morrison’s follow-up to Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), which I feel like is a movie that, somehow, I end up bringing up that movie in conversation a lot. But they’re both kind of about film as a material. Village Detective is literally—they find a bunch of film canisters at the bottom of the ocean, and they are trying to figure out first what the film is, then they discover it’s actually not an especially rare film. It’s actually a really common film from the ’40s, in Russia, and it had this really popular actor. The film [they found] is called The Village Detective. It’s kind of like this, you know, bumbling small town detective, that I guess solves a crime. I dunno, maybe proto-Columbo. But the interesting thing about that also is that, when it’s underneath the ocean, there’s literally physical effects on the film. There’s scoring in a really particular way, but also kind of trying to figure out how it got there. So, I guess that’s really a long-winded way of saying, “If you’re a student of history, or want to interrogate the viewing experience—thinking about viewing while you’re viewing something, maybe those three will be for you.”

GP: It seems like this series has, simultaneously, a connection to personal stories within an artistic medium. I know that the final film in the series North By Current (2021) sort of takes that angle, I think. It’s sort of about revisiting a hometown. I’m not sure if there’s any art angle in the story, but Village Detective is sort of focusing on cinema, right? And then you have Poly Styrene, which is sort of music and family, and then American Sector, maybe slightly outlying. Is there like an art angle to the film?

LP: I would say there is, because in most places it’s displayed. Even though it’s not technically a piece of art, it’s treated that way. It has the placard with a description, and actually a lot of the segments also do have graffiti on them, that was originally on the wall. But people kind of treat it with the reverence of an art object, so there’s definitely an angle on there. 

GP: So these are sort of off the beaten path documentaries, for the most part, that are still sort of targeting the same audience that many of the short programs did in prior years. I kind of have fond memories. Maybe Jason can talk about some of his fond memories of Rooftop in years past, since he already touched upon that. Do you remember the Don Hertzfelt screening. I think that was in 2016?

JF: I do remember that, yeah.

GP: And some other just kind of lesser known animators. There was this film called Chronopolis, from the ’80s (1982), that combined like claymation and early CGI.

A photo of the summer podcast table setup at Four Star Video Rental. A Zoom Recorder sits on the center of the table, surrounded by microphones, a Chromebook, physical media of three Rooftop Cinema selections this summer, as well as programs from 2017 and 2018 screenings of "Off The Wall" at Arts + Literature Laboratory's old location.
A photo of the summer podcast table setup at Four Star Video Rental. A Zoom Recorder sits on the center of the table, surrounded by microphones, a Chromebook, physical media of three Rooftop Cinema selections this summer, as well as programs from 2017 and 2018 screenings of “Off The Wall” at Arts + Literature Laboratory’s old location.

JF: Yeah, I remember that one. I don’t know if I remember a lot of specific titles off the top of my head. I do remember, if I’m not mistaken, they had some early 3-D, or really early computer animation. Just kind of like a whole series of short films, of obviously really obscure stuff that you probably can’t find anywhere. I remember, I guess for more probably well-known films, they did show Fantastic Planet (1973). Which I thought was a great choice for the Rooftop. And, the name has escaped me, there was a film starring Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Kind of like a dystopian sci-fi film from the ’80s. 

LP: Oh, Kamikaze ’89 (1982).

JF: Yep, that’s the one. Yeah, that was definitely a treat.

LP: Good flick. 

JF: Yeah, I had never seen it before, it was just really bizarre, and definitely a spectacle. Yeah, off the top of my head now, those are the only ones I remember. But I’ve been going for pretty much as long as I’ve lived in Madison, I think. It’s definitely gone through different incarnations over the years, but it’s always fun, because it’s like Rob was saying, it’s a very low-pressure experience. It does cost admission, but it’s like $7, you get to hang out on the rooftop with this beautiful view. You can’t really go wrong. They serve drinks and popcorn, and it’s rewarding. I have noticed that a lot of people tend to not stay for the entire program. I think sometimes people, you know, are expecting—maybe they don’t know what to expect, and they come and they’re all dressed up. And they’re having this night at the museum, and then, you know—I’m honestly impressed at how they’re definitely not afraid to show some pretty weird films up on the rooftop, even though it’s in a public space. There’s some pretty challenging material. It seems like kinda anything goes. It’s kinda fun, because whenever you go there, you just never know what you’re gonna see. It’s always kind of an adventurous night. It always feels like a fresh experience. You’re gonna see something new, something unexpected, so I’ve always—I try to go to every program if I can. And it’s definitely something I always try to recommend to people. It’s definitely one of my favorite summer events in Madison, for sure. 

