Attack of the Mutants

Tracking the Resurgence of Experimental Film

JH You mean students go to Bard and pay money or their parents' money to learn to be mutant filmmakers?

PA Bard's not a film school, it's a liberal-arts environment. They've either come to the school with a certain perspective, or within the first two years they're interested in this area. But it's not like omigod, we tricked them. It's not like we changed their minds and showed them Brakhage films.

[Laughter.]

Amy Taubin I've taught since 1978, and in the late '70s, people would come because it was an easy class, it was me, and I showed movies that had sex. I would always tell them if you get seriously interested in this, you have to know that you're not going to make any money. Now, although this is the most money-driven culture we've ever had, there's also money around on the street. And people presume that money will be there for them, the way we did in the '60s. Psychologically that's enormously liberating.

JH Twenty years ago, people were even wondering how long the medium would last. Now, it's like film has outlived its own death.

PA I think it's a quality of the "quotation marks" times that we find ourselves in. Working with obsolete equipment is part of the bag of tricks an artist uses.

JH Is the distinction between film and video still even an issue?

PA Most of my students make hybrid works and go back and forth between film, video, and the computer. As long as they can find some cool textures, degraded images, and weird colors, they're happy exploiting the fundamental qualities of the forms.

JH Like Sadie Benning's Flat Is Beautiful.

AT I've thought about this because I was projecting Flat Is Beautiful in class, and it looked like shit. It had all these great ideas and images, but the technology wasn't up to it.

GS I think Flat Is Beautiful looks great. The way it looks is the texture of pixelvision and Super 8, and it is what it is.

AT I know, that's the argument I always make, but then I'm sitting there looking at it with people who want to make things . . .

GS . . . and it doesn't cut it with them . . .

AT They've decided that they never want to make something like that.

BF The problem is more that video technology conceives of itself more as a means of replacing something than as something that's valuable in its own right.

JH Filmmakers and videomakers used to be like two separate religions. I remember hearing videomakers complain how filmmakers fetishized what they did, going on about the tactile nature of film, "You can touch it! You can lick it!" All the things that you couldn't do when editing video somehow made film more authentic. Now people seem more pragmatic. If you are projecting video, you may not have the flickering 24 frames per second, but you have virtually all the other properties of cinema.

AT You do, in your imagination. Some people have access to incredible video projectors, the Museum of Modern Art has one, but if I show this stuff at SVA, it's a piece of shit.

JH One of the goals of the old avant-garde was to change the way that people looked at film—to smash a particular mind-set.

AT At Sundance there were all these dotcom companies trying to build a library to sell on the Web. They were acquiring shorts that were the most retro kinds of short narrative films that people make in film school. They weren't looking for anything else.

JH Do the audiences at Pratt or the Robert Beck leave demanding new kinds of movies as a result, or is it like the audience that exists for poetry—people may go to readings but the writing in newspapers isn't going to change?

AT Even in what you call the heroic period of the avant-garde, it was clear 99 percent of the movies would not make the step into the wider world because audiences would not give up narrative. People expected otherwise from inside—from the cult.

AS There's been a definite change in the audience at Pratt. When I started showing non-narrative work a few years ago there was resistance. Even a member of the film faculty said, "I don't understand why you are trying to get Pratt students to watch experimental films."

BF I would make a parallel to something musical. There's a big difference between kids who listen to Jim O'Rourke and those who listen to techno. The ones who like Jim O'Rourke will force themselves to sit and deal with something that's slow and difficult and cerebral, and the others want to go somewhere where they can dance—the music is like wallpaper. They're both relinquishing the "narrative" of 1-4-5 pop music, but they're doing it in different ways.

AT Maybe the reason you see this reflowering is that young people are no longer attached to narrative in the way that people from my generation were. They're not attached to it even in Hollywood terms, because they'll accept the most woeful kinds of narrative just as long as it has the other stuff, or what they like about the other stuff.

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