New York Video Festival
When you go out on a limb, don't expect everyone to follow you there. The same might be said of experimental video. The cheap format and relatively easy means of editing, distribution and exhibition mean that every artsy oddball nowadays feels he has something profound to say using stock footage, swerving camcorders and carefully unfocused cinematography.
There are, however, a number of long-form works that stand out strongly, and should not be missed. Trent Harris' "Beaver Trilogy" is a set of three short pieces that culminates in the underground tape-traded classic The Orkly Kid. Harris shot the first part of the trilogy, a short documentary called The Beaver Kid, in 1980. While working for a local tv station, Harris encounters a cornfed, flare-panted 21-year-old in a Beaver, UT, parking lot. The kid's madly eager to "get on the tube," and gushes for the camera, doing impersonations of John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone and Barry Manilow ("I'm the Beaver Rich Little!" he grins). Days later, Harris receives a handwritten letter from him, imploring the director to cover the Kid's debut at a Beaver talent show?as "Olivia Newton-Don." Harris brings us to a local funeral parlor, where the Kid gets dolled up by the facility's makeup artist, making sure to tell the camera that "I enjoy being a guy?I really do!" while excitedly donning a dingy blonde wig, silk scarf and high-heeled boots.
The talent show is filled with a breed of shaky-voiced provincial amateurism that urbanites love to snort over with uneasy self-satisfaction and empathy. But the Kid's appearance as Olivia Newton-Don is truly stunning. He neither sounds, looks nor acts anything like her, yet emotes a trembling desire for the acceptance and transcendence of tv stardom that touches on something lonely and desperate at the melancholy core of media ambition that the current spate of reality programming never dares to breach.
Then things get weirder. A year after this event, Harris recreates the documentary in The Beaver Kid #2 with then-little-known Sean Penn playing the Kid. Shot on black-and-white home video, the restaging is an odd mixture of line-for-line reenactment of the Kid's on-camera dialogue, reedited b-roll footage from the original documentary and new scripted narrative elaboration, including the insertion of "Terrance," a cameraman stand-in for Trent, who gloats and chuckles throughout over the great footage he's getting. It's impossible to tell when watching how much of the "off-camera" elaboration is based on reality, if any, and you wonder if the piece is partially a means to expiate a sense of guilt for Harris, who directs the actor playing Terrance as a sleazy exploiter.
Harris returned to the Kid's story one more time (this time shooting on film with a larger budget and changing the name of the town) for The Orkly Kid with Crispin Glover 1985. Much further from the original source material, this final melodramatized version focuses more strongly on the Kid's inner crossdressing struggle and the purported hostility of the townspeople (although the original documentary doesn't suggest the locals were anything but entertained by his antics). The trilogy as a whole is a stunning and complex exercise, an elaborate karaoke-upon-karaoke that snaps right into place with contemporary obsessions with celebrity, fame and media.
Similarly fixated on the troublesome lines between restaging, documentary and repetition compulsion is Elisabeth Subrin's The Fancy, a sharp-witted, starkly lush and potentially controversial visual essay on the career of photographer Francesca Woodman. Woodman, who committed suicide at age 22 in 1981 by leaping from the window of her East Village apartment, created stilted pseudo-Victorian erotic self-portraits that were embraced by late-80s feminist art historians still giddy from the Madonna-esque rise of Cindy Sherman. Subrin avoided all contact with the notoriously controlling Woodman estate for the creation of The Fancy, relying only on a limited number of publicly available documents, which, according to the documentary, primarily consist of the three published monographs of Woodman's work. In fact, Woodman's parents probably don't even know the tape exists, and certainly won't be happy when they find out.
Issues of copyright and the legal status of artistic reappropriation have informed a great deal of art from the late 70s on, beginning with hiphop sampling and leading up to 90s culture-jammers like Craig Baldwin and RTMark. Subrin is no stranger to this arena, having meticulously recreated an entire documentary on feminist icon Shulamith Firestone with her previous work, Shulie, which is currently undergoing legal threats from its angry subject. Shot with a rigid but colorfully rich digital cinematography and set to a repetitive tape-looped electronic score, The Fancy pushes copyright boundaries as well, but is structured so tightly around its own legal limits that it practically dares a lawsuit.
The tape consists of elaborately staged visual lists based on Woodman's work and life. One segment portrays a number of interiors that closely resemble locations from her photographs. Another beautifully shot sequence tracks over piles of evidence?bagged shoes, clothing, flowers and other items resembling props from the photos. The titles of her photos are presented using a forged version of the photographer's handwriting. In one of the most disturbing lists, contemporary women (none of whom look anything like Woodman) mime the uncomfortable positions and moves the photographer acted out for her self-portraits. Subrin includes stark images of Woodman's residences, culminating in the spot by the window from which she leaped to her death. The tape's voiceover notes that curators and writers curiously avoided the issue of Woodman's suicide in their writings about her work.
Troubled young artists attempt suicide all the time. The Fancy attempts to shake up this jaded truism by prompting us to ask, at least in this instance, exactly why, and ruthlessly challenging Woodman's parents to answer. There's an interesting esthetic issue at work here as well. In a departure from the established mode of experimental video, which tends to stress the shakily handheld aspects of the medium, The Fancy is forthrightly DP-ed, distant and cold. It attempts to discard the notion of video-as-television and embraces a new look that could only be called video cinema.
Also satisfyingly cinematic is Miranda July's Nest of Tens, a disturbing set of dysfunctional and compelling scripted scenarios involving babies, middle-management self-helpers, lower-class preteens and the mentally retarded. As July's title card stresses, this isn't a grubby 90s-style performance tape. It's truly a "movie," shot with a compelling skill of pace, color and composition. Sitting somewhere between the high fashion surrealism of the Cremaster series and the dirt-ass bargain-bin culture-dredging of Gummo with a squirmy neurotic twist, Nest of Tens deftly avoids the cheap exploitation elements of both Barney's and Korine's works.
Also worth checking out at the festival is an in-person tribute to underground pioneer George Kuchar, who has been shooting comical video diaries since the 70s when he moved from the Bronx to San Francisco. Prior to video, George and brother Mike were known for their handmade 8 mm and 16 mm mini-epics like Hold Me While I'm Naked and Sins of the Fleshapoids, which ran like $10 versions of contemporary trash melodramas, complete with stirring sickly sweet soundtracks and bombastic title sequences. Although the B-movie is now a lost form, Kuchar retains these elements for his newest video diaries, adding elaborate cinematic flourishes to the mundane actions of his old friends, art school colleagues and, in his three-hour miniseries Secrets of the Shadow World, a weird panoply of UFO researchers and parapsychologists who themselves present an odd mix of the everyday and the truly kooky. A hybrid of tv, home video and cinema, Kuchar's tapes play like a cable-access soap opera broadcast directly out of the director's brain.
Puzzled by Jay-Z's "Big Pimpin'" lines about "spending cheese.../And we be...big pimpin', on B.L.A.D.'s"? Then you've got a problem with the language of pop. That's the subject of Armond White's "Coded Language," a music video presentation from Macy Gray to Krust, Ol' Dirty Bastard to Bjork. At the New York Video Festival, Mon., July 24, 8:45 p.m.
The New York Video Festival runs July 21-27 at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St. (B'way), 875-5600; [www.filmlinc.com](http://www.filmlinc.com).
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