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Tom Whiteside's Durham Cinematheque keeps the flame of celluloid flickering

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"In the very beginning, every film was experimental." So says Tom Whiteside, the man behind the experimental-film showcase known as Durham Cinematheque, one sunny Sunday afternoon in his home base of Durham.

Noshing on some Korean BBQ sliders as he sits at a picnic table outside Motorco Music Hall (this was during the venue's usual Sunday "Bloody Brunch"), Whiteside explains his love for experimental film, as well as the two programs he's preparing, including one that will be in a new art space in downtown Durham.

"When I got interested in film, it was definitely from the documentary and experimental film end of things, rather than screenplays and Hollywood commercial films."

The Roanoke, Va.,-born Whiteside, 54, has always had an interest in films that don't stay on the straight and narrow. The UNC-Chapel Hill grad had his first film program in 1979, showing a couple of Super-8 short films he made about buildings at Carrboro's ArtSchool (now called The ArtsCenter).

When he moved to Durham in 1988, the scent of tobacco in the air inspired Whiteside to collect films that focused on tobacco and smoking. The films he culled resulted in "Nicotine Cinema," one of the signature programs Whiteside has shown for Durham Cinematheque, which he started 20 years ago.

For founder/ director/ archivist/ chief projectionist Whiteside, the Cinematheque's mission has been to show film in its early stages, "trying to make pictures move, sort of addressing the technical aspects of that." Whiteside also sticks with showing films from the early 20th century, "sort of before film language became standardized."

When Whiteside speaks of standardized film language, he's referring to how most films are presented today: in a commercial, linear, three-act-structure. "Experimental film was definitely something that was coming from a position of opposition to that," he says.

While Whiteside says there are some mainstream films he enjoys, he still would much rather geek out on rare 8-to-16 mm reels of early experimental film. "People are generally interested in a new movie," he says. "But if I find out, oh, there's a new J. Stuart Blackton film from 1907 that I've never seen before, I really wanna see it. To me, that's a new movie."

His hunt for unearthed celluloid has taken him all over: libraries, museums and even camera shops. He's snagged film from the late, great nonnarrative filmmaker Stan Brakhage (Dog Star Man). Of course, as years have gone by, finding films online has made his search a lot less grueling and time-consuming. Says Whiteside, "eBay is the really big archive right now, that's for sure."

He doesn't go on the hunt as much as he used to, being content with the 500 titles he has in his personal collection. ("It's a lot, but it's not warehouses full, like Skip [Elsheimer, of A/V Geeks] does," he says.) He's been using those titles to do Cinematheque shows twice a month.

While Whiteside says it's "a one-man operation," he has gotten support from the Durham Arts Council, which has allowed him to do his shows in its basement theater. He has also done outdoor showings, holding monthly screenings at Durham Central Park during the summer.

He'll soon do showings on the first Thursday of the month in his very own studio. Located in downtown Durham next to the Armory, the studio (slated to open in December) will also serve as a micro-cinema where Whiteside will show past and present film programs. But first, he has to show two film programs over at the Durham Art Guild's SunTrust Gallery this weekend, beginning on Thursday.

First up is "Interviewed," a collection of six anonymous interviews done in Salt Lake City, circa 1960. Also this weekend, he'll show "FILMISTORY," a 16 mm film program featuring clips and short films from the entire history of motion pictures. This program will be shown on three screens—a method of film-presenting Whiteside has been smitten with of late.

"That gallery is a really big, open room, and I am very interested in the last few years in doing shows that are more than one screen," he says. "I really enjoyed being able to set one thing in motion, and then another thing. It's not a counterpoint—it's just as big. It's presented just side by side."

Film as we knew it for the better part of a century seems to have received its last rites. With the demand for conventional film stock vanishing and the invasion of digital projectors in multiplexes, Whiteside's reminder of how essential, unpredictable and, of course, experimental film was in the evolution of motion pictures couldn't come at a better time.

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