FESTIVALS: Super 8 Supersized and Back on Track in New York Communities
by Ed Halter
(indieWIRE/05.03.2000) -- Rumors of Super 8's death have been greatly exaggerated. Kodak's website
assures visitors that the tiny home-movie gauge isn't going away soon
(although certain stocks have been retired). New York's MOMA and the SF
Cinematheque continue "Big As Life," a two-year retrospective of Super 8
filmmaking. The few labs left specializing in Super 8 transfers report
booming business not just from the arty crowd, but from commercial use as
well. Noted U.S. indie directors like Kelly Reichardt ("Ode") and Jem Cohen
("Instrument") continue to explore its narrative possibilities.
As with record vinyl and PXL cameras, mainstream obsolescence was a great
career move for the tiny format, adding an expressive nostalgic air to its
grainy, fluttery images. It should come as no surprise then that deep within
New York's Lower East Side and Williamsburg's twin jungles of obscurity, a
young group of artists has been tinkering and toying with the medium in
exciting new-old ways, picking up the gauge like the challenge of an antique
instrument and making it talk in the retro-contempo lingo of the now scene
of today. Tonight at 8:00 pm, the scene moves about 60 blocks uptown to the
Walter Reade Theater for an expertly crafted program at Lincoln Center's
Image Innovators series.
Curated by filmmaker Francois Boue, New Super 8 New York is an excellent but
by no means random sampling of Super 8 work being made in the city today.
The artists represented -- Jennifer Fieber, Glen Fogel, Bruce McClure, Aaron
Scott, Luke Sieczek, Stom Sogo and Bou* himself -- all come from a
relatively tight circle of friends and colleagues formed in the past few
years. Some have shared living spaces and studios. All have shared equipment
and knowledge, screened in shows together before, and some have worked at
the landmark East Side institution, the Anthology Film Archives, as
projectionists. The Anthology connection is perhaps one of the most subtle
and pervasive influences on the group1s work as a whole.
Lingering in the concrete bunker of Anthology allowed them to soak up the
sensibilities of the movement's favored fathers and sons. The arty abstract
psychodrama of Michael Snow, the homespun visual algebra of Ken Jacobs and
Ernie Gehr, the mind-control mantras of Paul Sharits, the shamanistic vision
quest of Stan Brakhage and the emotive, mythic diaries of Maharishi, Jonas
Mekas, have all been refracted, stripped down and made new, in keeping with
the thrift-store aesthetic that dominates contemporary D.I.Y. culture.
Continuities aside, however, the group show is also fantastically diverse, a
kind of tasty Whitman's Sampler of the new possibilities of an old medium.
The fact that most of the selections are silent might scare people off. It
shouldn't. A remarkable aspect of the works represented is the artists1
ability to craft visual rhythms that keep the mind fully engaged. It1s all
the more impressive considering that every film in New Super 8 New York was
primarily edited in-camera.
Fieber's "Sidelong Glances," for example, is a silent portrait of bike path.
The fence around the path is painted a luscious candy-heart red, and
Fieber's film is composed of a series of slow zooms towards different spots
along the path, playing subtle games with classical perspective. Bou*'s "T"
takes on a related fascination with vernacular architecture, shooting
multiple views of a dingy plastic-wrapped section of the Williamsburg Bridge
under different conditions of sunlight and wind. Originally conceived as a
four-projection installation, this version of "T" is a vertical
double-projection of two reels, presented one on top of the other.
Other selections take on the home-movie aspect of Super-8, refashioned as
mute artist's diaries. For his "3600 Frames," Bruce McClure took his camera
with him on travels from New York to San Francisco, Seattle, and DC,
shooting one frame at a time, still-camera-like. Projected, his photo
collection flips past at break-neck rhythm, feeling less like old-fashioned
artsy contemplation and more like downloading thousands of hi-res image
files straight into the brain. Sieczek's "Athens" takes the opposite route,
composing a grey Ektachrome diary of a small-town family gathering. Silent
dim images of housefronts, family photos and dinner gatherings feel intimate
and emotional yet at the same time completely voiceless.
In a departure from the personal diary aspect of other works, Scott's
single-shot "A Perfect Crime" fucks with the momentary narrative logic of a
restaged Hollywood fragment. The careful set design screams 1971. The brown
and yellow floral print wallpaper has been blasted through by perhaps some
sort of explosion. Plaster and bits of wood cover a glass of cognac, with
elegantly destroyed bookshelves fallen over. The film runs backwards to
slowly reveal the cause of destruction.
The two works with soundtracks in the show -- Fogel's "Reflex" and Sogo's
"Space Cat" -- retain the contemplative air of their fellows, but use the
kick of musical repetition to push the analog limits of Super-8 into
electronic-influenced psychedelia. Fogel shoots the lips, eyes, and skin of
a young man using a variety of lenses, colored gels and reflective surfaces,
set to a digitally edited soundtrack of respiration, birdsong, heartbeats
and falling water. At some points, the hand-processed film devolves into a
sea of sharp stellar bubbles set like jewels in a plasmatic emerald cosmos.
The total effect is one of blissful, narcissistic proto-eroticism.
By far the most complex and compelling work in a group of notably
well-crafted films, Sogo1s 23-minute transportive epic "Space Cat" displays
a mastery of psychedelic filmmaking that easily rivals late-60s acid auteurs
like Jud Yalkut, Scott Bartlett and Nam June Paik. The film begins within
Thoreauan-Brakhage territory, with black-and-white shots of leaves in a
forest. Slowly, to the sounds of electronic noise, the images transform into
blotchy green, yellow and purple compositions that become increasingly
abstract through an array of techniques like hand-processing, painting on
the film, and multiple re-photography of projected images. Sogo's
candy-colored outer space of handmade coronae takes the viewer on what feels
like a bizarre, overpowering journey through the filmmaker's own singular,
It's a pattern played out, perhaps less dramatically but with no less
conviction, in all the works in New Super 8 New York. Any formal and
material continuities fall by the wayside as each filmmaker presents a
unique, virtuoso vision. I suggest you keep an eye out for this nameless
scene now as their uptown trek may be the first step in transforming this
free-floating moment into archivable art.
[Ed Halter is the director of the New York Underground Film Festival,
contributing film critic for the New York Press and director of cinema
content for Insound.com.]