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THE ALTERNATIVES

Obscure? Not here

Sure, Cinefile carries classics. But check out the selection of monkey movies.

October 16, 2003|Adam Bregman | Special to the Times

Right next to the Nuart, one of L.A.'s legendary art house theaters, is Cinefile, a video store that specializes in the same sort of lost classics and obscure wonders, and pays little or no attention to prevailing mainstream tastes.

Cinefile's library also runs deep with B-movie junk, TV movies that time forgot and a nearly complete collection of movies with monkeys in the lead role. It's the kind of miscellany that probably has no chance of screening in any theater nor warrants a DVD release.

Opened in 1999 by a group of former video store clerks who had worked at Vidiots, another important Westside shop for art videos, Cinefile is divided into two sections.

"One is the classy side," explains co-owner Hadrian Belove, "that's safe for little old ladies to walk around in -- the light wing. There we have the classic canon of important cinema, which we are all definitely interested in, the directors wall. Then there's the B-movie-loving, drive-in, European-exploitation side -- the dark wing. It's a whole different pleasure. We are really excited about both kinds of cinema, so we subtly divided the store in half."

On the wall, there are vintage posters and lobby cards for the most obscure exploitation films ("The Giant Spider Invasion" "Pickup on 101"), as well as a sign explaining region-coded DVDs and how customers can acquire the correct player to watch them. (They sell them at Cinefile.) Next to the register, the magazine rack features the likes of Cineaste, Alternative Cinema and Fangoria, and nonmovie-related zines such as Punk Planet, the Baffler and Bust.

For the amusement of both employee and customer, Cinefile has its DVDs and videos grouped into absurdist sections such as "pregnant men" (a tiny section), "Eurotrash" (several shelves), "the children" (a horror section with "The Omen" series, etc.), "clowns" (for some reason available in the light wing of the store), "big goofy monster movies," "nuns," "juvenile delinquents," "Bret's queer section" and "Cinefile vs. terrorism."

The Cinefile crew dug deep for the "goober-nut-torial madness" section, which, in addition to a couple of Arnold Schwarzenegger titles, also includes several Gary Coleman features (such as "The Kid With the 200 I.Q.," with Coleman and Robert Guillaume), a documentary about Angelyne and comedian Gallagher's video "Melon Crazy." Each video has a sticker slapped on it that says "Vote for Me."

Another section, called "What I really want to do is ... ," features actors who've tried their hand at directing. Nearby, there's the "dangerous orphans" shelf, or never-rented section, which is an assortment of mostly forsaken films the Cinefile staff wishes to highlight such as "Red Headed Stranger" with Willie Nelson and Morgan Fairchild, and "Dream Lover" with James Spader. Above the section, a sign asks customers to "adopt a dangerous orphan," which can be had for free with another rental.

"A lot of the tapes that we got most excited about," says Belove, "were the worst-renting tapes in the store. I can just put them in the VCR and check them out one after the other and see what's good. But I knew customers don't want to pay real money for that. So we made this section called the never-rented section, where we basically said, 'Just take a look at it. Take it with something else.' "

Tailoring the store according to their own offbeat obsessions, the tight-knit group of friends who run Cinefile includes several filmmakers and editors. One employee, Mike Sakamoto, brought his short film to Sundance and another, Adam Gilman, is on leave to work on a documentary.

Co-owner Phillip Anderson, who won a student academy award, is in Paris writing, while right-hand man Bret Berg just returned from a six-week documentary shoot. In some ways, Cinefile is more of a community for film zealots than a business.

"It's a classic Hollywood enterprise," says Belove. "There's a lot of nepotism. So far, we've hired -- and for the best, I think -- almost entirely friends of friends. There were only two outside hires and they worked out really well."

For a year and a half, the store hosted DJs every Friday night, and the owners continue to alter the mood on Friday evenings by turning off the regular lights, switching to Japanese lanterns, cranking up the music, passing around a few drinks and, perhaps, putting on a Muppets video. Several months after they opened, actor Vincent Gallo, a friend of an ex-employee's wife, performed with his band.

The Cinefile crew's passion for film has attracted a loyal clientele not afraid to ask about hard-to-find films. Customers often provide the best leads on where to find, say, a homemade Christian documentary called "Hell's Bells," which argues that rock 'n' roll is satanic.

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