Saturday, January 14, 2017

Three Nights in a CAVE

For many years, the middle months of winter, January and February, meant experimental films to me. That's because the Walker Art Center always seemed to show programs of experimental films during those months, and I would go as much as I could to the Walker Theater and sit with some people and also many empty seats to expand my mind and also hear in person from many of the makers who had come from far away to share with us the zero degrees outside.

That all seemed to disappear at some point - one recent year I realized that I wasn't going to experimental films in the year's first months, but it seems like that tradition may have returned with something called the CAVE Festival, which Festival guy Kevin Obsatz kept referring to as the "first annual."

Is it Plato's Cave, where we can't see the real world but only shadows cast by fire on the wall, or is it the cave we all want to climb into when we really think about who is going to be our next president? No, CAVE stands for Cinematic, Audio, Video Experimentation. There were three very cold nights in three very warm places with visitors from even colder and much warmer places to present films projected on film and video, some with sound and some without.

Limited evening bus service and nights so cold that I didn't want to stand outside too long waiting for transfers meant that I missed some of the films when I had to exit in the darkness, images still flickering, to catch a bus. But I saw and heard far more than I can digest and process, and many of the images are still torturing and delighting me. It was three nights of layers and nylon coat scrapings and snow pack scrunching and industrial rat-a-tatting and microphones rubbed upon flesh.

The first night featured films from Winnipeg and the Twin Cities. Visitor Aaron Zeghers said hello from his belly with a "Hello, How Are You" Daniel Johnston t-shirt that took us completely into the world of his northern city, that and a program that included an absurd and hilarious documentary about what happens when beer bottles strike famous heads in Winnipeg, to his own piece of snowy crystal cinema, "Everything Turns..." featuring super 8 film of geography and geometry and numbers and then bursting into a projection through a crystal that turned the Bryant Lake Bowl Theater into a cathedral of colored light.

I had to leave midway through the local films to catch my bus, but I was so honored to have my own little video about an operation I had as part of it.

The second night filled to more than capacity the Mediatheque room of the Walker Art Center, which probably had the most high tech projection facilities but also the most technical issues. But I will never forgot the third shot of Nashville's Jonathan Rattner's film "The Interior," an extended image that put me as completely as I could ever imagine into the mind of a dog. Rattner's films, made during a four week stay in a remote part of Alaska, documented the life of dog mushers and their dogs.

After a couple images that both oriented and disoriented us to where we were, we kept on the expressive face of one dog as others began to howl in the snow. We were so close and intimate to this dog in image that I began to think, do I howl yet? And then, when it was time to howl, I howled too, or at least the dog that I was seeing so closely howled. With the movement of that dog's face and eyes and fur I was sharing some kind of thought with it.

This wasn't the kind of anthropomorphizing you do in a fairy tale or Disney film, it was a direct connection with a being very different from you, but still an intimacy of dinner and morning and night and speed and snores and the moon.

We shared a more remote intimacy with the humans in the film. It may even have been as cold in Minneapolis as it was in the places of these films, but this wasn't a cold of skyscrapers and bus stops, it was a cold of headlamps and constant overcoats and snow. Life was completely covered in ice and white, and had retreated completely into steam and breath.

The second program of the second night, curated by Hannah Piper Burns of Portland, I also only saw part of, but I remember a young woman defiantly defining herself against the monochrome men and the polychrome media that engulf her, a flea and servant allegory around a smoky fire, the hats and glasses of internet psychics.

The third night was at The White Page Gallery, in two storefront spaces. The white interior walls were a perfect setting for the winter films of Robert Todd of Boston. While we seek out eyes and smiles and facial clues from the dogs and people we see on screen, he denies us these to give us the most intimate, mundane and eternal details of the physical things around him. His film "Threshold," which he described as a piece about not wanting to walk out his door, begins and ends on Greek columns but mostly revels in water drops on a window that explode into a machine gun of splintered and sliced images that combine the negative with the positive.

The third night's second program, presented by Ariel Teal representing the Echo Park Film Center in Los Angeles, presented us sunny images of swingset leg-shaving, Griffith's elephants blasted by Mountain Dew, and that bright summer sun burning through paper messages to us.

