David Leister's Armchair Cinema & Kino Club

US born filmmaker and performance artist David Leister came to live in London in 1979. In 1984 he joined the London FilmMakers Coop.[1]

Leister has been collecting 'found' footage since he was 15. His archive comprises some 600 films, particularly 16mm educational and industrial training films dating back to the 1940's, which now have a kitsch/utilitarian aesthetic. Of course often these films are low-budget productions and share a certain 'production value' based empathy with underground productions so there is a sympathetic affection alongside the laughter at bygone cultural mannerisms.

He had shown some of these, 'for laughs', at the Comedy Store in 1984, for which he would splice up a 20 minute compilation reel.[2] Around the same time he showed similar material at Tony Allen's club 'Hecklers Graveyard', and at a similar cabaret/ comedy show at the Notting Hill Tabernacle. The comic potential of these types of films has since become part of British mainstream comedy vocabulary being used by Simon Day and David Baddiel, parodied by Harry Enfield and most recently by Harry Hill with whom Leister has in fact recently been working.

The first of his own shows was around this time (c1984) at an early Klinker or Cooler club. (An experimental music venue which is still running weekly events in The Sussex Pub London N1). He then started the 'Armchair Cinema' which ran three or four evenings in the basement of a restaurant called The Dining Room in Borough Market near London Bridge. This was run by the filmmaker William English and his partner Sandra. These shows were based on showings of the archive fortified with extracts of work by classic experimental filmmakers such as Joseph Cornell and Rene Clair.[3] This programme was interspersed with his own film 'works in progress'. I went along to two or three of these shows and enjoyed the congenial cafe atmosphere which was a welcome break from the often pretentious atmosphere at the Film Co-op showings in Camden. This relaxed cabaret context for showing short films had been influenced by the prior explosion of alternative comedy venues. It was here that the cutting edge of improvisation and spontaneity could be found in the early eighties. This was a context that cinema had lost sixty or seventy years before when it moved from the fairs and variety theatres to purpose-made cinemas with fixed seating.

The Kino Club, which Leister started in 1987, was based at the Two Eagles pub in Kennington. Improvising musicians such as Ian McLachlan, Dave Fowler, Parney Wallace, Aleks Kolkowski and Steve Noble were invited to collaborate live with experimental and found films. David Leister, who was the projectionist, would interject live comments along with the inevitable (and welcome) heckles from the audience. The show was live in every sense. These continued twice a month for two years and then continued monthly in the Two Eagles and other pub function rooms into the early Nineties.

A review in What's On, December 19th, 1990 by David McGillivray describes a typical Kino Club:

Live music might be provided by an accordionist and violinist playing Argentinean Tangos. A telephone may ring on one of the candle-lit tables and whoever picks up the receiver may be asked to identify three Beatles songs played in the style of hotel lobby muzak; the prize for correct answers might be a pomegranate or a tin of processed peas. On the other hand there might be a slide show or a look-a-like contest.

A later review by Jonathan Romney in 1993 describes the Kino Club as "a cross between Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable and Olde-Time Music Hall" (New Statesman & Society 30-4-93).

In the same article Leister is quoted as saying:

I'm very much a member of the low-tech society film is about the machinery and the clattering. The sound of the projector becomes an instrument.

These shows recreated an aspect of the silent cinema era in which films would regularly be accompanied by live music. Leister also saw Kino Club as a meeting place for artists working in lense based media, as well as an entertainment. At the time he was also taking part in other events and offering his extensive collection of projection equipment and technical expertise for low cost hire.[4]

Specific similarities between Leister's events and the later Exploding Cinema are: the use of MC; live music/action with film; cabaret mix of film and performance; an emphasis on love of film technology rather than video; audience participation games; Cabaret audience layout; humour valued over a high art mind-set; use of found footage; the idea of it being the focus of a network; eating and drinking (and even talking) whilst consuming film; incomplete blackout; use of 'dÚcor' slides.

Exploding Cinema was different in several very important ways: Exploding espoused open access to filmmakers which changed the nature of the content; was run by an open collective, which, amongst other things, allowed a higher level of energy, manifest in more intense dÚcor; could fill larger venues with a more raucous energy; produced a collectively made photocopied programme; didn't focus events on live music with film as a matter of course; had a more counter cultural stance.

 Although it is true that these differences give rise to completely different events, some key aspects of Leister's events are precedents to the form of Exploding Cinema and were probably an influence. According to Leister it seems that several of the key people who were to form Exploding Cinema had attended Kino Club events. Of course it is also likely that the people who formulated the Exploding model had also been to similar comedy clubs to Leister and in a broader sense had been exposed to similar broad cultural influences. As I have pointed out underground culture tends to be a dynamic unity with trends flowing between media and people in unpredictable ways.

