Imagine an insane alien astronaut who tunes into earth’s radiating television signals originating in the analog days of the twentieth century. The alien receives our entire TV culture in seconds, processing the sounds and images instantly, watching them all simultaneously… and the alien is crazy enough to find a message within.
This is an experimental film that is for all intents and purposes a continuation of my previous film, “The Magical Dead Sunstroke Valley,” which has been screening for the past year at the Los Angeles Center for Digital Art (LACDA).
Filmmaker Michele Smith has been exploring the relationships between film and video for many years. Her work is – to say the least – brilliant and voluminous, ranging from found footage movie trailers to family beach films, commercials, street video, newspaper, View-Master slides, bits and pieces of plates and plastic. If you visit the filmmaker’s YouTube channel and decide to list everything available, you are going to be amazed. There’s so much there. It’s like digging through a museum of filmic ideas. Make no mistake, the ideas come at you in a dizzying array, too much to absorb immediately as the images pop and crackle like a slowly exploding bomb. Split seconds are all that are necessary for Smith to make a point, breaking footage into mere 2-frame segments that play against each other to form brand new images in the mind’s persistence of vision. You’ll know what I mean if you use the pause button to do a little digging into Smith’s complex constructions. I doubt she would mind. The reality of video on the web and how we use it seems to be something she is more than comfortable with.
I always enjoy filmmakers who look at cinema as it really is.
I also enjoy filmmakers who pursue the messy art of images. Sites like YouTube and Vimeo are depressingly overloaded with filmmakers who have gotten very excited about their super-glide floating camera rigs and long DSLR lenses. They make shiny, gleaming, gliding, perfect little advertisements for themselves and include tastefully typed title sequences.
Michele Smith is the filmmaker who takes their lunch money and spends it on a hamburger, not a tripod.
In this first film from 2003, ‘Like All Bad Men He Looks Attractive – They Say,’ Smith uses found 16mm footage from several films to not only intercut various images, but to construct animations out of the footage laid out in various patterns, sometimes along with other cutout images or materials which are then photographed to video. She often reanimates the celluloid by photographing frames in sequence. I consistently get the impression of two cinematic forms playing off each other. Some of this found footage was rescued from a fire and you can see the melted edge of the filmstrip.
Film captures light. Video captures ideas.
These are ideas Smith is offering. The images are most often gorgeous, sometimes jarring. They unsettle. Sometimes they irritate. She has that knack for constantly returning to something, working it under the skin.
In this film, we see things of beauty as advertised – constantly expecting a promised perfection, but always seeing through to threat and decay. In spite of its underlying darkness, the film is a celebration of art and cinema, constantly using one to build the other. Strips of perforated film are arranged to form individual artworks. Photographs are shredded and arranged alongside torn away optical sound strips. Advertisement or catalog images of statues and vases pass by, attempting to become film. One form is always vying for a place in the overall structure, always trying to be something other than itself.
Even though it was shot to video, the film is built with rapid cuts between fleeting images. The short durations and constant cutting from shot to shot create superimpositions in the mind of the viewer. Toward the end of the film, around the 1:08:00 mark, a woman appears standing on a small boat. She seems to drift through a sea of hazy, flickering decay. But she doesn’t. The images that seem so intertwined are completely separate.
Here is ‘Like All Bad Men He Looks Attractive – They Say:’
Here’s another film called ‘Things.’ This is a more recent one in which Smith points a camera at a computer monitor showing a web page with many of her films embedded. She then scrolls up and down the page, creating a film frame flicker effect. She ups the ante continually by layering the video.
The point I am making is that there is intense experimentation going on here with what constitutes the primary differences between film and video. It seems almost a casual mockery of filmmakers who go to great lengths to get old filmic effects into their videos. Hairs and scratches and jitters that have no meaning whatsoever in modern cinema. But it’s also a look at how mimicry of an old form leads to new things when used consciously.
I think it was Godard who said some years ago that superimposition is the great new language made possible by video. Only video makes layering of images as simple and direct as the frame to frame cut once was with celluloid.
Smith presses into the new cinema/internet idea further in other films as she begins using internet shopping sites with long image arrays selling jewelry and watches. She scrolls through them, seeming to wonder at how we create cinema for ourselves without realizing it. We bombard ourselves with a flurry of images every day, overloading and completely enveloping ourselves in our own self-reflecting movies.
