Keeping it Reel

Jan 12, 2010 at 12am

I'm a person who likes human interaction. I believe it is an important part of our collective mental and social health. In fact, my inner crotchety old man thinks that part of what's wrong with the world today is that there's not enough human interaction. The declining civility, increasing crime, the need to tune everybody out — all the result of insufficient regular interaction with other members of our species.

This is a long and involved theory that goes well beyond a lament for good old days that might have transpired before I was born. You may or may not be interested in hearing more about it. But frankly, there's not enough room in my word count to take that walk, so instead I will limit myself to an introductory anecdote.

I like music a lot. I consider myself somewhat of an expert on the subject. So when I go to the record store I'm not looking for help or suggestions on what to buy; I know what I'm there for. However, I'm not an expert on every kind of music. When it comes to things like classical or electronica, I tend to get lost in all the sub-genres, remixes and varying symphonic performances. I know that I like these kinds of music and I know what I like when I hear it, but I need help tracking it down. 

In these cases I will head to the appropriate section of the store and look for somebody who seems to be a big fan of the genre. For example, that old guy standing by the classical CDs comparing the liner notes on two different versions of The Goldberg Variations? I promise you he knows more about classical music than any of the punk rock kids working behind the counter. 

I always head straight for a guy like him when I need help digging up good classical music. He will invariably give me suggestions about what to buy, tell me why it is worth owning and, if I'm lucky, he will give me a little lesson on that particular composer or symphony. You see how that works? A little simple human interaction and I am able to befriend my very own classical music expert/personal shopper to help me pick out the perfect album. 

To review, the process works like this: Human interaction leads to the sharing of personal information which leads to receiving the informed opinion of an interesting stranger. Still with me? I hope so, because this is where Oddball Film + Video enters the picture. 

Housed in an old, cavernous loft space typical of San Francisco's early industrial era, Oddball Film + Video is home to the largest film archive in Northern California. Reels upon reels of rare and bizarre film footage are stacked from floor to ceiling. Countless boxes of DVDs and VHS tapes line the aisles. Any remaining available space is crammed with vintage editing equipment and movie ephemera. And the whole show is owned and operated by certified movie junkie Stephen Parr. 

Parr is obviously a man obsessed, and the archives at Oddball Film + Video are a testament to many years of dedicated collecting. He has managed to turn this compulsion into a successful business by licensing clips and footage from his library for use in television, advertising and movies. 

If you've ever watched an episode of "Glee" or "Mythbusters" then you've probably seen some of Stephen's footage. Mostly likely it was a grainy black and white clip of a scientist mixing some volatile solution or a strange instructional video from the early 60s. 

Stephen is somewhat dismissive when talking about the business of Oddball Film + Video. For him it is simply a way to pay the bills. What really interests him and what receives the lion's share of his knowledge and creative energy are the weekly screenings in the back room. Every weekend Parr cherry picks the best footage from his massive collection and puts on a two hour show. 

With the help of filmmakers, fellow kindred spirits and the occasional expert in his field, Stephen does a live film mash-up — or "image riffing" as he calls it. For your email address and the price of a six-pack, you too can be a part of his intimate audience. 

The shows are usually organized around a theme. The night I was there the program was “Celluloid Scopophilia: The Sensual Dimensions of the Human Body” — although it could have been anything as far as I was concerned. I was set to love whatever Stephen showed me as soon as I came up the creaky stairs to Oddball Films' third floor headquarters.

After paying my $10, I followed a string of lights through the canyons of film canisters. I made my way to the back room where I found a spot in an old diner booth, right below the giant disco ball. I watched as Stephen chatted up his friends and introduced himself to members of the audience he didn't know.

After a brief synopsis of the night's theme ("rare medical and industrial films inspired by the writings of Wilhelm Stekel, author of Sadism and Masochism and Patterns of Psychosexual Infantilism — in case you're taking notes) he and visiting filmmaker Kerry Laitala stepped behind a strange array of vintage film equipment and killed the lights.

For the next 90 minutes or so we watched an odd montage of film clips and short movies mixed with music and free hand special effects. Instructional videos with titles like "Breathing For Others" and "Podiatry: Opportunity & Challenge" were interspersed in between vintage Dutch laboratory footage and close-ups of women applying lipstick. Parr switched between the projectors and the sound system while Laitala worked a second projector and a handful of colored velum.

Some of the footage was intriguing. Some was strange. Some was funny, while other parts were just gross. Some of the clips dragged on a little too long. But the experience as a whole was amazingly unique and personal. To sit in the back room of the city's most ardent film fanatic while he pulled out all the stops to entertain me and a select group of other in-the-know people felt very special. It also felt very human.

This was not an experience that could be generated by a computer or the marketing team of a large Hollywood conglomerate. This was one guy sharing his knowledge and passion with a handful of curious onlookers happy to sit back and let the reel spin.


When the lights came up at the end of the night I felt a pleasant drowsiness, like shaking off the last memories of a strange dream. The disco ball started to spin again and a few people lingered next to a vintage popcorn machine. Stephen was explaining the difference between some of the camera lenses he used while Kerry Laitala collected the special 3-D glasses she had passed around for the evening's psychedelic grand finale.

Together we were a room full of people sharing ideas and opinions about film, art, sex and close-up footage of eyeball surgery. It's a small thing, I know, but I like to think that we were making the city—if not the world—a better place.

Step out of your bubble and into one of San Francisco's cool, dark places. Oddball Film + Video is crammed into the top story of an old furniture factory on Capp St. in the Mission. They have screenings almost every weekend, each one with a different theme. To find out what strange show Stephen Parr is cooking up each week, add your name to the email list at info@oddballfilm.com. Don't forget to bring your own popcorn.

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