Until recently, I'd considered Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, which had Brad Pitt to balance the braininess, to be one of the most artsy films I'd watched. But then I found myself in the darkened downtown Denver office of The International Experimental Cinema Exposition (TIE) as curator Christopher May loaded a roll of film into a projector and pressed Play.
Grainy, up-close images of foliage bobbing in a gentle breeze came in and out of focus, backed by the sound of static. This eventually transitioned into what appeared to be video-game sequences, a mock paradise of digital mountains and palm trees, with — and I could be wrong — what sounded like a lyric-free version of Sinéad O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U." And then ... more foliage. Seven minutes in total.
Such stark (and frankly, strange) juxtapositions can often be the entire subject of an experimental film, often leaving a lingering sense of "What the hell was that?"
Experimental film simply doesn't aim to achieve the same things as "regular" film. In the experimental realm, the focus isn't an engaging or even coherent storyline, but instead an aesthetic experience. As a child, alone in a dark movie theater, May tapped into these nascent qualities.
At the age of 7, says the 39-year-old Colorado Springs native, "I didn't necessarily understand the plot aspects ... I was paying attention to the formal elements of cinema, the space I was in, the lighting on the screen, the way things were framed."
After years of watching movies in that theater that would eventually become Poor Richard's toy store, plus experimenting on his own, May was introduced to former University of Colorado instructor Stan Brakhage, one of the fathers of American avant-garde cinema. Brakhage's film salons in the early '90s provided a place for May and other film enthusiasts to share their methods and curiosities.
This creative space provided the platform for a collaboration that would eventually culminate in the founding of TIE. In 2000, Brakhage, May and a handful of other colleagues decided to organize an international film festival dedicated to showing Super 8 and 16-millimeter film.
"Film festivals were starting to remove 16-millimeter as a format, and so I wanted artists to have a place where they could show their work," he says. "There's no professional distribution system for experimental film, so films become localized and sometimes, because of that, films kind of look a lot alike in certain areas."
At that first festival, May and his fellows began to remedy the problem of localization by showing up to 180 films, averaging around eight minutes each, from across the world.
Since then, TIE has bounced all over the globe, appearing at and hosting festivals in Vienna, Uruguay, Montreal and Buenos Aires, among other locales. As artists continue to abandon physical film for digital, experimental filmmakers continue to preserve their craft by sharing it. Alternative Measures: An Investigation of Artist-Run Film Labs will span Nov. 20 through 24, primarily at Colorado College venues.
The five-day fest marks the 10th anniversary since TIE's last visit to the Springs and it will be the organization's largest festival to date, featuring 12 workshops, nine panel discussions and guest filmmakers hailing from 25 countries.
As just a sampling of the overall offerings, we take a look below at a few contributors who will be sharing their craft. Though some of the workshops will likely sell out and are costly outside of package rates, film screenings and lectures are quite accessible and open to larger crowds. Be they confused at what they're witnessing or right at home amidst those poetic bobbing branches.
It wasn't so long ago that digital photography was the shiny new toy of the film industry, promising innovative ways to capture sight and sound. Though modern technology has provided advancements in how we produce and display art, it has also allowed other methods to fall through the cracks — methods that filmmakers like 35-year-old Lindsay McIntyre are trying to keep alive.
The Montreal-based artist makes her own emulsion, which is the coating layered over the film that is eventually loaded into a camera. The process is based on filmmaking methods developed in the 19th century and while it's not so different from what big manufacturers are doing today, handmade emulsion is produced on a much smaller scale.
McIntyre describes how she makes emulsion from chemical scratch: "You add a solution of silver nitrate dissolved in water — a dangerous substance — and that is added to another that has bromide and iodide and gelatin."
The process is long and tedious and painfully easy to mess up, she says. Multiple factors, such as the stirring speed and temperature of the substances, determine the quality of the emulsion. Post chemical blending, it is placed in a fridge to harden into a Jell-O-like substance, after which it is shredded into "noodles," which get washed in cold water.
Speaking as someone who has knit exactly two scarves, this seems particularly arduous. Why go to all the trouble? According to McIntyre, it's all worth it when she finally processes her film in the darkroom, at long last getting to see what days of work have produced.
