Flat Is Beautiful: The Strange Case of Pixelvision will take place August 10-16 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
“Picture what your kids can do with the new PXL 2000.” So went the 1987 advertising campaign for Fisher-Price’s latest offering, a lightweight plastic camcorder conceived specifically for children. Invented by James Wickstead, the device allowed for 10 minutes of footage recorded directly onto a standard audio cassette. Sales proved disappointing; Pixelvision would soon be abandoned by its parent company, and production on new cameras halted after a year. Yet the story of the PXL 2000 was just beginning.
Though it failed as a plaything, Pixelvision was taken up by a range of experimental auteurs drawn to its distinctive—grainy, spectral, colorless—textures, including Michael Almereyda, who made several feature-length projects with the toy; and a teenage Sadie Benning, who got one for Christmas from her filmmaker father James in 1988, and used it to create intimate studies of burgeoning queer identity. The Film Society’s survey looks back on this curious, fertile episode of media history, showcasing efforts by Almereyda and Benning, as well as Peggy Ahwesh, Cecilia Dougherty, Joe Gibbons, and Eric Saks, among others. While the works varied notably in approach, such directors found inspired ways to deploy the format, discovering aesthetic possibility in the very limitations of its design. “Pixelvision,” Saks concluded, “is an aberrant art form, underscored by the fact that since the cameras wear out quickly, and are no longer being manufactured, it holds within itself authorized obsolescence. Each time an artist uses a PXL 2000, the whole form edges closer to extinction.”
Highlights include Richard Linklater’s breakthrough feature Slacker, screening with James Benning rarity Table Top; Almereyda & Amy Hobby’s At Sundance, a fascinating time capsule of the festival and American indie directors in the mid-’90s; recent work by Ben Coonley on loop in the Amphitheater throughout the series, and a free talk with Almereyda, Coonley, and Dougherty about Pixelvision’s legacy, sponsored by HBO®.
Organized by Thomas Beard.
Tickets for Flat Is Beautiful: The Strange Case of Pixelvision go on sale July 27, and are $15; $12 for students, seniors (62+), and persons with disabilities; and $10 for Film Society members. Become a member today! See more and save with the 3+ film discount package.
Special thanks to Vanessa Haroutunian, Harvard Film Archive, UCLA Film & Television Archive, and Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
FILMS AND DESCRIPTIONS
All screenings will take place in the Francesca Beale Theater unless otherwise noted.
Program 1: Sadie Benning (TRT: 85m)
Sadie Benning, USA, 1989, 5m
If Every Girl Had a Diary
Sadie Benning, USA, 1990, 8m
Me and Rubyfruit
Sadie Benning, USA, 1990, 6m
Sadie Benning, USA 1990, 11m
A New Year
Sadie Benning, USA, 1989, 6m
A Place Called Lovely
Sadie Benning, USA, 1991, 14m
It Wasn’t Love
Sadie Benning, USA, 1992, 20m
Sadie Benning, USA, 1992, 15m
These early pieces, largely recorded in the artist’s bedroom, established Sadie Benning as the wunderkind of the New Queer Cinema. Begun when Benning was 15, the tapes skillfully combine direct-to-camera address and slow pans across handwritten texts that tremble with the force of a secret—like a note passed surreptitiously in class—while fragments of pop culture filter through the videos’ hazy atmospheres. Though they are frequently described as diaristic, prefiguring an age of YouTube confessionals, their subject is as much fantasy as autobiography; youthful daydreams are here brought vividly to life, interior dramas of a kid more at home in their head than out in the world. “I like the animated quality to it,” Benning later said of Pixelvision, “that way in which it’s kind of moving when it’s still. You can’t always tell what you are seeing when you’re looking at it; it’s abstract. lt’s not rendering the object as it really is. It’s giving you an idea of the object.” Likewise, the works in this program present us not simply with an image of outsider adolescence but also the idea of it, with all its heartache, its playfulness, its rage.
