Secrets Revealed in Capitol Hill Times

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Curious about our Sprocket Society Secret Sunday Matinees? Read on to learn more…

Sprocket’s Secret Sundays mean big fun at NWFF
Carol Hughes (left) and Buster Crabbe appear in a hand-colored promotional photo for “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.”
Carol Hughes (left) and Buster Crabbe appear in a hand-colored promotional photo for “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.”

In a movie paradise long ago, going to a Sunday matinee meant a cliffhanger chapter in a serial story where the hero was left dangling above certain death until the next week, a cartoon to make the audience rock with laughter and a full-length feature film.

The two-man Sprocket Society (www.sprocketsociety.org) is bringing back that old-time popcorn fun to the Northwest Film Forum (NWFF). The new Secret Sunday Matinee begins at noon each Sunday at NWFF, 1515 12th Ave. The series began last week and runs for another through Nov. 23. Tickets range from $5 for NWFF members to $8.50 for the general public.

Spencer Sundell and Brian Altar founded the Sprocket Society, Seattle’s newest film group, to promote the experience of “mechanical cinema.” We caught up with the busy Sundell to discuss the appeal of Flash Gordon, mad scientists and the new Sunday matinee series at NWFF.

CHT: How many members in the Sprocket Society?

Sundell: At the moment, the Society is just myself and Brian, although we have a mailing list of around 70 or so, which includes approximately 20 folks who are committed friends of what we’re doing. When we started The Sprocket Society, we figured we’d treat it as an ongoing project and see if anyone else dug it. We started doing public screenings earlier this year, and so far the response has been pretty enthusiastic. It’s definitely inspired us to keep at it.

CHT: The Sprocket Society is named for the sprocket in a projector. How did you pick that name?

Sundell: Both Brian and I are volunteer projectionists, he at the Grand Illusion and myself at the Northwest Film Forum. So we are actually playing with movie sprockets all the time. But we’re also interested in film history and exploring that with the Society, and the sprocket is an apt symbol of that, especially since cinema-and our entire society-is rapidly moving toward an entirely digital paradigm. Digitizing film has all sorts of benefits economically for filmmakers and distributors. But it also has cataclysmic implications for the continued preservation of film.

CHT: What do you mean?

Sundell: You can still take a piece of 1890s film that Edison or the Lumiere brothers shot personally and hold it in your hand, hold it up to the light. If you wanted to, you could invent your own projector out of junk yard parts and a candle. But how many people can play movie files from a 1995 Amiga computer? The stuff, the art, is intangible-encoded with codecs and operating systems and programs that no longer exist. What will happen to all of that digital stuff in another 100 years?

Neither Brian nor I are Luddites. We both work in technology-he’s a digital graphic designer and I build websites for a living. But perhaps because of this familiarity with digital tech we’re also attuned to the impact it has and ultimately how ephemeral it actually is.

CHT: So this series is all about recreating an earlier movie experience, something a bit different from watching video on your computer?

Sundell: We feel that physical film-mechanical cinema-is a very different aesthetic experience, just visually on its own terms. We’re interested in preserving that. But basically? We just love nerding out about movies, and we hope others want to, too.

CHT: How did you pick the movies for the Secret Sunday Matinee at the NWFF?

Sundell: It is stuff from my personal collection of 16mm films. I’ve got a couple hundred prints, maybe 250, of a mixture of shorts and features.

CHT: The secret portion of the matinee promises: “Fantastic Adventures! Aliens! Monsters! Pirates! Mad Scientists! Distant Worlds!” Why are the exact features secret?

Sundell: Because it’s more fun that way! The practice came out of the private backyard movie parties that me, Brian and his neighbor Gary started having in 2003. Once in a while we’d leak it or give a clue, but usually what we’re showing is a secret. There’s always a feature, and there’s always at least one cartoon, and there’s always shorts. It’ll be great, but you don’t know what you’re going to get until it appears before you.

CHT: You have revealed in the ads that each Secret Sunday Matinee will start with a Flash Gordon serial. Can you tell us a little about this?

Sundell: Flash Gordon originated in 1934 as a beautifully-drawn Sunday newspaper comic strip by Alex Raymond, combining the very old (even then) genre of pulp action fiction with high-tech sci-fi. There was a tremendous surge in scientific innovation in those days, much like now, so “high tech” was very cool and the strip was kind of pitch-perfect for the times. It was tremendously popular, and remains a respected and beloved high point of comics history to this day.

The first Flash Gordon movie serial was released in 1936 and was a huge hit. Kids went bananas. It was such a success that Universal produced two more serials, a real rarity for serials.

CHT: And for those born after the 1930s, what is the appeal of seeing a serial a in live theater setting like the Secret Sunday Matinee?

Sundell: Well for one, these old serials are very rarely shown in the way they were meant to be originally: once a week, paired with a “thrilling feature,” in a theater.

The films are also just a rip-roaring good time. The job of a serial was to pack as much action and adventure and cool stuff into 15 or 20 minutes as possible, with at least one fist-fight and then leave the heroes facing certain death until next week. What’s not to like?

For me the Flash Gordon serials spark the old imagination. You watch this stuff and afterward you feel like running into the backyard with some friends and a piece of a busted chair for a ray gun.

CHT: On the last week of the program, you mention that there will be a secret 13th episode of Flash. What’s that?

Sundell: There’s only 12 episodes of “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe,” but we’re booked for 13 weeks. Of course it’s a secret, but I’ll make an exception to say that we’re showing a condensed feature-length version of one of the other Flash serials. And there may be some funny glasses involved. You’ll have to come and find out.

CHT: Finally, which are better: pirates or mad scientists?

Sundell: Hmm. Mad scientists are good conversationalists, have giant robots, a wet bar and can make your spleen explode with strange rays. But personally, I think pirates are more fun to hang around with. Plus you get more sun.

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2 Responses to “Secrets Revealed in Capitol Hill Times”

  1. Rosemary Says:

    And there were some questions-and-answers that didn’t make it into the CHT version for reasons of space. So if you want to know Sundell’s favorite concessions, you’ll have to check my blog at http://www.myspace.com/jonesbooks.
    :) Rosemary

  2. Susie Says:

    And to back Spencer up with a slightly different viewpoint. We on the NWFF staff feel that physical film-mechanical cinema-is a very different athletic experience as well as aesthetic experience. There is no crew so fit and reel ready as our Northwest Film Forum projectionists. How many Landmark projectionists can run 26 .5 miles in less than three hours and ten minutes?

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