Uncharted Islands: PARACME
This article appeared in the January 12, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Glitch Envy (Jodie Mack, 2010)
Two years ago, PARACME launched as a streaming service dedicated to animated films without dialogue. With the eventual addition of work by legendary animator Lawrence Jordan and selections from the library of avant-garde distributor Canyon Cinema, this narrow focus has expanded to include all varieties of experimental and artist-made films. While Canyon was not directly involved in the creation of the streaming service, Jonathan Marlow, the site’s founder and a Canyon board member, told me that the genesis of PARACME was the distributor’s desire “to have more of the collection digitized for educational institutions.” Canyon is now a meaningful partner, and the presence of digitized titles from their preeminent library signals a major step forward in the quest to make avant-garde films available to a wider audience.
Projecting works that primarily live on 16mm film has long presented a problem for institutions that lack the necessary equipment. “There were a variety of options discussed within Canyon, including renting projectors to institutions,” Marlow recalled. “It became more practical, though, to work with filmmakers to digitize their work. PARACME was developed to show what could be done. It was meant as a prototype.”
Marlow has been involved with a variety of independent and experimental film organizations over the years. They were the executive director of the San Francisco Cinematheque from 2008 to 2011, and currently run a Bay Area screening series called Camera Obscura, originally founded in 1957 by Jordan and Bruce Conner, and itself a precursor to Canyon Cinema. In 2011, they co-founded and launched Fandor, an art-house streaming service with a focus on international, independent, and nonfiction films.
Marlow’s interest in experimental and artist-made films started with music. “I was writing music for silent films. Through that, I created relationships with distributors,” they said. “I started exhibiting to cover the costs of renting prints. ‘I’ll put on a show,’ I thought. That’s been the case ever since.”
PARACME is a modest endeavor, reflective of Marlow’s ideals. After becoming disenchanted with the rest of the executive team at Fandor, they left the company in 2015, and subsequently joined Kanopy, a streaming platform for public and academic libraries. “The word ‘paracme’ is a reference to the moment that comes after you reach the summit of a mountain and are now on your way down.” Marlow said. “It was originally meant as a joke, considering the trajectory of Fandor, but as is often the case, what started as a joke became something else.”
I discovered PARACME after signing up for Canyon Cinema’s Patreon, which offers a subscription to the service as part of its membership package. The site itself is spartan, with a simple, grid-like interface and search and browse functions, but the access it provides is invaluable. New films are added every five days, and the selections include both classic and contemporary works of the avant-garde by an impressive and eclectic array of artists, including Christopher Harris, Lori Felker, and Jodie Mack. One of my cherished discoveries on the site was Hotel Cartograph by Scott Stark, a Bay Area–based experimental filmmaker. The clever, minimalist short creates graphic variations by shooting the garishly carpeted floors of a hotel with a camera mounted on a moving luggage cart at a downward 90-degree angle.
The simplicity and brilliance of Stark’s strangely undefinable film seems to perfectly embody PARACME. “I feel like PARACME is an example of the promise of the internet before it was corrupted,” Marlow said. “The initial notion for the service was to be as niche as possible: what isn’t a thing? What isn’t a genre?”
The films that PARACME highlights represent a powerful and important aspect of the cinematic medium that historically has been difficult to monetize. Marlow’s site finds itself in a similar situation. “It’s fairly modest in scope: it generates just enough income to pay for itself and the filmmakers,” Marlow said. “In that sense, it’s a success. Most people wouldn’t consider it that by business standards.” As such, PARACME is not simply a conduit for alternative cinematic offerings but an alternative approach to streaming itself, particularly in today’s profit-driven distribution and exhibition landscape. “When the site launched, it used to say ‘prototype’ on its front page—i.e., something that existed but wasn’t certain of its existence,” Marlow said.
And as for what’s next for the site, they added, “I’m not good at predicting the future, but most people aren’t. I’ll keep doing it until people aren’t interested.”
Chris Shields is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles.