Rooftop Cinema’s 2019 season features new work from Jodie Mack and Sky Hopinka, and a Tony Conrad doc

MMoCA’s outdoor experimental film program runs each Friday in June.

MMoCA’s outdoor experimental film program runs each Friday in June.

The Rooftop Cinema series will return this June with four Friday nights of experimental film in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s sculpture garden overlooking State Street.

This year is James Kreul’s second curating Rooftop. The longtime Madison film programmer and critic has recently been running another series, Mills Folly Microcinema, at Arts + Literature Laboratory on the East Side. Mills Folly focuses heavily on ultra-low-budget, cutting-edge films, and a but of that approach might bleed into Rooftop’s closing night on June 28, a program of shorts that Kreul is still firming up.


“I’ve tried to continue Tom Yoshikami’s tradition of experimental work that remains accessible to audiences who are not familiar with that tradition of image making,” Kreul says, referring to the programmer who helped launch the series. Yoshikami (with help from others, including fellow UW Cinematheque and Wisconsin Film Festival programmer Mike King) built up a very distinctive approach for Rooftop over the years, offering audiences a wealth of animated and live-action shorts and the occasional hard-to-track-down avant-garde feature, but putting it all together in a way that somehow made sense for a broad audience enjoying a summer evening.

The season will begin on June 7 with three films by Sky Hopinka. In the latest of those three, 2018’s Fainting Spells, Hopinka draws on the subject of the Indian Pipe Plant, one of many ideas Hopinka has explored from his heritage as a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation and a descendent of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians.

June 14 brings the local premiere of 2018’s The Grand Bizarre, the first feature from American animator Jodie Mack. Building on Mack’s eye for texture, collage techniques, and the possibilities of shooting on 16mm film, The Grand Bizarre uses footage of textiles shot all over the world to explore not just the visual richness of the material but also the histories and social dynamics that material can represent.

On June 21, Rooftop turns to the legacy of a great experimental artist with Tony Conrad: Completely In The Present,  a 2016 documentary directed by Tyler Hubby. The film takes a non-conventional approach to documentary, but features archival footage of Conrad’s work (and of contemporaries like The Velvet Underground) and interviews with admirers including Moby and Jim O’Rourke.

As Kreul starts to make his own mark on the Rooftop legacy, he’s also taking care to make sure it’s distinct from the work he’s doing on Mills Folly.

“With Mills Folly, the audience is coming specifically for experimental  film, so they have a different set of expectations that allows me to push things a little harder,” Kreul says. “The George Kuchar videos [that screened at Mills Folly in January], for example, could potentially offend some people if they don’t know where they are coming from. There needs to be a space for that kind of tension, and that’s what Mills Folly can be. I’m comfortable with the potential of offending people if they know what they’re in for.”

Madison film programmers have an intentional and affectionate habit of touching repeatedly on certain themes and filmmakers over the years, and Kreul is clearly making some callbacks with his choices here. Mack screened a program of shorts at the 2014 Wisconsin Film Festival, and Hopinka’s 2015 film Jáaji Approx was included in MMoCA’s Wisconsin Triennial in 2016. Hubby co-edited The Final Member—a documentary about a museum in Iceland that collects and displays penises of various species—which screened at the Wisconsin Film Festival in 2013.

Look for more preview coverage of this year’s Rooftop Cinema season on Tone Madison as the screening dates get closer.

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