Saturday, April 5, 2008

Leaps of Faith


"Wow," said a student surveying the room Friday night. "If a bomb dropped on this place, the hipster population of Oberlin would just be decimated."

Certainly, the whiny guy and his coterie behind me-- who were a bit inebriated, and made snarky remarks throughout the evening, like the poor man's Stadler and Waldorf in a Gus Van Sant remake of The Muppet Show--fit that description. But as we all crammed into the pews at Fairchild Chapel Friday evening for the S.O.S. (Superb Oberlin Showcase) screening of 28 student films, organized by Oberlin prof Brett Kashmere in conjunction with the ongoing One Take Super 8 Event project, the refreshing thing was how many of the films belied those hipster stereotypes.

Having the event in one of the campus chapels was inspired: as the lights went down and the stained glass shone high about the screen, there was an almost Bazinian quality about the proceedings, the sense of cinema as a sacred event or leap of faith, a feeling enhanced by the pew seating and the programs placed like church bulletins next to the Bibles and hymnals. This leap of faith quality also extended to the films themselves: the conceit was that, as the event's press release put it,

none of the films will have been seen before the evening of April 4th. Each filmmaker is limited to only one 3-minute cartridge of Super 8, and must shoot their entire film without the opportunity to rewind for a 'second take.' In addition, none of the filmmakers are permitted to edit, or even inspect, their films prior to the screening. No Cuts. No Splices. No Changes. One Take, One Night. All of the work shown will be projected on the original medium of Super 8, and accompanied by live soundtracks or unique audio compositions.

The whole event felt like a time machine back to the earliest days of cinema, when audiences would gather in makeshift public spaces, accompanied by live music or address, uncertain of what they would see, but certain it would be an Event: unpredictable, astonishing, and maybe just a little bit magical. The space was packed, the band was set up, the audience was primed.

And delightfully, the films lived up to their atmosphere. Full disclosure: several films were by former students of mine, so I am a bit biased in their favor, but even taking that into account, it should be said the films were imaginative and inspired, creatively using their limitations to tell stories, create social commentaries and offer images whose beauty and strangeness was only enhanced by the in-the-camera editing restrictions. And it was wonderful to see Super 8 projection again: in an age of digital video and antiseptic 'clarity,' the sheer materiality of the film image-- with its texture, graininess, and painterly color (to say nothing of the pleasurable hum of the projector)--was a sensualist's delight.

Some of the films turned out better than others-- while all were inventive in their conception, the gamble of the strategy is that the formal execution of those strategies might not turn out the way one hoped. The biggest problem was the lack of light in some of the images: while many of the films imaginatively deployed light & shadow for different effects, I got the sense that some images were underlit more than their makers intended-- words that clearly signified something were cast into darkness and made illegible.

But the majority of films were fantastic: Alex Rogalski's "Meditor," a dazzling and disturbing layering of stained-glass images on top of one another, an appropriate start to our religious service; Nick Hoskins' "Milk," a single-shot piece of a man finishing off a pint of milk, where the drops of liquid pop like fireflies against the dark background; Sara Krugman's "House Home and Soup," a sad and funny retelling of the Richard Scarey story "The Teeny Tiny Woman," whose text is read by a young girl whose voice is filtered and altered to sound robotic and extra-terrestrial; Jon Comeau's Pythonesque "I love chips.," a single shot film of the filmmaker cheerfully finishing off a huge pile of potato chips (as the sound cleverly fades in and out); Alison Luby's "What Comes First," a witty stop-motion animation about an egg desperate to avoid the frying pan; Ben Baker-Smith's "Silent Scream," a series of black-and-white images of friends screaming whose visual clarity acts as an ironic counterpoint to the silence of the soundtrack (we can see, but not hear); Willie Thurlow's psychedelic "The Picnic," which felt like a lost reel from Magical Mystery Tour (I mean that in a good way) and was accompanied by a racous call-and-response trombone-voice-drums combo; and Max Rivlin-Nadler's 3-D memoir/parody "All My Friends are Ghosts" (and yes, he did provide 3-D glasses; as we all put them on, it was another way the screening harkened back to an earlier communal moment in film history).

Whether it was in imagery or sonics or both, all the films offered thought-provoking meditations on filmmaking and film viewing, and the dynamic relationship between the two. And that's as worthy a set of sermons to hear on a Friday night as any.

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