GP: Yeah, as you’re talking about this, I’m thinking about some of the music/concert films, recent documentaries that have screened up there, and how sound and space is so drastically different from watching something in a theater. I was kind of touching on this coincidentally with my explanation of what’s going on on the Memorial Union Terrace, but—[laughs] you can watch a film with audio that’s all pushed to one side ofthe Terrace, or kinda watching a music film, like Jazz On A Summer’s Day (1959), which I think was the very first screening last year, after the pandemic shut everything down for the entire year of 2020. [Clarification: Rooftop Cinema did not shut down, but had incredibly reduced capacity events in 2020.]

JF: Okay.

GP: Were you there?

JF: I wasn’t unfortunately. I wanted to be there.

GP: I don’t know if Lewis attended that either. But that was—I had never seen the film before, although I think I had seen some performances from that film, which is about the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. I was sitting—I wasn’t sitting in a chair; I was sitting on the edge of one of those parts of the sculpture garden. And I think it was pretty hot, because Rooftop started not in June, last year, I think it was in July. It was almost a year ago exactly from when we’re recording this [July 26]. Not only are people treating themselves to whatever they’re showing if they’re having a night out, but even if you’re like a cinephile or somebody who makes a point to go to the movies and to go to the outdoor screenings to be there, you’re gonna approach it slightly differently than you would just by going to a Marcus theater or the Cinematheque or the Marquee Theater [at Union South]. 

JF: Yeah, definitely. Well, like Rob was saying, it is definitely as much about the experience as the actual selections they’re showing. Maybe at the Memorial Union, it’s more so about the experience, but I feel like Rooftop is definitely—especially being in that space, right above State Street, it’s kind of like, it’s like the ambient noise and the other sounds of city life are as much part of the experience. And sometimes can even synchronize with the movie in uncanny ways that you could never even plan. 

GP: Muscle cars scorching down, is that Johnson [Street]?

JF: Oh, yeah. [laughs]

GP: And then people yelling and carrying on just in general.

JF: Yeah, sometimes it kind of, sometimes it can be a distraction but other times it can almost kind of heighten the experience in interesting ways, and tie in with the soundscape of the film that they’re showing. It’s always kinda just interesting to see how things are gonna line up. You never really know what’s gonna happen, and that’s kinda what makes it fun. It’s just a totally different way of approaching movie watching. You can only do that a couple months out of the year.

GP: I was gonna ask Lewis—he has a comment first.

LP: I have a comment, which is—this is making me wish that they would show News From Home on the rooftop.

GP: The Chantal Akerman film?

LP: Yeah. [GP laughs] I mean, just ’cause it’s all footage of people walking down the street.

GP: Yeah, that’s a good point. Well, if you have a recommendation you can pitch to Jim [Kreul], he can do that. I was just gonna ask—so, we kinda talked about the atmosphere and the environment specifically at Rooftop Cinema on top of [Madison] Museum Of Contemporary Art, how was it for you at Robinia Courtyard when you had your events there, if you remember?

LP: Uh, yeah, I think it was pretty good. See, now I’m trying to go through the whole catalog of the different iterations of Four Star. Way back in the day, the first one we had was Frankenhooker in the upstairs of Genna’s, which I guess, is technically an indoor screening.

GP: These are are like B-movies that you’ve—

LP: Yeah.

GP: Seems like a recurring theme. 

