Experimental Film

THE CONTEMPORARY SCENE

According to many critics, the experimental film world went through a period of flagging energy and diminished creativity during the 1980s. Among the reasons, according to Paul Arthur, were the skyrocketing costs of 16mm processing, cutbacks in government and private-foundation funding, and the economic and aesthetic challenges posed by video. By the 1990s, however, it was clear that the movement had undergone a resurgence. Older figures such as Brakhage, Mekas, and Jacobs remained active, and a new generation of artists, aesthetic trends, and exhibition strategies emerged.

One such trend in contemporary experimental production is the use of "outdated" formats. Sadie Benning (b. 1973), the daughter of filmmaker James Benning (b. 1942), shot ghostly autobiographical movies like If Every Girl Had a Diary (1990) and It Wasn't Love (1992) with the Pixelvision–2000, a black-and-white toy video camera that records small, blurry images on audio cassette tape. The Pixelvision camera was only available from 1987 to 1989, but the work of Sadie Benning and other filmmakers (Joe Gibbons, Michael Almereyda, Peggy Ahwesh, Eric Saks) have kept Pixelvision alive. Many avant-gardists have continued to use both regular 8mm and super-8mm, and are passionate about the aesthetic qualities of small-gauge filmmaking. Perhaps the ultimate validation of human-scale small-gauge filmmaking was the exhibition "Big as Life: An American History of 8mm Films," which exhibited small-gauge works by Conner, Brakhage, Wieland, and many others at both New York's Museum of Modern Art and the San Francisco Cinematheque from 1998 to 1999.

Museum retrospectives such as the "Big as Life" program are an important part of experimental film distribution, but the real screening innovation of the last decade were microcinemas—small theaters run by dedicated filmmakers and fans as showcases for nonmainstream work. Total Mobile Home Microcinema, the first contemporary microcinema, was established in 1993 by Rebecca Barton and David Sherman in the basement of their San Francisco apartment building, and by the late 1990s, at least a hundred had sprung up in various cities around the United States. Some of the highest-profile microcinemas include Greenwich Village's Robert Beck Memorial Cinema, begun by filmmakers Bradley Eros and Brian Frye; San Francisco's Other Cinema, curated by master collagist Craig Baldwin; and the Aurora Picture Show, Andrea Grover's microcinema, housed in a converted church in Houston. Perhaps the microcinema with the most ambitious programming was Blinding Light (1998–2003), a one-hundred-seat, six-night-a-week theater in Vancouver.

The New York Film Festival's "Views from the Avant-Garde," founded by critic Mark McEllhatten and Film Comment editor Gavin Smith in 1997, is an annual cross-section of the experimental film world. The continued activity of established venues such as Anthology Film Archives, Chicago Filmmakers, and the San Francisco Cinematheque, coupled with the rise of microcinemas and touring programs such as John Columbus's Black Maria Film and Video Festival and the MadCatFilm Festival, have made it somewhat easier to see experimental films, a trend pushed even further by the more recent ability to download films from Internet sites such as www.hi-beam.net.

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Craig Fischer

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