Celluloid COLOSSUS

March 29, 2017
7 mins read

The theater is weirdly quiet. It’s noon on a Friday, a few hours away from the day’s matinees featured in either of Sun-Ray Cinema’s theater rooms. In the lobby, the theater’s co-owners, Tim and Shana Massett, and in-house graphic designer/all-around bust-a-mover Clay Doran, are at the concession stand. Tim’s pacing the lobby, visibly flustered, as a call to a repair center to service one of his two 35mm projectors has turned into a “please hold” patience test.

This week, Sun-Ray Cinema is home to a large-scale film gala, the Sleeping Giant Film Festival. Held March 30-April 2, the four-day event screens 40 films—ranging from experimental shorts to documentaries—and welcomes John Waters, who’ll deliver a live commentary to his 1994 film Serial Mom. And indie bands Xiu Xiu, Roommate, Hexa, Burnt Hair and Severed + Said perform live.

Tim steps back into the office and returns with a stack of rolled-up pieces of cloth. He lays them on the concession countertop, nodding and beaming with a kind of mischievous grin. Shana begins unrolling a set of crazed-looking paintings. “These were used in these little, for lack of a better term, micro-cinemas in Ghana, or video clubs,” says Shana, explaining that many times the artist painting the poster had never even seen the Hollywood film that they were interpreting. “People would travel around through West Africa and set up screenings for films and these posters were used for advertising.”

Two dozen posters in all will be hanging in the lobby during the festival, including Cujo, Dracula and Snakes on a Plane. A shirtless Rambo-like figure, wearing a headband, holding a machine gun, is a recurring motif. The Massetts commissioned a poster from one of the artists by way of Deadly Prey Gallery in Chicago. Doran sent a list of JPEGs of images and ideas they wanted incorporated into the poster. The resulting festival poster features Xiu Xiu, inexplicably riding an elephant, Kathleen Turner from Serial Mom clutching a pair of scissors, and a long-haired Waters lifting a white sheet over a hilly range. “It’s funny how they decided to use the pieces,” laughs Doran. “But I have no idea why Waters is holding that sheet.” The new poster is also on the cover of the festival’s program; a collage of similar posters is featured in the booklet.

The custom-made poster is indicative of both the festival and the programming: irreverent and reverent, highbrow and lowbrow and somehow both cerebral and populist. On any given day, the large theater, which holds a capacity of 161, might feature the latest Marvel Universe blockbuster, as the smaller theater, with a capacity of 41, screens an Iggy & the Stooges documentary. The Sleeping Giant Film Festival takes this sensibility and greatly expands on it. Yet the usual programming leans way more toward the independent, if not subversive.

“It just makes sense do this [the festival] now, since the theater has been so successful,” explains Tim. “This is something I’ve been wanting to do for quite a while and it’s really just a natural progression. We’re at a place where we can afford a loss … ” Shana quickly chimes in: “And that’s the impetus for the festival!”

Sleeping Giant originated last September when the Massetts started fleshing out a film roster. Then they began reaching out to filmmakers and assembling all of the elements. Tim says that it took five months to procure the rights for one film, but everything else came into frame fairly quickly—by January, the festival began taking greater form. Local sponsors like Community First Credit Union, Bold City Brewery, Orsay and Black Sheep Restaurant got on board and, in Tim’s words, “really kicked in with some dough and were totally behind this.” Arguably, when a bank invests money in an underground-style film festival, the Massetts have well established themselves as a viable venue for these kinds of groundbreaking events.

“We originally thought about using the theater in San Marco, Rain Dogs and other venues around town for more music,” says Tim. The logistics for more music were more daunting than highlighting films. “We thought about bringing in 10 to 20 bands,” says Doran, who oversees the musical aspect of the festival. “Even the hospitality would have been a lot, so we thought, ‘Why don’t we do take baby steps first and get it off the ground?’” So for the inaugural fest, Doran and the Massetts focused on featuring a handful of notable bands. Xiu Xiu’s interpretation of Twin Peaks is the band’s own imagining of the series’ score rather than a strictly verbatim replaying of Angelo Badalamenti’s Grammy Award-winning music. The band Roommate is providing a live score to Tod Browning’s 1927 film, The Unknown. “We wanted the bands to have some connection to films,” says Shana.

