Wednesday, October 20, 2010

16mm awesomeness in three cities

When I was a kid, we used to watch short films in class, generally prefaced by a title card that said “from the Reynolds Collection of the Rochester Public Library” or words to that effect. Many of these were educational films of the sort so often parodied in commercials and comedy shows. But some were just … odd. They may have been comedies, or art films, or animations, or various combinations thereof, but the purpose of showing these films in class seems elusive in hindsight.

The most famous of these was Hardware Wars, which had a decent afterlife on cable and video, but many of the others are now obscure. Some I can still kind of remember if I think about it enough, while others have largely faded from my memory.

These kinds of films showed up not only in class, but in more public settings as well. The Rochester Museum and Science Center's Eisenhardt Auditorium had weekend shows of kid's movies (I remember seeing animated films based on the Paddington Bear books and Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat). A robotic-dinosaur exhibit that came to the RMSC in the mid-80s was accompanied, in one room, by a set of dinosaur-related films, including Will Vinton's famous Siskel-and-Ebert parody Dinosaur and a more realistic stop-motion film from the National Film Board of Canada. (I – or, more likely, my mom – actually videotaped these films from the audience with our giant camcorder, back in the days when no one thought to object to such behavior; maybe I can still find that tape if I dig through enough boxes.) When my family traveled to Toronto to see the Ontario Science Center, my favorite “exhibit” was a small booth that showed the stream-of-consciousness clay-animated film Clay, Or The Origin of Species.

I can remember when a local library branch put on a little animation festival in a room upstairs. The films themselves included Jiri Trnka's stop-motion film The Hand, in which a stop-motion puppet is relentlessly pursued by a marauding human hand; an art-film parody called The Critic, in which the voice of Mel Brooks heckles an abstract film in humorous proto-MST3K fashion; and a Disney adaptation of Peter and the Wolf. There were two other films whose titles are unknown to me – a time-lapse movie of a building under construction, which I guess counts as an animated film; and a film about an urban family attending a funeral, seen from the point of view of the youngest family, and depicted in a constantly flowing art style that was probably created using finger paint. [Update: I've since seen the latter film again: it's The Street by Caroline Leaf.] Those are the five I can still remember, over a quarter-century later; whatever other films might have been in the program are now long-forgotten by me.

The 70s and (early to mid-)80s must have been the boom time for such things; back then, you would still see obscure short films padding out the running time between movies on cable, and of course Sesame Street and The Electric Company had their share of whimsical, borderline-experimental animation. Yet I seldom seemed to meet people from other areas who had similar memories of seeing oddball animated films in class or elsewhere. This left me wondering if the Rochester area – or perhaps my grade school in particular – was somehow unique in exposing its students to oddball short films that seemed to come from nowhere. Even as the home video boom made movies more accessible, and the Internet made it easier to dig up information on even the most esoteric topics, these obscure 70s/80s films seemed to drift into the dreamlike haze of fading childhood memories.

But these films had a huge impact on me as a kid. They always looked handmade; anyone who owned a home movie camera with single-frame capabilities could theoretically make one. The fact that these films were made by no one you'd ever heard of, and shown in environments other than regular movie theaters, must have also intrigued my young brain somehow. I credit these unsung films with inspiring me to make my own films.

Some time in the late 90s/early 2000s, the Rochester library donated its 16mm film collection to the Visual Studies Workshop, a school/art gallery (associated with SUNY Brockport) which also played host to the occasional underground film event. Yet except for a single multimedia show early on (in which old industrial films were played as background), the VSW never seemed to do anything with that vast and mysterious collection for years afterward.