LP: Yeah, we kind of picked movies that people maybe wouldn’t notice or come after us for screening them. And also just stuff that would grab people’s attention. Frankenhooker, great movie. Frank Henenlotter, essential film archivist with Something Weird [Video] in addition to directing his own great schlock movies. Yeah, you know, it’s just a different environment in a bar or outside, but the movies that—I feel like I picked Lady Terminator and Riki-Oh specifically. It’s like, you don’t need to pay attention to the plot in those movies. It’s just a pretense for really stylized violence, especially Riki-Oh. So I think people, if they were paying attention, they were enjoying it. Another we did at Robinia—not outside ’cause it was during the winter—was The Visitor (1979) and Night Of The Creeps (1986). It was around Halloween, ’cause they’re both kind of horror movies. But I know people specifically came because they wanted to see The Visitor, which is a really bizarre Italian sci-fi.

GP: Stridulum. The original title is Stridulum, I think. 

LP: Oh, really?

GP: Yeah, I think Zola Jesus named one of her albums after that movie. I remember talking to Jim Healy about it before the screening [back in 2014], and he ended up taking my notes or something and reading them to the audience. 

LP: Oh, that’s funny.

GP: I was taken aback. That was probably all the way back in 2013 or something [2014, actually!]. I don’t know what year you screened this at Robinia. 

LP: Yeah, this was more recently. This was probably in 2018 or 19—No, probably in 2019, actually. So yeah, it was definitely after. I think [at] the Cinematheque screening, that was the first time I had ever heard of that particular movie. 

GP: That’s the first I’d seen it, or had the opportunity to see it. I think I remember looking it up after realizing that Zola Jesus named her EP from 2010 after the movie. 

LP: Mmm. I think it was one of the things that was rescued from obscurity by Alamo Drafthouse. But yeah, I mean, I always tried to pick movies that drunk people would respond to well. I think some other ones we did in upstairs of Genna’s were like True Stories (1986), In The Mouth Of Madness (1994)—

GP: Was it noisier up there? 

LP: It’s a little bit quieter, it was always kind of this thing with Genna’s specifically where people would just be kind of wandering in, not knowing there was a thing. But there’s a long staircase there, so it’d be like, “Okay, are you here for the movie? If not, go back downstairs.”

GP: [Laughs] Well, that’s inevitable, I think, in a space like that. One of the perks of the MMoCA rooftop is that the space is almost specifically designed for projection of the movie, because you have to walk around, and it’s in the back, so it’s not like you walk up the staircase and there’s a projection right there. It’s out of the way and away from people, so they’re able to ignore the film or pay attention, but obviously, other spaces are just experimenting with what’s available in the environment where they are, which is interesting. I don’t think any of us have had a chance to take a look at The Edgewater’s Thursday series. They’re doing movies on the water every Thursday night through August 25th. They’re doing double features, and they’re starting the shows before sunset, which is interesting, they’re starting at 5:30 p.m. And then they have another screening at 7:30 p.m., and the 7:30 screenings typically look like they’re longer. The 18th of August they’re showing The Secret Garden, the ’90s version (1993), and then after that, they’re showing The Godfather (1972). Which is particularly interesting, because I can’t imagine how it would be to watch that outside with an audience. Especially since it’s three hours. 

LP: Yeah, it might be kinda strange. I think The Edgewater ones, it also seems like they’re doing a more [of a] family-friendly movie then a more adult-oriented movie for most of them, if I’m not mistaken.

GP: Uh, yeah, generally. The pairings are somewhat connected. There’s Wall-E (2008) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which was last week, I think, at the time of recording. That’s a sensible pairing, but some of the other ones are kind of odd, like the one I just mentioned, The Secret Garden and The Godfather. Maybe there’s a connection there that I’m missing via producer, actor—

LP: Well, I mean they’re in a garden in the wedding scene in the beginning, right? 

GP: Oh, okay.

LP: [Laughs] I mean that’s really tenuous and I kinda just bullshitted that, but could be? They’re telling secrets not in the garden, they have to go in the office to tell the secrets. 

GP: Yeah. [GP and LP laugh] But you know, just like the Union’s Terrace, all these screenings are free. So that’s another perk of seeing things outdoors sometimes. Maybe you’ll just happen to be at The Edgewater. Maybe we won’t happen to be at The Edgewater. [laughs] I have no reason to go to The Edgewater, but some people will. And then they’ll maybe stumble upon something they had maybe had been meaning to see for a while.

