BREAKING NEWS
L.A. Now

At Echo Park center, only the length of screenings is predictable

At Echo Park Film Center, you never know what will show up on the screen

Kurt Comstock stood in the small movie theater, about to debut his latest film to an audience of friends and strangers.

The 53-year-old inventor, who likes to experiment with eco-friendly film processing, started by saying that he'd recently made a film about horses and then developed it — successfully — in horse manure.

This year, he said, his artistic goal was to put his thoughts into action, because "we only have so much time to live." In fact, he'd dreamed up the work he was about to show at 3:30 that morning.

It was three-quarters of an hour into the Echo Park Film Center's Open Screen night, held the first Thursday of each month. Two Boots Pizza had delivered six free pies, and there'd been a break after the first of the evening's 17 films so everyone could grab a slice.

Comstock was up second. He said he'd shot his piece on a cellphone.

"I did it, and whatever it looks like, it looks like," he said, just before the room went dark.

And so began six surreal minutes of random images: an LP spinning on a record player, surrounded by what seemed to be tiny flecks or bubbles. Knockoff Barbies, G.I. Joes, a toy rocket, a priest doll and a skull in a football helmet — all posed lurking in tall backyard weeds. A ventriloquist's dummy appeared. Its mouth flapped open. In the background, Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" boomed.

It can be daunting for a filmmaker to premiere a work — to have outsiders look upon it, to gauge if reactions match intentions in the pitch black of a theater.

But not at this spot on Alvarado Street, where applause flows as freely as champagne at fancier venues.

"Was it an antiwar film?" someone gently asked Comstock after the clapping for his "Thought Diary" ended. And what, wondered someone else, was that stuff floating in the air? "Dust in a sunbeam," Comstock said, created by smacking together rags from his garage.

You never know, said Paolo Davanzo, one of the nonprofit community film center's two founders, what might happen at Open Screen. For 14 years, any filmmaker has been welcome to screen any work in any genre or format — DVD, VHS, 16 millimeter, Super 8 — provided that it lasts no more than 10 minutes.

The long, narrow storefront has the feel of an early nickelodeon. A jar set up at the entrance suggests a $5 donation for admission, although no one who doesn't have it is turned away. Along the walls are racks of film canisters and bookshelves full of DVDs. Rows of chairs face the screen, along with one comfy couch.

On this night, Davanzo cheerfully suggested, the showings — taking into account time for introductions, questions and comments — might just break the Open Screen record quitting time of 3 a.m.

People sign up to show their work when they arrive. There's no way to predict it in advance.

In addition to the monthly screenings, the Echo Park Film Center offers classes and workshops — free to children and seniors. It has a lending library of movies and books, one of the perks of a $40 annual membership. It gives anyone with a hankering the chance to get to know and use actual film, which is becoming rare in this digital age.

Alen Hartounian, a 42-year-old tutor, said he discovered the center a little more than a year ago and finds he learns something every time.

When his turn came, Hartounian offered viewers a choice: "From L.A. to L.A., Part Two," 2 1/2 minutes about "different parts of Los Angeles." Or 4 1/2 minutes of "Murder in the Shower" — riffing off the classic scene in "Psycho."

The show of hands made it clear. His L.A. wanderings never stood a chance.

So as the music from "Psycho" played, the audience watched a tap drip and a big kitchen knife cut through the air, casting its shadow on a shadow curtain as a Barbie doll flailed futilely. The blade reappeared thick with blood, which slowly washed off under the shower stream before swirling down the drain. "So, Alen, this is a real departure for you," center co-founder Lisa Marr said when it was over. "Normally you have these travelogues featuring flowers and birds."

Someone praised Hartounian for syncing the music to the action so well. Someone else asked about the thick blood, which he said was tomato paste.

Still to come were gravestones in a Georgia cemetery, cyclists in downtown L.A., a music video set partly along the L.A. River, bits of New York graffiti and street signs on hand-developed film — replete with vintage scratches and splotches.

"It's like playing a vinyl record. It feels a bit more authentic in a way," someone said.

As did this gathering, close to Hollywood only in miles.

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

Follow City Beat @latimescitybeat on Twitter and at Los Angeles Times City Beat on Facebook.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
48°