My interest in “ephemeral” films (as I guess they're called now) was rekindled a couple years ago when Skip Elsheimer, manager of the AV Geeks film collection, came to town to put on a show at the George Eastman House. Lo and behold, here were exactly the sorts of weird and wonderful films I saw as a kid, even if the particular titles were new to me – such as Shake Hands With Danger, a workplace-safety industrial film whose title song has become an Internet phenomenon; and Malakapalakadoo, Skip Too, a truly bizarre clay animation intended to encourage children to use their imaginations. When I later went to the AV Geeks website and browsed their list of films, I found titles that I did recall from back in the day, such as The Wave (a film about students forming a paramilitary clique) and an adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery. I slept better at night knowing that films like these were still out there, still remembered, and still loved.

Why am I writing about all this now? Well, such is the revival that these films are enjoying that I have been able see such films as they were meant to be seen – on 16mm in an alternative venue – in three different cities over a seven-day period, without even realizing it until later.


The adventure began on Sunday, October 10, when I went to Squeaky Wheel in Buffalo to see a show of experimental animation that was being presented as part of the Buffalo Film Festival. Squeaky's website explained that this was actually a traveling animation show, separate from the Buffalo festival, and co-managed by Larry Cuba, who did the computer-animated Death Star plans for the original Star Wars. Cuba would be at the event in person, and showing three of his own experimental films from the 1970s/80s.

That the event had such low attendance is a measure of how far the arty world and the geek world have drifted apart from each other. This was a free event, and the equation of “free event” plus “guy who did special effects for Star Wars” probably could have draw every fan within a 200-mile radius if only that audience had heard of the event and/or had any taste for abstract animation. It's too bad because, in my brain, the two worlds still seem linked somehow. George Lucas' background was in experimental filmmaking before he went down the Power-Of-Myth road, and to me there's not really a big difference between an abstract 1970s computer animation and, say, Pong or Asteroids; it's all pioneering stuff from the early days of digital imagery.

I'd lost my appetite for purely abstract films after being force-fed too much of it in college, but I still dig the 70s ones, partly because they have a certain innocence to them (with none of the anger or pretentiousness that seemed to take over in later years) and partly because they tend to have groovy soundtracks. Cuba's three films, and some other old-school animations that he also screened, were an enjoyable blast from the past.


A mere five days later – on Friday – I decided to hoof it to Toronto for an evening to catch a film screening or two. I'd received Facebook notices about a couple different screenings going on that evening. One was a film festival event, and I thought it might be a good opportunity to network and spread the word about Saberfrog. The other was the regular Friday-night screening at Trash Palace, an industrial building (apparently used as a small press during the week) that screens 16mm films on Friday night. It was the latter that I ended up attending.

I'd been to Trash Palace once before, for the same reason – there were a couple different screenings I wanted to go to in Toronto, but Trash Palace was the only one I could make it in time for. Last time they were presenting what was supposedly a show of rare early student films from people like Tim Burton, Brad Bird and John Lasseter – a bit misleading, as these turned out to be live-action student films made by someone else, but gave minor credit (art direction or “Thanks to”) to Lasseter et al. Nonetheless, I got a taste of the Trash Palace experience and enjoyed it immensely, especially since other people brought their own 16mm student work to screen, which meant films I knew I would not have heard of and would never see again.

This time, the main event was a 1970s crime flick called Puppet on a String. The best way I can think of to describe this film is to say that it was like a blaxploitation film with an all-white cast. The film took place in Amsterdam, the main character was an American born in Holland (played by an actor with a Dutch-sounding name), and the cast seemed to generally be Brits (particularly the hero's obligatory you're-not-playing-by-the-rules superior), yet the film was full of Shaft-style badass music and fight scenes, including a rather impressive motorboat chase through the streets of Amsterdam.

The film was preceded by some pretty cool 1970s kung-fu trailers, with titles like The Chinese Professionals, Triple Iron, Black Dragon, and Black Samurai (those last two may have been the same film under two different titles).


I returned home to Rochester, and attended a 16mm screening the very next day at Visual Studies Workshop. Yes, VSW has finally begun unleashing its sweet collection of celluloid obscurity onto the public.

