Doctor Strange

From the mundane to the majestic, Stephen Parr - owner of the largest film archive in Northern California - lives and breathes cinema.

Max Siegel/Staff

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Oddball Film+Video, the largest film archive in Northern California, is tucked away in a warehouse in the Mission District. Venture down a dark street lined with auto repair shops, and you'll come across an open door leading to a staircase that is lit only by a bare light bulb. At the top is a black felt door with a framed sculpture of Ganesha, Destroyer of Obstacles, keeping watch overhead. Ring the buzzer. Click. Enter. Inside this cinematic speakeasy you'll find Stephen Parr, the founder and director of the archive and its screening component, Oddball Films.

Parr lives and breathes film - day in, day out. He works beneath row after row of 15-foot-high shelves brimming with 16mm film reels with titles as far-ranging as "The Hillbilly Grand Opera" and "Vandalism - Why?" But he doesn't have much time to savor them. Parr arrives at Oddball by 8:30 a.m. and leaves at midnight. He spends that time curating screenings for the public every weekend and running a film-archiving and distribution business, which has lent footage to films like Gus Van Sant's "Milk."

When Parr isn't scurrying around his cavernous warehouse, carrying boxes full of reels, he responds to business emails in his office, which is lined with stereos and pole dryers from a salon. No matter how busy he gets, he maintains the same appearance: black-rimmed glasses, and combed-back brown hair that frames his receding hairline.

On a Friday afternoon, Parr paused to look down at a schedule posted beneath an oversize dry-erase board. He leaned a hand on the table edge as he sidled up to Kristie, an intern on her first day of work. "I'm scheduling 20 people. I'm doing 15 shows this month," Parr explained, in his usual earnest, raspy voice. "I'm running the business. I'm planning a trip."

That trip is not to India - which he has visited at least eight times - but to an "Orphan Film Symposium" at UCLA, where he is screening some films from his archive. Parr now has over 50,000 films, including a few reels of highly combustible nitrate film. "I just found a roll today that's kind of disintegrating," Parr said. "It's kind of sad." He gets most of his collection from people who don't want to hold on to their films anymore. "In a certain sense, some of them were orphaned," he said.

When he isn't occupied with curating programs, Parr makes his own movies - not with original footage, but from other people's material. "I use the entire history of cinema as a visual canvas," Parr said. "Because I have so much film, I use that as my source. I use that as my reference."

Although Oddball Film+Video can only send archival footage to clients by digitizing them, Parr remains dedicated to film, especially because it can last hundreds of years. "I know I can just put a film on a shelf, and 10 years from now, I can take it right off the shelf," Parr said. Digital media, on the other hand, undergoes a process of planned obsolescence that makes it difficult to preserve information in the long-run. Within less than a decade, digital formats are often no longer compatible, and a hard drive will have almost certainly failed by then. "Everybody is an archivist that records images digitally," Parr said, "because they're going to spend the rest of their lives backing up that information."

This tactile approach differs from that taken by media giants, which are moving information into a nebulous digital "cloud." These digital-media conglomerates are among the first things that pop up in casual conversation with Parr. "There isn't a corporation out there that isn't going to be looking after our media preservation well-being," said Parr, who noted that, in a perfect world, he would store everything on film so he knew that it was still around. "As long you're giving them money, Yeah, fine. But that's not always going to be the solution. If you buy a $50,000 car, it's still going to run on oil."

Parr, who grew up in Syracuse, New York ("It has the least amount of sunny days of any city of its size in the country"), during the 1960s discovered his passion for cinema after watching experimental films that were coming out of San Francisco. While studying media at the University at Buffalo in the mid-seventies, Parr made his own experimental films using holography, which involves etching a plate with a laser to create a three-dimensional image. "I built a laser," he said. "I saw (it) as a way to project images using pure light. I was thinking what, at the time, it would be like to work with just pure light."

Parr soon found his way to San Francisco, where he moved into cheap warehouses, which allowed him to maintain large, flexible artistic spaces. There, he could store his growing film collection independently. Parr moved into his current warehouse in the Mission 15 years ago, a location that he enjoys, even though it has its share of downsides. "There's junkies on the streets, there's prostitutes. But that's the way it is in most of the world," Parr said, adding that there are also many mechanics and working-class people in the area. "It's like most of the world," Parr reiterated. "That's why I like the Mission."

The screening room at Oddball, like much of the Mission, has an eclectic, homey feel. A glittering disco ball spins over several rows of red and turquoise couches, which are so worn out that they look like they've been clawed by a cub. In the back sit two 16mm projectors that are used during screenings. Dozens of trophies and all sorts of tsotchkes cover every available surface, including a black-and-red sticker that reads "End Compulsory Consumption!" and a small wooden box, which Parr pointed out and affectionately stroked.

The wooden box sat on top of a set of drawers, stuffed to the brim with organized crap: Corks in one, tickets to theater screenings that Parr had been to in another. A man had given him all of these trophies, and Parr noticed something odd about them. "Not one of them was first place," he said, with a smile. "Maybe that's why he wanted to get rid of them."

Parr frequently invites guest curators to help program his weekend screenings. On a recent Saturday night, guest curator Soumyaa Kapil Behrens prepared for her show: "How Does She Do It? The Modern Multi-cultural Woman Revisited." Among the short films on tap was a lighthearted instructional video on how women can achieve orgasms and a documentary about arranged marriages in India.

Parr, who was wearing a plaid pea coat with a Smokey the Bear pin, fiddled with the stereo. Behrens told Parr that she wasn't sure if she would be able to fit a longer film into her program. Parr stood up. "I mean, it's film!" He reassured her, keeping a hand in his pocket while the other waved in the air. "People sit through 20 minutes of ads. They don't mind being fed garbage."

The door buzzer went off and Parr swiftly left the screening room to welcome a couple who was visiting from Los Angeles. Parr gestured toward the towering shelves and explained to them that his collection is completely organized, although, he added, "The best database is in my head."

When there were 13 people in the screening room, Parr shuffled to the front corner of the room to give an introduction. He encouraged people to come to his monthly program, "Strange Sinema," now in its third year, which plays weird films from his collection. But they aren't too weird. "If I showed the strange stuff," Parr said, "the only people who'd still be here would be me and three of my friends."

After two hours, the screening ended. Several people stuck around to chat about the last film they had seen, about a group of women taking a gender studies course that ended in discord. Parr stood on top of one of the worn couches to remove a spool of film from the projector. The weekend screenings don't generate a lot of revenue; most of that comes from the archival footage side of the business. "But I like film, and I screen it as long as I own it. It doesn't make any practical sense to store it and use it anymore," Parr said. "But a lot of things don't make practical sense, and if you have to go through life creating practical things, there wouldn't be any art."


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