Thursday, May 15, 2008

Oberlin year-end cinema screenings

Another year finished at The Grand College of Oberlin. A lot has changed. I love music, but any hope for pursuing it in the conservatory is pretty much dead given the typical bureaucratic bullshit anyone can come to expect from any Institution of Higher Learning. Ignoring that, though, the conservatory traditionally imposes the kind of structures and approaches to music that I have always opposed. Oberlin is a bit better than the norm, but it's still relatively pointless for me to struggle with a system I don't agree with when I have the choice not to do it.

But this year I finally figured out that there's something creative that I give a shit about that I can study fairly uninhibited. It's the magic of cinema studies. I was originally looking at transferring to an actual film school, but then realized it was pretty unnecessary. I'm going to want work on what I want to work on regardless of where I am. Maybe graduate school in film would be an possibility, and honestly any thing where I can talk with people who are genuinely interested in movies and invested in this kind of stuff is fine with me. Where I'm at now is fine, though, at least for another year.

Of course Oberlin's cinema department is pretty young and not really all there yet. For one, I really have not sensed much of a community among people involved in cinema. There are plenty of cinema majors, but it's not exactly a huge department, so personal contact shouldn't be all that difficult. But it remains much more of a "I have my friends, I do my thing, leave me alone". It's a toxic and discouraging view, really. I don't really know how it's counteracted either. Maybe it's an Oberlin viewpoint, maybe it's the kind of people who have come in and been involved in art in the past 5-10 years, who knows. All I know is that a lot of people I know from WOBC/etc. who are art/cinema people (there are some notable exceptions) are some of the least friendly, least nice human beings I have ever met. They seem to still be in a state of arrested development emotionally and socially that prevents them from empathizing with other human beings.

So maybe in the hope that I'd see something really great and inspired, maybe because I was looking for more of a community among cinema majors, maybe just because I didn't have much to do last week, I decided to attend all of the year end cinema screenings. My impressions were mixed across the board, which wasn't too surprising to me. What did surprise me, though, was how few people involved in cinema studies seemed to care about the work of their classmates. It was really irritating that basically no one showed up for my class's video diaries at 7:00pm, only for the attendance to explode when 8:00pm rolled around.

Even when I see something that I think is fundamentally awful (which did happen a few times), I understand that good people are capable of producing shit now and then, and that seeing their trainwreck is a huge learning experience to me. In fact, I might say that I learned more about filmmaking from seeing all of those screenings than I ever could have from any class. It's a real shame that other people involved in filmmaking decide to skip out from that experience. I understand why; It could be a fear of either seeing something really awful or seeing something amazing that totally shows you up. Or or it could be that you sense the amateurishness of student films and find it really uncomfortable to sit through them. But exposing yourself to discomfort is a huge part of making art. You can't just avoid it because you don't like it.

Anyway, onto my reviews/impressions of the projects in the first screening that happened on a monday about a week and a half ago. They followed the video diaries screened for my class (which I don't really feel the need to talk about here).

Monday, 5/12/08. Brett Kashmere's Cinema Practicum:

(1) Hannah Lesser - Frameworks/Framing/Fucking/Free

Black and white 16mm footage of a naked woman (face never shown) in a bathtub with disembodied hands squeezing her boobs and other body parts several different times. Army men float then in and out of her hairy private areas as the water rises above and below her boobs. I was told later by a friend of Hannah that the tone of this film was supposed to be pretty serious, about the militarization of the female body. This was lost on me and a majority of the audience, based on the uproarious laughter I heard throughout the entire piece.

In retrospect, I respect her message, because I was more extremely uncomfortable than amused while watching it. But army men? They seemed to imply something a lot more tongue-in-cheek, or at least make the message a lot lighter. When I see disembodied hands grabbing a naked woman's body in a bathtub it conjures pretty obvious images of rape. But when that's contrasted with plastic army men floating casually around her pussy (or armpits, I couldn't really tell), it seems to make light of what's happening in a way that's strange and not altogether very clear. That's probably why people laughed, because the idea is so ridiculous.

Still I feel like her portrayal has much more merit as an idea than the obsessive strain of "LOOK AT THE WONDERFUL NAKED FEMALE FORM!!!! FEEL SEXUALLY LIBERATED!!!" contained in some of the other pieces.
I think there were probably much better ways for her to illustrate her message, though.

(2) Sarah Lipman - Cut

Rough 16mm footage of what appears to be a guy getting his hair cut. Lots of scraggles and other modifications of the film happening that I undoubtedly missed the first time. It might be interesting as a gallery piece. It was pretty short and didn't really hold my attention for very long.

