March 17, 2013

Discoveries: S.F.'s Oddball Film + Video lives up to name

This city's oddest "movie theater" – and the reason for the quote marks will become clear shortly – sure isn't easy to find.

SAN FRANCISCO – This city's oddest "movie theater" – and the reason for the quote marks will become clear shortly – sure isn't easy to find.

Then again, you wouldn't expect a place called Oddball Film + Video to have a glowing marquee and an expansive parking structure. And it's in the Mission District, where oddity is the norm and grunginess a way of life.

Oh, and did we mention the evening's feature presentation is "Oral Exam: You Can't Handle the Tooth," a compilation of silent films and early talkies, industrial and educational shorts and classic commercials, all espousing the virtues of dental hygiene?

No wonder it's not playing at the multiplex.

Anyway, finding the place is a challenge. The address is 275 Capp St., somewhere between 18th and Mission, one of those less-traveled roads that used to be sketchy before gentrification. But when you get to the appointed spot, all you see is a sign reading "Sutter Furniture."

The door is open, though, so you walk in. In the vestibule, a smaller sign leads you down two hallways, then up a flight of rickety stairs.

You know you're in the right place when you reach a warehouse space with row-upon-row of floor-to-ceiling film cannisters, made more homey by a retro interior design featuring old black-and-white TV sets, a jukebox and vintage signs.

This is what Oddball's day job entails, rescuing, preserving and licensing stock footage and then licensing it to feature films, documentary and TV projects and advertising. It boasts, at last count, more than 50,000 odd films and videos, feature-length, shorts and lots of B-roll.

Kat Shuchter, one of Oddball's curators, takes your $10, hands you a blue stub and points you to a room around back.

There resides the "theater," illuminated by a glowing disco ball and Christmas lights, and surrounded by a '70s-era wet bar used to prop up film projectors.

A dozen movie buffs lounge on couches and chairs in front of a 20-foot screen. Once the lights dim, you get "coming attractions" that focus on the evening's theme – in this case, close-up shots of beavers devouring wood, cows chewing their cud, dogs gnawing of sticks and a redheaded girl in braces lustily biting into a carrot.

The soundtrack: The Undisputed Truth singing "Smiling Faces Sometimes."

In an ironic twist, Oddball has placed a bowl of candy – Smarties and Lik-m-aid Fun Dips – for people to munch on, gratis, while their tooth decay hastens.

Eschewing the candy but soaking in the scene are Oddball regulars Brandon Carter Meixel and Brenda Berys.

"Coming here's like watching 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' like seeing how, historically, uncomfortable topics were explained to people, things that are commonplace to us," Carter Meixel says. "You sort of cringe, but also laugh, at how history treated what used to be taboo."

Scoping out the sparse crowd, Carter Meixel smiles knowingly, as if clued in to a hip event for the cool kids.

"It's definitely one of the secrets of the Mission, for sure," he says. "The first time we came in, we were like, 'Oh no, we're going into somebody's house and we're going to see something on a projector in the living room.' Then we walked in and it was like this is a legitimate film archive.' "

Before the real show begins, the lights come up and Stephen Parr, wearing a jaunty felt fedora and trench coat, makes his appearance to introduce the evening's fare. He's the founder, chief curator and visionary of Oddball Film + Video, the result of 30 years of collecting.

"When we're not screening about 100 films a year, we license them," he says. "We just did one today about a soul singer called Eddie Kendricks and (recently) worked on a project for a (Stephen) Soderbergh film about Liberace and a movie that just ran at Sundance called 'Lovelace.'

"That's why people call us. They need footage that nobody else has. This scene (in the Liberace biopic) apparently takes place in an adult bookstore, and (they needed) appropriate (period) footage being played in the background."

Last month, reels of Parr's stock footage from the 1960s was featured in a more wholesome film, the PBS documentary "American Experience: Silicon Valley."

But on this night, it's all about teeth. There's Charlie Chaplin's "Laughing Gas" (1914), W.C. Fields' "The Dentist" (1932) and little-known gems such as "Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp: To Tell the Tooth" (1971), a claymation educational oral opera called "The Munchers" (1973) and a Cesar Romero mock-horror flick called "The Haunted Mouth" (1974), the latter made as propaganda by the American Dental Association. There are '50s ads, too, including a particularly cheesy spot for a toothpaste called Cue, "with Floracton."

"It's good to be able to screen these in the original format because, (with) about 70 percent of the films you see now, you're actually not looking at film, you're looking at a digital copy," Parr says. "You might notice some of the films are beat up. That's a good thing. That means people have watched them before."

As the evening unfolds, the crowd guffaws at comical overacting in the education spots, the comedic brilliance of Chaplin and Fields, and the weirdness of shorts in which adults try too hard to be hip in appealing to kids while inculcating them with brushing-and-flossing dogma.

The presentation does not go without a hitch, nor would you expect it given the dated stock. Shuchter occasionally has to wrestle with the shaking horizontal hold, and the images get a little grainy. But that's part of the charm. Baby boomers with a sentimental bent can relish the click-click-click of the clattering projector, reminders of school days.

And, just like in school days, I take the educational films' messages to heart.

First thing I do when I get back to Sacramento? Floss.


Oddball Film + Video holds screenings of rare and unusual movies and industrial films at 8 p.m. most Fridays and Saturdays, with some midweek screenings. Cost is $10.

RSVP: or (415) 558-8117.

Oddball Film+Video is at 275 Capp St., San Francisco.

More information:

Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.

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