Here is ‘Things:’
The computer monitor superimposition effect is used again here in a film called Things 3.
Here is ‘Things 3:’
Another film, ‘Spinning Wheel Medusa, Drama Between a Monkey and a Nude,’ uses techniques that come naturally to video. Shot with a hand held video camera inside what appears to be some kind of crafts expo or bazaar, the film layers images of a spinning wheel, decorative plates, embroideries, vases, statues and various bric a brac.
Always aware of the history of art, the film seems intent on elevating decorative objects to a realm of higher purpose. Here we see the rapid cutting of previous films losing favor to the more languid drift of layered video images. My own view is that the layering of images is much more difficult than frame to frame cutting. Layering presents the problem of making a single image from multiple images while gaining power instead of losing it.
Here is ‘Spinning Wheel Medusa, Drama Between a Monkey and a Nude:’
Michele Smith’s films have been shown at many international film festivals, including The New York Film Festival, The Times BFI London Film Festival, Chicago Onion City Film Festival, and Anthology Film Archives Screenings.
Celine Danhier's 2010 documentary covers a time in the late 1970s when New York was exploding with music and filmmaking energy. Young artists were unafraid to take to the streets without budgets. They were paying low rents and had a community to thrive within. Watching this makes one wonder what exactly New York is for today. It seems more corporate than creative. More trendy than artsy. I think the cops shoot people who don't have budgets now. That's if they aren't too lazy to strangle them to death. Where are young artists going now? Detroit? Newark? Or do they just decide to look down, keep walking and go buy a latte?
This is an amazing and beautiful film by pioneering American experimental filmmaker Stan Vanderbeek. His work encompassed collage animations, live events, and early experiments with computer graphics.
The technological explosion of this last half-century, and the implied future are overwhelming, man is running the machines of his own invention… while the machine that is man… runs the risk of running wild. Technological research, development, and involvement of the world community has almost completely out-distanced the emotional-sociological (socio-“logical”) comprehension of this technology. The “technique-power” and “culture-over-reach” that is just beginning to explode in many parts of the earth, is happening so quickly that it has put the logical fulcrum of man’s intelligence so far outside himself that he cannot judge or estimate the results of his acts before he commits them…
‘The Living Want Me Dead‘ is a short independent horror film that’s won a bunch of awards at festivals because it deserves to. I enjoyed every minute of this wild ride along with a desperate slacker as he realizes that he’s been contaminated with a substance that causes everyone within sniffing distance to want to disembowel, devour, decapitate and dismember him. He’s hounded by vomiting, mouth-foaming lunatics who simply won’t rest until he’s dead. It’s a clever commentary on the overdone zombie genre that manages somehow to be frightening and hilarious at the same time. The film was written and directed by Bill Palmer who employes techniques typically seen in independent feature films. Vimeo is full of filmmakers who want to strut their pro-quality stuff, but very few of them make anything I can watch for more than several seconds. I’m sure that director of photography Jeremy Hayward had a lot to do with this because the camera work is fluid and clear, even when following intense action and movement.
Director Palmer handles his equipment, crew and actors without letting the job overwhelm his natural instinct for telling a ripping good story and making us want to know what’s going to happen next. In fact, he made much of his own equipment, including a simple rig for filming underwater! He used water guns to shoot fake blood. I love that kind of filmmaking. And I love that he did it all without ridiculous shooting permits. He just hit the side streets with his little crew and turned the whole neighborhood into what I imagine was a hell of fun time. He has created a tight little view into a California suburb at Christmas time by littering the landscape with decorations that lend a sort of lunatic and false joy to the dark comedy and spurting blood.
So the main character, played to intense and despairing perfection by Adam Conger, tries to get away from his attackers by lying low at a friend’s house. Conger really hits his role on the money. He’s perfect as the overwhelmed slacker-type dude who’s actually fairly driven and maniacal in survival mode. But he just can’t seem to find a good way to explain the desperate situation to his friend who is played with great comic ability by Tony Nunes. I believe that during the violent proceedings in his backyard, this friend is primarily engaged with heating up a HotPocket. Needless to say, the hero’s plan for lying low does not work out very well!