Leister can be seen as a second wave of influence from the USA who was quite different to the Sixties underground. What influences could he have brought from the US apart from a certain informality? One thing is the US institution of drive-in cinema. Here was a cinema in which you could eat, drink and talk with friends. The black-out was not complete so that immersion that is typical of mainstream cinema was not in place.[5]

It should be pointed out that Leister is still, in 1999, listed as part of the crew of Halloween Society for their short film promotions at Notre Dames hall in Leicester Square. Halloween Society played a central part in Volcano! So Leister is still a part of this network. His collection of projection equipment is also an invaluable practical resource to a much wider field of short film culture.

Influences flow in both directions and Leister has shown regularly at the Exploding Cinema. Up to June 1998 Leister is recorded as having shown five films at Exploding Cinema Shows. Since then he has shown another one or two. (eg 'Buying Beer' shot on 'Pixel Vision', an very low definition toy format, was shown on 27th August 1999.)

He has also continued to do his own shows. On Saturday 28th November 1998 I visited his 'Kino Club' at the Lux Cinema[6] in Hoxton which had the title 'Sell Out'. This was a showing of commercial footage from his archive. Typically these were an odd '70s beer 'commercial' or a '40s film made to recruit 'retail assistants' for a department store, introduced or followed and very occasionally accompanied by wry comments from DL. Although this was ostensibly shown for laughs the material was droll at best. The museum atmosphere at the Lux, with its flat floor and hard upright chairs was hardly that of a comedy club of the eighties. The audience was almost startlingly different from an Exploding Cinema audience. They all seemed rather well fed and nicely groomed with no charity shop fashion in sight.[7]

The US underground was fairly well documented at a time when Americana held Europe in thrall. If you rejected Disney, Coke and Levis you could still worship at the throne of the still glamorous US rebels from James Dean to Kenneth Anger. My sense is that Exploding Cinema's attachment to this 'underground' association and its English version in the Sixties and early Seventies is at least partly the lure of US glamour and its beatnik negation. A negation that is both glamorous and a legitimate history. But another influence that is just as important as you get to know the Exploding Cinema and is quite the opposite of glamorous is that of amateur film. If we use amateur in its best sense the Exploding Cinema collective are amateurs in that they work without pay. They do it for love. And they follow other traits of lower class amateurism: they contradict good taste; they deny the importance of the professional standards; they are open access rather than selective.

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Footnotes:



[1] This section is based on material from David Leister's own archive and answers in response to written questions. Link to a longer version published in Filmwaves magazine

 

[2] The Comedy Store in London opened in 1979 and was the centre of the development of 'alternative comedy'. See 'Alternative Comedy: where's it gone?' by Danny Wallace on www.comedynet.demon.co.uk

See also 'A History of Alternative Comedy' (BBC2 6-4-02 R) 90 mins.

 

[3] Joseph Cornell is perhaps best known for Rose Hobart (1936 USA) and Rene Clair for Le Million (1931 France). Other films shown included Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau (1922 Germany) and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari by Robert Weine (1920 Germany).

 

[4] In April 1988 Leister contributed to my 'Skyline' event in Borough market (a Bookworks commission). This involved me performing in a house like shed structure built onto a hydraulic platform and hoisted 50ft above the market: "The house until then lit by a powerful follow-spot had images of activity within a house projected onto it. The projection was then turned onto the cathedral with a stop frame film of a plant growing and dispersing seed. Plaintive whistles in the background played 'London Bridge is Falling Down'" (Szczelkun, 1990). A Super 8 documentary, which included footage of this, was shown at Exploding Cinema in August 1993.

 

[5] See image of a drive-in cinema on the back cover of Illustrated Programme 11/7/95. Exploding Cinema member Colette Rouhier's description of her childhood experience of Drive-ins in South Africa is included in the Oral History Chapter. See also the chapter on Drive-Ins in Barbara Stone's America Goes to the Movies: 100 years of motion picture exhibition (National Association of Theatre Owners 1993).

[6] The Lux Cinema, set up in Hoxton, London in 1997, was part of the institutionalisation of the LFMC. It has now closed (Autumn 2001) due to funding problems. For a discussion see 'The Last Picture Show' by Benedict Seymour, Mute magazine (Issue 22 December 2001 pp12/13). See also the text by Duncan Reekie in IP 12-4-02.

 

[7] Adapted from Logbook 2 p194