Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Beast Pageant and other Rochester films

The day after my premiere screening of Saberfrog at The Cinema, another Rochester-produced film made its debut at the George Eastman House. That film was The Beast Pageant, a surreal feature by Eastman House employees Jon Moses (who also starred) and Albert Birney. It looked amazing from the online trailer, but unfortunately the debut screening conflicted with rehearsal for an RIT student film I was in (more on that later) and I had to miss it. Fortunately, the film was scheduled to be shown again this past Friday at the Little Theater.

I was fully intending to be out of town this past Friday. The organizers of the only film festival to accept my previous feature now had a film of their own playing at another film festival in Ottawa, and I was planning to go there to support them, but a second chance to see The Beast Pageant was a tempting alternative. When the workload at my day job prevented me from traveling on Friday anyway, it meant I could see The Beast Pageant after all.

Since there were two showings, I was able to attend the later show and still go see another movie – Beyond Gotham, a documentary about upstate New York's hip hop scene that was playing at the Baobab Cultural Center. (That there were two locally made independent films to choose from that night seems like a healthy sign for the future of filmmaking in Rochester.)

Beyond Gotham was a low-tech production covering the hip hop scenes in Kingston (the director's hometown), Albany, and most of all Rochester. I'm neither a pop music expert nor a great judge of documentaries, and though I enjoyed the film well enough I found the director himself far more inspiring. Going by the handle of “Juse”, he explained that hip hop wasn't just music, but a grassroots, DIY movement and lifestyle that was being embraced by artists of every ethnicity, across the country and around the world. It made me feel that independent filmmaking was also, in a sense, hip hop.

Then it was on to The Beast Pageant. It was a very hirsute audience I saw the film with, and unusually for a Rochester film event there was almost no one there that I knew personally; it was good to know that there was a large indie/art crowd in Rochester beyond the tight community I usually interact with.

To sum up this movie as best as I can, a guy named Abraham works at a fish processing plant, and comes home every day to a lonely apartment where his only roommate is a giant machine with two talking-head personalities: a droning-voiced woman who provides companionship, and a bearded man who offers him instant access to consumer goods. One day Abraham develops a parasitic twin – a tiny singing cowboy (presumably representing Abraham's repressed soul) who grows out of his stomach. After this happens, Abraham leaves the grim nameless city he lives in and ends up in an outdoor realm, where even stranger things happen.

A rarity among low-budget indie films today, The Beast Pageant was shot on black-and-white 16mm stock, using a Bolex camera that was (according to the film's website) salvaged from a dumpster. This film looks and sounds amazing. The handmade sets, props and costumes are detailed and imaginative, and the music and sound design are simply incredible. The film was entirely post-dubbed (and the minimalist dialogue and slow line readings seemed designed to facilitate this), but this gave the filmmakers full reign to create an entirely new, layered soundtrack that is absolutely striking. A minotaur-like creature who appears late in the film is made genuinely fearsome by the thundering soundtrack created for it, and the computer's disjointed female voice saying “Welllcomme hoooome Aaaabraahaaammm” still echoes in my head days after seeing the film.

In the post-screening Q&A, the directors said they were influenced by Terry Gilliam and Jan Svankmajer. While I can see both of those influences in the film, I was surprised they didn't mention David Lynch's Eraserhead, which The Beast Pageant was reminding me of even before the weird crying baby showed up; there seemed to be parallels not only in the general theme (urban factory worker dreams of escape) but in the moody black-and-white photography and the attention to sound design. However, The Beast Pageant is much more whimsical and comedic.

Even at 74 minutes the film is a bit slow at times (the early scenes establishing Abraham's dull job seemed to go on longer than necessary), and I found it jarring any time a clearly produced-on-video image (such as the goofy animated commercials viewed by Abraham on his computer) intruded on the grainy 16mm mood that otherwise predominated. Despite these quibbles, The Beast Pageant is a unique achievement. Birney and Moses could have made a straightforward genre film or a small-scale drama, but instead chose to make something bold and bizarre. Definitely check this one out if it screens near you.

My weekend of Rochester indie cinema didn't end on Friday, though. The next day I went to RIT to see student films being screened, including the one I'd starred in. I didn't stay for the entire program, but I stayed long enough to see a good variety of movies – some clearly trying to look like Hollywood productions, and some following their own strange mutant path.

Sweaters Over Plaid and A Kitty Cat (formerly titled Jerry And His Cat, a title I personally liked better) went over well with the audience. While the character of Jerry was nerdy and unflattering, I'd taken a page from my friend John Karyus' book and fully embraced the role as a chance to make a fool of myself on-camera. The resulting performance got laughs, and even applause at one point.

A film I enjoyed even more, though, was Thr33 Men & A Zombie, a doofusy fake sitcom about college dudes putting up with a zombie roommate, intercut with cheesy fake commercials for nonexistent shows and products. While the faculty seemed to find the film lowbrow and foolish, to me this was exactly the kind of warped slacker comedy that embodied the spirit of RIT student filmmaking. (I also liked its synopsis in the program book: “Two people who have nothing in common said they both kinda liked it.” Even better, though, was the synopsis for a film I didn't stick around to see: “This is my thesis. There are many like it but this one is mine.”

I had just enough time to get a quick dinner before going to Visual Studies Workshop for another show of weird and wonderful old 16mm films from the proverbial vault. This month's selection of films had a “drug” theme, and organizer Dan Varenka provided appropriately themed snacks – brownies, red-and-blue candy, donut holes with powdered sugar, and little bags of potato chips.

Two films stood out for their star power. Stand Up For Yourself: Peer Pressure and Drugs (1987) got a surprised laugh from the audience by starring an uncredited but unmistakable Cuba Gooding Jr. I'm 90 percent certain that Cirroc Lofton (the kid who played Jake Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) was also in the film. After this, The Perfect Drug Film (1971) lived up to its title by starring Beau Bridges as a suspiciously mellow host.

The day after that, Sunday, I went to Buffalo to hang out with my peeps at the Buffalo Video-Movie Makers group. I also booked another Buffalo-area showing of Saberfrog – this time at The Screening Room (3131 Sheridan Drive in Amherst) on Wednesday, December 8th at 7:30 pm. Admission is $6 unless you worked on the damn thing, then it's free!

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