Friday, August 10, 7:00pm
Program 2: The Rocking Horse Winner + Another Girl, Another Planet (TRT: 79m)
The Rocking Horse Winner
Michael Almereyda, USA, 1997, 23m
Another Girl, Another Planet
Michael Almereyda, USA, 1992, 16mm, 56m
“The pixel camera,” Michael Almereyda once wrote, “practically forces you to be reckless and original. If you’re shooting something at a distance, with a crowded background, detail goes out of the window; you might as well be using a bank camera. So it’s necessary to compose shots with an eye toward compressed space, to stage action with an awareness of how silhouettes register and relate to one another, and to favor close-ups, which the camera delivers with startling detail.” He would use the lo-fi apparatus to memorable effect in The Rocking Horse Winner, his contemporary take on the classic D.H. Lawrence story about a fey child with a talent for playing the ponies, as well as in Another Girl, Another Planet, an impressionistic portrait of a young man, his downstairs neighbors, and the many women who drift in and out of his romantic orbit. Set against a backdrop of cramped apartments and dusky dive bars in the early-’90s East Village, it’s a film rich with tenebrous lensing and evocative voiceovers, not to mention an unerring feel for musical accompaniment. Downtown anomie has never looked better.
Friday, August 10, 8:45pm
Program 3: Nocturne + Strange Weather (TRT: 80m)
Peggy Ahwesh, USA, 1998, 16mm, 30m
Peggy Ahwesh & Margie Strosser, USA, 1993, 50m
A woman drags a male corpse across a lawn then buries him in a shallow grave, and her victim returns, like a thought repressed, to haunt her. Peggy Ahwesh’s Nocturne is a curious act of translation, a work based on a review she’d read of Mario Bava’s gothic chiller The Whip and the Body, resulting in a horror movie stripped down to its barest elements. The genre’s usual trappings have all but evaporated, and left behind is a potent distillation of its unnerving, paranormal moods. This minimalist orientation is mirrored in the look of the film as well, where barely there Pixelvision interludes serve as the ghostly counterpoint to its celluloid sequences. In contrast to the oneiric sensibility of Nocturne, Strange Weather—about four crack addicts holed up in a Florida motel room as a hurricane swirls on the horizon—was assumed by many who first saw it to be a documentary. A Warholian riff on reality television, Ahwesh and Margie Strosser’s collaboration fully exploits the proximate scale so often associated with Pixelvision, granting the goings-on a fascinating air of torpid anxiety.
Saturday, August 11, 6:30pm
Program 4: Glass Jaw + Swallow + Flat Is Beautiful (TRT: 95m)
Michael O’Reilly, USA, 1991, 17m
Elisabeth Subrin, USA, 1995, 28m
Flat Is Beautiful
Sadie Benning, USA, 1998, 50m
Glass Jaw is Michael O’Reilly’s harrowing chronicle of two injuries—the first from a biking accident that led to his jaw being wired shut; the second just a few months later from an assault that required brain surgery. The narrative finds an ideal conduit in Pixelvision, where the fragility of the human body is articulated through a delicate, jittery pointillism. Elisabeth Subrin’s Swallow, meanwhile, revolves around another kind of psychic and physical breakdown. Deftly blending found footage and self-shot material with spoken recollections of a childhood friend’s eating disorder, Subrin navigates the darker side of a Free to Be…You and Me upbringing: “It was 1975. There was no name for it, but I knew what she was talking about.” Flat Is Beautiful, in which every member of the cast sports a different hand-drawn paper mask, centers on a melancholy tween tomboy grappling with their gender identity in working-class Milwaukee. Benning’s dreamy, downbeat coming-of-age tale, fuzzy like a faded memory, reveals the various ways inner life can—or cannot—be read across a frozen face.
