I'm fairly well informed when it comes to the local film community. Word of productions, projects, and screenings tends to spread fast among the filmmaking locals, but last week I was blindsided by the news of a new pop-up theater that suddenly, well ... popped up ... in downtown Little Rock.
This new theater is called Cinema I/O and was put together by Omaya Jones and Michael Carpenter, the Film Quotes Film duo that curates the monthly Arkansas Times Film Series over at the Riverdale 10. After finally hearing the news break on the Arthouse Garage podcast and in Sean Clancy's article in the Democrat Gazette, I decided to check out this past weekend's screenings and see exactly what this Cinema I/O was all about.
The first thing to know about Cinema I/O is that it is a micro theater, an eight-seat black box theater and projection room. Being that seating is extremely limited, you have to reserve your seats online. To my surprise, tickets to these screenings are free. Which, considering the direction of inflation and the quality of the films that were being screened, is a great deal. So, I reserved my free tickets for Saturday's movies: a 2 o'clock screening of the 1996 French film "Irma Vep" and the 2005 Korean movie "Tale of Cinema."
Due to unforeseen circumstances, and an interview running long, I was way behind schedule -- nearly 20 minutes late to the films. When 2 o'clock rolled around and I was somewhere racing down I-630, I got a phone call from Carpenter asking me if I was still coming to the movies. I explained the situation and my tardiness. He put me on hold for a minute and came back and informed me that the other theatergoers didn't mind waiting until I showed up. I told him to just go ahead and start the film. Maybe it was because they knew I was coming to review their new cinema, but the level of dedication that Cinema I/O has for their audience is something unexpected and unparalleled. Even after the movie finished, they rolled back the film and played me the first 20 minutes that I missed.
I arrived at 420 Byrd St., located catty-corner from Lost Forty Brewing, 20 minutes late. The building formerly housed a plumbing supplies warehouse but is now the home of Little Rock's Good Weather Gallery. I walked into this sparsely renovated space and was greeted by Carpenter and Jones. I can only describe the venue as cool, hip, punk, and grunge (in the best way). It fulfills my ideal fantasy of what an indie/art house cinema is supposed to be -- something so far outside the mainstream that makes it special.
I went to the concession stand and got popcorn and water, which again were completely free. Then I went to the very intimate black box screening room. I would highly recommend not showing up late to the movies, because as I was making my way to an open seat in the close quarters of the screening room, I became hyperaware of every single movement and sound that I was making, trying not to disrupt anyone's view of the movie. Once I was nestled in and comfortable I was able to enjoy "Irma Vep," a movie that I've been meaning to check out for a while now.
Once the credits rolled, everyone exited the screening room back into the lobby where we discussed the film. I brought up the fact that I had seen the 1915 film series "Les Vampires," upon which "Irma Vep" is loosely based. But each audience member brought his or her own perspective to the film, and Jones was asking thought-provoking questions about the film's style and structure.
After we wrapped up our discussion, I turned to Carpenter and inquired what the "I" and "O"stood for in their theater's name. He explained that it was short for Input/Output. He went on to point out that cinema isn't just something that people consume but something that we share on a communal basis to help provide insights, understanding and empathy as a society. The post-screening discussion of "Irma Vep" was the perfect example of this input and output method put into practice.
While I was waiting for "Tale of Cinema" to start, I perused the art gallery portion of the building, which consisted of installations of mannequin legs holding up works of art. Jones was walking me through the exhibit, explaining its origins and the theater's partnership with Good Weather. As we walked and talked, I asked, "Why eight seats? Why start out so small?"
He pulled out a book about the history and function of Cinema 16, a film society started back in the 1940s in New York by Amos Vogel. He more or less said that this was his inspiration and guidebook on how to start and run a micro cinema -- start small, build a base, and screen a variety of unique and inclusive films. He hopes to find a solid base of 100 or so patrons and cinephiles who can come out to these weekly screenings to help make this endeavor sustainable.
I, for one, will be a loyal patron, as I found this whole cinematic experience to be one of the coolest things happening in Little Rock; and I think everyone should at least experience this intimate and interactive art house theater once while it's at this location.
Cinema I/O is currently screening on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. You can find more information about the theater and showtimes on its website, cinemaio.org.