“I’m Interested in Things That Aren’t Here Anymore”: A Conversation with Jay Schwartz
Whether the internet has had a net positive or negative effect on the culture of cinema, I would not presume to say. Its great benefit, to my mind, is the factor of accessibility — many films that would have been difficult to track down during earlier years can now be seen with relative ease. This availability, coupled with the profusion of platforms and venues dedicated to the discussion of cinema, has injected energy into cinephile culture, stimulating interest in exploring the annals of film history. And yet, within that history, there are still vast tracts that remain wholly undiscovered by most film fans.
This is where Jay Schwartz comes in. Schwartz is the custodian of an alternate canon. His workshop, housed within an industrial warehouse in Philadelphia, is stacked to the ceiling with colorful film reels, canisters, and projection equipment. Using the name The Secret Cinema, he has spent twenty-six years unearthing and sharing weird and wonderful films that have slipped through the cracks, many of them made outside the parameters of conventional cinema.
On September 20, he’ll return to Bryn Mawr Film Institute with an all-new installment of his popular Trailer Trash series, featuring ninety minutes of wild, strange, and hilarious trailers from the 1960s and ‘70s. I sat down with him in his archive to discuss his work and the upcoming Trailer Trash III program.
Can you talk about who you are and the work of Secret Cinema?
My name is Jay Schwartz and I run the Secret Cinema. I’ve been showing films under that name since 1992. I was collecting 16mm films as a hobby and a friend of mine who was booking bands at a club said, “Do you want to show films there?” I started in March of 1992 and never stopped. I have a lot more films now.
I’ve shown every genre of film — classics, less-than-classics, cult movies, drive-in movies, beach movies, bad movies, good movies, old movies. But also, lots of miscellaneous kinds of films not traditionally shown in repertory cinemas — short films, industrial films, educational films, home movies of strangers, TV commercials, trailers, medical films, every possible kind of film. I’ve shown them in nightclubs, coffeehouses, libraries, book stores, cemeteries, parks, all kinds of places using portable equipment, always shown using real film, never video or digital. And also in movie theaters sometimes, such as Bryn Mawr Film Institute.
What is it that attracts you to film as a format?
The attraction is two-fold. One, it looks different. I think it looks better. The other reason is that much of the miscellaneous categories I described are not available unless you collect films.
You work with a lot of material that has either been disregarded, forgotten, or —
Discarded. I can show you [film] cans that actually have stamped on it “DISCARD,” from school libraries and things.
What draws you to that body of material? Is there something that you’re looking to discover?
Every reel of film in this room has something to discover. It doesn’t mean they’re always interesting, but they all have some history to reveal.
How do you tell the trash from the treasure?
A lot of what is traditionally considered trash, I consider treasure. I try not to bore audiences, so it’s that simple. If it’s fun to watch, then it’s treasure.
Have there ever been instances where you’ve put on a film with no expectations and felt like you’ve discovered something miraculous?
A good example is a film I found in this room a few months ago. I don’t even remember where I got it. It was a 1930s film made by Aetna life insurance about safe truck driving. It has suffered from some decay but it was still running through the projector pretty well. Just seeing the old cars and trucks on the road were interesting to me. And I saw a truck go by with an address on it, and I thought, “That looks like a Philadelphia street.” And then I saw something that said Passyunk Avenue, and eventually it became clear that the whole thing was shot in the Philadelphia area. That made it miraculous to me, to see what these streets looked like in the 1930s.
How does Philadelphia figure into your work?
I’m interested in local history and what places looked like long ago. I’m interested in things that aren’t here anymore. When I find motion pictures showing those things I get excited. I’ve done several programs called From Philadelphia with Love where I show any film footage of Philadelphia from the past that I can find.
You’re going to be doing a trailer program at BMFI soon [Trailer Trash III]. Is there a particular theme?
I tend to look for cultish films, genre films, drive-in films, some horror films, beach party, rock n’ roll, whatever is wacky enough to be entertaining for two and half minutes. And I’ll probably throw in a few old “date strips,” that say “COMING FRIDAY” and things like that, with old typography. I think I have some old drive-in food commercials that I’ve never shown. And Trailer Trash III, will, unlike the previous two programs, will be shown for the first time. The other two had been shown years before at other theaters, but this is going to be an all-new program.
A lot of your trailers are focused on the ’60s and ’70s. When you’re looking through the trailers of that period, do you start to get a sense of the zeitgeist that they come out of?
You’ll definitely get a flavor of the past in watching this. I collect those decades of trailers simply because I lived through those years and have a nostalgia for it, but a lot of fun, campy, good, or bad — or just strange — films were made in those years.
Secret Cinema’s work isn’t limited to the Trailer Trash programs. What else do you have coming up?
I’ll have a free program in Philadelphia’s Rotunda in September. It’s going to be all films made by Bell Telephone. Yet, that includes a variety of kinds of films. They were a large film producer, the phone company.
How do you see your work in relation to the present moment?
A lot of times people say “Secret Cinema? It’s not a secret if you have a story written in the paper.” But I’m not trying to keep what I do secret at all. The secret, if there’s a secret, is that I’m exposing films that are completely forgotten, and shouldn’t be secret but are secret. So that’s the secret nature of it. I try to show films that people wouldn’t see if I weren’t around to show them, and to show them in a way true to their original format as much as possible. And that’s my role.
See you at the movies!
— Jacob Mazer, Special Programming Manager, BMFI