Saturday, August 11, 8:15pm (Introduction by Elisabeth Subrin)
Program 5: Nadja
Michael Almereyda, USA, 1994, 35mm, 92m
Nadja is a vampire movie of the most idiosyncratic sort—Bram Stoker by way of Breton. Produced by David Lynch, and staged primarily in modern Manhattan, the film offers a wry update of the old Universal picture Dracula’s Daughter (beloved in some circles for its sapphic subtext). The eponymous, undead protagonist, a glamorous Transylvanian expat, must journey to a land she has never seen—Brooklyn—to reunite with her estranged sibling in the wake of their father’s death, consumed all the while by a new love, and tailed by vampire hunter Van Helsing (a tweedy turn for Peter Fonda). As elsewhere, Almereyda puts the little PXL 2000 to work, using the contraption’s ethereal imagery to punctuate the stylish black-and-white cinematography throughout, further amplifying Nadja’s otherworldly undertones. Print courtesy of Harvard Film Archive.
Sunday, August 12, 6:30pm
Program 6: At Sundance
Michael Almereyda & Amy Hobby, USA, 1995, 71m
It’s January 1995, cinema’s centenary has commenced, and Michael Almereyda and Amy Hobby are at Sundance with a Pixelvision camera, asking their fellow filmmakers about the future of movies: Are they optimistic, or pessimistic? Replies vary. Edward Burns sees the possible audience for independent cinema increasing, with moviegoers more inclined toward Terminator now encountering trailers for art-house productions. Todd Haynes is more guarded, noting how audiences seem less adventurous than before, not more so; gone, he explains, are the days when people would line up around the block to see Chelsea Girls. Some bemoan the perpetual grind of publicity and financing, while others beam about the vocabulary of moviemaking expanding apace. For Haskell Wexler, the question is ultimately a political one: whether the future for film is bright or dim depends upon the future of the world and its citizens. Like Wim Wenders’s Room 666, which pursued a similar line of inquiry at Cannes in 1982, At Sundance has become a captivating artifact, a document of its time yet still thoroughly unresolvable and therefore contemporary.
Sunday, August 12, 8:30pm
Program 7: Joe-Joe
Cecilia Dougherty & Leslie Singer, USA, 1993, 52m
Following up on Cecilia Dougherty’s earlier tape Grapefruit, her all-woman retelling of the John and Yoko saga, Joe-Joe delivers a comically deadpan imagining of Joe Orton, with the ill-fated playwright cast as a leather-clad dyke duo, Joe and Joe. “Dougherty and Singer manage to create just the right visual universe for Joe-Joe and for their various enterprises: literary, sexual, familial, and otherwise,” argued Jack Halberstam. “The primitive video pixelvision effect is used to empty any given scene of depth and to create a cramped and claustrophobic feel to each frame. The superficiality of pixel works beautifully with the Joe-Joe project because this video is precisely about the multiple layerings of identity and the way that one identity (lesbian) can be simply superimposed upon another (gay) to create a totally altered visual and aesthetic reality.”
Wednesday, August 15, 7:00pm
Program 8: Jug Town Road + Coal Miner’s Granddaughter (TRT: 84m)
Jug Town Road
Tammy Rae Carland, USA, 1995, 4m
Coal Miner’s Granddaughter
Cecilia Dougherty, USA, 1991, 80m
Inspired by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s seminal documentary Chronicle of a Summer and the cult TV series An American Family, Cecilia Dougherty’s semi-autobiographical Coal Miner’s Granddaughter tracks the sexual and political awakenings of Jane Dobson, following her from a stifling central Pennsylvania home life to the liberated shores of San Francisco. Yvonne Rainer hailed its nonprofessional performers and improvised dialogue as an epiphany, akin to “taking shards of cinéma vérité and soap opera and trying to fit them together.” The video shares a bill with Tammy Rae Carland’s Jug Town Road, about the artist’s childhood crush on First Daughter Amy Carter that circulated, notably, as part of the first VHS chain-letter release from Miranda July’s Big Miss Moviola (later renamed Joanie 4 Jackie), a DIY distribution initiative for movies made by women and girls. Pixelvision’s boxed-in proportions in both works become, unexpectedly, a fitting frame for grand desires.
