Finding the screen show’s silver lining

Kyle Smith

Personal mutilation, talking recliners, vending machines, audience participation. Such are the tools of the experimental filmmakers whose work played last weekend at the 16th Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival, put on by the local film cooperative Chicago Filmmakers.

For the uninitiated, an “experimental” film is virtually anything outside the mainstream. Ranging from the lyrical, color-splashed works of the legendary Stan Brakhage to documentaries with unique narrations, an experimental film is, ideally, poetry in motion — the filmmaker using his medium in creative, often challenging ways to explore new methods of expression.

Onion City has been a Chicago tradition for nearly two decades. Initially a film-only festival run by the Experimental Film Coalition and later by a local filmmaker, Chicago Filmmakers picked up the festival in 2001, added video, and the festival has taken off since.

“We had 425 submissions this year,” said Patrick Friel Chicago Filmmakers programming director, an increase of 75 submissions from 2003. “The inclusion of video into the festival and the growing prevalence of digital video has contributed to the rapid increase in the number of submissions we get.”

The digital age has had an obvious effect on big-budget filmmaking, but arguably has been more influential on a smaller scale. The myth of digital filmmaking is equally true in the experimental realm, where anyone — anyone — can make a movie, for better or for worse.

“We get a lot of good 16 mm and 35 mm submissions, we get a lot of good video submissions; but then there’s some not-so-good submissions from each category,” Friel said. “Its not like because it’s film it’s necessarily better, or if it’s video it’s necessarily better. Good artists are going to make good work whether or not they’re working in film or video.”

The tools of digital video and easy-to-use computer effects can be brilliantly used, as in the stunning “The World Is All That Is The Case,” a three-minute German movie featuring blown-up images of people who seem to be jumping from a burning building. Their bodies stretch and morph, looking almost like raindrops cascading down a window, while the muffled wave of an orchestra warming up hums in the background.

And any festival will have its share of duds — that’s part of the allure. You may find only one gem among dozens of features at next month’s Chicago International Film Festival. It’s the search for undiscovered greatness that’s so invigorating.

Onion City is a smaller commitment and in many ways reaps more rewards than a larger, traditional festival. The first film I saw, “stumble then rise on some awkward morning,” is a breathtaking animated film that spiraled around black and white computer-generated flowers blossoming to the gorgeous sounds of post-rock outfit Silver Mount Zion.

“Souvenir from Africa” is a Dutch film where an off-screen narrator discusses his domestic cohabitance with a small monkey, played by a creepy marionette-like puppet. The film was shot on grainy film stock, giving it a stark, home-movie feel that allowed the ridiculous monkey to become — with no lines or actions beyond opening a door and sitting in a chair — remarkably human.

The program’s finale was “Ash Wednesday, ” a 70-minute collection of vignettes which “offer a long stare into the gray night of Russia.” Some work beautifully, such as the soaring of birds against an overcast sky or the interaction between two human-looking armchairs. Others are impenetrable, and still others are disturbing — an unseen person, probably director Brent Coughenour, apparently cuts himself with a razor blade so sharp the blood doesn’t appear for several seconds after the slice.

Ultimately it’s the hit-or-miss nature of “Ash Wednesday” that makes it so compelling. Alternately sleep-inducing and transcendental, it speaks to the whole of the experimental film-festival-going experience: risky, obscure and ultimately only as rewarding as the spectator allows it to be.

Coughenour is, like so many other experimental filmmakers, a young artist taking advantage of an increasingly accessible medium.

“There’s always work by people we’ve never heard of before, especially by filmmakers who are still in school or just out of school,” Friel noted. “But there’s a pool of experimental filmmakers who are relatively well-established, and we try to get their new work to look at each year.”

The close-knit community of experimental filmmakers typifies the Onion City experience. Despite the surge in production and amateur directors, the festival weathers on, adapting video and technology in such a way that preserves the adventurous prerequisites of experimental film as a comprehensive form of artistic expression.4

Communication junior Kyle Smith is a film PLAY columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]