[Yet another hiccup here, my apologies. The Zoom Recorder we’ve been using for the Four Star podcasts inexplicably stopped, and I didn’t catch it initially. So we had to do a bit of a mental rewind and go over a couple points again, as I will ask Jason about his outdoor series at Madison Sourdough.]

GP: I wanted to ask Jason here, as sort of an archival record, about old series that existed in the past but that don’t anymore and have Jason talk about his experience programming the series that was at Madison Sourdough, and, you know, how that went overall. 

JF: So, I was working at Madison Sourdough Co. as a delivery driver at the time and the owners wanted to expand and open a pâtisserie next door, where they offered more fancy offerings and pastries, for lack of a better word, and drinks and coffee beverages and wine and beer and such. So it was kind of a whole separate concept, you know, with a different business model. And so they had the idea—and they have a really nice patio outside, and it was right next door to the bakery. The owner had the idea of maybe doing a patio film series and knew that I was interested in film, asking me if I had any ideas.

So I came up with the idea of a film series where all films [were] related to food in some way—either films that are explicitly about food or in some way connected to the pleasures of dining and eating. So we did a series over a couple of months starting in July [that went through] October, every Friday. They were all foreign films with subtitles, because Willy Street is pretty busy. We wanted to make sure it wasn’t a problem if someone couldn’t hear dialogue or something. Anyway, it ended up being really successful. It went really well. A lot of people came every week, and they really enjoyed it. You know, people could buy pastries and have a beverage on the patio. It was a very DIY setup, um, but I mean, it was a lot of work and there were definitely some challenges, but it was kind of an experiment. I had never done anything like that before, but people really enjoyed it. We started with Eric Rohmer’s The Bakery Girl Of Monceau (1963)—a short film—then we had a variety of other films, including In The Mood For Love (2000) by Wong Kar Wai, The Secret Of The Grain (2007), Babette’s Feast (1987), and The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (1972). So, kind of a nice diverse array of films from throughout history and from different countries, but all kind of under that loose theme of food on film. So yeah, it was a good experience, and I really enjoyed it. People seemed to really like it a lot. 

GP: Did you say the year was in 2015?

JF: I think it was 2015, yeah. And I thought it was something that would continue, because it went really well, and we talked about doing it a second year. Unfortunately, the pâtisserie actually went out of business about a year or two after that. It ended up being kind of a short-lived venture, and so basically, that was kind of the end of the film series. Because that was really the whole point—was to promote the pâtisserie. One thing that was unusual about it was—that I was kind of reluctant, but I kind of had no choice, was that we—for every film, there had to be an intermission so that people could get up to, you know, buy more stuff or go to the bathroom, which I was, like, not—

GP: [Laughs] “To buy more stuff.

JF: [Laughs] I mean, because, you know, they were free films, but the whole point was to promote the business, and for people to buy pastries. That was kinda—

GP: I think that’s just a good point just to bring up in general for a lot of these spaces that have free films. There’s no admission, but they’re intending to support the organization or business that they’re connected to.

Initial handbill for the short-lived 2015 outdoor patio series at Madison Sourdough Co.
Initial handbill for the short-lived 2015 outdoor patio series at Madison Sourdough Co.

JF: Yeah, exactly. You know, it made sense. So I always had, for each film, I had to find, like, a natural—a good point where I could pause it, and obviously I was a little uncomfortable with it. But it’s like, this whole thing wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for the pâtisserie, so I kind of had to compromise. But I was always able to find a good point. But I always had to find that perfect moment where I could stop it. It was always a little nerve-wracking because I, like, didn’t want to mess it up, you know. [laughs]

GP: At this point in time, did you have experience with Cinesthesia—

JF: Yeah.

GP: And sort of use that experience, to sort of curate this and know what to expect? 

JF: Yeah, that definitely helped, even though this was a totally different—I had to approach it in a totally different way, but I had had that experience doing Cinesthesia for several years. So, yeah, it gave me some idea of how people respond, and I kind of took a cue from that and I tried to make it eclectic. ‘Cause what I try to do with Cinesthesia is try to have classic and contemporary films and different moods. But I always try to find connections between things. And it was, like, films from over decades of cinema history and different countries. So I kind of had a good idea of how people respond to different films, and that definitely helped me. But this was much more difficult, because I have to physically set everything up, whereas at the library everything is just installed, and I just push buttons. [With] this, I had to make sure the projector and the screen are aligned and everything and set up all the chairs and everything.

