by Jefferson Everest Crawford
Welcome to the future. We ride on the last of many train cars, which is the present, traveling forward through the past, or the future. In our daily life the past may as well be the future. As we move ahead we glance around, behind, parsing glimpses of what was, what is, and what might be. Neatly enough, each calendar year acts as a container for our progress – in particular, the ends and beginnings become moments to find our bearings within an otherwise endless stream of time. So I force myself into the present, stretch my arms out, steadying the flow, just for an instant. What I notice shocks me, invigorates me beyond belief. I catch glimpses of a ‘new’ new. Even faintly, I imagine I see a new cinema, a minor and marginal cinema.
I concluded last year with a reading of Jonas Mekas’ Movie Journals, which solidified my position on the precarious nature of ‘freedom’ in amateur or personal filmmaking. The truth is that amateur movie making has not been allowed to thrive. It has instead been conglomerated by the same institutions that once supported it. And yet there are moments in which I glimpse the future of the new. Moments in which clearly, institutions and checkpoints have as little value as money – which is the mark of real freedom.
I might be imagining it, but I feel as if I am catching hints of a return to freedom. This past year I have seen and enjoyed films by the freest of artists. These are artists working without institutional support, gathering online rather than in school or at a film society. These are artists casually restructuring networks of production and dissemination, who will soon radically restructure the use of the moviemaking apparatus itself. Which would cause a minor uproar, if anyone were there to notice. I’m sure these makers will continue on their paths, embracing their freedoms, and I will continue shouting about them, in the hopes that some heads will turn. When we turn our heads, we change how the future looks.
A quote from Jonas Mekas rings around my head, a refrain, as I think about these works, about the possibilities in them: “we need less perfect but more free films”. It appears on the first page of his Movie Journals. Mekas wrote that in 1962, and it appears again here, at the start of a new year, a new decade, a limitless horizon.
The free films, the really free films, are what I hope to talk about this year. Work that is minor and on the margins. Minor and yet major, marginal and yet central. These films are a respite amid the onslaught. Films that are poems, in which we may contemplate the momentary, the fleeting, the beautiful.
I shouldn’t pretend that the characteristics which knot these works together justify a movement, or some similar nonsense, but there are characteristics which seem to justify the apparent freedom and personal nature of the works, more than anything else.
There is a freedom in the obviousness of their making, in the ways reality is woven into them – a reality which takes on the tint of dreams, of visions. This obviousness comes from the clarity with which image and structure are used, an honesty which belies any apparent obscurity. No matter how altered, these works are realities – either on screen, or in the maker’s vision. They encompass meaningful daily exchanges, or life – the true substance of reality.
There are the daily sort of images that one sees everyday: the trees one passes, or the river, or a goose. Images which become our actions, a walk, a drive – a walk or drive leading to soul-crunching existential horror. There is a rawness of emotion, often personal details are strewn throughout, references to friends, family, daily life. This diary-like quality, no matter how distorted, suggests honesty in the work. This is not only amateur but specifically personal filmmaking, on a mental, emotional and physical level. The brilliant (SYN/ANTI)THESIS challenges the viewer to enter into a mental state conducive of transformation, using manipulated diary-like materials alongside a careful attention to pacing and composition. I think it shows a rare mastery of these manipulations for such a personal and hand-made film.
The technique may be all about transformation. The films themselves are about transformation, even of transformation. One may find that they are less about something and more of something. Of feelings, of faces, friends, or of trees or buildings or times of the day. They are minor observations of the soul.
The films of Lucy Hanson show a mastery of observation, and an understanding that to observe is not only to grasp at the world through our senses but also to feel it through our moods. We are porous and fragile, as are these little films. This slight mastery is displayed in Hanson’s a road trip leading nowhere, which deposits us alone, staring into the dark, left to listen to a forlorn song. This work counters common films of observation in that it pulls us into a mood rather than into a view – in fact, the view is totally obscured by night. We are pulled along into a moment, made to feel stuffy and stranded for a glimpse, stuck listening and staring into the dark for an instant. Often this is what stuns me, how complex a little work might be with so few elements. These pieces are patterns, songs, memories – and they instantly evoke happenings, rememberings, dreams.
There is consistent emphasis placed on what these things have done to us, the impact they may have had on our psyches, our bodies, our minds and hearts, how they have shaped us, even in small ways – rather than how we shaped them. I find this again in Lucy Hanson’s work, such as gliding along the river, or a sudden change in seasons. I feel so lovely as I drift beyond this lonely shack, but also drifted, and lonely, and oddly changed. I am made to understand something new about myself. Even if a change is so miniscule as to be undetectable, it still changes us. The landscape changes in dips and whirls through Nature Symphony, a little film I found right at the start of this year. It is another song of change, that bleeds into the imperfections it encapsulates. Change is personified, albeit by a hauntingly mobile mannequin in Blank Slate, another short tune of nature, of living, of coming to terms with transformation, by a great young filmmaker, Jamie Jarvis-Stores. I also sense the bleeding heart of change in the work of Enrico Alchimim, whose materials feel as if they are pulled from experience itself, more raw than real. I feel this most about Esperando Siri (Waiting for Crab) and O Espaço Entre O Céu E A Pedra (The Space Between the Sky and the Rock). These films are as scratchy as the seaward facing rocks and as calming as a breeze.
