Film

“Flat Is Beautiful” Considers Pixelvision’s Second Life

The Film Society’s series unpacks how artists and independent filmmakers including Sadie Benning and Michael Almereyda embraced the unruly children’s toy

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It was Christmas 1987 when Fisher-Price dropped its hot new high-tech gadget for kids: the PXL-2000. Weighing only two pounds and packaged with a 4.5–inch TV set for playback, this kiddie camcorder took six AA batteries and recorded a whopping eleven minutes of fuzzy black-and-white video onto a regular audio cassette tape — all for the low, low (okay, not that low) price of $225. With this, Pixelvision was born, but it had a rough adolescence: After two years of poor sales, the gizmo proved a bust. But it would soon reemerge as a favorite tool of a small cadre of underground filmmakers working on the eve of the DV era. The Film Society of Lincoln Center investigates the curious afterlife of the camera with a new series, “Flat Is Beautiful: The Strange Case of Pixelvision,” which features some two dozen videos made with this janky low-res machine.

The reasons Pixelvision flopped in the children’s market were, of course, the same qualities that attracted experimental filmmakers. The PXL was a weird Frankenstein’s monster of late-analogue tape and TV tech and bleeding-edge digital, which accounts for its odd, jagged blurriness. Cramming pixel and audio data onto a cassette was no easy feat, so Fisher-Price opted for a small image that would sit in the middle of your TV screen, to avoid the overscan of the old cathode-ray monitors. The result was a funny little square that never quite seems in focus. One test-piloting journalist in 1987 complained: “Close-ups come out OK, [but] when you try to record a wider or deeper scene, objects melt together to form an amorphous blob.” Couple that with the loud, clunky stop-and-start sounds of the fat plastic buttons, and you have a picture that is definitely not ready for prime time — the true hybrid forerunner of digital media’s “poor image.”

Throughout the Nineties, filmmakers associated with the increasingly dubious label “indie” would gravitate toward Pixelvision’s grungy, subterranean aesthetic. While some, like Richard Linklater in Slacker (1991), picked up the PXL for a sequence or two, Michael Almereyda made whole films in the format — including his excursion through the early-Nineties demimonde of the East Village, Another Girl, Another Planet (1992), and his D.H. Lawrence adaptation, The Rocking Horse Winner (1997). The fascinating 1995 Pixelvision documentary Almereyda made with Amy Hobby — At Sundance — is an earnest and extremely Indie™ document of the festival at its most wide-eyed and white-male, featuring alternately dour and incoherent prognostications on the Future of Cinema from the likes of Whit Stillman (brilliant), Todd Haynes (cute and retiring), Abel Ferrara (tanked), Larry Gross (quoting Gramsci), “Eddie” Burns, Jim Mangold (a purist of the silent cinema, apparently), and the Kid himself — Robert Redford. For his quirky and surprisingly elegant David Lynch–produced vampire film Nadja (1994) — which features Hal Hartley regulars Martin Donovan and Elina Löwensohn; Peter Fonda as a long-haired, herringboned, bike-riding Van Helsing; and an actually-good Nineties soundtrack of My Bloody Valentine, Portishead, and the Verve — Almereyda intersperses b&w 35mm with brief, oneiric sequences shot on blown-up PXL. Pixelvision doesn’t really add much here, but the abstraction of the medium does recall the kind of crepuscular textures of old nitrate.

Indie film’s adoption of Pixelvision is, admittedly, not much more than an interesting novelty — as usual, it was really the far more adventuresome work of artists and experimental videomakers that paved the way by unlocking its aesthetic possibilities. And no figure looms larger in Pixelvision’s field of vision than Sadie Benning. Queer icon and art star at nineteen, Benning was the one to whom all others had to pay tribute: the true Pixelvisionary. (Benning appears in the credits of several of the works in the series, and makes a cameo in at least one: Cecilia Dougherty and Leslie Singer’s kaleidoscopic 1993 pseudobiopic of Joe Orton, Joe-Joe, which splits the gay Leicesterian playwright into two California lesbians, played by the artists/directors themselves.)

