Arts & Culture

The Big Jewcy: Molly Surno, Cinema 16/Photographer

Molly Surno enters a Greenpoint bar with a small swagger.  She’s among the surprising number of talented visual artists who as a kid trained to be a dancer.  It’s visible in her manner: she sways when she walks, and illustrates … Read More

By / June 9, 2010

Molly Surno enters a Greenpoint bar with a small swagger.  She’s among the surprising number of talented visual artists who as a kid trained to be a dancer.  It’s visible in her manner: she sways when she walks, and illustrates words with careening open hands.  She applies this same mercurial movement to mixing media: Surno’s skill as a curator and artist is taking proverbially uncoupled dance partners and keeping them in step. 

Each edition of Molly’s film series Cinema Sixteen showcases experimental short works by radical filmmakers from the medium’s outskirts.  Live music from modern acts plays throughout the screenings, complimenting the film while remodeling it into an entirely unique experience.  The Balkan cacophony of the Veveritse Brass Band score works by Russian animator and disembodied insect enthusiast Wladyslaw Starewicz.  Post-punk rattlers Lycaon Pictus play over Polish director Piotr Kamler’s 1982 sci-fi cityscape Chronopolis, one of the first films to ever contain CGI.  Nick Yulman and the Mechanical Bone Orchestra rock upon George Melies’ L’Homme Orchestre from 1900, in which a ghostly ensemble literally springs forth from the body of their bandleader.  These screenings are a call-and-response between old iconoclasts and current innovators from Brooklyn and its brethren cities, which Surno dubs "an umbilical cord of places that people gravitate towards for unusual life experiences, wherever there’s a hungry art community."

For Molly, where one sees a film is crucial to the experience.  In contrast to the often isolating movie experience of a multiplex or Netflix, she’s sought out unique venues for her screenings, such as the most recent edition of the series where films where screened in a nook under the Manhattan Bridge.  Her interest in the concept was partially inspired by seeing Wu-Tang Clan wunderkind the RZA scratch on a turntable over Max Fleischer cartoons at an amphitheater at the Los Angeles Film Festival, controlling the film and his improvised score simultaneously.  Surno additionally cites the soundtracks to the films of Kenneth Anger, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Fando y Lis, Werner Herzog’s collaborations with Popul Vuh, and Scorsese’s use of oldies as personal favorites.  She screens shorts only, primarily works printed on film that incorporate the handmade processes she’s interested in.  "There’s something very postmodern about taking something old and putting modern music to it," says Surno. 

Upon gaining experience working for the Tribeca, Amnesty International, and aforementioned L.A. Film Festivals, Molly forged her rendition of Cinema Sixteen at Starr Space in Bushwick, one of those dying breed spaces now on sabbatical that was as apt to house baptisms and Quinceañeras as it was to present far-out film and music.   The idea scratched many where they itched: three hundred people packed their way into Surno’s first Cinema Sixteen event.  She has since staged happenings in Austin, Portland, and Chicago, with upcoming debuts in Los Angeles on July 22nd and Mexico City this December.

In talking to her, you learn fast that Molly is a Los Angeles native who grew up in a bilingual Spanish-English home.  Her work, be it in film curation or her own photography, is concerned with homesickness, the cultivation of America, and the withering of localized coterie in the Internet age.  "Our communication is exciting, and I’m completely engaged in it," says Surno.  "But I’ve always felt like an outsider.  There’s no word for it in English, but I do think sometimes we’re nostalgic for things we never experienced, an America we never took part in."  She is fond of Tom Robbins’ sentiment that "There is no loneliness like American loneliness."  Moreover, she is unconcerned with the nomenclature of how to define someone like her who combines old media with new.  "I think it’s silly.  I’m so influenced by collage, and think these   things are all extensions of one another," she says of any pressure to have a professional title more specified than Artist.

In keeping with its reverence and preservation of the kind of experience that in previous generations cultivated events, Surno’s Cinema Sixteen derives its name from New York’s illustrious film history.  "It’s that legacy of New York that gives it its bones," says Surno.  The husband and wife team of Marcia and Amos Vogel in 1946 saw Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and were so moved by its uniqueness that they devoted themselves to creating a film society which celebrated the avant-garde movies that were yanking on the medium’s waistband.  At its peak, their original "Cinema 16" club sported seven thousand members, and was among the first places John Cassavetes and Roman Polanski screened their earliest amateur films.  Surno recently introduced one attendee of one of her Cinema Sixteen screenings as a member of the original club: the "glowing but freaked out" fellow received a standing ovation from an audience of two hundred. 

In addition to her curatorial deftness, Surno is an accomplished still photographer.  A project entitled The Smallest Canvas, chronicling life in New York salons, earned her a grant from the Brooklyn Arts Panel and subsequent seat on their board.  "The feminist mantra is that the private is political," says Surno.  "Nail art was never seen as a legit art form.  Nail art is private, but it becomes a platform for your political self."  Likewise, her series The Glittering World is a candid, often ominous collection of reportage from the Miss Trans World Indian pageant that made her an honorary member of the Navajo nation ("the glittering world" being the tribe’s name for the era of history in which we currently live).  Upon going out to a bar with some pageant entrants, one of the establishment’s patrons proved particularly taken with her.  "These guys, they go to these places looking for trans women.  He was going, ‘Oh my god, you’re so passable!’  He was freaking out!"

When asked of her objectives for her future photography and Cinema Sixteen, Surno speaks with reverence of scenes from Giuseppe Toranore’s 1988 feature Cinema Paradiso, in which a Sicilian village congregates to watch films with shared wonder.  As anyone who’s ever had a transcendent film-going experience can tell you, there is something otherworldly about sitting in the dark with strangers watching lights flicker profoundly.  "Ambitious people tend to be fascinated by mortality and rituals," says Surno on the subject of film as invocation.  "The migration of people between cultures is often about separation from rituals, like arranged marriage.  We want independence and individuality.  And there’s a freedom to that, but also a loneliness."  Surno cites Moviehouse Brooklyn and Union Docs as simpatico peers in the creation of her brand of fellowship.  But she stresses that such experiences are fewer and farther between than they should be in a city as film-fanatical as New York, particularly compared to those found in Los Angeles venues of her youth like the Mayan and Hollywood Cemetery theaters.  "New York is in constant threat of losing its wildness," says Surno.  "We all came her looking for something, not to pay high rent and eat gourmet burgers.  You want to connect to an alternative community." 

Community is an operative word for Molly: she uses it often, and with conviction.  Truthfully, she has a knack for making many words big: there is an unforced enthusiasm to her cadence that takes a tattered word like "Absolutely" and causes one to wait in suspense for the second-half "lutely" to arrive.  It is the kind of candor and assurance I have witnessed only in those who love their work.  "It’s not pretentious," says Surno of the Cinema 16 experience, "even if I show pretentious films."  Much of Surno’s charm stems from confidence: that rare trait among us that rests between good intentions and arrogance.  "I want to help create magical instances," says Surno, "ones that can’t be outsourced or recreated, where you are participating in the experiences." 

Just as quickly as she pirouettes in, Surno is gone, on to the next stage.  Without egotism or spotlights, she seems a decisive moment onto herself, an original that cannot yet be replicated, with goals that don’t fully translate for YouTube.  Like a pirouette, great moments of montage are fleeting: they enter the psyche fast and remain there, even when we don’t know why.  Just so, despite or perhaps even because of the bright future ahead of Surno, it seems that if you blink, you might miss her.