Cult Sinema Obscura

Jay Katz and Miss Death at Public House Petersham and their “absolutely weird-arse” taste in cinema

This article first appeared in The Local, a quarterly feature of Neighbourhood newspaper.

By Benito Di Fonzo

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Walls of scraped-back, decades-old paint, worn-raw floorboards, and a tin ceiling take you back into one of the large inner-city share houses of your misspent youth; where your slacker flatmates avoiding assignments would laugh, smoke and drink their way through $2 straight-to-VHSs on a makeshift sheet screen.

It’s a Tuesday night at Public House Petersham, but minus the slacker mates and replace the sheet with a pristine sports screen. At their Cult Sinema Obscura evenings, co-host of the former SBS The Movie Show Jaimie Leonarder, AKA Jay Katz, and his wife Aspasia, AKA Miss Death, screen some of the strangest moments the world of cinema has to offer.

“It’s looking into the darkest reaches of the most obscure cult films,” explains Jay Katz, “finding directors whose work has been neglected, either locally or touring, and getting them here live, and coming together as a community to watch films instead of this whole personal, private-music, private-film looking at it on a phone.”

For Jay Katz and Miss Death creating a community is at the forefront. On this wet, sticky Sydney night people dot themselves around the long wooden tables, watching the films over shared bistro dinners.

“After a film, it’s good to be able to analyse your emotions with an audience,” says Katz. “Discuss, throw ideas back and forth. I grew up in Sydney with the Valhalla, a great repertory cinema we could go to day and night and watch all sorts of movies from around the world, and that is sadly lacking now.”

Miss Death adds, “It’s about a community of people coming together and having that experience together, and you leave the screening, even if you don’t speak to each other, with this knowing look to one another going, we’ve just had a communion of something, and we’re connected somehow.”

Having run Cult Sinema Obscura at various locations for many years they’ve found a home at Public House, partly-inspiring bar manager Fred Western to work here.

“I used to drink here,” says Western, “and that was one of the main drawcards to come in, these left-of-centre, quirky cult films.

“There’s a cult following for the Cult Sinema,” Western notes. “Jamie and Aspasia have a very personable relationship with everyone who comes through the door, that’s how they retain a lot of repeat custom. By being approachable and having a wealth of knowledge about the films.”

Katz offers behind-the-scenes filmmaking information during the previews (tonight a 1960 black and white short about a space morgue and some found footage from ’80s US cable TV) as well as the main feature (a 1970s low-budget sci-fi about an America under attack from a deadly and addictive form of inter-galactic yoghurt).

The couple pride themselves on digging up and sharing forgotten masterpieces such as the recently unearthed Incubus from 1966. Starring William Shatner, it’s the only US feature ever filmed entirely in the constructed language Esperanto. It begs the question – was it ‘lost’ or actively thrown away?

“That’s all perception management,” says Katz, “I think it’s really important in a day and age where everything’s glossed over and clean, to look at things that are flawed. It’s much more honest about the human character.”

“Usually these films have some sort of hook,” explains Miss Death, “so they’ll be horror or sci-fi, or a low budget film that’s absolutely weird-arse. You’re never going to walk away going, ‘Oh that was nice’. You’re either gonna love what you saw or absolutely hate it. We try to invoke that kind of reaction.

“[Film] is one of the most difficult, complex and expensive tapestries to weave your narrative on in the world, but there are some people who have done that with nothing in the bank, and that’s a really liberating thought, and it can set the soul on fire.”

22-year-old filmmaker André Brimo sits among the crowd and is suitably inspired by his low-budget forebears. He has travelled to Cult Sinema Obscura and its various locations from his Northern Sydney home in Gordon for several years after being introduced to it by his older brother.

“Sometimes I find it more inspiring to see what people have done with a low budget and barely any resources than to see a huge blockbuster. Every film has its flaws and even if it’s a bit dodgy you can see the inventiveness.”

Sinema Obscura is viewing cinema as the original filmmakers intended, even if perhaps they didn’t envisage a pub. It’s the people watching, discussing these unique films together; a community, a shared experience of sound, light and movement.

 “The great thing about the sense of community is, I think, because of the nature of the films that are being shown, very low budget, very cult, that’s reflected in the kind of people you get in,” says Brimo. “The kind of people who go here are very non-judgemental, there’s no snobbery or elitism, it’s just a bunch of people having fun appreciating art.”

            As the lights go up, Earth once more safe from murderous yoghurt and punters mingling over schooners, I get the feeling that even if commercial cinema all were to crumble under the weight of Economic Rationalism, somewhere in the Inner West Katz and Miss Death will always find a space to project their weirdness upon.