Alex Dakoulas, owner of Strange Ways in Westville, had been enjoying the weekly underground movies being shown at Lyric Hall on Whalley Avenue, down the street from his own shop every Tuesday. Coincidentally, Dakoulas had begun holding Flair Fair, a market for vendors of pins, patches, and other wearable art, in Lyric Hall.
So he approached Joe Fay, the curator of Lyric Hall’s film series, with the hope that they could “combine our powers” and “get people together for a unique event” — to not only shop, but to also see, as Fay put it, “slightly offbeat films.”
Thus, Strange Cinema was born.
Last Thursday was the second in a series that Dakoulas and Fay hope to present in Lyric Hall once every two months, with vendors in the front room of the hall beginning at 7 and a cult movie shown at 9.
This month’s film was 1985’s The Legend of Billie Jean, first released as Fair is Fair — a movie Fay describes as “one of my favorite films of all time.”
Fay grew up in Texas, where the movie is set, and recalled watching it on HBO and renting it “as much as I could,” even recognizing some of the Corpus Christi locations.
“It’s sort of like a Texas outlaw fantasy,” Fay said, which appealed to him when he was younger. It also features a “strong female lead that sticks to her principles through the movie,” which he now appreciates even more as the father of a daughter, including the “poetic quality “of the “juxtaposition of Billie Jean and Joan of Arc.”
The first Strange Cinema two months ago showed the film Nightmare Sisters, a film restored by James Neurath and Brandon Upson, co-owners of The Archive, a movie and music store in Bridgeport, and restoration artists for Vinegar Syndrome. Neurath and Upson had a table at Lyric Hall with films as well as vinyl from their store.
“We specialize in genre cinema, including horror and grindhouse films, what you would see in the drive-ins,” said Neurath. Most of the movies date from the 1960s to the 1980s, noted Upson. Both men got involved with Strange Cinema through Ray, who they noted “knows VHS.”
All the other vendors got involved with the event through Dakoulas and Strange Ways, a local business with an online presence for a year before opening its storefront one and half years ago down the street from Lyric Hall on Whalley Avenue. Specializing in pins and patches, Dakoulas describes his wares as a “unique way to support an artist” by “wearing someone’s art.” They also carry zines, shirts, and posters. Tonight he was offering 20 percent off the wares at his table.
Dionale Altreche, an artist from Fair Haven also known as Dionamic, had his own table set up next to Dakoulas that showcased his customized clothing and hats, what he calls “statement pieces,” as well as stickers and patches. A visual artist whose work also includes photography and painting, he spoke with joy about his own art and art in general, stating, “I love being an artist, No medium is off limits to me.”
Adam Weinman of Toast Designs also spoke of the accessibility of art through the pins and patches he started making after first visiting Strange Ways. He described them as ways to say “these represent me.” Any pin or patch was an inexpensive opportunity to say “this is who I am at the moment I bought it” and “that’s how I feel today.” Making the pins and patches was also a way for him “to see who is interested in my stupid little ideas,” he said with a laugh, one example being his CT pins — an idea he had about 6 months ago that is now his best-selling item.
Kelly Blanchat of Stationery Bicycles, another vendor showing her pins, patches, and cards, emphasized the “really supportive creative environment in New Haven” as one reason why she decided to make pieces and sell them at Strange Cinema and Strange Ways. A trained printmaker and watercolor painter as well as a former designer of wedding stationary, she cited her decreased commute time since moving to New Haven from Brooklyn (she works as a librarian) as allowing her more time to spend on “doing her own thing.”
In the bar area of Lyric Hall that connects the front room and main stage area, Greg Matta, representing Elm City Games, led a group of friends in a card game called Bearanoia! (designed by co-owner of ECG Matt Fantastic) that he said would last 60 seconds. Michelle Saxton, Sarah Connors, Mary Beth Oliver, and Christine Fisher played several hands of it. Saxton spoke of being attracted to Strange Cinema because Billie Jean was “one of my favorite movies. I watch it every time it’s on.” She also mentioned that this was the group’s “girls’ night out.” With the combination of the market, the wine and beer available at the bar, and the movie, “if this isn’t a reason for a girls’ night out, I don’t know what is.”
The crowd, which started light but ended up occupying almost all the seats in the theater, was given a two-minute warning by Fay that the film would be beginning. Once the room filled he proceeded to introduce the film, raising a glass to toast Billie Jean, to which a few audience members responded “fair is fair,” which elicited cheers and laughter from the rest of the crowd.
The Legend of Billie Jean held the audience enraptured throughout its approximately 90 minutes, with certain parts bringing cheers and applause — including the iconic scenes of Billie Jean’s transformation from a girl just trying to get the money to fix her brother’s destroyed scooter to a leader and inspiration to local youth to stand up for what they believe in. The film has its moments of nostalgia, too. There’s the hair, clothing, and cars, but maybe most of all the music. Pat Benatar’s “Invincible” is as much a part of the aesthetic as anything else, and many sang along to it when it appeared throughout the film. And there were striking parallels between the themes in this film from the 1980s and the present — where many continue to strive to stand up for who we are and what we believe in, expressing ourselves by what we wear, what music we listen to, and what films we watch. Strange Cinema gave everyone there an opportunity to not only enjoy who they are, artistically and otherwise, but to possibly find a new way to convey it.
Strange Cinema happens once every two months at Lyric Hall, 827 Whalley Ave., in Westville. Watch Lyric Hall’s calendar for the next date.