Friday Night Movies on VHS at Tisch

Fourth Wall Cinema, a Tisch club, screens movies weekly — all on VHS.


The Fourth Wall Cinema Club after a screening, in the intermission before the beginning of its sister Club, The Witching Hour. (via Facebook)

By Elif Kesikbas, Staff Writer

The ideal Friday night usually consists of getting as far away from school as possible and enjoying time in the city with friends. The thought of spending a Friday night in an NYU building may conjure up terrible thoughts of studying for midterms and finals in Bobst.

However, Tisch undergraduate club Fourth Wall Cinema and its sister club Witching Hour lure students who are passionate about cinema back to the sixth floor of Tisch School of the Artsevery Friday evening. As one of the dwindling consistent film societies left in the U.S., Fourth Wall and Witching Hour provide a community for students seeking fun through film.

A typical night starts with a screening by Fourth Wall and ends with Witching Hour’s obscure so-bad-it’s-good horror film played on a homemade VHS tape. The attendees can come to one or enjoy the double feature.

Fourth Wall International Cinema Salon started in 2016 when friends Cecilia Chi-ying Lau and Yeon Ju Hong, who were juniors at the time, longed for more international films in Tisch Cinema Studies’ curriculum. To make up for the lack of international films, Lau and Hong checked out stacks of DVDs from Bobst Library. But the two also wanted to create a community of other students who shared a love of international cinema — hence Fourth Wall was born.

“Fourth wall means the screen or the invisible ‘wall’ between the cinematic world and our real world, which to us can also mean the liaison between us and the art of cinema,” Lau said.

The club attracted the attention of several Cinema Studies and Film & TV students, but failed to expand to the greater NYU community and had meager attendance of three to five students per meeting in addition to the executive board. In the hopes of making the club more approachable, it rebranded as Fourth Wall Cinema in Fall 2018.

Under the rebranding process, the e-board began to curate a more well-rounded screening series, including films from underrepresented voices — international groups and those in the U.S.

This semester, they are showing films from Australia and Vietnam for the first time. The films range from screwball comedy and spaghetti western to the latest screening “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” a Native American film by Chinese director Chloé Zhao.

Despite the rebranding, Fourth Wall still hasn’t reached its desired turnout; this is especially disappointing given that they are creating a culturally rich environment in a university proud of its diversity.

“Our audience tends to fluctuate. There are screenings which we are completely packed,” Tisch junior and Treasurer Matthew Holman said. “And sometimes we have smaller screenings that happen to be five or ten. So it really varies from week to week.”

Fourth Wall announces the upcoming screening on the club’s Facebook page earlier in the week. The screenings reach peak popularity when the club organizes special events, such as advanced screenings and Q&A sessions with directors and actors.

In its second semester, Fourth Wall hosted Japanese musician and actor Ryuichi Sakamoto, known for starring in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” That week, the e-board saw RSVPs skyrocket, says Qui.

New York City-based distributors, which know the club as one of the handfuls of cinema societies that consistently holds screenings, have started to contact Fourth Wall to arrange advanced screenings. Qui says the distributors not only offer advanced screenings but many times the director will come for a Q&A with the club’s members.

Through these special screenings, NYU students get to see the films before they even hit theatres like Metrograph or IFC Center — and for free.

“My freshman year during spring we played ‘The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäk,’” Holman said. “We actually screened that before it got distribution theatrically, and the director was there for Q&A afterwards.”

Fourth Wall continues to attract a greater variety of members by choosing interesting, engaging movies, such as Uruguayan film “Whisky” (2004) this Friday and “Day of Wrath,” shot on 16mm on April 19.

“Our club really first and foremost is inviting literally anyone to come and watch these movies,” Tisch junior and Director of Marketing Clau Barran said. “We are not by all means a closed club, and we are not trying to be pretentious or trying to make it so tight that we are not accepting new people.”

After a thought-provoking session of Fourth Wall, the night becomes more relaxed.

“We love Fourth Wall; we go to Fourth Wall,” said Witching Hour co-founder Matt Cohen said, who is now a Cinema Studies graduate student.  “The people at Witching Hour, most people, are part of both groups.”

Witching Hour is all about sitting back for two hours and enjoying B-movies’ charming mistakes. After the screen turns to black, members analyze the director’s professionalism and the limitations of a low budget on a film’s quality. Tisch junior and co-President Evan Preedy says the club uses the term “alternative cinephilia” as a way to mute the idea that the club only criticizes films.

“One thing we’d like to emphasize is that we are not a bad movie club,” Preedy said. “For a variety of reasons, that’s sort of a reputation that is very easy for us to get lost in.”

Witching Hour organically started when some members, including founders Cohen and Tisch alumnus Tyler Warren, started staying to watch an extra horror movie for fun after Fourth Wall. Cohen and Warren then decided to make it an official club under the Fourth Wall umbrella.

“We were like, ‘Alright let’s do this,’ and we came up with the idea to show horror films — under-seen ones or trashier ones that people wouldn’t normally think of,” Cohen said.

The club’s first-ever officially screened movie, “Troll 2,” played from a VHS tape that Cohen made as a birthday present for a friend. When the amateur recording added to the B-movie vibe, Witching Hour decided to bring the VHS tape tradition back.

“The idea behind it was that it was supposed to harking back to going to video stores with your friends and picking up something different or wacky or interesting,” Cohen said.

The club replicates the experience by incorporating the members into the movie selection process. Unlike Fourth Wall, the E-Board only prepares a semesterly plan for the themes that the movies will follow.

“What’ll do before we screen the actual film is we’ll have a bit of a pre-roll, which we start out by showing the trailer for films that could be potentially screened for the following week,” Tisch senior and co-president Andrew Garland said. “Once we are done watching the movie before everyone goes home, we vote on which movie we want to see.”

Every now and then, the club lets go of the limitations of theme and has a “grabbag week,” in which people can nominate movies they want to see. The e-board then picks the best 10, and the selected movies go through a second round of voting to choose which one to watch.

The winning movie is then recorded on a VHS tape. Even though Witching Hour is an undergraduate club, Cohen continues to help out backstage. He still makes the tapes, which he records over old TV tapes that he found in a box lying around in the Cinema Studies department. He calls it “the biggest score of all time.”

“My whole house is covered with blank tapes at this point,” Cohen said. “Most of what I have been using is I think [from] a local television station [that] was getting rid of their recordings of old shows or something.”

Witching Hour designs covers for each of the VHS tapes and posts them to its Instagram page. Besides posting the covers, the club only advertises on weekly posters for Fourth Wall.

“We kind of wanted to keep it like this sort of not secretive, but you have to seek us out, you have to be a friend or something to come hang,” Cohen said. “We wanted to be not like this exclusive theater environment; we wanted to be like if you love horror movies come hang out.”

Matthew Holman is a former Theater & Books Editor of WSN.

A version of this article appears in the Monday, March 25, 2019, print edition. Email Elif Kesikbas at [email protected]