A sponsor display for the Stoughton Opera House.

The Underground Cinema series returns, aboveground

The 16mm experimental short film series screens at downtown’s MaiaHaus space three Thursdays in June.

In what already counts as a busy month for avant-garde film in Madison—with Rooftop Cinema screenings every Friday night in June at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art—local film curators James Kreul and Erik Gunneson are determined to capitalize and compound attention on the preceding Thursday evenings (June 13, 20, and 27 at 7:30 p.m.) by diving even deeper into cinema history with the revival of “Underground Cinema, Underground.” It’s something of an offshoot of Arts + Lit Laboratory’s Mills Folly Microcinema series (which Kreul also curates). After previously collaborating on four programs of repertory shorts in August 2017 that were projected on actual film in somewhat of a private setting, Kreul and Gunneson put their heads together for its logical and most logistically compatible continuation under the same banner, once again focusing on assembling shorts released in or close to four specific years (“1953,” “1969,” “1979,” and “1994”), but finding a new home at a converted church, MaiaHaus, located at the corner of North Hancock and East Mifflin Streets.

Kreul is trying to address a dearth of experimental cinema screenings both on campus and in the downtown vicinity. “Madison is caught in a vicious circle where no one is programming [experimental films] on a regular basis,” he says. “People forget that the first Wisconsin Film Festival 20 years ago had a significant percentage of experimental films, because they were a prominent feature of both the UW-Cinematheque and, more importantly, Starlight Cinema, which was programmed entirely by the WUD Film committee.” Hypothetically, he adds, “if a student’s curiosity is sparked by seeing a few in introductory courses, there’s no venue to explore the tradition’s rich history.” Which is, in the absence of the offbeat voices that the much-missed Micro-Wave Cinema Series regularly featured in its Sunday screenings at Vilas Hall from 2014 to 2018, where Underground Cinema can now step in.


While feelings of genuine necessity fostered the series’ inception, certain dedication to a DIY aesthetic, perhaps comparable to a basement punk show or bootleg recording, reinforced its appeal. The liberating setup and countercultural mindsets have routinely functioned well with a staunch word-of-mouth promotion and the films’ inherent visceral content, in addition to projection on 16mm film stock in a decade when most venues are ruled by digital projection. Gunneson characterizes the impression as “hearing a vinyl record by The Velvet Underground or Iggy Pop if only you had access to a particular machine. Many experimental films are only available on 16mm, and thus need to be experienced as projected on film.”

Borrowing from the late Jonas Mekas‘ New American Cinema Group ethos (“We don’t want false, polished, slick films—we prefer them rough, unpolished, but alive”), the Madison series’ mission is to showcase rare, transgressive, and innovative work in the past 70 years for local audiences. This includes more recognizable names of Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, and Su Friedrich; but attention is also paid to compelling, fringe personalities like George Kuchar and Storm de Hirsch (all featured in 2017), as well as Abigail Child and Barbara Rubin this time around. And what better space for a showcase than MaiaHaus at 402 E. Mifflin St., a former church-turned-communal arts studio, that “by design, conveys a sense of community that has always been important to experimental film scenes around the country,” Kreul stresses. “While it’s not ‘perfect’ for what most people expect for cinematic presentation, it’s perfect for the shared experience we’ll have at each screening.”

Kreul and Gunneson are essentially picking up where they left off, filling in the gaps left by the aforementioned four programs, now emphasizing the years of “1987,” in the first of the trio of screenings on June 13, followed by “1973” on June 20, and “1964” during the final Thursday on June 27. Kenneth Anger is the only filmmaker to appear a second time in this year’s programs, as the curation continues to delve into the more undiscovered and outré, while also paying tribute to major artists who passed away this year like Barbara Hammer (see: 1985’s Optic Nerve on June 13) and Carolee Schneemann (see: 1972’s Plumb Line on June 20). Also featured is the meditative Highway Landscape (1972) by recently retired UW-Madison film professor J.J. Murphy, who completed this short at the University of Iowa before his tenure at UW-Madison.

If it weren’t obvious by the diversity of voices, the series offers a counterpart to impersonal algorithmic selection, as the co-curators hope to attract the enthusiasm of niche audiences from all walks. Kreul makes specific appeals to “experimental music and poetry folks, who need to see Henry Hills’ collage film, Money (1985); and art students need to see the films of the Fluxus Collective (on June 27) as well as the appearance of performance artist Jack Smith in Ken Jacobs’ Little Stabs At Happiness (1963).” Due to limited seating, $10 tickets to each program must be purchased in advance through Brown Paper Tickets. For additional information, please visit the event listings on the Arts + Lit Lab calendar.

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