FESTIVALS: Tomb Raiding Filmmakers Dig Up Pixels at NY Video Fest
by Ed Halter
(indieWIRE/ 07.16.01) — In recent years, emotional debates about the death of film and the low-cost freedoms of digital video have been all the rage. But in the artier neighborhoods of the indie realm, the film versus video conundrum has kicked around for decades. Experimental artists often take strong sides about the aesthetic virtues of each format: some of the most hard-core avant-garde filmmakers wouldn’t think of shooting video, or even transfer their films to tape, just as many video artists don’t know the first thing about 16mm or 35mm.
But with the rise of digital filmmaking, these boundaries appear to be eroding, even among the format-noodling avant-crowd. Judging from the selections at this year’s New York Video Festival (currently running until the 19th at Lincoln Center in Manhattan), both emerging artists and seasoned veterans are turning to video as the more flexible, inexpensive format of choice. Many of the more interesting works on view this year, in fact, are by directors known more for their work on film.
A prime example is Matt McCormick, a Portland-based director who premiers “The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal,” a dreamy, heady mock-doc about the subversively artistic meanings behind the industrial-colored angular blotches painted by city workers to cover illegal graffiti. McCormick’s previous 16mm film shorts, “The Vyrotonin Decision” and “Sincerely, Joe P. Bear,” have screened and won prizes at festivals worldwide. For this new work, McCormick chose to shoot on DV and 16mm, and finished on video. But it took him many years to change from celluloid. “I hate the old video stuff that was predominate up until the early 90s,” says the 28-year-old filmmaker. “I was not into that at all, tape-to-tape and linear editing. I spent the first several years of my filmmaking career using junk-store antiquated equipment. I had no money but lots of time to play with the film.”
In recent years, however, he’s learned to enjoy some of the benefits of home desktop editing. “Certainly, I would have loved to have had ‘Graffiti Removal’ on 35mm film, and everything optically printed straight from negatives, and all that,” he says. “But for me, the really cool thing about video is that you can be a perfectionist, and you can do it for relatively cheap. And the sound is like 8 million times better. To have the freedom to work in stereo with all this range, to have low lows and high highs is just as important to me as it is to have really good visual image.”
The aesthetic of “Graffiti Removal” likewise follows from McCormick’s background in film. Shaky hand-held cameras or fat televisual pixels are nowhere to be seen. McCormick’s video shares a semi-static, tightly controlled cinematic look that can be seen in the work of other videomakers like Miranda July, a fellow Portland artist who narrates McCormick’s tape, or Elisabeth Subrin, who screened her video “The Fancy” at last year’s NYVF.
The different emotional registers provided by film and video are one of the key structural qualities of Joe Gibbons‘ “Confessions of a Sociopath, Part One,” the first in a proposed feature-length digest of his Super 8 and video diaries from the past three decades. In this installment, Gibbons revisits himself in his 20s — doing art pranks, shooting heroin, shoplifting and dodging parole — providing a comically poker-faced portrait of the artist as a young con. For Gibbons, one of the key trailblazers of experimental Super 8 filmmaking, video has provided a natural replacement for increasingly obscure mini-gauge film. “I started shooting video in ’86, but I never put anything out on video until the early ’90s or so,” says Gibbons. “I guess I went to video because Super 8 just got too expensive for the way that I worked, which is shooting a lot of material and improvising. And of course they stopped making Super 8 sound film.”
Like McCormick, Gibbons appreciates the increased flexibility in sound editing (something that was particularly difficult with magnetic-striped Super 8 sound film). In mixing new video footage with video transfers of Super 8 diaries, Gibbons creates new expressive relationships between the formats. “The latter day portions are shot in video, and the older more romanticized portions are shot in Super 8,” he explains. “I used video to connote the present day because the footage has this reality-based, hard-edged look that underlines the harshness of how things turned out, which contrasted with the dreamy look that Super 8 gives.”
Like Gibbons, Peggy Awesh has also been using multiple formats for years, although she’s primarily considered a filmmaker rather than a video artist. For “She Puppet,” however, she went beyond film and video to explore the emerging aesthetics of new media. A unique experiment with striking results, “She Puppet” is composed of re-edited footage of the game Tomb Raider that Awesh created by playing the game for several months. “I made Lara Croft do things that normally you wouldn’t do to play the game,” says Awesh. “It’s a conceptual piece in some ways, because it’s not my footage. The look was completely created by some programmer guys.” So as Croft explores bit-mapped mock-ups of Egyptians tombs and ancient catacombs, Awesh is herself tentatively exploring the oddly pixelated textures of a game environment, poaching bits of unintentionally surreal moments created by program bugs and abstracted low-res graphics. “It’s sort of a little philosophical tract about where we’re at right now in terms of feminism and virtuality and the heroine,” she says. “And you could say that it’s kind of retro to make a video out of game material. For me, that was some sort of twist of irony. To take something that is like a hypertext and make it into a single-channel piece.”
Despite the obvious pleasures provided by the many formats and media available to contemporary artists, ultimately, of course, a successful experimental video depends on its conceptual weight. Good art is about content, not platform. “I think a lot of the best people use whatever format is appropriate for their idea,” adds Awesh. It’s something important to remember, as much talk and writing about digital filmmaking leans on empty alpha-nerd discussions of aspect ratio and DV-to-35mm transfer technologies, and more than a few digital film festivals feel like hollow tech industry expos.
Venues like the NY Video Festival, however, remind us about the possibilities of cinema as an art. Or as Matt McCormick puts it, “I like to spend as little time on my computer as I have to, then turn the computer off as soon as possible, and go watch a movie in a movie theater.”