Holly Roberson — an organic farmer who runs Columbia, Missouri’s Ragtag Cinemacafé with two friends — could have stayed in San Francisco. With interests like hers, frankly, it would have made sense. But that would have really sucked for Columbia.
When Roberson and her partner set up their farm 20 miles east of downtown, there was only a multiplex. What Roberson and her pals Tim Spence and Ron Rottinghaus didn’t know — until they tried to turn a grassroots film festival into a sustained art-house-movie effort — was that the multiplex had bought up all the old small theaters in town.
“It sucked,” Roberson says. “It was like someone took all the old theaters and just threw them away.”
Converting another space into a traditional theater would have cost, Roberson says, “mucho bucks” — something these particular Columbians didn’t have. But necessity is the mother of invention. Inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s statement that “a theater without beer is just a museum,” the Roberson-Spence-Rottinghaus triumvirate opened the Ragtag Cinemacafé in 2001, moving into a storefront that had previously functioned as a record store. Instead of making the floor slant and installing cushiony reclining seats with cup holders, they bought a bunch of retro couches and chairs and pushed them together in makeshift rows in front of the screen. When the Ragtag crew wants to turn the space into a music venue or a Dave Eggers reading space, the staff shoves those couches and chairs through a weird half-door affectionately nicknamed the John Malkovich door.
The point of it all, as Roberson puts it, is just “to see it happen.”
Which is why it might be cool to catch Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt’s The Animation Show at this particular venue. The Ragtag’s owners have a lot in common with animators, who don’t just give us their perspective on what already exists but create a whole new reality out of nothing, then make their vision move.
In The Animation Show, a balloon attacks a little boy; a funny little squiggly stick figure character runs around screaming “damn you, illusion of movement!” when his legs won’t stop moving; a bunch of painted kids jump rope through a painted city, then transform into painted horsemen; a parking-lot guy goes nuts moving the security gate up and down when nobody’s around; a Japanese man grows a cherry tree out of his head, then the hole left behind when he pulls it out turns into a pond; and life on Mars turns out to eat dust like a living broom and dustpan.
In the Ragtag Cinemacafé, issues of Found magazine and McSweeney’s books are for sale alongside concessions. There used to be typewriters at the bar for loiterers to use; in their place now is the “art-o-matic.” There’s a petition to keep junk food out of public schools that you might as well sign if you’re stopping by. And there’s an intermission during every movie, because the projection booth isn’t big enough to hold the entire print.
But most people, especially Kansas Citians who have just spent a couple of hours letting their asses go numb in the car, could use the stretch.