In the Gallery next door to the screenings was Colby Richardson's Inner Vision, an exhibit that sent a video feedback TV signal to three other TV screens in the room. Because the signal was actually broadcast from the room and traveled to the other TV's through their antennas and not through a cable, the images on those other TV sets changed as you walked between them and you interrupted the broadcast signal. By walking around these TVs playing, appropriately, TV snow, I could affect the image, I could create the technical difficulties that broke it all up and made it strange or interesting, I could dance my quick exit between the antennas before I rushed out into the dark and extreme cold to catch my bus.

Thanks to the Cellular Cinema crew, I have many many images and sounds that have broadened my own horizons, that can brew inside me and inspire me to brave some new trails of my own to illumine the rest of these cold dark days.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Some super 8 Time Lapse films of Minneapolis - early 1990s

Here are some short black and white time lapse films I made in the early 1990s. I had an intervalometer, which is a device I hooked up to my super 8 camera and that would automatically trip the shutter at the interval I chose, from one from every second to one every minute.

At that time one of my jobs was in an apartment in a high rise on the West Bank, so these films of the Minneapolis skyline were filmed from there.
This was made a few year before the Capella tower was constructed so there are only two tallest buildings. The skyline was a little thinner than it is today.

This next one is of the Cepro Mill, which is now the site of Cepro Park on the Midtown Greenway. There's a quick shot of a train on the tracks that would become the Greenway. I lived just a block or so away from here at that time.

Minneapolis was the Mill City not only because it had mills along the river downtown, but also because it had many mills in neighborhoods. It doesn't have so many of those any more.

In the last couple shots of the Cepro Mill you can really see how its grain towers dwarfed the neighborhood all around it. They even towered over the Lake Street Sears store, now the Midtown Global Market.

The last time lapse was made in what is now the very trendy Mill District neighborhood, but which then was pretty deserted. I was the only one around when I set up my camera on a tripod to get these time lapses on a beautiful summer day. The first building you see, the one with all the broken windows showing sky, is still around and now the home of the Mill City Museum, offices and loft homes. The long row of grain towers that my camera was loving is now gone. These were where the Guthrie Theater and Gold Medal Park are now.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Hugh Steers

Here's a 20 minute document I made of a gallery talk at the Montgomery Glasoe Fine Art Gallery in the Minneapolis Warehouse District at the opening night of the show Hugh Steers: Paintings and Drawings. Steers was a New York City artist who was dying of AIDS. The video was recorded in mid-January and he died less than two months later, in early March 1995.

I recorded it with my SVHS camera and used an audio mixer from MTN public access so I could put a lav mic on him and also a shotgun mic to record audience questions - you can even see it pop into the shot at one moment. I had the camera on a tripod and held up the shotgun mic in my hand.

Steers was fairly soft-spoken, so I probably heard him more clearly through the headphones than anybody else in the gallery in reality. At one point, Carolyn Glasoe adjusts my mic on Steers to help the audience hear him and I might have tried to say something like, that's only for the camera.

I did some slow motion inserts from the gallery and people interacting with the paintings just by playing the tape back slowly on the video deck. This was long before slow motion was easy with computer editing.

I edited it a little fragmentarily and randomly - maybe to match what his mind might have been like late in his illness - I don't exactly remember. He was right around my age and he was near death - I think it was Carolyn Glasoe who I had met somewhere and who asked me to tape this and told me that his health wasn't good. By the time I had gotten around to edit the video, he had passed away, and I ended the piece with his obituary from the New York Times.

I remember being introduced to him just briefly as I set up my equipment, and I also remember feeling so strange putting the lavaliere microphone on his collar and seeing so closely how thin he was from his illness. It's just a quick little video I made for public access TV, and I was making quite a few back then, but it has stayed with me because of his age and how close he was to death when he gave that talk.

I put this video on-line a few months ago, but yesterday got an email from the gallery in New York that represents his estate. First I thought they were going to ask me to take down the video, but they actually liked it and wanted to link to it on their page for him, which is here.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Walking Tour of the 1990 Lake Street Car Show and Parade

This was shot with a Video 8 camera that my mother had when she was in Saudi Arabia. When she returned, she let me use it, and I began shooting video with it around the south Minneapolis neighborhood where I lived until the fall of that year, when I bought a used SVHS camera.

