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What’s (still) experimental?

For filmmakers, being experimental isn’t as easy as it used to be. Fifty years ago, tossing aside Hollywood’s conventions of narrative, acting, cinematography, and format exposed plenty of directions in which to push the envelope. Maya Deren challenged viewers by confusing them. Stan Brakhage manipulated his film by hand to create images never seen in the real world. Andy Warhol simply pointed his camera at the Empire State Building and left it running.

But what counts as experimental in 2004? Ideas that once stretched the boundaries of what a movie is have become mainstream fare at the multiplex. Out-of-order scenes, found (or supposedly found) footage, montages, collages, computer-processed film, unscripted actors, even unaware actors . . . all standard stuff now in Hollywood. Cinema verité has been taken lowbrow via reality TV and amateur video clips on the net. Digital and interactive video technologies, which once amazed both producers and audiences, have lost their novelty now that DVDs and multiplayer videogames are as common as soda pop.

In search of novel approaches to the medium, we dodged the current academic and in-crowd definitions of the “experimental film/video” genre, and went in search of a different, non-Establishment kind of experimentalism: Moving images that continue to probe the accepted relationships between artist, medium, and audience, and seek to break them. We came back with three completely different works—one is a live performance act, another a movie made up of other movies, and the third a narrative piece made not with a camera, but with a videogame.

The Live Act: Tracy and the Plastics

The woman onstage sings, almost shouts, into her microphone: “The city! Apocalypse!” But the early-1980s electronic drums and keyboards backing her voice come not from live musicians, but from two women projected onto a screen beside her. Wait . . . the other two women are also the same woman, who has made no attempt to disguise herself beyond a wig and a minor change of clothes as she stabs at a keyboard in one persona, or slaps her thigh (emitting a low-tech drum machine beat on the soundtrack) in the other.

The show doesn’t go smoothly, though. The onscreen drummer challenges the singer’s role as leader. The keyboard player complains that the band’s name, Tracy and the Plastics, “upholds the historical hierarchy of a rock band,” while arguing with the drummer at the same time. At one point, both onscreen players stop working on a new song to ponder “the prehistoric myth of the always-once-was, never-actually-is lesbian.”

“Tracy” is Brooklyn resident Wynne Greenwood, as are her onscreen alter egos: Nikki the keyboardist, and Cola the drummer. Greenwood studied just enough art history, screenwriting, and video production to quit school and start her own thing in Olympia, Washington—home to Courtney Love and the neo-punk Riot Grrl rockers of the 1990s. She created Tracy and the Plastics in 2001, recording videos and CDs as well as performing live.

After relocating to New York in 2003, Greenwood found herself one of the city’s neo-new-wave stars of the city’s burgeoning electronic counterculture. Along with other genre-bending performers such as Fischerspooner (a combination band and dance troupe whose badly lip-synched live performances and organized crowd-surfing are part of the act), Tracy and the Plastics’ shows are designed to make audience members rethink not only the performers’ roles, but their own.

“I like bodies of work that build a language and then talk back to that language,” Greenwood says, taking a break between performing at the Whitney Museum in Manhattan and embarking on a coast-to-coast tour of music clubs—the kind that usually feature alt-rockers wielding real drums and guitars—to promote her new release Culture for Pigeon, a combination CD and DVD.

Just as electric guitarists learned to incorporate sonic feedback from their amplifiers into their music, Tracy plays off the mechanics of her DVD player. “There’s a part in the show where I look out and say to someone in the audience, ‘Can you pause that for a second?”’ The video immediately freeze-frames—actually, it’s a long scene that only looks like one paused frame.

“I take that moment to step out of the character,” Greenwood explains. “When I pause the video, it’s an acknowledgement that it is a video. I’m not trying to keep anything a mystery from them. I’m asking people to be aware of what’s going on.” Greenwood then explains to the audience that she’s trying to establish a relationship with them, that the performance is something they’re all in together. “I truly believe that if I can do this, anyone can do this. That sets up this inherent question: Why am I up here, and why are you guys watching me? What are you getting out of this? Let’s create a relationship together.”

Sure, we’ve seen socially underdeveloped folk singers and soon-to-be ex-lovers make the same plea, shortly before either literally or figuratively storming offstage. But Tracy—er, Greenwood—is different. She’s more aware of and in control of the entire relationship than her audience, at least up to that point. “MTV expects their audience will participate in the market and buy records,” she says. “I expect my audience will participate in the creation of a new kind of culture and create their own art, or their own empowered way of speaking to this medium of video.”

Greenwood’s actual songs and videos can be hard to follow. “My work tends to be pretty coded,” she admits, both in words and onscreen. “But people tell me that they have an emotional reaction to it. Emotions make more sense than statements or words.” Sometimes, she just makes stuff up. Her 2001 CD, Muscler’s Guide to Videonics, is illustrated with a video screenshot containing the subtitle: “Tracy means front in some language. When people call TRACY! It’s a call to the front.” (Tracy comes from a Gaelic word meaning “fighter,” and doesn’t mean “front” in any language Greenwood is aware of.)

By contrast, Greenwood, both in and out of her role as Tracy, strives to make her commentary with the boundaries between artist, medium, and audience anything but oblique. “I think the whole project is pretty obvious,” she says. “Still, there’ve been a couple of people who actually asked, ‘Why couldn’t your band members be here?’”

