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Film series launched by local artists promotes the retro

Eric Hatch, Jimmy Joe Roche and Dan Deacon of Gunky's Basement
Eric Hatch, Jimmy Joe Roche and Dan Deacon of Gunky's Basement - Frank Hamilton
What happens when Jimmy Joe Roche and Dan Deacon, two of Baltimore's most prominent artists, curate a film series that takes moviegoers back in time?

The resulting brainchild is the film series Gunky's Basement, now in its third year. An outgrowth of the annual Maryland Film Festival, Gunky's Basement highlights a single film from the 80s and 90s each month from fall to spring. And the movies aren’t the only throwback in film history: Each movie is shown in its original, 35-millimeter format in an age when theaters now universally rely on digital projection.

The $5 screenings take place on a full-sized cinema screen at the Charles Theater — not a basement — and draw between 250 to 300 movie buffs. Some movies are well known classics like “Silence of the Lambs” or “Alien.” Other selections, such as Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man” starring Johnny Depp, are more esoteric.
Gunky's grew out of the Maryland Film Festival's tradition of inviting people who don’t work in film to select and host screenings of movies that it holds year-round. Lauded electronica musician Deacon collaborated with longtime friend and visual artist Roche and the film festival to produce the series. Continuing it will remain a challenge as 35-millimeter prints become harder and more expensive to secure. But for now, the series is helping the festival draw newer and younger audiences, says Maryland Film Festival Director of Programming Eric Hatch.
Though you might expect that only people in their 30s and 40s would come out for movies from the 80s and 90s, Gunky's has also 20-somethings. The organizers credit this to the funky posters designed by local artists and displayed at the Ottobar and other spots that attract a younger crowd.

Johns Hopkins University film student Kristen Politis, 20, describes her experience attending Gunky's screening of “Dead Man” as a conversation between generations.
“The screening attracted both old crowds and new—like me. I hadn’t heard of the film before—and it totally made me aware of the past of indie productions and their effect on audiences. Everyone was so nostalgic. I could see it in their faces.”

Roche describes the series as a creative space where his and Deacon's “really different taste in movies” can “intersect”—and, according to Roche, this overlap of tastes comes from the environments the two watched movies in as youths.

“Dan and I have been friends for a long time” says Roche, a member of the Baltimore arts collective Wham City and the resident digital video specialist at Johns Hopkins University. “We've watched a lot of movies together, in various dirty basements.”

Hatch notes that the series “has a personality, and we're continually expressing that personality.” The series' character affects what titles are shown, and plays a role in generating public interest for the series. “You want your titles to feel curated,” Roche states.

The consistently healthy turnouts are not surprising, given the low ticket price. Gunky's Basement was designed to be shared with all, rather than enjoyed by few. The series usually breaks even but rarely turns a profit. Hatch stresses that it's not a money-making proposition, but rather an event that adds to the city's cultural offerings.
Gunky's Basement has not always had smooth sailing. “Part of the mystique of the series is that, at least so far, everything we've shown has been on 35 millimeter,” says Roche, “that's been part of what our hook is.” And yet, with a mass conversion amidst film production and distribution companies towards digital filming, 35-millimeter prints are becoming harder to find, and more expensive to rent.

Some distributors, such as Warner Brothers, have officiated policies that deny any form of print rental, effectively making digital projection the only way to view any of their titles. Hatch and Roche equate digital movies to “going to a museum and being forced to look at the paintings on an iPad.”

Despite the obstacles, however, Roche is confident the series will continue to mature. Thematically, Roche notes that their recent successful screening of “Dead Man” comes as a sign that the series' audience is ready for more sophisticated, thoughtful viewing. 

Meanwhile, the series still makes use of the Charles’ single remaining 35-milimeter projector. Roche, however, notes “if we get to the point where we need to go digital for a while, we would probably do it, as opposed to just canning Gunky's.”

Maintaining the series is essential to Hatch. “Films come alive really only when they're viewed by an audience.” 

Ian McMurray is a summer intern at BmoreMedia, and an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University for the other three seasons. Often he writes fiction, screenplays, news and essays. Sometimes he sleeps.
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