Cars have always made me a little uncomfortable, and the discomfort here is palpable. I was more interested in the funhouse mirror reflections in the meticulously polished auto bodies than in anything else. My favorite scene may be the second shot, where the guy can't seem to find a place to put the number to identify his car, despite trying several places.

Here I did no interviews (unlike my friend J.C., who is seen here doing an interview for a public access TV show). I just stood back and observed with the camera, trying to find oddball moments or bits of visual fun that others might miss (like those great reflections, that end the video).

It looks like I edited it in 1991, probably on the VHS edit system at MTN.

Chicago Avenue Belongs to Us (1989)

I have been archiving some of the various videos I made over the years and thought that I might write something about some of them while I can still remember some of the circumstances of their production.

This was pretty much the first community documentary that I shot and edited. It was of a march down Chicago Avenue by residents of the Central and Powderhorn Park neighborhoods and block clubs that adjoined the avenue. The march was held to point out crime issues along the street and get local elected officials and the police department in support of efforts to make the area safer.

I checked out the basic VHS camera from MTN, the public access station that had its equipment checkout in the Lehman Center, on Lake Street in uptown. The camera was a big shoulder mount one with a separate VHS deck that would hang from your shoulder. The whole thing was pretty heavy in addition to being low resolution. I checked it out on Friday and carried it home on the bus for the Saturday march. By the end of the march, on a cold wet November morning in 1989, I was aching all over. On Monday, when I had to return the camera, I decided to shell out for a cab ride to take it back rather than lugging it on the bus again. After making this one I decided that I needed to somehow get some kind of smaller video camera of my own if I was going to keep on making things like this.

I edited it on the basic VHS edit system at MTN, which was also in the basement of the Lehman Center.

I did no interviews. I taped the event at the same distance as I might have if I was watching it as a reporter and taking notes (at the time I was editing the Powderhorn Park neighborhood newspaper, The Horn), and walked along with the marchers, taping as I watched.

This was long before the internet, so my audience was viewers of public access TV. My main obligation was to try to fill a 30 minute time slot, so I went long, luxuriously keeping the shots going. The documentary begins with a shot of the banner that is also the title of the video. All the people holding the banner are anonymous, their heads behind the fabric. It's almost like the banner is walking. It also ends on that shot.

At some of the different intersections, people would speak. I cut between the speeches and the video of people marching. It was a pretty simple formula.

I was able to let my mind wander and turn the camera from the speaker to something else interesting going on, like a girl on skates, or an interesting-looking person listening. The marching scenes give you a good sense of what Chicago Ave. was like in those days.

I didn't have great command of the titling machine at MTN, so I don't ID the speakers. Some of them that I remember are Mayor Don Fraser, City Council Member Sharon Sayles Belton, George Hoffman, Gayle Lamb, but there are many more whose names have vanished from my mind over all these years.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

