[5 July 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Consider the short film. Actually, consider the concept of the short film first. When people hear the label, they automatically think of a couple of completely different and competing conceits. The main one is the surreal student project where creative dreams and aesthetic leaps are captured on celluloid for all the insular intelligentsia to see - and for the most part, they’re right. Gone are the days when mini-movies actually attempted things like narrative, character, or theme (the other ideal, by the way). Instead, they tend to represent the very fringes of filmic art - visual collages that challenge and chuckle at the very mandates of the medium. That is not to say that such approaches are wrong. Indeed, some of our greatest auteurs (David Lynch, Martin Scorsese) got their start fashioning big, brassy ideas into tiny formats.
But if the recent compilation from Cinemad is any indication, very little has changed in the land of the self-indulgent (and deluded) cinematic short. In 1998, the Xeroxed ‘zine by Mike Plante was dedicated to discovering new and unusual talents in the world of outsider filmmaking. Published intermittently and now found almost exclusively online, this waystation for the experimental and the avant-garde has championed some of the most earnest and unusual talents in the entire field of underground art. Now, with the help of DVD distributor Microcinema, Cinemad celebrates its recent 10th anniversary with an “almanac” - an anthology of titles chosen to represent the best, the brightest, and the most mindboggling of the many filmmakers featured - and it truly is an odd bunch.
Along with an accompanying 60 page booklet covering the individuals represented, Cinemad starts out with the amiable Edge-TV with Animal Charm by Animal Charm. It then moves on to Above Below by Cam Archer, Letters, Notes by Stephanie Barber, Valse Triste by Bruce Conner, Pictures from Dorothy by Kevin Jerome Everson, and The Sun by James Fotopoulos. One of the longest pieces in the collection, the startling Lot 63, Grave C by Sam Green is next, with three efforts by Jake Mahaffy - War (trailer), Wellness (trailer) and Motion Studies #3: Gravity - putting in an appearance. We are then treated to Light is Calling by Bill Morrison, Viscera by Leighton Pierce, and The Time We Killed by Jennifer Reeves before a final triptych from Deborah Stratman - How Among the Frozen Words, It Will Die Out in the Mind and The Magician’s House.
As stated before, the term “film” should be used loosely - or perhaps only literally - when dealing with these often frustrating fragments. Granted, they are all the product of some very powerful and strong-willed individuals, creators with clear visions of what they think they are doing and how it comes across visually. Sadly, only a few offerings here make a real lasting impression. Letters, Notes offers nothing more than a series of sentences animated over the top of some iconic images. But Stephanie Barber’s approach provides the kind of depth and determination that other entries here lack. Similarly, Jake Mahaffy gets three chances to shine, but only War manages to maintain our interest. In fact, Motion Studies #3 is an example of gallows’ humor so obvious it seems almost juvenile. The same could be said for the shock value silliness of Edge-TV.
In fact, almost every wannabe cineaste here could take a lesson from Sam Green. His memorable and moving Lot 63, Grave C takes a well known subject (the death of Meredith Hunter at the Rolling Stone’s Altamonte Free Concert in 1969) and mixes in some investigative journalism and filmed flashback perspective (from the seminal documentary Gimme Shelter) to try and locate where the man is now buried. Though it skips over much of the behind the scenes seriousness of what happened that fateful December night - Hunter did brandish a gun before being stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels - there is a poignancy to following the fate of one of history’s many cultural footnotes. This makes Lot hard to shake. Indeed, by the end of the 10 minute exposé, we are convinced that the Maysles should contact Green about companion piece status to their own amazing movie.
It’s just too bad then that few of the remaining films leave a similar impact. Many, like The Time We Killed are thwarted by a simple creative choice (a nearly whispered voice-over narration) or a failed concept (Bill Morrison’s failed Decasia redux Light is Calling). Others, like Viscera, struggle to get their message across due to an oblique, almost insular perspective. The overlapping of images and editing styles may seem like a solid way of illustrating your optical ideas, but not every cut and paste production yields some manner of universal truth. More times than not, art is like beauty - totally in the eye of the beholder and wholly reliant on some decent lighting. No one is questioning the talent of the individuals celebrated by Cinemad. Perhaps this is a case where the ability can’t find its way into reality, or visa versa.
Frankly, the enclosed booklet is far more fascinating. Given an opportunity to speak, these filmmakers find ways of coalescing their thoughts in intelligent and insightful ways. They don’t doddle over shot selections or budgetary constraints. They frequently uncover ways of working out the issues seemingly lost in their films. Of course, there are the occasional glimpses of outright arrogance, examples of ambition far outweighing a sense of skill set proportion. Yet even in the most annoying cases, some clear information comes across. For everyone involved in Cinemad - both behind the scenes and in the actual pages of the publication - movies are a labor of love. They represent dreams deferred and sometimes realized, an entire lifetime filtered into a single roll of film stock.
As a result, Microcinema should be praised for picking such an obscure and profoundly idiosyncratic subject to commemorate. There are literally dozens of short film compilations floating around the DVD format and this one contains some of the most difficult and dense material of the lot - and maybe that’s the point. After all, all art is not freely recognized in its era. Sometimes, it takes preservation, and a latter reconsideration, before someone’s work manifests into an iconic tableau of talent. Anyone looking for material far outside the mainstream knows that Cinemad is a tag to trust. Others will need to come at this compendium with the requisite amount of skepticism. Being alternative and underground doesn’t automatically make you cool. For all its ambitions, this Almanac is rather inconsistent - just like most so-called examples of art.