GP: There’s something special about that, too, like putting in that extra work to make something happen and oftentimes just having a preplanned thing—I guess as much as we celebrated Rooftop—you know, maybe something that’s like a one-year, one-off sort of thing [that] has more meaning over time because it only existed, you know, for these months out of the year in one year. 

JF: Mmhmm. Yeah, definitely. I definitely have a very fond memory of that, especially because it ended up just being a one-off thing. And it was really special and it was a lot of work, and it was challenging, but I—

GP: Let’s do it again, Jason. C’mon. [laughs]

JF: [Laughs] Yeah, maybe, in some incarnation.

GP [to LP]: I feel like you had a comment, but I can’t remember what—

LP: Um, about…?

GP: Well, the one thing I did want to say is you just wrote about Le Grande Bouffe (1973), which could have fit into this very series that Jason programmed. [laughs]

LP: Yeah, I think if you’re trying to sell food, that’s not the movie to watch, though. [All laugh]

GP: [Laughs] Well, exactly, that’s kind of why I brought it up, though, at the same time. But yeah, just speaking of, like, DIY events… Although it was connected to Arts + Literature Laboratory at its old location on Winnebago Street, Simone [Doing] and Max [Puchalsky], two artists—resident artists—I think they were graduate students at UW-Madison. They programmed this outdoor series in the alleyway between the two buildings there. I can’t think of what was next to Arts + Lit there, but it was in the alleyway.

JF: Players.

GP: What’s that?

JF: Players Sports Bar, I think.

GP: Oh, Players Sports Bar, which is a very interesting [laughs]—a very interesting neighbor. Uh, but they set up chairs and they had to set up the screen and weigh it down with, like, a sandbag or something. It was called Off The Wall, and I can’t remember how many years it existed, but I guess I was first clued into it around 2017. And I went once or twice, and then the following year, I think I was there for every week that they did it. It was Saturday nights in August, I believe, and that was really a great series just to see, like experimental video work. I think over time, especially in 2018, one of the last programs they did, I remember they showed the entirety of Tierra Whack’s Whack World. Lewis was talking about this earlier. He can jump in here.

LP: Oh yeah, so this is like—I wasn’t at the screening, but it’s a visual album that I’m very familiar with, because I listened to it probably around that same time, like 2018, when I was closing at Four Star. When I was counting the drawer, the cash in the drawer and all the other stuff in the basement in the old store, I would just put that on and kind of listen to it as I was doing my daily tasks. It’s a 15-minute album with 15 one-minute songs that are cut so that they can each be their own Instagram video. But also, it put Tierra Whack on the map and, you know, she was on Beyoncé’s album and she was on The Lion King (2019) soundtrack and all this other shit, but—

JF: Flying Lotus’ album Flamagra.

LP: She’s cool. Tierra Whack.

GP: But throwing in music videos—I think there’s a Björk music video from, uh, one of her last records that they also showed at, like, the start of the program, too. I think that was actually held indoors that night because of rain in the forecast. But just—the other thing is, in addition to showing all these experimental works that kind of fluctuate between being like installations or, like, you know, poetic short films, they had some local filmmakers. They would just throw them into the mix to sort of demonstrate that the work—the quality of the work— that’s coming out of of people who are based here or who were formerly based here, is just as strong as anything on the international or, you know, microcinema circuit or what have you.

LP: I think my other comment before was that—kind of in relation to being rained out—there was a Four Star fundraiser screening that was a total flop, because it got rained out and rescheduled and nobody showed up for the—hardly anybody showed up for the second screening of School Of Rock (2003) at Nature’s Bakery on Willy Street.

GP: It was in that—you said it was in the parking lot, that small parking lot.

LP: Yeah, that parking lot is also on a pretty steep incline, so I remember there being kind of, like a trial and error of, like, “How do we get it onto the wall so that it doesn’t look weird?” But, you know, School Of Rock—it’s a fun, light movie.