There are First Teeth and Funerals: President's 1 Hour Photo

"President's 1 Hour Photo" is a 20 minute film made by Trevor Adams by hand scratching images on tiny 16mm film which he has bleached and gouged and then transferred to video and further staggered and superimposed and speed-warped. It was based on my novel, "President's Pictures: Novel in Nine Frames," narrated by Beth Peloff and features music by Dreamland Faces and Lisa McGrath. Ryan Billig, Maren Ward and Josh Tibbetts. It was finished in 2007, but that was after several years work.
I wrote the novel that he based his film on shortly after September 11, 2001. It was really born on a evening where Trevor and I had seen a performance at the Walker Art Center that involved animation and music created on the spot and then had a beer afterwards. Trevor inspired me to write a story that dealt with some of my feelings about the violence and media images that were all coming together in the whole September 11th thing.
The story I wrote was about a person named President Parkingson who works in a one hour photo processing booth in a camera store and processes a roll of photographs that seem to depict some kind of grisly murder. He gets a note that tells him that he is being watched, so he leaves town on the Greyhound bus and travels around to avoid the unseen person who he thinks is pursuing him.
As President travels, he comes upon one scene of violence after another. He takes out his camera to take a picture in an attempt to freeze that scene before the violence happens. He is not as successful as he wishes himself to be.
It was a strange story based mostly on dreams and the time I spent working at a photo lab and also partly written in a tent on a very rainy morning as my tent filled with water. Trevor is one of the few people on planet earth who read it, and he wanted to distill it down and make a film out of it, and this is what he did.
Trevor's spare but always recognizable images made the story come alive in a far different and amazing way than I ever could have imagined. They make it even more dream-like and scattered, a Greyhound bus journey to the darkest media depths of our tortured world.
But he also brings out the humor and the joy that is there too, and the wetness and the yearning. 
He made it all his own, a movie about movies and photography, about time and violence. His version follows a stronger dream logic than mine did, and mines the power of ellipsis and silence. The film is full of spontaneous reactions and perfect flubs, and is fully grounded in the past and night. It's about how we can see anything through all the chaos and confusion, and and and.
But it's also about the photographic medium, the old chemical kind, which I processed for hundreds of people years ago in an assembly-line of colorful rectangular motionless images, and which Trevor took knife and chisel to and sculpted out of the emulsion of a long strip such jumping images of apprehension and seeing.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Beyond the Frame at MSPIFF 2016

While downstairs in the multiplex theaters of St. Anthony Main narrative films from around the world were projected from digital machines to audiences standing in lines - upstairs, in a raw stone and drywall space, where some walls were up and some were torn, experimental filmmakers and a few others gathered to share a different kind of film experience. The films downstairs were often produced by multi-national partnerships so necessary these days to raise the funds to film a movie production as large as a freeway construction project, crews of people so honed in their craft that every costume, background, camera move and gesture are as perfect as international currency can buy, so that you completely lose yourself in the story posed by moving sounds and image and forget that they are indeed just moving sounds and images. Upstairs, the medium was the message, or at least that was what the opening panel was called.

Upstairs in St. Anthony Main, part of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, was Beyond the Frame, a one day symposium and performance of experimental films from some local filmmakers and four from around the U.S. The evening before there were two programs, one of digital work and one of projected work, that played downstairs in the theaters of big seats and soft drinks and popcorn and light tight and hallways. I missed those programs, and only saw parts of the program that happened upstairs in the theater of folding chairs and windows open onto the halls and gypsum dust and ceilings nearly to heaven that happened on Saturday afternoon.

Saturday afternoon began with the panel. Kevin Obsatz, co-curator of the experimental program this year, organizes the monthly Cellular Cinema screenings at Bryant Lake Bowl. He said that he was just going to give the names of the panelists, and start with an opening question, and then let the panel go however it wanted to go after that. The question had to do with the Marshall McLuhan koan, the Medium is the Message. He asked if that was so in the world of experimental film.

Robert Schaller, who founded the Handmade Film Institute in Boulder, CO, was very clear on which medium he needed to work in. He said that if he couldn't make a film, he wouldn't work at all. He said that film mirrors the contradiction of human experience; at every stage it's approximate. He makes his own movie cameras out of junk. They are tools that are incapable of precision. He said that film also does that - you try for something, but the film gives you something else back. He is not that interested in the narrative that says that technology is making the world better, even though he does work in the world of computers as well.

Robert Todd of Boston said that he uses 16mm when the wind blows right, which is fairly often. He began with medium of drawing, and switched to film shortly after starting to exhibit his art work in galleries. He talked about how dumbness was an important part of his process. He said that he is aware of when he is done with a project at the point of forming thoughts. For him, digital or film are just different palette options, but film does offer experiences that digital doesn't. A woman on a plane that he had a conversation with said that she always used to love it when the 16mm film would break. 

He talked about the Klackalackaclack of the movie projector, which does not exist in digital, but also didn't exist in the days of film projection when the projection booth, separated from the seats by glass, also separated the spectators from the mechanism that gave them their film experience. He talked about what attracted him to the experimental film world was its openness, the sharing within the community, how you can ask a question and somebody will answer it.

