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.