(3) Lucy Engelman - Working on Memory

An Oberlin student writes about a bunch of her dad's old 8mm family-documenting films from the 60's. I enjoyed the footage a lot, and she does attempt to bring it together with some hand-written thoughts about it. The hand-writing thing seems to have turned into a student-film cliche (probably because it's easy to do), but it mostly makes sense here.

Conceptually, it could have been pushed further. A lot of her writing points out all the things she observes in the video and there's not very much of why she found it important. It was almost like it was treading water, waiting for something more poignant to come along. She did seem to be trying to make sense of the footage, but unfortunately she never really got to a point where she could quantify her obsession and shape her project into something meaningful.

(4) Theresa Desautels - My Radio is Bigger Than Yours

I get this one heavily mixed up with Ian Page's project, but from what I can remember it's a collage of different found footage and sound of stuff relating to radio and video. It seemed to talk about the need for technology to constantly outdo itself. Or at least I can assume that from the title.

Assuming that was the idea, I don't know how fully it was communicated. Sometimes these things can just descend into randomness without making any kind of conceptual or rhythmic logic to the editing, and I got a little bit of a sense of that.
I wish I had more to say here but I'm still having trouble differentiating this from Ian's piece. I would really have to watch it again.

(5) Allie Takahashi - Izanami and Izanagi

An animation. I totally blanked around this point because I was dozing off and waiting to see some of the other projects. It's a shame, because what I saw of this one was really nice. I'm not exactly the most skilled visual artist. I like animation a lot, but I have a lot less to say about it for that reason.

(6) Lena Dunham - Boring House

I'm trying to remember how John Hugens described this one to me. Something like "boring rich girl goes into her huge empty house and then whines about it".

Class seems to be a really big deal at Oberlin, much moreso than other schools. There's a peculiar mix of kids who go to the school for the social activism, typical middle-class midwesterners who go because it's nearby and in the league with Carleton or Grinnel, and then upper-upper middle class east and west coast kids who go because it's supposed to be a good school that contains a lot of people like them and is far enough away from home to get away from the city and their parents. These are generalizations, but they're still much more generous than ones that many other students would make.

Anyway, being stuck somewhere in between different cultural landscapes, this touches a bit of a nerve with me. I can get into the mode of "why does this person get to do all these cool things and broadcast them around to the universe when I don't because of money?" I think it's more of a cultural objection than anything else. A lot of people who come from the coasts have it driven in their head that where they're from is one of the few sane, and worthwhile places in the country. I can understand that.

I spent the first half of the video thinking "gee, this person's house is really nice." I don't even think that was supposed to be an issue here, but I couldn't get past it. Lena seemed reluctant to show how nice the house was though, maybe in fear of that. She needs to be honest about the space she's using and show it for what it is instead of trying to hide it. I feel like people too often use films to create implausible situations instead of just looking at reality and taking it from that. So we get a totally gratuitous nude scene (what is it with Oberlin and random female nudity?) and then later on, scene in a restaurant in NYC with some semi-contrived muffled dialogue and a really weird guy delivered over the sounds of the city. I won't even describe the encounter with the weird guy, basically he just keeps hitting on her (she already has a boyfriend) and steals a lot of china from the restaurant. I'm not sure what the point is there.

So what might be the point? If I had to guess, I'd say it's just about how this upper-middle class girl feels more at home in the city than surrounded by empty houses in isolation. I can sympathize. When I go home it's often boring and depressing because it's so quiet. My problem is that there's very little effort to establish the main character. The great contradiction of the naked scene is that nakedness still exposes next to nothing about the character of this girl to us. It's a great mystery, really. Maybe if I sensed that it was intentional and not just a result of poor writing, I'd like it.

This story seems to be very autobiographical, and it also seems that Lena Dunham is way too uncomfortable exposing the parts she doesn't like about herself for the character on screen to be an honest portrayal. It's a bunch of amusing bits of a girl being bored that add up to next to nothing when it could have been an interesting portrait of a person with much more honesty and attention to detail put into the piece.

(7) Jay Nolan - Projecting Reality

A short piece where the actress from the Boring House movie talks about how what we're seeing isn't real. She takes a bunch of photographs of mundane things she does over the course of the day and then hangs them up on a wall. There are some cool shots where she's doing something and then it immediately cuts to a shot of her hanging up a photograph of her doing that thing.

