It's becoming increasingly clear that shorts are the last refuge of creativity in American filmmaking. Obviously, I'm not referring to the glossy narratives produced as Hollywood calling cards by film students at certain Southern California universities. Nor am I thinking about most of the amateur-hour nonsense that clogs the higher-profile video sites on the Web, although there's little dispute that the Internet (or should I say the computer monitor) is an ideal medium for the exhibition of films that require a smaller time commitment.
I'm talking about personal filmmaking that rises to the level of art, and which is in damnably short supply these days. Other Cinema, Craig Baldwin's under-the-radar weekly underground film series at Artists Television Access in the Mission, has reliably kept the candle burning for uncompromising films and videos for, literally, decades. Tomorrow night's edition of New Experimental Works, the program that traditionally lowers the curtain on the seasonal calendar, is typically replete with singular, short visions.
I was able to preview about half of the approximately 15 (!) pieces in the show, leading off with Rodney Ascher's kooky and delirious homage to '70s cheesiness, The S From Hell. His starting point is the hideous red-and-yellow Screen Gems logo (underscored with a bit of nails-on-blackboard synthesizer "music") that burst onscreen at the end of various awful TV shows. Ascher collects (real? um, maybe) interviews with adults still scarred from exposure to the logo as kids, and basically inflates a one-note joke into nine minutes of delicious diversion.
The S From Hell screened at Sundance in January as did Kelly Sears' Voice On the Line, which exposes (real? um, maybe) domestic government eavesdropping in the name of national security during the Cold War. The contemporary parallels are obvious, but there's something else going on in Sears' piece, namely a virulent suspicion of technology, along with its purveyors and champions.
This creepy and unexpected undercurrent informs most of the films I saw, from Carl Diehl's paranoid and paranoia-inducing Mind Children Get Headaches to Thomas Helman's riveting yet unsettling df/dx, a shard of nimble, black-and-white, software-generated line drawing that somehow reminded me of the cover art of a Led Zeppelin album. (What is it with all the '70s associations?)
A sense of unease likewise permeates Linda Scobie's beautiful and mesmerizing Road Not Taken, a delicate slice of archival footage that the artist degraded, broke down and tinted. Amid a stream of men walking somewhere -- the Soviet Union? -- in the first half of the 20th Century (another guess), one scared, beaten-down figure stares at the camera, piercing our heart.
Road Not Taken, with its manipulated celluloid, is an acknowledgement of the appeal of old technology. Filmmakers and partners Mark Street and Lynne Sachs second that emotion with Cuadro por Cuadro (Frame by Frame), a lovely little record of a workshop they taught in Montevideo, Uruguay, on hand-painted films. This ramshackle eight-minute piece, the only contemporary documentary among the batch of work I previewed, is a celebration of mass creativity and random light, fleeting seconds and happy accidents. Like the other shorts in the program, it invites you to get what you get and move on, more awake, and alive, than you were a minute ago.
Other Cinema presents New Experimental Works 8:30pm, Saturday, May 29, 2010 at ATA, 992 Valencia St. in San Francisco. For more information visit othercinema.com.