FESTIVAL: From Skateboard Docs to Experimental Shorts; Highlights from The NY Video Festival
by Guy V. Cimbalo
(indieWIRE: 07.30.02) -- It has quickly become a commonplace to trumpet the video revolution. Greater affordability, easier access, and better editing suites have opened up the exciting world of the cinema to nearly anyone with an interest. As a result, gatekeepers like the New York Video Festival become even more important in helping the videophile see good movies without having to sift through "Wassup" parodies on iFilm all day. Part of the Lincoln Center Festival 2002, the Video Festival (which closed on July 25) offered moviegoers an ample vision of both the highs and lows that video can achieve.
Among the most successful of the festival's entries were its documentaries. One of the most popular, "Stoked (The Rise and Fall of Gator)," came from Helen Stickler, director of "Andre the Giant Has A Posse." Gator is Mark "Gator" Rogowski, a San Diego kid who rose to stardom with the '80s skateboarding phenomenon. As the title suggests, that fame didn't last forever -- when the skateboarding scene moved from vert ramp to the street, Gator found his star quickly falling. And when that happens, as one of the many "Former Friends" interviewed in the doc suggests, "It's pretty fucked and alienated." By 1990 Gator was in full-frontal breakdown mode, his career riddled with drunken near-death experiences and spooky Christian skate groups. When girlfriend Brandi leaves him for a surfer, Gator's completely lost it. Only a year later, Gator confessed to the brutal murder and rape of his ex's best friend. Featuring phone interviews with Gator from prison, too often the video is unsure if it wants to be a document of '80s excess, or a true-crime story. There's too much prattling about how huge, massive, and gigantic skateboarding was, too much rumination about Gator's role in its explosion, but the documentary still manages a compelling entry into the rapidly burgeoning "too much, too young" genre. Gator's not such a tragic figure -- 15 minutes into the movie there's little doubt this is a complete idiot saved by good coordination -- but "Stoked" is saved by its excellent depiction of the early skate scene.
With "Meet Mike Mills," the fest moved onto an examination of a So-Cal skate kid turned good. After a Sundance Channel profile of the designer/director (featuring an unusual fascination with his roots and only a perfunctory look at his career) the festival screened two of Mills' shorts, "Paperboys," and "The Architecture of Reassurance." While "Architecture" goes in for the old saw about the emptiness of suburban life, "Paperboys" is an earnest, charming documentary on the lives of six Minnesota paperboys.
Another documentary on youth culture, "Between Resistance and Community: The Long Island DIY Punk Scene," exposes the strange subculture of garage rock in suburbia, where bands play in their parents' basements, the kids worry about indie credibility, and cops, more often than not, break up the party. Directed by Joe Carroll and Ben Holtzman, the doc neither patronizes these kids, nor embraces them fully. The result is a smart look at suburban high schoolers, painting a strong portrait of a time in life when "selling out" actually felt like a legitimate concern.
When the video program moved onto more experimental forms, however, it began to falter. It goes without saying that as film becomes more and more the domain of monied tedium, video should be a space where experimentation rules. And screening only one of the festival's shorts might suggest that this spirit of experiment is alive and well. When seen en masse, however, the shorts began to blend into a farrago of abstract noise and light, and ultimately, many of the videos felt the exact opposite of experimental: they became hackneyed and dull. In fact, several elements popped up with such regularity, it will serve us well to identify them now:
1) Ambient Soundscapes (AS) -- Halting percussion, pizzicato strings and the occasional tinny piano, all of them apparently recorded on an old answering machine.
2) Soft-Focus Visuals (SFV) -- It's blurry, it's watery, it's seven different images on top of one another!
3) Enigmatic Voice-Over (EVO) -- Usually a woman's voice, often a haunting woman's voice, heard intoning gems like "Do you see more when your eyes are open or closed?" or "When it was revealed that her neighborhood was a cancer cluster ... "
With the shorts program "Medical Malaise," for example, we have "Blind Spot," (AS, SFV, EVO), Michelle Lippitt's meditation on family, or memory. Or maybe it was vision, I'm not sure. Robert Fox's "History of Depression, Parts I-III" (AS, SFV) forgoes voice-over for flash frame text, such as "As asphyxia develops the blood pressure rises." "Apple Grown in a Wind Tunnel," (AS, EV) is actually quite likeable, reminiscent of Peter Greenaway's early shorts, creating a strange, decontextualized world of its own, and demonstrating an odd affinity with maps. Another program, "Like, Love, Loss & Longing," is largely sustained by SFVs of the nude female form.
Two videos, however, easily distinguished themselves from the pack. "The Tower" (n/a), from Quirine Racke and Helena Muskens, is a split screen short documenting the lives of three generations of Euro-Hippies living in a dilapidated stone ruin. Containing a suggestive brother-sister relationship, a creepy, bearded father, and this bizarre home somewhere in the middle of Europe, the video was a fascinating study of family.
The second video, "Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary" (AS, SFV), from Canadian Guy Maddin, easily formed the highlight of the festival. Like Maddin's earlier video "The Heart of the World," which seemed to have been made by a Soviet workers camp in the'20s, "Dracula" appropriates the language of earliest filmmaking and turns the genre piece into admixture of John Waters and Cecil B. DeMille. Using the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Maddin re-creates a silent film that stays fairly true to the original text of "Dracula," but the experience of the video is anything but familiar. Despite its unmistakable contemporaneousness, there is seemingly nothing modern about the video. While the video's over-the-top expressiveness, its melodrama, appear at first glance ironies, they could just as easily pass for the sublimated anxieties of an earlier time. As when the screen screams "Foreigners! From the East!," a stream of blood covering a map of Britain, it feels all too much like a period element that makes contemporary audiences cringe. In perfectly creating an eerily familiar alternate universe, Maddin has made a film that is at once great entertainment and entirely unsettling.
While it is encouraging to see the wide swath of forms that video affords today's filmmaker, its ease of use and affordability also means that the opportunity for missteps is that much greater. But through all the heady dross, when the talent was on the screen, it leapt out that much faster. The New York Video Festival ably proves that even if the videos themselves aren't there just yet, the format definitely is.