GP: Yeah, I mean, it’s, uh—there are themes, I think, to a lot of these series that we’ve talked about, but I think it just kind of shows that you can kind of screen anything you want outdoors. And it may have a great, desired effect, or it might have an unintentionally horrible effect, depending, but hopefully by showing something for free in a lot of cases, you’re going to bring in people, who just, you know, they don’t have to—there’s no obligation to stay there. It’s much easier to come and go and talk during the movie if you need to. Hopefully people aren’t going to get up in arms about that. 

JF: Yeah, that reminds me, that was one thing I really enjoyed about the pâtisserie series at Madison Sourdough I did—was that, I mean a lot of people specifically came for the film, came early, and got their seats and their pastries and their beverages. But then, there were so many people that were just walking by—you know, ’cause it’s Willy Street, so it’s a pretty active street. People [were] just walking by randomly and had no idea that there was even a film screening, and they would just sit down for a while and watch the film, and come and go. So, I really do like that. You know, that’s something you can’t really do in an indoor cinema. Obviously, you can’t just come and go as you please, so I think that’s really special—the thing about outdoor screenings that’s really unique.

LP: Do they still do film screenings at Bos Meadery? I know they were doing some kind of unusual stuff.

GP: Has that place closed, and they’re relocating now?

LP: Oh, okay. I guess [that] shows what I know. [laughs]

GP: But you’re right. They had some screenings in there as well. But that was inside, right?

LP: Yeah. I feel like, when they first announced it, they were doing [Nicolas Roeg’s] Bad Timing (1980), which was—that’s a movie I like a lot, but it was kind of a surprising choice. And I feel like it would be a really uncomfortable movie to watch with a bunch of strangers. But yeah, Art Garfunkel’s finest acting performance. He’s, like, perfectly suited to the role. 

GP [to JF]: Do you have anything else you want to add?

JF: I guess I was just gonna, uh—well, the thing about what Lewis was saying about Nature’s Bakery is that, kind of another, kind of on the—well, he was saying about the nice, light, fun film School Of Rock—like I remember, I wasn’t there, but a couple years before that, I saw a flier, kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum, for Nature’s Bakery. I guess in the same space, in the parking lot, they were showing [Alfonso Cuarón’s] Children Of Men (2006), which is also, like, a great film that a lot of people love, but I feel like that film was probably chosen a little more for its political themes. And obviously, Nature’s Bakery being more of a radical cooperative, I guess, for lack of a better word. So I thought that was an interesting choice for them to show that, but it kind of fit in with their values and their philosophy. I don’t how well attended it was because I wasn’t there, but I guess it’s just kind of a counterpoint to School Of Rock, and I guess that didn’t go as well. [laughs]

GP: To sort of wrap things up—just kind of wondering if you have any thoughts about what you hope to see in coming years. I mean, we’ve talked about so many things, and this is just over a relatively short span of time. So, you know, there’s new things popping up, despite other things disappearing. But maybe a venue that you hope might screen something, or what types of things you’d like to see moving ahead?

LP: “Do you know anybody at Janus Films?” is the question.

GP: [Laughs] Well, one thing I wanted to mention is that, you know, shifting away from short film programs, I feel like a lot of the screenings this year and potentially moving forward are all features. Like all of the stuff at Memorial Union—those are all features—all of the stuff at Leopold’s—those are all features—and, you know, The Edgewater—those are all features. I’d like to see more [of] a return to short film programs.

I know those are often harder to do unless they’re, like, part of an Ann Arbor [Film Festival] program, for example, but I think there’s a lot of value in showing things in that sort of format where you don’t have to sustain interest for, you know, 80 to 120 minutes or something. You can kind of introduce people to a variety of different filmmakers from around the world or different styles and different lengths of movies that might provoke different reactions, too. So that would be my suggestion, just for programming, even if it’s like in a DIY-type space. I definitely miss Off The Wall for that. Mills Folly Microcinema—I’m part of that committee, unofficially at this stage, but officially, previously. They’re showing more experimental works, but I don’t think anything recently has been of the animated variety. So, you know, that’s always great for like an evening or night showing outside during the summer, as it had been established in the mid-2010s. Jason, do you want to say anything?