Some of his films were of walks he took, just trying something with the camera, looking at details. His film "Undergrowth" provided a vision of the forest from the eyes of an owl. Immense wide angle close shots of an owl, its head rotating like a planet, its eyes reflecting, its feathers like a forest, were cut in eyeline matches with images of trees and branch and dense underbrush. The camera moved smoothly, like dolly or jib shots that Todd explained he made by letting his body fall and recovering just before he would completely lose his balance. A Theremin soundtrack made it even more otherworldly.

Chicago filmmaker Lori Felker said that for her the idea comes first, the format follows. She works in film and video, and talked about the "punk" nature of film, how she works in film because people gave her the equipment for free, and how you can see the mechanism and understand how it works, while she also works in video every day and said that she has no idea how it works. She talked about the joy of watching hockey games on satellite television during a storm, when the image breaks up delightfully and the commercial media system can treat you with experimental images that are beautiful and puzzling. She talked about the drive that experimental filmmakers have to keep things moving and awkward and keep you aware of what you are watching.

One of the pieces she screened in her all digital presentation was part of her "Broken New" series. She sat at a news desk with the frame full of the crawls and shoulder images like something out of CNN and delivered the news of her dreams at 5 am in the morning. She had the power suit and pose of a newscaster, but she also appeared to be someone who just woke up from a deep sleep. Dream and waking reality mixed in her news story that involved John Travolta, who was playing a character, and Sandra Bullock, who was herself, and Felker was in the movie, but she wasn't a character, she was just observing what was going on. Felker said that watching the news is an experimental experience with its multiple streams, and how you can miss things and keep on running into the tail ends of things.

Roger Beebe, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, called himself media promiscuous, without full loyalty to any specific one, but he did say that film was the tool he knew best. Video keeps changing, while a Bolex is always a Bolex. He talked about the challenge of finding time to do his work in the capitalist force field that we are operating under - every moment we are constrained by the overall system.

Not only is Beebe media promiscuous, he is also a bigamist. His portion of the program featured both video and film projectors often running at the same time. His pieces included his classic "Strip Mall Trilogy" which looks for meaning and finds only small dislocated pieces of alphabet and shape in the strip mall landscapes of the U.S.; a Mudhoney karoake found footage music video that he performed, and a three screen ode to the death and life of light and place in Las Vegas.

Local filmmaker Trevor Adams also screened in the evening, accompanied by sound master Mike Hallenbeck. Adams sank several Hollywood movies in bleach and scratches, putting the actors behind prison bars of dancing color and line with Jupiter swirls and dot effects and nervous lines that drew themselves around the composition, pointing out relationships between characters and turning them into instant ghosts. He also played a reel of film that he had shot and then altered, images of enslaved fast food workers, sentenced to serve, and digressions in scratch like one showing the evolution of cartoon eyes and a meditation on the worm of 16mm etching.

Robert Schaller provided a coda to the whole discussion and the whole day when he said that what really matters is that each of us offer the message that we have and we continually re-conceive and redeliver that message we have.

I had a strong personal response to the space that the event took place in. It was the former home of the Minneapolis Television Network, the city's public access cable channel. I had worked there in video, first as a volunteer and then nearly twenty years on staff, amassing a huge archive of images of the city and its people that I had taped for the channels, until I received a "hand over your keys and I'll walk you out the door" layoff just over three years ago. Since then the channel had moved to a new location. This was my first time in that space since the day I had been handed my walking papers.

Now the space was cut up, had been bombed, was in a state of transformation, like an image in one of Adams' films. It had been scratched up and bleached out and the internal walls had been taken down. You could see where there had been rooms only by the lines like a maze pattern on the floor. It was both cathartic and disturbing to me. The upstairs hallway, where my office had been, was now a dangerous balcony, and a window frame was cut out of it like it was waiting for whatever message we could imagine to put inside that frame. The medium is the message and the meaning, even if it's not just the film but also the evolving spaces we occupy to make and watch messages in, and how we leave space and time and how it all changes despite us, and how we are left with only memory and that need, as Schaller stated, to re-conceive and redeliver.