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The Persistent Gauge: MoMA Devotes Two Years to 8 mm Indies

The Persistent Gauge: MoMA Devotes Two Years to 8 mm Indies

The Persistent Gauge: MoMA Devotes Two Years to 8 mm Indies

by Stephen Kent Jusick

Almost 25 years ago, Jonas Mekas wrote in the Village Voice that “The
day is close when the 8mm home movie footage will be collected and
appreciated as beautiful folk art….”

On January 31, 1998 A&I Lab in Los Angeles stopped processing Kodachrome
Super-8 film. At 5:30 PM on February 6 the processing machine was being

And later that same day, New York’s Museum of Modern Art began its
memorial to this fading form.

Experimental filmmaking is often about asking questions. “How can I
convey this idea?”, “With what technique can I achieve this result?”,
“How can I express what I’m feeling?”, “What are the limits of
endurance?”, and so on. “Big As Life: An American History of 8mm Films“,
the historic, monumental two-year show that opened Friday at the Museum
of Modern Art in New York
raises many questions, not only through the
works it exhibits, but also about the role of small-gauge filmmaking in
America, and the part institutions have to play in championing or
ignoring that work. This fragile, persistent gauge (is it a medium, a
genre, or, perhaps most of all, a mood?) receives a last-gasp push for
legitimacy from an edifice that can’t be ignored. In preparation for
approximately seven years by the San Francisco Cinematheque’s Steve
Anker, and MoMA’s Jytte Jensen, Big As Life is a selective survey of the
regular 8mm, Super-8mm and some small-gauge video, partly because there
is so much to mine, and partly because the curators have their own take.

First released in 1932 as a consumer format, 8mm film gained in
popularity in postwar America, as people began to document their
families. Later Super-8 was a popular format at film schools. But
artists had taken to it as well, and this series focuses on work that is
self-conscious in its aesthetics. Home movie footage is in short supply,
and porn doesn’t get its due. Also overlooked are today’s popular indie
stars, many of whom made 8mm work while learning their craft. Even in a
series as massive as this one, there are strange artist omissions,
luminaries such as Red Grooms, Alfred Leslie and more ghettoized ones
like Jim Hubbard and Marguerite Paris. And the questionable inclusion of
the barest whiff of video is a curatorial straying that should have been

By presenting the series on Thursday nights for 2 years, does MoMA
dilute the impact of the work, by failing to create a fire underneath
it? Tucked away in the diminutive never-before-open-to-the-public Time
Warner Screening Room on the museum’s 5th floor that houses
administrative offices, does the show gently take its leave from the
goings-on of the rest of the MoMA’s art and film exhibitions? There is a
natural, if small and fanatical constituency in the 8mm film community,
for which this show is a long-awaited olive branch, but beyond the
already converted, how does the museum hope to lead people to this work
and help them understand what may be unfamiliar? The curators hope that
people will fall into the habit of stopping by on a regular basis, and
that this regularity will nurture a community of filmmakers and
aficionados. But there is more work to be done in curating than simply
putting the work up on screen.

The opening night was a downtown affair in midtown. A crush of
filmmakers swarmed around the desk, looking for any available tickets
for both the sold-out shows. Peggy Ahwesh, Keith Sanborn, Joe Gibbons
and friends were sipping champagne in the back of the theater. After all
the remaining waitlisters were seated (many discouraged patrons couldn’t
bear the wait and left) the show began with the Regular 8mm films
projected on a free-standing home movie screen. From projectors mounted
about 6 rows from the front, we saw silent work that resembled edited
home movies. Here, in the Titus 2 Theater, the slight clanking of the
air ducts was a very present sound distracting from the silent images
themselves. The standout of the first show was the silt collective’s
Kemia” (1994), a “performance” film, combining regular-8 and Super-8
footage spliced together, and pulled through a specially adapted
projector. The images are mostly abstract, and the emulsion is worked on
the by, treated with ground chemicals and the like. In this ostensibly
silent film, the hum and whir of the projector as it struggled with some
of the more difficult splices or fragile spots of the film provided what
was practically a symphonic soundtrack. The silt collective will be back
in May for a full program of their performance films.

The program, which seemed to be about a sense of place or environment,
ran into trouble with the 2 channel sound of Phil Solomon’s “Exquisite
Hour”, a somber and ambitious Super-8 masterpiece, projected on the
theater’s big screen. The repeated false starts, first without sound,
then with only one track, were an endearing imperfection.

Opening the 8PM show about game playing and sexual menace, the
Bronx-bred Kuchar Brothers’s ironic spectacle, “Sylvia’s Promise” (1962,
Regular-8) was greeted with rousing shouts and applause from an audience
ready for some comedy. The only narrative of the evening was one of
infidelity and paper-thin pledges. Sylvia’s promised weight loss was
hissed at by some as sexist, but I saw only Sylvia’s unfettered delight
as she gyrated in bed and triumphed over her deadbeat husband. Vito
Acconci’s “Open/Close“, which begins with the artist masturbating with a
juicy tomato, and ends with him plastering up his anus, elicited more
uncomfortable laughter than any other film. Stan Brakhage, perhaps the
figure looming largest over the series, as the patriarchal god head of
experimental film, was represented by the voyeuristic “Sexual Meditation
Number 1: Motel
“, which was quite beautiful and inventive in the way it
called attention to the complicity of the viewer in watching some of
these intimate moments.

MoMA hasn’t completely figured out what to do with these films, which
are still marginal, and still located in the interstices of the industry
and the art world. The films are run without the conversational
commentary that they seem to beg for between each piece (or even during)
and the standard movie theater practice of running the films off the
screen, here robs us of important compositional elements. Luther Price’s
Clown, Part One” suffered in this way, as the clown’s faux masturbation
shot would have had more impact if we had seen the entire cob of corn,
and not just the tip peeking up from the edge of the frame.

Perhaps, like the amateur filmmaker who grows more familiar with his
equipment with every shoot, MoMA will grow more comfortable with the
idiosyncrasies of smaller gauge works. Still, the Modern is to be
commended for initiating and executing such an ambitious project,
embracing a community it has only flirted with in the past. Most
striking is the news that the museum will add approximately 25% of the
titles screened in the series to its permanent collection, proving Jonas
Mekas true, 25 years later. Despite the skepticism and criticism that I
have leveled at the Museum, I want to say that I expect to be there
every week, basking in the light of the projectors, drinking the sweet
nectar that is so rarely screened anywhere.

Big As Life continues every Thursday at 6 PM through December 1999 at
the Museum of Modern Art’s Time Warner Screening Room. Available tickets
are free after 5:30 PM. Coming up this Feb 12 is the Ken Jacobs solo
show and Feb 19 a program devoted to Stan Brakhage.

[Stephen Kent Jusick is a curator, administrator, and filmmaker. He is
currently working on several Super-8 films, including one featuring gay
cartoonists. Jusick has also begun exhibiting installation work, most
recently at the Downtown Arts Festival and MIX NYC.]

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