The 2013 Shooting Wall Film Festival, the second in a row at the truly great facilities at PhilaMOCA, was by all means, an event not to be missed for the local Philadelphia Film Scene. What truly startled me, someone used to local film screenings filled with ancient grad students and pensive Art School Instructors, so stereotypical for such events, was the utter youth inherent throughout. Most of the audience members, let alone film-makers, are barely past their twenties, and represent a lush and thriving demographic in a regional film scene becoming more prevalent in a decade filled with technological advancements in film-making, communications and media. This was by all means, an event created and catering to a generation of “Millennials”, if taken in the context of sensationalist Time’s articles who call people my age ever optimistic yet fragile, morally upright yet entitled. But thanks to this generation, not since the thriving 1940’s into the 60’s, has the Underground Film Community been so vibrant, the words “access” replacing “excess” in the realm of film-making technology in the age of Apple, the open-market availability of HD cameras, equipment, editing and screen-writing software that would at one time, be only available in Academic fields or in the realm of Mainstream Hollywood film-making. While generations of Underground Film-makers embraced their lack of means or funds by ways of 8mm film, low-grade video art and questionably cared for film stock, perhaps most curious is the utter visual, aesthetic range provided. Friend and screened director Robert Curry perhaps says it best when when he states “Underground film has suffered…not because of a lack of aesthetic unity, but because audiences do not know that underground film exists due to a lack of physical unity.” The trouble of underground film is the stereotypes and assumptions made based on film outside the mainstream, and certainly not a part of any Independent film movements that make their way into Hollywood. Defiantly grainy, defiantly black and white, defiantly boring. But the true question addressed at Shooting Wall, is exactly how one remains underground, in a world where every HD camera can make any work look like a Terrence Malick film, and any experimentation in video can, and will merely come off as aesthetically tired, and dare we say it, sophomoric kitsch? While much underground film making is perceived in being in open defiance of mainstream culture, the underground film of today’s generation looks to sort, re-evaluate and look upon the cannibalization of media in everyday consumerist life. Perhaps the word that could be applied to this generation of film-makers is audacious. While each film was greeted with authentic, not polite applause, I couldn’t help but be reminded by my favorite quote from the camp classic Steel Magnolias, ‘An ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure.’ But do not take this comment as insult. The pretension throughout the roster of films is by all means, a shifting change throughout the Underground and Independent film-making communities. Much underground film, if one counts the heavies such as Anger or Daren, and venturing fourth into the realms of the decadent 80’s and 90’s, is a venture into the intricacies of the self and playful narcissism. What can be said about this generation of film-makers whose work screened, was an honest inquiry into the outside world and its affect on themselves, and others around them.
No work made this more clear than Heath Schultz’s video project The Society of the Spectacle. A re-evaluation of Guy Debord’s film of the same name from 1973, based on his book of Marxist critical theory. Schultz, in his own words, used this previous film as a ‘starting point’ and ‘skeleton’ for his own film, looking through every image of the 1973 film, making and working upon the observation that Dubord’s film, with its intrinsic images, ‘are less clear, at least to an American 40 years later…Specific to the French political context of his time.’ Shultz has taken an arguably pretentious thesis in translating French Marxist theory into the realm of contemporary American media, but finds within the work, a consistent, fascinating pattern that is somehow more powerful than Dubord’s film would have been for a French Contemporary audience of the 1970’s. Each image that plays upon the screen, George W. Bush’s political speeches, News Reports, scattered film clips, can be easily read by an audience bred on internet culture inherent in Youtube, Vimeo and Dailymotion, where clips of nearly every facet of media is catalogued and ready to be consumed in nearly every capacity, at any time, a Marxist treaty into the land of ADD. Other works of a similarly political and philosophical nature do not fare perhaps as well as Schultz’s. The memorable, though exhausting Unavoidable Spectacles Or The End of Time by Joshua Martin is a film that never seems to quite make peace with the intellectual territory it openly addresses, giving us the audience more questions than answers on what the films over-all tone and ideals exactly are. Is Unavoidable Spectacles supposed to be funny? Is this film itself, a parody on the standard College Art film, where actors regurgitate notes from some half-recalled Philosophy course? Shot in Black and White on innocuous black sets and bleak exteriors, actors bemoan philosophical questions, drop upon the floor, address and question their structural place in the film. Laughter from the audience was decidedly there, but infrequent. As a viewer, I found myself confused as to what exactly we should be laughing at, or pondering as actors occasionally glanced toward the audience with some deep thought. I found myself laughing alone when a man appears playing banal music on an electric guitar, telling us “You can’t eat ideas!”
While much underground film making is perceived in being in open defiance of mainstream culture, the underground film of todays generation looks to sort, re-evaluate and look upon the cannibalization of media in everyday consumerist life. Perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing example in this case was Jill Hackney’s The Edge of the World. Here we are presented with two little girls, floating in a narcissistic world of sun, beaches and lavish apartments (I heard later that the film was allegedly filmed in Saudi Arabia.) Here, little girls wear chic clothing, sunglasses, smoke cigarettes and complain about being evicted. Hackney provides us with what I perceived to be, an inquiry into the fetishization of girlhood in everyday media, where girls are sexualized and exploited in nearly every capacity and every age-group. It was certainly no surprise to see Rainer Werner Fassbinder thanked in the end credits, each lush tableau and actors positions reminding one of The Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972).
Even the comedies screened, which were perhaps the most warmly received, are bent on Media and its endless intrusion disguised as integration. Agony, by Marc Dickerson consists of the documentary-like narrative surrounding a sad-sack poet/musician named ‘Agony’, who may as well have crawled out of the saddest abysses of Youtube, something our character Agony is perhaps not well aware of, since he frequently asks the Open Mic audiences he tortures, to check out his ‘MySpace’, a ‘place to connect with people’ as he tells his less than thrilled father he has forced a reunion with after several years. Agony is a fascinating commentary on the ever consuming obsession with fame in a world ruled by reality TV, internet stars and the nagging conscious of media that insists that everyone is secretly filled with inherent brilliance and talent. Dickerson’s character Agony, proves just the opposite as we watch him fail miserably, undeterred.
The most self conscious commentary was Robert Curry’s How is One to Live? Here, people are bombarded by media not by force, or by ignorance, but by humorous intellectual masochism. Curry’s tightly structured script, perhaps the most narrative work screened, consists of people working as graduates nervously finishing their thesis’ on film theory. Here, Curry gets the nihilism and self centered-ness of a generation fed on media and ideals, without any of the conviction or moral principles of any 20th century counter-cultures consisting of youth. Intellect is not a virtue, but a weapon in Curry’s film. Sisters can take other sisters boyfriends, girls can invite boys over and refuse to consider them a friend, but only if they can argue about the values of Buster Keaton. It is made comedically clear that a character who complains about her thesis on Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) is about the same as one constantly taking a shit, as our main character is prone to do. The Shooting Wall Film Festival was astounding for its consistency alone. Here, for the first time in god knows a long time, is a coherent and consistent film community with faces and names to watch out for, and gives me, as an audience member, film-maker, and critic a great deal of hope and optimism.