It was definitely an interesting idea, but the video ended up talking about explicitly just about the same kind of thing that every art movie talks about implicitly. I appreciated the concept but I felt like Jay just had one idea that he could have used other means to get to so we have some sort of attachment to what's going on. It was very much "here's what my movie is about" and not much contextualizing into a situation where the viewer has much invested in it. It would have been cool to establish her as a character and then show her gradual obsession into taking pictures of events, I think. I still liked this whole piece a lot, I just think it could have been a lot stronger approached from a different way.

(8) Lee Hull - The Resourcerer's Apprentice

Remake of the famous Disney cartoon in the lovely Mudd library. This maybe wasn't as ambitious in trying to say something but it was really well-executed. Clearly it was made by someone who's seen Fantasia a few dozen times, because a lot of the shots were recreated almost precisely. I felt a little annoyed that this one got a near-standing ovation, because I tend to get annoyed at the whole youtube generation "HEY LOOK AT HOW MUCH WORK I PUT INTO MAKING A SINGLE REFERENCE TO SOMETHING" attitude. But this one really did deserve the praise, because she took it to the extreme, never halfassing the concept like what often happens with student films. I'm sure she and her crew had a fun time cleaning up the gigantic mess they made.

(9) Ellington Wells - Niggertime

A documentary about the word "nigger". As if we needed another. Yes, just like the Sam Jackson character in the video, I am that kind of nigger.

This one mercifully didn't contain as many lynchings and riot footage as the usual. It also seemed to make a point beyond "the word 'nigger' is bad", the point being that black people should not use the word so casually as they do because of its levity. A fair point, and I always like seeing Richard Pryor or Dave Chappelle say something intelligent on screen. All in all, this wasn't too bad, but I still don't think I've seen anything that addresses the complexities necessary to address such a heavily charged issue. I think Ellington was at least starting to get somewhere in creating a dialogue.

(10) Rachel Lambert, Nicholas Wirtz and John Hugens - The Abstract

A creepy, narcissistic abstract artist played by the creepy, narcissistic Chris Sherwood (perfectly cast!*) realizes that he sucks and tries to figure out how to make art that doesn't suck. A lot of dialogue about art that sounds like it was taken from a Richard Linklater movie ensues.

My overall impression was mixed, but there were plenty of things to like about this one. It actually bothered to make a statement for one, even if the statement was "abstract art is bullshit". But I think all three directors have a little bit too much disdain for the character they're portraying to put him in any sort of positive light. He's a creepy self-absorbed guy who seems to be very into the notion of "art for art's sake" and then finds his only salvation through groveling under a strange deity which also appears to be a weird graffiti artist he meets. That part wasn't exactly clear to me.

I know John pretty well, and Rachel and Nick somewhat, and I tend to share a lot of their views. I think their intense dislike for a lot of the art that happens at Oberlin looms too heavy over this film. It came off to me as too much of a "fuck you" but wasn't coherent enough to offer a solid critique to the kind of views of art the kinds of people like the Chris Sherwood character have. Not to mention that it's much more likely to imagine the character believing that anyone who doesn't like his art is just unappreciative rather than him turning into a pitiful mess because some random girl didn't like it. I think the directors really wanted to see him suffer, even if it wasn't entirely plausible.

It was filmed in black+white, and many of the shots were really nice. I don't think digital video, in all its flat glory, necessarily lends itself to the kind of style they were going for. It would have been nice to see it filmed in 16mm, but I know materials and budget obviously limit that. The sound mix, like in a lot of other films screened, was a bit shoddy in places. There was this building and sawing sound effect that seemed kind of arbitrarily placed, for one.

In the end, I'm probably being more critical with this one because I know the people who made it and know that they was hinting at something really good and original. I just think Rachel, Nick, and John need to take a step back from and try to understand their subject a bit more before they completely debase him.

* just kidding. he seems like a nice guy from my experience.

(11) Russ Manning - Audio Nugget

A bunch of collected music videos for different jazz pieces. The music was cool. Some videos were more neat than others. I liked the one with the militaristic guy having a spiritual experience with a bunch of hippies/nymphs/whatever. Though most came off as a "HEY look at the fun stuff me and my friends can do with a camera!!" Not that there's necessarily something wrong with that, but I wanted to punch some of the people in the face after seeing the camera zoom in and out of their mouth for the 100th time. A great way to kill a cool effect is to do it endlessly and without purpose.

(12) Emily Gottlieb - Northline road and dusty love

A short animated piece that I really liked. A lot of people left before they got to see this, which made me a little mad. Something about lovers and someone walking under a bridge I think. That's about all I could take from it. I hope she keeps doing more of this kind of stuff.

That's it for last Monday's screening. Look for a couple more posts about the other ones in the next few days.

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