In 1929, Luis Buuel helped kick-start avant-garde cinema with his Un Chien Andalou, the unsettling short film with match cuts (clouds drifting across the moon, a razor slicing through an eyeball) that anticipated both experimental filmmaking and radial keratotomy.
For the next half-century or so, filmmakers pretty much cornered the market what there was of it on non-narrative experimental moving pictures, until the era of cheap video changed the whole game.
Yet, with a few exceptions (most notably video artist Bill Viola), most practitioners of the newer medium have come up short when it comes to depth, beauty and conceptual artistry. In fact, prolonged exposure to works by videographers like Vito Acconci has been known to cause lab rats to gnaw off their own limbs.
Sensing something was wrong with this picture, The International Experimental Cinema Exposition (TIE) set out to preserve and foster experimental film. The Colorado Springs-based nonprofit held its first event in Telluride in October 2000, then presented several festivals locally before branching out to locations like Canada and Uruguay.
"Over the years," laments TIE founder and curator Christopher May, "some festivals have gotten rid of their 16 mm projectors. But the light from a 16 mm projector is different than the light from a video projector. In fact, there are also variations in 16 mm projectors there's xenon lamps and there's tungsten lamps and then you're also working with the photographic process and emulsion and all of that."
The result is an art form in which the peculiarities and even the limitations of the camera and film stock tend to play an integral role in the work itself.
While he doesn't consider himself a filmmaker, May did recently shoot 16mm and Super-8 footage both in Argentina and here in the Springs for a film on parkour, a growing movement whose practices resemble a cross between aikido and the antics of old Road Runner cartoons. The project was funded by a $40,000 grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
"The whole idea was to get critical theorists, curators and filmmakers to blur their titles," says May. "I actually filmed two military guys at Fort Carson who were being mentored and trained in parkour."
But if you're looking for the landlocked version of those ubiquitous indie surf documentaries, this may not be the place to find it.
"We're not necessarily filming jumps in slow motion or anything that looks like a YouTube video," says May, who plans to have a few practitioners, know as traceurs, in attendance. "Because parkour has such a deep spiritual level to it and is more about natural human movement, it's not supposed to be spectacularized, and it's not supposed to have Eminem soundtracks."
The festival will also showcase several works, thematically grouped under the title "Secrets in the Surface," which employ found footage that, according to May, is recontextualized and, in some cases, "treated with chemicals or food products to create a certain light or texture." Among them is Serial Metaphysics, by Wheeler Winston Dixon who (for the music fanatics among us) also fronted the semi-legendary early '70 proto-punk band Figures of Light.
All in all, about 20 films will be shown. There will also be a number of filmmakers in attendance, including venerable local film guru Jim Prange, whose works will include footage of Peggy Fleming skating at The Broadmoor back in 1968. Prange actually polished the film with Pledge (May's not certain whether it was Lemon Pledge or the original scent) in order to clean the scratches, which resulted in an unintended aesthetic enhancement.
"Peggy is, like, riding on that ice, and then you have the super-slick, shiny surface of the film," says May. "So the context of what's being filmed is somehow accentuated by the Pledge on the surface of the film, and it's beautiful."
The festival's return to the Springs will draw upon recent highlights while bringing together multiple generations of filmmakers and their works.
"We're looking to push the envelope of avant-garde cinema, rather than just cinema in general," says May, noting that even historical films must have some contemporary interest to be included. "We don't want to show a film of an eyelash moving in slow motion for 40 minutes."