JF: Yeah, one thing I guess I’d like to see—well, one thing I’ve noticed about a lot of outdoor screenings—I feel like having an outdoor movie series is an opportunity to really create a unique experience. Every space has its own challenges and has its, you know—there’s different factors. I guess I would like to see more thinking outside the box. I feel like a lot of times—I don’t want to be critical, but a lot of outdoor screenings, I feel like it’s just like, “Okay, we’re outside, and we’re watching a movie,” but there’s not maybe a lot of thought put into how this space maybe ties in with what [they’re] showing. And I could be wrong. I don’t want to assume, but a lot of times it just—I guess for lack of a better word, the choices just seem kind of arbitrary. They’re maybe more mainstream choices, like what they think people will like. But I guess I’d like to see more like—I think Off The Wall is a perfect example of—that’s honestly probably one of my favorite, not only outdoor movie series, but just favorite film series probably ever. That was a really special thing for me that, obviously was a short-lived thing, but I just loved everything they did. You’re literally in an alley watching movies, and it’s this program—you never know what—It’s music videos; it’s local art; it could be anything. It was this really inspired lineup, and it took this obviously very unconventional space in an alley and even the name, you know. I thought it was a very clever name for the series. It’s got the double meaning; you’re physically watching movies off the wall, and it’s a very unconventional program of stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily know about.

And so I guess I’d like to see more of that—just using these spaces to have kind of more adventurous programming. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be experimental, but just finding the relationship between the space and what you’re showing, and kind of adapting, rather than just “Okay, we’re showing a movie outside.” Which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I see this as an opportunity to be creative and try new things. There’s kind of endless possibilities. There are so many different spaces, and you can kind of figure things out, and just do it yourself. Yeah, it’s kind of like a more radical way of watching movies, because I guess it’s almost like guerilla movie-watching.

Actually, this is kind of a tangent, but I actually literally just remembered this now. At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in Madison, there were a couple—I wasn’t involved in setting up, but I went to them. Where there was literally just pop-up, totally unlicensed movie screenings. One of them was over at the soccer field by East Wash—I forget the name of that park. It’s escaping me at the moment, but it’s basically an open field where people set up a projector and a movie screen. There were no permits or anything, but people gathered to watch a movie. It happened at the Capitol a couple times, too—and, you know, I just feel like there’s—I like that idea of—

GP: Building connections and community through just, you know, casually watching something in a public space?

A handbill for Black blockbuster community movie nights in 2020, organized by Black Umbrella Global.
A handbill for Black blockbuster community movie nights in 2020, organized by Black Umbrella Global.

JF: Yeah, exactly. And it doesn’t take much, you know. I mean, like I said, there’s challenges, but you just—anyone can just get a projector and a screen and get people together and watch movies. So I guess I’d just like to see more of that kind of spirit in Madison. And yeah, that kind of experimental spirit and just the creativity and community.

GP: Yeah, you know, previously it sounded like you were interestingly asking for more, like, random number generator (RNG) in your film screenings. But at the same time, you want it to be intentional, and sort of very specific to the space and not just like, “Well, we’re here, and we’re watching a movie, because it’s that time of year to do so.”

JF: Right. Yeah, exactly. “Just show a crowd-pleaser,” you know.

GP: But I think, you know, there’s value in showing all kinds of things outside.

JF: Absolutely.

GP: So hopefully that’s the theme of today. [laughs] You can show anything outside, and it can be, you know, a rollicking good time or just memorable in general, even if it’s not the best experience.

LP: Yeah. Maybe this is totally tangential—I feel like what you just said reminded me of the Yeezus album release where Kanye [West] projected the video of himself doing, I think, “New Slaves.” I don’t know if you all remember that.

GP: [Laughs] No, I—

LP: It was like, you know—I mean, obviously, once people recognize Kanye West, they’re like, “Oh, what’s going on here?” But it was like all these social media videos of like—that’s how he announced the album. So, that’s really illegal, but also, he can get away with it because he’s rich. 

GP: [Laughs] True. Okay, I think that about wraps it up. Hopefully, [we] provided some interesting information about what happened in the past, as far as that goes, and what’s coming up in the future, and what we hope to see. Thanks again for joining us here on this summer 2022 Four Star podcast. I’m Grant Phipps from Tone Madison.

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