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12th December 2023

“Art will always evolve”: Transgressive cinema with Lee Threlkeld at Café Blah

On the 32nd screening of Cinema Transgressions’ weekly cult film evening at Café Blah, The Mancunion catches up with founder Lee Threlkeld to explore his youth of bootleg cinema and the quality of art for today’s students.
“Art will always evolve”:  Transgressive cinema with Lee Threlkeld at Café Blah
Photo: Anna Marsden @ The Mancunion

Transgressions are defined as “acts that go against a law/rule”. Cinema Transgressionsan “ad-hoc programme showcasing the most diverse, rare and obscure” artistic and cinematic pieces – certainly goes against the traditional idea of art. 

On the eve of Cinema Trangression’s 32nd screening at Withington’s soulful Café Blah, I was lucky enough to receive a little sermon from Lee Threlkeld, a rare gem, and humble man whose passion quickly warms up the November cold of the Cafe Blah screening room. Threlkeld is the founder of Cinema Transgressions, and a lifelong film fanatic, who was “knee-deep in cinema” by his mid-teens. Instantly at ease around this man who speaks with so much love and knowledge of art cinema, I was fascinated with how he talks of his passion: “It has filtered through me all my life.”

An only child left to his own devices, Threlkeld stumbled upon The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) at the age of 8 – the catalyst for his lifelong love affair with not only horror but art cinema. As a teenager, he “used to love the buzz of chasing or trying to find a film.” It was this niche process of hunting down bootlegs from an older-friend’s-sibling’s-boyfriend that he loved about the art cinema scene so much. This unregulated world of video nasties and European exploitation films were easily accessible and unlocked the door for many youths of the 80s to guerilla art cinema by the likes of Beth B (a female filmmaker who exploded onto the No Wave punk filmmaking scene in 1980s New York).

This led to the Cinema of Transgressions Manifesto, written in Nick Zedd’s blood, which highlights the extremity of the movement and their desire for art that provides “shame, pain and ecstasy, the likes of which no one has yet imagined.” It is this extreme, made-to-shock, radical artistry that moved Threlkeld to become a part of this “poor movement that’s rich in ideas and artistry.”

Inspired and influenced by this underground world of gore and atmosphere, Threlkeld started Cinema Transgressions 13 years ago, a free film experience, in “resistance to the bland, corporately supported trash that is churned out” by Hollywood, which frankly, Threlkeld finds “offensive”. Although many would argue that the underground movement of transgressive cinema is the offensive one (despite this, there has been only one walkout and one fainting in 32 showings!), Threlkeld believes that he is screening works of pure art. Of course, the overflowing rooms each week show that there are plenty out there who agree. 

Showing his favourite films up and down the country for over a decade, it wasn’t until weeks before the 2020 lockdown that Threlkeld first discovered Café Blah; “I came in here and I was like oh my goodness!” He knew straight away that it was the perfect place to host his unique events. I think anyone who has ever stepped foot into Café Blah’s cosy and eccentric interior would agree.

Photo: Anna Marsden @ The Mancunion

It took him two years due to Covid, but, eventually, the first screening took place, and he has been shocking and delighting hordes of students and mature film buffs here ever since. 

On these nights, an air of solace settles over the little corner of Manchester. As a communal atmosphere between generations seems to bring a kind of balance to the scales, the world is put to rights. Viewers arrange themselves into the haphazard seating of the dimly lit and eclectically decorated back rooms of the bewitching space, all ‘in it together’ almost, immersed in the same experience.

“I put so much thought into it,” Threlkeld conveys to me. It is in the way that every guest sincerely thanks him as they duck out of the room that highlights what a special space Lee Threlkeld has curated in Manchester’s student hub.

“There are not many people running places like this in Manchester,” states Threlkeld, yet not many people either put the care and effort into sharing this form of art that brings about such dedicated fans. You can’t see these films just anywhere and to have a place right on our doorstep, opening the new generation of students up to the limitless possibilities of art, is certainly a feat to behold. 

As our colloquy comes to an end, Threlkeld talks a little bit about art today for The Mancunion readers. “Is the quality of art different? I don’t think so, I don’t think so.”

Despite his views on today’s Hollywood blockbusters being produced by “vacuous multiplexes the world over,” he is sure that there will always be impactful art out there. “Art will always evolve,” he urges. It is us, the students of today who must be the ones to progress and advance the art that matters.

The perfect place to start would be coming to support Cinema Transgressions and, of course, Cafe Blah, in their evenings that feel almost like a Letterboxd deep-dive come to life. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience, a place that feels otherworldly in its transcendental atmosphere. From movie all-nighters to short film evenings, Cafe Blah and Cinema Transgressions welcome all and any to these lovely events of “heart and passion,” in the name of transgressive art. 

Screenings in January will centre around Japanese film and horror, come along in the New Year to experience the escapade for yourself and to support all things independent.

Anna Marsden

Anna Marsden

Anna spends her time as a student photographer, mostly reading and drinking sparkling water.

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