The Massetts have respectively distinct tastes toward film. “Honestly, I’ll watch many kinds of movies because I really like the experience of simply watching a movie,” Shana explains. The festival’s inclusion of two programs of experimental films—which includes short films by Stan Brakhage and Alexandre Larose—highlights Tim’s preferred style of cinema. The theater’s 16mm projector is up and running for a screening of Tony Conrad’s 1966 short, The Flicker. Another offering is Tyler Hubby’s 2016 film, Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present, which profiles the life and times of the avant-garde filmmaker/musician/polymath who died last year.

So far, there’s been a positive response; people are rapidly snapping up the $145 four-day-all-access passes as well as tickets to individual screenings and events. The Waters appearance quickly sold out and there’s been much excitement from locals about Ceyda Torun’s 2016 documentary KEDi, which chronicles the thousands of cats that have roamed Istanbul for centuries. Director Terence Davies’ 2016 biopic A Quiet Passion stars Cynthia Nixon as the mystically fueled 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson. Doran says this one in particular has garnered interest from locals who might be reticent to experiencing Xiu Xiu’s experimental soundscapes to, Director Ana Lily Amirpour’s latest, The Bad Batch, a kind of cannibal-meets-Mad Max-action film starring Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Keanu Reeves and Jim Carrey, is the fest’s closing night feature. “There’s still something for those people who might enjoy more mainstream fare,” says Doran. “So they can simply buy a single ticket to that screening.”

The festival headquarters, a large 40-by-40-foot tent featuring a lounge area with props, plants, chairs and couches and craft beer, will be in the parking lot behind the theater on Margaret Street. Here moviegoers can pick up pre-ordered tickets, have a cold beer and get info on all the festival’s events. “What’s really important is that the tent will be a hub of information,” explains Shana. “We know that 40 films in four days could be a lot for anybody, so we want people to simply walk up and tell us what kind of films they like and ask, ‘OK, what movie should I see?’” The Massetts and Doran hope the tent will reduce any foot traffic that would otherwise route customers through the theater’s main doors out front.

Throughout the event, 40 volunteers will be on hand to help film fans and assure a smooth cinematic experience. As an added quirky twist, a second smaller tent will be the pop-up site for an aura reader. “If people don’t know what to watch,” says Shana, “they can ask the aura reader.”

The event is pivoted on Sun-Ray’s successful DIY vibe. When Tim was given a quote of $6,000 to build the festival’s website, Doran essentially taught himself how to do that. “I told Tim that I’m not a web designer but I know my way around the Internet,” laughs Doran, who got the site online and up and running for $100 a year.

From the programming to services for the patron, there’s a sense of cohesion to the festival that seems strategic and funky. Where else in Northeast Florida can one chill in an outdoor lounge, enjoy vegan eats, quaff cold beer and watch Saturday Morning Cartoons screenings or a doc about the classic countercultural book, The Anarchist Cookbook? Tim says that they just added the cult fave Donnie Darko. They’re hoping to offer encore screenings of some films; their original viewings might conflict with local concerts on weekend nights.

“I can be a really rigid thinker about planning,” says Shana. “But realistically, with something of this magnitude and scope, that’s not how it works.”

Tim is still rattled trying to figure out how to get the 35mm projector back up to speed. Over the years, he’s taught himself how to maintain the theater’s projectors, including the complex digital projectors. “There are really no techs to work on these projectors,” he says. “So if we can’t fix it, we have to call in someone from Miami or Atlanta.”

Looking across the lobby at the glass front door entrance, one sees a handful of people already outside, waiting to buy a ticket for that day’s offerings, including Jordan Peele’s new, critically acclaimed horror flick, Get Out.

“Sleeping Giant actually alludes to Jacksonville,” explains Tim. “I read it somewhere online that we used to be referred to as the ‘Sleeping Giant,’ where it looks like a big city but it’s asleep.” The Massetts are committed to rousing Jacksonville awake and keep it awake. An ongoing project has been securing a second location, with the Beaches as their target goal. “I hate that people from the beach have to drive a half-hour to see some of our movies,” says Tim, whose concern seems definitely more out of film-freak empathy than multiplex tycoon. The buzz about the Sleeping Giant Film Festival is surely legit, as is the Massetts’ passion for film, music, art and community and keeping all four in the picture.

“There’s a lot of power here in Jacksonville that is untapped,” says Shana. “It’s starting to move and it might surprise this city with its ability to pick things up and run with it.”

Folio is your guide to entertainment and culture around and near Jacksonville, Florida. We cover events, concerts, restaurants, theatre, sports, art, happenings, and all things about living and visiting Jax. Folio serves more than two million readers across Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, including St. Augustine, The Beaches, and Fernandina.

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