Last Friday marked the ninth screening at the Eastern State Penitentiary for the Secret Cinema, the 15-year-old brainchild of Temple alumnus Jay Schwartz.
Nearly a hundred guests were neatly seated in the narrow corridor of Cell Block Seven to watch the original 1978 Scared Straight! documentary projected from film reel to screen. It was an appropriate choice for one of America’s most notorious and historical penitentiaries.
The film documents convicts with life sentences describing the horrors of prison to juvenile delinquents. The convicts tell the stories in a terrifying, humiliating fashion in an effort to save the young criminals while they still have a chance.
“You move one more g-ddamn time, and I’ll bite your f—in’ nose off and spit it in your face!” was one of many lines from the shocking documentary that provoked laughter and gasps from the captivated audience.
For Schwartz, it was simply another
chance to do what he loves: present cult classics as he believes they were meant to be shown, on 16- and 32-millimeter film. A member of Temple’s class of 1979, Schwartz became interested in vintage cinema in 10th grade. After seeing a re-released screening of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, he immediately started collecting classic film reels.
“It was becoming apparent that there weren’t enough repertory cinema outlets
in my hometown of Philadelphia and even the ones open then were ignoring a whole pantheon of low-brow yet fascinating genres: teen exploitation; rock ‘n’ roll; psychedelic, oddball black comedies; ‘golden turkeys;’ 1970s nostalgia; and a lot more,” Schwartz said.
Thus, he created the Secret Cinema in 1992 as a means to preserve and present forgotten cinematic gems to new audiences on their original 16mm format. Since its inception, the Secret Cinema has amassed a tight-knit following from word of mouth, positive press and steady screenings at the Moore College of Art and Design. In April 2007, the Secret Cinema had its biggest turnout to date at the Philly Film Fest, when over 400 people filled the International House to see Schwartz’s collection of pornography from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
As darkness crept over the cavernous halls of the Eastern State Penitentiary on Friday night, there was an enthusiastic turnout of people who were new to the Secret Cinema as well as dedicated followers who filled Cell Block Seven to capacity.
Doug Drake of Center City, a newcomer to the Secret Cinema, remembered watching videos of car crashes during driver’s education in 1978 and thought that Scared Straight! would have the same impact 30 years later. Germantown resident Pamela Edmonds recalled hearing of the documentary when it came out and decided to take her thirteen-year-old son to see it now.
Much of the Secret Cinema’s local
success stems from Schwartz’s unique yet bittersweet role as the only person to screen classic films in Philadelphia.
“The absence of other people [screening films] has probably contributed to the popularity of my film screenings,” Schwartz said. “Although that’s something I’d never wish . . . to be the last man standing showing films.” While the digital age makes it easier than ever to convert film to DVD format, Schwartz argues that the feel and subtlety of the original is lost in translation.”Scientific terms and technology cannot capture what is missing,” he said.
“It’s like making a carbon copy of the ‘Mona Lisa.'”
Schwartz predicts that technology will improve so that 16mm film can be transferred seamlessly to digital media in the near future, which would allow major motion picture companies to re-release vintage movies on DVD.
“I won’t be needed anymore,” he said of the possible scenario. “I have no idea what the future holds.” Until then, Schwartz deals with his love of film screenings on a day-to-day basis and looks for future events outside of his regular screening at Moore. He expressed interest in presenting
a screening at his alma mater Temple University and said that students can help by creating a demand for the Secret Cinema. Students interested in the Secret Cinema can speak with Main Campus Program Board or sign up for the mailing list at www.secretcinema.com.
Jimmy Viola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.