The tapes Benning made from 1989 through the ensuing decade — after filmmaker dad James famously gifted them a Fisher-Price toy for Christmas — became canon in art schools almost immediately, and served as inspiration for many older and more established contemporary artists. Amazingly, they seem even more bold, hilarious, and urgent today. The trio of tapes they made in 1990 alone — If Every Girl Had a Diary, Me and Rubyfruit, and Jollies — form a seductively goofy narrative universe of bad-teen tales of skipping school, making out, and figuring out (or not) one’s sexual identity. Benning’s videos are non sequitur assemblages of pop cultural ephemera, mixtape soundtracks, old movies shot off the TV, magazine clippings, and surrealist-tinged kitchen-sink melodrama, all shot in their ad-hoc bedroom-backlot. What results is a blazing autoportraiture of a working-class Milwaukee queer kid who’s horny, wry, and really fucking angry. And the PXL, with the loud whirr of its camera and the glissando burps of the stop-start button, was the perfect tool for this intimate, proto-selfie cinema.

Many great works in this series take up what film scholar Catherine Russell identified as the “auto-ethnographic” tendency in Benning’s early works. Michael O’Reilly’s Glass Jaw (1991) offers a grim but hallucinatory critique of the American health-care system via the artist’s own injured body. Elisabeth Subrin’s Swallow (1995) mixes childhood recollections of a bulimic classmate with the filmmaker’s own experience negotiating questions of body image and beauty as a Seventies teen through a dense collision of acted sequences; pre-existing films, videos, home movies; and pop songs. Joe Gibbons’s Elegy (1991) is a hilarious mock-confessional compendium of mordant soliloquies delivered during an autumn wander through the graveyard with his dog, Woody. (Pixelvision, as Gibbons explains, serves as an analogue for the dog’s own monochrome vision.)

But, interestingly, Benning’s own work evolved through and beyond Pixelvision, and their later works — from A Place Called Lovely (1991) to the excellent short feature Flat Is Beautiful (1999) — widen their scope to become portraits of the insidious class and gender violence in fin-de-siècle USA. In this way, Pixelvision also hints at other visual technologies: surveillance cameras, reality TV, and the kind of rough home video textures that captured Rodney King’s beating by the LAPD. The PXL’s grainy abstraction also lends itself to a style of gritty realism, albeit a deeply self-conscious and post-modern one. In this regard, Peggy Ahwesh and Margie Strosser’s Strange Weather (1993) offers a crucial variation on the Pixelvision aesthetic. One of the best drug films in any format, it’s a grimy Warholian melodrama about Miami crack users (one of whom is Watermelon Woman’s Cheryl Dunye) malingering in motel rooms while apocalyptic storm warnings blare on the TV. Here, amid pixelated palm trees and sunsets, the hyperreal swings back into blown-out abstraction, as Ahwesh and Strosser take the seedy TV-vérité of Cops (improvisatory docufiction, straight-to-camera confessionals) and hollow it out, leaving only the husk of raw paranoia and torpor.

In a sense, “Flat Is Beautiful” serves as something of an alternate history of the Nineties as viewed through the blurry, pixelated lens of the American underground. But the Film Society’s series does also feature one set of more contemporary works: Ben Coonley’s recent portfolio of anaglyph 3D Pixelvision works, short experiments in visual cognition that push the medium’s grungy, blobby distortions into psychedelic new dimensions via the humble observation of a simple composition notebook. Seen in this light, the series is not just a nostalgic throwback to the end of the last millennium, but also a chance to revel in the odd textural pleasures of a zombie audiovisual medium and deeply ponder media technology’s weird detours and dead-ends.

‘Flat Is Beautiful: The Strange Case of Pixelvision’
Film Society of Lincoln Center
August 10–16

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