“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 ten 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 Benning’s filmmaker father James in 1988, and used it to create intimate studies of burgeoning queer identity. 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.”

Organized by Thomas Beard. 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.

All screenings will take place in the Francesca Beale Theater unless otherwise noted.

Programmer Thomas Beard on Pixelvision, the “Underappreciated Flipside of 90s Indie Cinema”:

I bought a PXL 2000 on eBay years ago, back when I was in college, but unfortunately I could never get it to work. The Pixelvision camera was kind of legendary, a plastic camcorder for kids put out by Fisher-Price in the late ’80s that recorded its ghostly, low-res images onto a regular audio cassette. As a toy, the PXL 2000 was rather a bust, yanked from the shelves after only a year—they were too expensive, they were temperamental—but the story of Pixelvision doesn’t end there. It had a look like nothing else, a dreamy visual texture, fuzzy as a faded memory, and the format had a surprise second act in the hands of experimental filmmakers, who used the device to shoot some truly remarkable movies, like Michael Almereyda’s Nadja, a wry riff on the vampire picture, or Sadie Benning’s teenage bedroom tapes, which, in my estimation, are among the most moving and imaginative records of queer adolescence ever made.

Over the years there have been a number of one-off Pixelvision screenings, but nothing this comprehensive, and many of the titles aren’t currently available on DVD or Netflix, so if you’re intrigued by the curious afterlife of the PXL 2000 and the challenging, strangely beautiful films it captured, now’s the time to check them out. Think of this series as the underappreciated flipside of ’90s independent cinema.