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Attack of the Mutants

Tracking the Resurgence of Experimental Film

Far from klieg lights, unknown to the E! Channel, a particular mode of filmmaking has begun to flourish again in New York, fueled by young enthusiasts and newcomers, some participants in the active San Francisco scene of the mid '90s.

Unlike other moments in dissident cinema, there is no single new tendency or dominant content—rather a burgeoning culture of difference and purposeful derangement. The Internet may have facilitated information flow, but, in practical terms, this resurgence is not a response to some overriding technological imperative. Artists are combining digital processes with presentations based on projection equipment that could have been used a century ago.

There is no one particular center, but there is an ongoing flow. This week, the New York Underground Film Festival opens in an expanded and more experimental mode; next week, the latest feature by San Francisco filmmaker-programmer-media guerrilla Craig Baldwin gets a commercial run at Cinema Village; later in the month, the Whitney Museum begins screening a range of avant-garde films and videos as part of its 2000 Biennial. Meanwhile, institutions like Anthology Film Archives and the Millennium have been joined by new micro-cinemas (another San Francisco term) on the Lower East Side and in Williamsburg.

Sadie Benning’s Flat Is Beautiful, which screens at this year’s Whitney Biennial
photo courtesy of The Whitney Museum of Art
Sadie Benning’s Flat Is Beautiful, which screens at this year’s Whitney Biennial

Given the relative lack of critical attention, who could have predicted the audience that thronged the Whitney for its mind-bogglingly comprehensive retrospective of American avant-garde cinema last fall, or the crowds that packed the Walter Reade last month for an evening of lyrical diary-films by Nathaniel Dorsky? Similarly, legendary underground figures like the protean Ken Jacobs and minimalist composer Tony Conrad are lionized by audiences born years after these men made their structuralist blockbusters. Even the art world has shown a new interest in time-based film/video installations.

You know something is happening when a sure Oscar winner like American Beauty makes an alienated teen with camcorder the emblem of high-school cool. We asked a number of knowledgeable parties to discuss the current scene. Participating were filmmakers Peggy Ahwesh (professor of film at Bard College) and Brian Frye (cofounder, with Bradley Eros, of the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema); programmers Gavin Smith (the Walter Reade Theater) and Astria Suparak (Pratt Institute); and Voicefilm critic Amy Taubin. —J. Hoberman

J. HobermanFirst, a problem of terminology. Experimental, underground, and avant-garde all carry historical baggage. Peggy, what do you say when people ask what kind of movies you make?

Peggy AhweshExperimental films. It's an OK shorthand to explain I'm working as an individual and keeping my choices close to home.

JH Emphasizing artisanal production.

PADefinitely.

Brian FryePersonally I try to stay away from using the words at all, because when people ask me that question, it generally means they have no idea what they're talking about. It's really hard for some people to even conceive of films that aren't standard features. I mean, that's my experience, trying to explain what I do to my parents and their friends.

JHWhat about the New York Underground Film Festival? Any connotations there?

Gavin Smith Well, this year, there seems to be a marked increase in what they're calling "experimental." The festival director, Ed [Halter], said that's what the festival was gravitating towards. Initially the NYUFF was where subinde- pendent filmmaking comparable to Slamdance found its level.

JHI've heard some people use Ken Jacobs's term "mutant cinema"—a description to suggest filmmaking that doesn't look "normal" but is also something further evolved.

Astria SuparakI think "mutant" sounds deroga-tory. "Underground" might be more acceptable to younger generations who associate this term with music and counterculture.

JH Are they your audience at Pratt?

AS It's mostly students from Pratt as well as other schools. Also film and video makers, people from the neighborhood and sometimes as far away as New Jersey and Connecticut.

GS I was really impressed by the turnout. Brian, do you see the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema as part of so-called micro-cinema?

BF Yeah, in a sense. That's a situation in which filmmakers show their films and then talk about them with people who are informed and interested, a place where there's a lot of give and take, which is something that Bradley [Eros] and I would like to do as well.

PA The programs there are so eclectic, using multiple formats and projection set-ups, audiotapes and live performance elements lovingly crafted specifically for each show.

JH How do you fund it?

BF The fact of the matter is, we really don't. The funding for the Robert Beck is in my back pocket and Bradley's. I have no interest in justifying myself or what we do to a bunch of bureaucrats.

JH Why are things suddenly better in New York than 10 years ago? Is there a new audience?

AS A possible reason might be the connection between the work and music.

BF Someone like Tony Conrad, who's been around for a long time, suddenly has this incredible resurgence. He does a performance and all these 20-year-old kids come out. It's a real testament to young people in New York City that so many show up. The one thing that really shocked me when I moved here was that there could be so many film schools and that they could be so painfully commercial. Even at the cinema studies department at NYU, which I was shamefully a part of as a graduate student—you can leave that part in—it was ridiculous. Not only did they not support anything, they weren't even aware of it. Bard's an exception. But it's not in New York.

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