This was the second of what promises to be a monthly show at VSW; the first had had a specifically education/classroom theme, whereas this one was entitled “There Is No Reality” and was devoted to some of the more surreal and out-there films in the collection. Yeah.

The films included two Norman McLaren animations about moving lines (not quite as dull as it sounds, and actually quite hypnotic); the music video for the Dr. Demento-approved novelty song “Fish Heads”; and Help! My Snowman's Burning Down, a Richard Lester-esque film about a guy sitting in a bathtub on a New York pier and having various Magritte-like adventures.

Two of the films in the program were slightly familiar to me: K9000: A Space Oddity, a goofy animation about a dog who's captured by scientists (or whoever they are) and sent into space in a rocket ship to encounter a bunch of weird crap; and Why Me?, a National Film Board of Canada cartoon about the stages of acceptance faced by the terminally ill. Stills from both of these had been featured in the late-70s edition of Kit Laybourne's The Animation Book, which was a bible to me as a teenager; in fact, that book used storyboards and other development materials from Why Me? as examples. This was actually the second time I'd seen Why Me?, though I can't remember if I saw it in college or on cable TV.

The finale of the program, a 1970 film called Hello Mustache, was far more obscure; in fact, the guy curating the show said that he had been able to find out almost nothing about the film, “except that we have a copy.” This was a black-and-white, dialogue-heavy film about a hippie male (complete with poncho and brimmed hat) and a square female. Well, supposedly square, since she's wearing an outfit I didn't know was ever considered ordinary – a loud necktie with dress shirt, a vertically striped miniskirt, and white go-go boots. (I quite liked that look, though, and hope that it comes back; it didn't hurt that the actress wearing it was extremely cute.)

Both characters were Jewish New Yorkers, and it seemed like the film was trying to be a surreal/whimsical look at relationships in an Annie Hall-esque manner, but somehow ended up less like Woody Allen and more like David Lynch. This was partly due to the shadowy black—and-white photography, and partly due to the sheer strangeness of the dialogue. The opening scene of the film was just a black screen (with a small, moving white blob that may or may not have been just a scratch on the print) accompanied by a lengthy offscreen phone conversation between the two leads; I thought at first that the entire film would be like this. The ending of the film is equally memorable – the lead actress standing in the doorway of her apartment, at the end of a dimly hit hallway, forlornly calling the hippie – “Alan … Aaaaalaaaaan...” – like a mythical siren.

The sexual themes in both Hello Mustache and Help! My Snowman's Burning Down made me realize that there must be even more strange films in the Rochester library's collection than the ones I saw in class as a kid. Somehow I'd always assumed the films in that collection were all educational or otherwise kid-friendly, simply because those were the ones I would have seen. But clearly there are even deeper waters to be explored.

The enigma of Hello Mustache was as fascinating as the movie: Who made it, and why? Was this a theater piece that someone decided to commit to celluloid? Was this a student film, or funded by a grant? Did these people ever make any other movies? Where are they now, and are they even still alive? How did the Rochester library come to possess a copy – was it donated, or did they purchase it, and in either case how did the library come to know about the film in the first place? Was any of this at all unusual for the time, or was 16mm filmmaking (complete with optical sound) as common back then as, say, YouTube postings today? So many tantalizing mysteries.

The other great thing about seeing 60s/70s curiosities like Hello Mustache and K9000: A Space Oddity is that it reminded me why I was attracted to filmmaking in the first place. Nowadays, it seems, both Hollywood and the audience (now narrowly defined as the ComiCon audience only) seem to have mutually concluded that any new movie must now be based on something you already know before you even set foot in the theater – it must be a remake of a movie you've already seen, or a novel you've already read ... or a comic book, or a video game, or an old TV show … and must contain absolutely no artistic, creative or personal stamp.

But twenty, thirty, forty years ago, it was the opposite. Film was the medium where anything was possible.

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