New York Video Festival

Written by Ed Halter on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

New York Video
When you go
out on a limb, don’t expect everyone to follow you there. The same might
be said of experimental video. The cheap format and relatively easy means of
editing, distribution and exhibition mean that every artsy oddball nowadays
feels he has something profound to say using stock footage, swerving camcorders
and carefully unfocused cinematography.

There are, however, a number
of long-form works that stand out strongly, and should not be missed. Trent
Harris’ "Beaver Trilogy" is a set of three short pieces
that culminates in the underground tape-traded classic The Orkly Kid.
Harris shot the first part of the trilogy, a short documentary called The
Beaver Kid
, in 1980. While working for a local tv station, Harris encounters
a cornfed, flare-panted 21-year-old in a Beaver, UT, parking lot. The kid’s
madly eager to "get on the tube," and gushes for the camera, doing
impersonations of John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone and Barry Manilow ("I’m
the Beaver Rich Little!" he grins). Days later, Harris receives a handwritten
letter from him, imploring the director to cover the Kid’s debut at a Beaver
talent show–as "Olivia Newton-Don." Harris brings us to a local
funeral parlor, where the Kid gets dolled up by the facility’s makeup artist,
making sure to tell the camera that "I enjoy being a guy–I really
do!" while excitedly donning a dingy blonde wig, silk scarf and high-heeled

The talent show is filled
with a breed of shaky-voiced provincial amateurism that urbanites love to snort
over with uneasy self-satisfaction and empathy. But the Kid’s appearance
as Olivia Newton-Don is truly stunning. He neither sounds, looks nor acts anything
like her, yet emotes a trembling desire for the acceptance and transcendence
of tv stardom that touches on something lonely and desperate at the melancholy
core of media ambition that the current spate of reality programming never dares
to breach.

Then things get weirder.
A year after this event, Harris recreates the documentary in The Beaver Kid
with then-little-known Sean Penn playing the Kid. Shot on black-and-white
home video, the restaging is an odd mixture of line-for-line reenactment of
the Kid’s on-camera dialogue, reedited b-roll footage from the original
documentary and new scripted narrative elaboration, including the insertion
of "Terrance," a cameraman stand-in for Trent, who gloats and chuckles
throughout over the great footage he’s getting. It’s impossible to
tell when watching how much of the "off-camera" elaboration is based
on reality, if any, and you wonder if the piece is partially a means to expiate
a sense of guilt for Harris, who directs the actor playing Terrance as a sleazy

Harris returned to the Kid’s
story one more time (this time shooting on film with a larger budget and changing
the name of the town) for The Orkly Kid with Crispin Glover 1985. Much
further from the original source material, this final melodramatized version
focuses more strongly on the Kid’s inner crossdressing struggle and the
purported hostility of the townspeople (although the original documentary doesn’t
suggest the locals were anything but entertained by his antics). The trilogy
as a whole is a stunning and complex exercise, an elaborate karaoke-upon-karaoke
that snaps right into place with contemporary obsessions with celebrity, fame
and media.

Similarly fixated on the
troublesome lines between restaging, documentary and repetition compulsion is
Elisabeth Subrin’s The Fancy, a sharp-witted, starkly lush and potentially
controversial visual essay on the career of photographer Francesca Woodman.
Woodman, who committed suicide at age 22 in 1981 by leaping from the window
of her East Village apartment, created stilted pseudo-Victorian erotic self-portraits
that were embraced by late-80s feminist art historians still giddy from the
Madonna-esque rise of Cindy Sherman. Subrin avoided all contact with the notoriously
controlling Woodman estate for the creation of The Fancy, relying only
on a limited number of publicly available documents, which, according to the
documentary, primarily consist of the three published monographs of Woodman’s
work. In fact, Woodman’s parents probably don’t even know the tape
exists, and certainly won’t be happy when they find out.

Issues of copyright and
the legal status of artistic reappropriation have informed a great deal of art
from the late 70s on, beginning with hiphop sampling and leading up to 90s culture-jammers
like Craig Baldwin and RTMark. Subrin is no stranger to this arena, having meticulously
recreated an entire documentary on feminist icon Shulamith Firestone with her
previous work, Shulie, which is currently undergoing legal threats from
its angry subject. Shot with a rigid but colorfully rich digital cinematography
and set to a repetitive tape-looped electronic score, The Fancy pushes
copyright boundaries as well, but is structured so tightly around its own legal
limits that it practically dares a lawsuit.

The tape consists of elaborately
staged visual lists based on Woodman’s work and life. One segment portrays
a number of interiors that closely resemble locations from her photographs.
Another beautifully shot sequence tracks over piles of evidence–bagged
shoes, clothing, flowers and other items resembling props from the photos. The
titles of her photos are presented using a forged version of the photographer’s
handwriting. In one of the most disturbing lists, contemporary women (none of
whom look anything like Woodman) mime the uncomfortable positions and moves
the photographer acted out for her self-portraits. Subrin includes stark images
of Woodman’s residences, culminating in the spot by the window from which
she leaped to her death. The tape’s voiceover notes that curators and writers
curiously avoided the issue of Woodman’s suicide in their writings about
her work.

Troubled young artists attempt
suicide all the time. The Fancy attempts to shake up this jaded truism
by prompting us to ask, at least in this instance, exactly why, and ruthlessly
challenging Woodman’s parents to answer. There’s an interesting esthetic
issue at work here as well. In a departure from the established mode of experimental
video, which tends to stress the shakily handheld aspects of the medium, The
is forthrightly DP-ed, distant and cold. It attempts to discard the
notion of video-as-television and embraces a new look that could only be called
video cinema.

Also satisfyingly cinematic
is Miranda July’s Nest of Tens, a disturbing set of dysfunctional
and compelling scripted scenarios involving babies, middle-management self-helpers,
lower-class preteens and the mentally retarded. As July’s title card stresses,
this isn’t a grubby 90s-style performance tape. It’s truly a "movie,"
shot with a compelling skill of pace, color and composition. Sitting somewhere
between the high fashion surrealism of the Cremaster series and the dirt-ass
bargain-bin culture-dredging of Gummo with a squirmy neurotic twist,
Nest of Tens deftly avoids the cheap exploitation elements of both Barney’s
and Korine’s works.

Also worth checking out
at the festival is an in-person tribute to underground pioneer George Kuchar,
who has been shooting comical video diaries since the 70s when he moved from
the Bronx to San Francisco. Prior to video, George and brother Mike were known
for their handmade 8 mm and 16 mm mini-epics like Hold Me While I’m
and Sins of the Fleshapoids, which ran like $10 versions of
contemporary trash melodramas, complete with stirring sickly sweet soundtracks
and bombastic title sequences. Although the B-movie is now a lost form, Kuchar
retains these elements for his newest video diaries, adding elaborate cinematic
flourishes to the mundane actions of his old friends, art school colleagues
and, in his three-hour miniseries Secrets of the Shadow World, a weird
panoply of UFO researchers and parapsychologists who themselves present an odd
mix of the everyday and the truly kooky. A hybrid of tv, home video and cinema,
Kuchar’s tapes play like a cable-access soap opera broadcast directly out
of the director’s brain.

Puzzled by Jay-Z’s
"Big Pimpin’" lines about "spending cheese…/And we be…big
pimpin’, on B.L.A.D.’s"? Then you’ve got a problem with
the language of pop. That’s the subject of Armond White’s "Coded
Language," a music video presentation from Macy Gray to Krust, Ol’
Dirty Bastard to Bjork. At the New York Video Festival, Mon., July 24, 8:45

The New York Video Festival
runs July 21-27 at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St.
(B’way), 875-5600;