Other senses are sometimes made more active in an amateur work, as if the haptics of its personal making can place us in that experience so fully that our taste or smell is awakened. It might be because the making seems so familiar, or that the way the images are framed is more natural, less technical, less mechanical and modern. But these works are modern, in that they represent modern ideas. Still, they reject modernity, or more precisely they reject modernization. They are human in a way which modernized things cannot be. This is what makes them “amateur,” in the full, Latin, sense of the word – amatorem, a lover, made for love.
I find these makers playing with form in such sophisticated and yet un-studied ways, with an ingenuity which might reveal itself to some as amateurism in the derogatory, unprofessional way. To these degradations the works are apparently nonplussed, as steadfast as anything made with love. These films are drastically untethered and personal, and demonstrate the roving eye, ‘unruled by laws of man,’ then 90% of avant-garde or ‘non-commercial work.’ Especially when seen together, or in context, it becomes clear that these minor works are more vibrant, with purer ideas than most work that graces the screens of whatever festivals, even ‘unconventional’ ones (nevermind that ‘unconventional’ festivals have become their own traditions).
The amateur and radical movie maker need not stop at minor on the way to marginal. In fact, of late these lovers seem to trend toward ambition, their films becoming longer and longer. Creating a feature film as an individual artist, releasing it on your own, on Youtube, is no small feat. Which is why Eden Poag’s Everywhere at the End of Time, which runs over 100 minutes, can be considered anything but minor. Poag’s work deals with dementia, and uses the album of the same name by The Caretaker, as its foundation. Regarding the film itself I can echo notes I made earlier, that the form is manipulated in very natural, but also sophisticated ways. On the strength of the penultimate section alone it is hard to believe that Poag is 13, and a completely independent artist, working for herself.
I recently basked in the sickly red glow of Cecil Selwyn’s new 50 minute film Centuries of Boredom. Selwyn films themself as the pasty stranger, who sings, giggles, transforms into several iterations of an awkward daemon – seemingly all but shitting themself and masking their pasty face in excrement. A metric for me moving into this new decade is to ask “who would play this movie 10, 15 years ago?” If Anthology film, or SF Cinematheque, or Ann Arbor FF or whomever else wouldn’t have screened this without some name recognition behind it then we might deduce it is either truly bad or exceptionally radical. Horrible and radical enough to not fit in at the very institutions that consummated the original sins of the underground cinema.
Form is malleable to the free artist. Conceptions of editing and composition become more like wind in the leaves than of the tree itself, grasped at as one grasps at beauty, with an eye for passion, rather than perfection. Freedom allows one to understand that perfection is only technical achievement rendered pure in the mind of the commercially driven. The free artist has no need for perfect expression, because expression is perfect.
There is the same radicality in (SYN/ANTI)THESIS, in which Kevin Ostrica, himself the maker and protagonist, undergoes a series of ambiguous transformations. The camera becomes the stage itself, a proscenium busy transferring the vision of the filmmaker to the perspective of the viewer. The camera acts in an almost unconscious manner to direct our mental processes. The way Ostrica frames his surroundings, the lakefront, the factory or refinery, the average-seeming intersection, beckons from us a mental transformation. It is a method at once totally simple and totally radical. It might seem that I attach too much import to such a basic practice, but that’s the point, that something as fundamental as framing a shot is all it takes to transform reality. This is in direct correspondence with a phrase by Maya Deren, a master of personal moviemaking, that cinematography is the “creative use of reality.” Which is what making art is: a use of reality, putting reality to use – rather than using reality, which is advertising. This will always be the constant, brilliantly destabilizing force of amateur creation, of creation for the sake of love, that the cynical dis-use of reality, in the name of commerce, needn’t heed – that instead, for once, love actually prevails in the realm of the real.
(SYN/ANTI)THESIS and Centuries of Boredom are the boldest new films I have seen, and both are long, bogglingly intricate, neatly crafted, sensuous works, especially as works made by individual artists. Transformations of the self are presented to us as transformation of the form – that is what art does.
Let us take the moment, even briefly, to grasp at this destabilizing of the moving image. These pieces, as utterly democratic in their production as they are broad in their subject matter, represent a shedding of heavy, theatrical pretense for the personal filmmaker. No longer must the purely amateur filmmaker either toil in obscurity or learn the proper techniques and conventions. Now, they demonstrate the full spectacle of their tiny, homespun brilliance for the world, without having it crowd sourced or focus grouped. This is a revolution for everyone! Freedom for the maker! Freedom for the audience! How tiring to be constantly wary of convention, prepared to jump out and catch the unwary charlatan in the act of “rule breaking.” Now, the audience can rest, relax into a slumber of pure vision, unfiltered vision – vision so palpable one might reach out and grasp it…
This is where I leave, and push off into narrow, beautiful waters; courses set for the margins. I will resurface and correspond as often as possible to throw some light on shadowy patches, to call forth some much-needed attention to the minor and marginal cinema. These works offered me much inspiration last year, and as I intend to seek them out more actively this year, and continue to revel in their micro-cosmic delights, I think the least I can do is attempt to point them out, and to document as honestly as I can my thoughts on them.
You can follow Jefferson’s further adventures in amateur outsider experiments on his blog.