The Tangible Pleasures of Cinema

The Sprocket Society gets hands on with film

Billy and His Pal
"Billy and His Pal"

When we think of film preservation, we usually think of efforts to salvage the content of old movies. But what about preserving film's contexts – the crackle and pop of the optical soundtrack, the know-how to thread a projector, the collector's thrill of discovery, and the massive history of experimental, industrial, and homemade movies produced outside the Hollywood system? These are some of the topics that inspired the formation of the Sprocket Society, a new joint project between the Alamo Drafthouse and the Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI).

Hosting an inaugural event on August 12 at the Ritz, the Sprocket Society aims at cultivating local appreciation for the technology and culture of mechanical cinema. Despite its midday weekend time slot, this is not a family series but a community forum for serious cinephiles in Austin. The programmers, Tommy Swenson and Lars Nilsen from the Drafthouse and Dr. Caroline Frick from .TAMI, envision the Sprocket Society as a venue for lectures, demonstrations, workshops and discussions: a reboot of the traditional cine-club.

Swenson formed the original Sprocket Society in Seattle in 2007 with a group of film-collector friends. "It grew out of backyard movie nights where we'd get our 16mm projector and show films we'd found in swap meets and on eBay," he says. "As it grew we'd bring the projector in the auditorium rather than in the projection booth to give people more of a connection to the process."

The theme of the first screening, which Swenson is culling mainly from his own 16mm collection, is "fantastic voyages and incredible journeys." It will include an adventure documentary on African pygmies that majorly influenced the young Werner Herzog, a rarely screened late-career entry by Georges Méliès, "The Conquest of the Pole" (1912), and a 1970 psychedelic short by the obscure West Coast experimental filmmaker Donald Fox titled "Omega."

From TAMI's collection comes a newly restored print of one of the earliest surviving westerns from the silent cinema era, "Billy and His Pal" (1911). It features Francis Ford, the older brother of John Ford (and not the namesake of Coppola). It was filmed right here in Central Texas by Georges' brother Gaston Méliès at the Star Film Ranch in San Antonio. Dr. Frick will introduce the film and explain the strange saga of its recent discovery in New Zealand and its repatriation to the United States.

"Billy and His Pal" is a prime example of the type of fare to expect from the series – not exactly Stagecoach in terms of film form, perhaps, but hard to beat in the historical interest department. Even hardcore buffs may be clueless about the existence of a Méliès outpost in San Antonio. Ultimately, the Sprocket Society will try to convince Austinites that anybody can get involved in preservation. "Film preservationists have largely been weird nerds like us," says Nilsen. "We want to give weird nerds the tools they need to be part of this continuum of cinema history."

Sprocket Society: Fantastical Voyages and Incredible Journeys takes place Sunday, Aug. 12, 2:45pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz.

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the Sprocket Society, Alamo Drafthouse, Tommy Swenson, Lars Nilsen, Dr. Caroline Frick, TAMI, Texas Archive of the Moving Image, Georges Méliès, The Conquest of the Pole, Donald Fox, Omega, Gaston Méliès, Billy and His Pal

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