Oddball Film and Video creates an unusual night at the movies

Nov 11, 2014

Ever wonder what happens to films too bizarre for the big, or even small screen? Many of them end up at Oddball Film and Video, a stock footage company in San Francisco’s Mission District. Oddball houses more than 50,000 unusual films, most of them on their original 16mm reels. The collection has everything from vintage erotica to outlandish commercials to quirky after-school specials.

From the street, Oddball could easily be mistaken for a second-hand furniture store. Standing outside, my only lead comes from a small sign on a non-descript door reading “Oddball Film and Video - second floor.” At the top of these stairs is the largest film archive in Northern California.

I’m let in to a small warehouse with seemingly endless rows of 16mm film reels stacked floor to ceiling with no clear organization. Oddball’s founder Stephen Parr sits behind the front desk greeting guests.

Every Thursday and Friday night, Parr invites the public inside his archive for screenings -  compilations of short films under a single theme. Tonight is “Strange Cinema,” a monthly screening of Oddball’s most unusual footage.

We cozy up on old barbershop chairs and battered couches in the archive’s back room, which is lit by a rotating disco ball hanging from the ceiling. This makeshift theater seats about 30 people. Tonight, almost every seat is filled.

“Is anybody here for the first time?” ask Parr. “Great. My name's Stephen, welcome. Tonight’s program is something that I put together and have been thinking about for a long time.”

In tonight’s line-up we’ll see experimental films either made in the Far East or influenced by Eastern films. Parr describes some as “whimsical,” others as “spacey,” and one as a film the audience “will never want to see again.” Then, the lights go out.

An Indian drama appears on a pull-down screen. The characters have painted faces and elaborate costumes and are telling stories through dance.

Parr founded Oddball nearly 30 years ago. At the time, he was a video artist who made background images for nightclubs and galleries. He was tired of searching for materials from other archives -- so he started his own. Soon, producers of Hollywood movies, commercials, music videos, and television wanted access to Parr’s eccentric footage. So he made a business out of it.

“My intent was to create a small community of people who are interested in sharing a visual experience, and really kind of experiment and push forward the context of cinema,” Parr explains.

The idea is to take the audience’s expectations about film and turn them upside down. Many of Oddball’s films don’t fit into traditional genres. Some have alternative story structures; some have no story at all.

“A lot of the films we screen here are art films. Some films are made for educational uses or instructional purposes,” Parr says. “But when you put them into another context they kind of bounce off each other and create a unique viewing experience.”

A unique viewing experience like a Japanese fable about a family of ants and a lazy grasshopper.

Parr has a knack for finding value in things that were once deemed unusable. Oddball’s torn up theater seats? Parr found those in a dumpster outside of a nightclub. He does the same thing with films. Most of Parr’s collection was donated from people who decided their films were worthless or that the medium was too much work to keep.

“Almost every film has some redeeming quality in some way, even if that quality is that you should never make a film that way,” Parr says.

Since Oddball began in 1984, the archive has screened more than 800 unique programs and developed a loyal following. Tom Gilroy, a filmmaker from New York, has been to five screening in the six weeks he’s been in town.

“I was blown away basically because nothing like this really exists in New York and I’m not really aware of something like this existing in the United States,” says Gilroy. “It’s a museum visit, a history lesson, and entertainment outing -- but an odd theater experience.”

And maybe that’s why fans keep coming back to Oddball. Because no matter how many times they return to the archive’s back room, they’ll never see the same thing twice.