Wednesday, August 15, 8:15pm
Program 9: You Talk/I Buy + Elegy + Multiple Barbie + Untitled (Spring 94) (TRT: 60m)
You Talk/I Buy
Eric Saks, USA, 1990, 10m
Joe Gibbons, USA, 1991, 11m
Joe Gibbons, USA, 1998, 9m
Untitled (Spring 94)
Alex Bag, USA, 1993, 30m
Eric Saks described You Talk/I Buy as a prank call in reverse, where the filmmaker recorded a conversation with a car salesman and limned his increasingly absurd marketing prattle through a cascade of droll collage. Joe Gibbons’s Pixelvision performances similarly mine the humor and pathos of a one-way dialogue: for Elegy he muses morbidly to his dog as they stroll through a cemetery (“For whom does the bell toll?…It tolls for you, Woody!”) and in Multiple Barbie he assumes the role of psychoanalyst to a doll with split personalities (she isn’t very forthcoming). Armed with more wigs than RuPaul, Alex Bag plays all the parts in Untitled (Spring 94), channel-flipping from Nirvana to Kate Moss to the McRib in this merciless, grunge-era lampoon.
Thursday, August 16, 7:00pm
Program 10: Table Top + Slacker (TRT: 103m)
James Benning, USA, 1988, 3m
Richard Linklater, USA, 1991, 35mm, 100m
Though James Benning is perhaps best known for his rigorously structured landscape films, he also toyed with PXL 2000. In Table Top, the deepest cut of the entire series, he considers the formal character of the camera’s end-of-tape glitch. It will be screening here with the rather less obscure Slacker, Richard Linklater’s dérive through Gen X Austin. One of the most iconic American independent films, Slacker maps the city by ambling from vignette to vignette, encountering all manner of eccentrics, dropouts, and armchair philosophers along the way (one is famously trying to sell what she claims is Madonna’s pap smear). Complementing this already variegated method is a Pixelvision episode, which takes us through a performance at Austin Media Arts, the same venue where Linklater and his longtime DP Lee Daniel hosted countless repertory screenings of everything from Ozu to James Benning. Slacker print courtesy of the Sundance Collection at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Thursday, August 16, 8:30pm
Program 11: Ben Coonley (TRT: 60m)
Composition No. 1
Ben Coonley, USA, 2016, 5m
Rotating Composition No. 1-6
Ben Coonley, USA, 2016–2017, 5m each
Ben Coonley, USA, 2016, 5m
Decomposition No. 1-3
Ben Coonley, USA, 2017, 5m each
Ben Coonley, USA, 2017, 5m
For artist Ben Coonley, “mismatched (or ‘non-stereoscopic’ or ‘dissonant’) 3D is the unexplored frontier of 3D cinema.” He has recently ventured into this territory with a suite of ingenious experiments using two side-by-side PXL 2000s, testing, in the process, the dimensional limits of Pixelvision’s low res properties. These videos will be on view in the Film Society’s amphitheater throughout the week of the series. Videos courtesy of the artist and Microscope Gallery.
Friday, August 10 – Sunday, August 12, 1:00pm-9:00pm
Monday, August 13, 1:00pm-6:00pm
Tuesday, August 14 – Thursday, August 16, 1:00pm-9:00pm
Free Talk: On Pixelvision
Join Michael Almereyda, Ben Coonley, and Cecilia Dougherty for a wide-ranging discussion about Pixelvision, moderated by Film Society Programmer at Large Thomas Beard. What drew so many artists and filmmakers to experiment with these temperamental toy cameras? In what contexts did the resulting works first emerge? How differently do we understand such projects today? What possibilities remain for the format? Sponsored by HBO®.
Monday, August 13, 7:00pm*
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Amphitheater, 144 West 65th Street