Think Different: New York Video Fest Spans Innovation and Old Hat
by Onome Ekeh
(indieWIRE/ 8.7.00) -- As New York Video Festival 2000 commenced, the MacWorld Expo at the Javits Center folded. The Macintosh Mantra "Think Different" was everywhere and reiterated in Armond White's annual Video Fest look at popular culture on July 24, this year titled "Coded Language." White screened and discussed the genius of artists such as Bjork, Mos Def, Busta Rhymes and a host of others. Their genius, it appears, lies in their manipulation of mainstream cultural codes into subversive tropes. That is to say there is nothing new under the sun -- only innovation. This year's Festival experienced the tension between novel reconfigurations and the strictly old hat.
The Festival scored a hit with potential cult classic hit "The Beaver Trilogy, " which played to a full house on Saturday night. An edgy reel life "Priscilla Queen Of The Desert," Beaver Trilogy introduces us to Larry Huff, a 21-year-old Olivia Newton John (and Barry Manilow) impersonator who Trent Harris (then a news camera person) meets on the parking lot of Channel 2 in Salt Lake City, Utah. If you've read indieWIRE's interview with Harris, you'd know that he then recreated the scene in a fictionalized version with Sean Penn as Huff, and then again, in the 1985 short film, "The Orkly Kid" with Crispin Glover in the title role.
The problem is the entire process has its wig on backwards. "The Orkly Kid," despite Glover's sensitive portrayal (apparently it's his favorite role ever), is maudlin and fluffed over with every mediocre Hollywood convention. The Sean Penn version is actorish and over-psychologized; while the actual footage of Larry Huff makes a strong case for documentary narrative. The original Beaver Kid with its in-the-moment-ness is streamlined and elegant. Harris's real gift is package design: his juxtaposition of all three versions is a lovely innovation in narrative form, regardless of the content. The audience was unforgiving of what was perceived to be Harris's exploitation of Huff. During the
Q&A session, much was made of the filmmaker's insular privilege and detachment. Apparently Huff had shot himself (unsuccessfully) in fear of the footage being televised. All in all questionable, but "Beaver Trilogy" still beats "Fargo."
To be fair to Harris, he had a tough act to follow: the cranky genius of George Kuchar, with his new DV shorts, "Trilogy of the Titans," "Chigger Country," and other zesty treats. The evening was a Kuchar tribute of sorts, with fellow video-diarist Steve Reinke hosting (and bragging that his own work was described as "Kuchar-like, except I never leave my apartment.") Reinke presented a video letter from Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan who in a touchingly neurotic (and very comic) fashion intimated how Kuchar's work affected him personally. And the personal is what looms large in Kuchar territory and his ability to utilize hack "Hollywood" codes to create intensely intimate and idiosyncratic film language. Kuchar reminisced about the days when he edited his own special effects in-camera. These days, the domestic convenience of digital filmmaking prevents him from leaving his home.
Donnigan Cumming certainly does get out a good deal and mostly into other people's houses. "If Only I," a striking documentary piece could also be called "What If Marilyn Monroe Never Made It To Stardom And Arthur Miller Was A Man Off The Streets?" Meet Colleen, a semi-paralyzed recovering alcoholic living with Colin, a disgruntled part-time schizophrenic. The still beautiful Colleen is a victim of both parental and healthcare institutions. Again the exploitation issue came up at the Q&A: did Cummings feel he had focused a tad on his subject's physical beauty? Wasn't Colleen, by virtue of being an incest survivor, a woman who was eager to please? Hadn't the filmmaker taken advantage of her? Like Harris, Cummings conceded to the fact of power imbalances that come with camera wielding. For Cummings, it is a delicate issue of trust -- you can only hope that the right person is in power. "And I am that right person," he said.
The most disturbing piece in the festival was also the most rewarding. Miranda July's "Nest of Tens" features a number of uneasy power games: a developmentally impaired man lecturing an academic audience on phobias; a business woman is roped into strange sub-libidinal conflict with a young girl at an airport; a young boy cleans and encodes a baby girl, creates a control panel and pushes her buttons -- and yours. July forces you to reexamine the forces of exploitation again and again. She challenges the perception of "victimhood."
Jacqueline Goss's "So To Speak" is also on the subject of the "disturbed." Helen Keller, Janet Frame and Genie "the wild child" are collapsed into this arresting overlay of sound and vision. Both pieces create supple and extraordinary film languages. Goss's use of sound design is evocative of Hitchcock and the tension arrives between the score and images that are surreal.
The spirit of Chris Marker graced the festival, very much alive in Chris Petit's "Asylum," a lovingly elliptical and ingenious sci-fi narrative. Petit uses the vulnerability and flaws of the video medium to evoke memory loss and depletion. The small format, then, has developed a language intrinsic to itself.
But then what is it with the "old hat"? While Laura Waddington's Super 8 experiment, "Lost Days" -- the travel diary of a young woman shot by different people in 15 countries -- creates a lush multi-leveled subjectivity, the end results smacks of orientalism. As does Adam Cohen's "Fire of Time," noteworthy for its beauty, but troubling for its exoticizing of poverty and a discarded Spanish girlfriend. A number of entries ventured into this territory, some of them accessing new frontiers: "Black Out" (Michael Maziere), "Handyman" (Nelson Henricks), "Tower of Industrial Life" (Alfred Guzzetti), "As Long As It Takes" (Claire Bain) and "9 Guided Tours" (Michael Gitlin).
Arguably the most stimulating program, "Through the Looking Glass," could also be monikered "Children of Kubrick!" Joseph Hyde's "Zoetrope," QuarterLifer Anthony Discenza's "Vision Engine," and the HalfLifers' three entries "Mess Hall," "Homesteaders," and "Harvest" create surreal excitement out of the banal.
Hyde and Discenza play with visual electronica: soundwaves, scanlines, television snow. All lo-tech and hypnotically beautiful. And what about these HalfLifers? Highly kinetic, cheeky and implausible -- the work brims with ideas. Is this the missing link between Charlie Chaplin and the Teletubbies? Responding to the comment that their work resembled sped up Tarkovsky, the HalfLifers (DiScenza and Torsten Burns) revealed their lifelong ambition: To do a remake of "Solaris" on a tree stump. And what about the Teletubbies? "We had friends calling us the first time anyone saw that show. The Teletubbies ripped us off."
If Kubrick's offspring titillated, Saul Bass must have been a proud papa when the RES Media group presented their panel and screening: "We Went Digital, Where Were You?" You will forgive their tone when you experience the small wonders of digital video innovation via computer programs like Adobe Premiere and After Effects. The dazzle has to do with the extreme stylishness with which this technology is deployed, and the sophisticated content. Everything Saul Bass taught us about narrative economy and the fabulousness of titles seems to have been bestowed upon the realm of DV with his blessings. Happily the works by Eric Henry, Tommy Pallotta, Elizabeth Dagger and Rodney Ascher can be seen at http://www.resfest.com.
And if you still want to be wowed by the wonderfully no-tech, check out Anne McGuire's short and saucy animation piece, "I Like Men." Except I don't know where else you'd find it except another NYVF. And that's the beauty of it.
[Onome Ekeh is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.]