"It's a different kind of image making," she says to me. "It's a desire to figure out what this material can do, rather than trying to force it to do something. It's not just a recording device where you store your ideas, images or thoughts — it's an artistic endeavor and there are so many more possibilities either by happy accidents or just by the nature of the process itself."
At Alternative Measures, McIntyre will share her process in a six-hour workshop during which she'll show participants how to make their own emulsion within an hour. They'll mix chemicals, coat some film stock, expose the film and hope for a couple happy accidents.
"It was riding the crest of the wave going up," says M.M. Serra, executive director of the Film-Makers Cooperative (FCM), referring to Charles Henri Ford's film Johnny Minotaur. The wave to which Serra refers was the swelling conversation in 1970s America surrounding homosexuality. Released in 1971, Johnny Minotaur was one of the first American films to address the issue outright, exploring its ethnic and multicultural aspects.
At the time of its release, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) listed homosexuality as a perversion, as it would remain until 1973. Ford and his colleagues reappropriated the term, dubbing this style of film "perverse chic."
Ford worked alongside the likes of Gertrude Stein, producing poetry, literature and art awash in pulsating surrealism. Ford was himself a gay male and as such, was particularly interested in the history of male homosexuality, providing the zeal that produced Johnny Minotaur.
"It's a poetic diary," Serra says of the work. "Like Ford's poetry, [it] is frank and American."
The experimental, non-linear film is an amalgamation of scenes that call upon Greek history and mythology, focusing primarily on the character of the Minotaur, a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man. Scenes of Greek boys and men rolling around on beaches kissing are juxtaposed next to images of men in Minotaur masks, narrating parts of the film.
When the work premiered in New York City, it was a celebrity event. Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas, William Buckley's wife and others were in attendance. Yet afterward, the film pretty much disappeared from the public eye. Or went back in the closet, if you will.
"After its premiere, Jonas Mekas brought the film into the FCM collection," explains Serra. "It had a number of screenings between the mid-'70s and 1990, when it got significant sprocket damage due to a projector mishap that occurred during a screening by a renter. To protect this one-and-only print, we did not screen it again until preservation was done, which occurred early this year."
The 86-minute, 16-millimeter screening of Johnny Minotaur at Alternative Measures will be the U.S. premiere of the restored version of the film, of which there is no copy, digital or otherwise.
As risky as it sounds not to duplicate it — which, let's face it, it really is — there's a certain poetry in that as well, not unlike riding a capricious wave.
Labor of love
Though it might sound axiomatic, producing experimental film requires just that: experimentation. In many cases, a filmmaker will try various methods and tricks to understand how his or her materials work. This D.I.Y. approach becomes more necessary and prevalent as experimental film becomes more of a niche interest.
"All the people with knowledge and expertise have retired or moved on to doing digital. There's a treasure chest of knowledge that we're trying to recover. The way we found to do that is to actually do it," says Juan David González Monroy, who works with Anja Dornieden under the moniker OJOBOCA and is a member of the group LaborBerlin.
LaborBerlin is an independent, collectively run lab located in, not surprisingly, Berlin, Germany. The lab welcomes anybody who wants to become a member, to both contribute and adopt knowledge, and to help maintain the space — a place worthy of note.
"In 2009, the space where we are now became available. It used to be a neighborhood pool; the pools are empty and the area is filled with artist studios," he says to me, noting how work is done in former saunas and changing rooms. "It works out because it's tiled. The place where we develop is a bathtub."
Yes, it all sounds so counterculture and edgy; surely someone in the group gives free stick-and-poke tattoos. LaborBerlin will be bringing some of that grit and homegrown know-how to Alternative Measures with both a workshop and Super 8 and 16-millimeter film screenings.
"We're dividing [the workshop] into two parts; one is the theory, going through the history of the lab and how it functions, and the other is the practice," says Monroy. "We'll bring in the bare minimum — a tank where you can develop film, and the chemistry. We'll shoot some film and do some developing in a bare-bones way." If the workshop doesn't pique your interest, you can still get familiar with LaborBerlin by attending one of their two screenings during the fest. The first will show a series of Super 8 films, the second a series of 16-mm films.
Even after a brief conversation with Monroy, it becomes clear that experimental film is something anyone can do — nobody need be intimidated by the perceived erudite element of it all.
"The idea of the workshop," he says, "is to give the idea that starting a workshop is not hard or strange or something that only happens in New York."