The Movie about the Movies:

Value-Added Cinema

The shot looks familiar: A group of friends in a bar, obviously actors, raise their beers in a toast. Suddenly, the scene changes completely. It’s another bar, another happy gathering, a different brand of beer in their hands, but the toast continues without losing momentum, hopping from one bar to another in a seamless chorus of good cheer, good times, good friends . . . and clearly visible beer labels. But these aren’t TV ads spliced together. They’re scenes from big-budget Hollywood movies, cleverly placed and usually paid for by beer makers’ publicists.

Value-Added Cinema, produced by Steve Seid, video curator at the Pacific Film Archive , and Peter Conheim, a member of multimedia pranksters Negativland, is a forty-seven-minute montage composed of nothing but product placement ads—from nearly seventy feature films, edited into one seamless piece. Seid and Conheim scanned the scenes into a computer, and then edited them so that the scenes and their soundtracks tie into one another. Rachel Leigh Cook (Josie and the Pussycats) opens her McDonalds-logoed shower curtain and screams as the camera cuts to Edward Norton (Fight Club) sitting on the toilet, reading an Ikea catalog.

“A few people have been compelled to go shopping afterwards,” Seid jokes. “But for most it has a more negative impact. A lot of people are overwhelmed. For some it’s almost nausea.” That’s the idea, of course. “We wanted to show how it’s a seamless universe of products. In a certain way, the films are taking place inside of that,” rather than the other way around.

Not that product placement is a new idea. “There have been product placements in films going back at least to the 1930s, but they were done more subtly then,” he says. “[Publicist] Edward Bernays would go to the studios, representing an entire industry—say, the diamond industry. He’d say, ‘You’re having two characters get married here. Let’s make it a diamond ring.’ Or, ‘Let’s put the people at the party in fur coats.’ I think at that point in time it was just making the products available,” rather than bidding for spots.

Now, with product placement parts of the budget for most big flicks, Seid and Conheim want to raise awareness of their presence and effect. “It becomes a force that compromises the narrative and other aspects of the film to make the agencies happy,” Seid says. “As you go from film to film to film, you’re actually in the realm of commerce rather than of narrative or film.”

To make its point, Value-Added Cinema is deliberately long, going on and on, well after it seems the producers should have run out of steam, and product shots. After seeing the piece, it may be hard not to reflect on every identifiable label or brand name in every movie you’ve ever seen. Even when products artfully advance the story, as when David Lynch uses beer brands to denote his characters’ social standing in Blue Velvet, it’s impossible not to notice what could be a paid placement that wasn’t in the original script.

Seid and Conheim’s piece has been making the rounds at festivals and in small theaters, but PBS and other broadcast outlets have balked at the daunting task of gaining legal clearance to use all seventy clips. “We didn’t feel we needed to clear them, because we felt it was all a kind of intellectual quotation, to comment on their broad impact in society,” says Seid. Potentially liable parties at movie houses and TV networks haven’t been so glib about the work’s artistic license, though, and have passed on showing it to larger audiences. Too bad—Seid and Conheim say they’ve got enough material saved up for another two hours.

The Virtual World: Anna

It looks like a demo for a videogame, or perhaps a computer animation short from years past. But the story is different: Along a tree-shaded path through a forest, a small girl trips and spills a handful of glowing objects into a small clearing. A crow eats most of them, but one survives and sprouts into a small green plant. As it grows, it is threatened by a deer, by weeds, and ever-changing weather. Like a ballet dancer, the plant arches its stem and waves its pair of arm-like leaves to show struggle, despair, or joy. Finally, it blooms into a brightly colored yellow and purple pansy with an almost human face.

The flower’s adult joy is short-lived, though. Another human comes along and plucks it, causing it to shed grief and pollen as it’s carried off. It dies, slowly, sadly, drooping in a vase filled with other wildflowers. But its tears don’t fall in vain: The forest clearing is now abloom with dozens of other pansies.

Katherine Anna Kang’s five-minute short, Anna, is one of few films ever to find struggle and tragedy in the life cycle of a wildflower. But more significantly, the entire piece takes place in a virtual world, created on a computer and animated using a relatively new technique called machinima. Rather than animating one frame at a time, or waiting hours for a scene to be “rendered” by a pricey bank of computers, machinima taps into a piece of standard videogame software, called a rendering engine, installed on the PC.

To create Anna, Kang used special software tools to create a set of actors, scenes, and a script of who moves where and when, then fed the resulting data into the rendering engine for the popular Quake III Arena game, which instantly played it at full speed on the computer screen. The result was saved to video. But since the “movie” is basically computer data describing the actors, scenes, and motion, it could just as well be downloaded to a viewer’s computer, letting the viewer’s own rendering engine run the story on their desktop or laptop computer at the highest video resolution possible.

Paul Marino, who runs the Machinima.com website devoted to the genre, says, “What makes machinima different is that we’re creating a virtual set inside the computer. It’s a setting with talent that is then captured for the sake of creating a narrative. With traditional computer animation, there’s a lot more preparation that’s not about the talent and the narrative.” By relying on installed game software to do the work, most of those pieces are already there and ready to go. Best of all for budding moviemakers, machinima scenes can be viewed in real time as soon as they’re created, and then adjusted over and over, without waiting around for the individual frames to be developed.

“The great advantage is that you don’t have to have a mass number of artists or rendering farms”—the expensive arrays of computers used to generate the high-resolution graphics in motion pictures. “Anyone with a PC can get something like this done. Of course it depends how much time and talent you want to put into it,” says Kang.

Creating a movie on a virtual set, with virtual actors and assets, gives machinima producers room to experiment on the cheap. “It gives you the freedom to take a camera at different angles and see how the light hits the flower,” Kang says. “If you don’t like it, you can click and drag to move the camera.” By contrast, her former work in claymation made retakes exasperating. “You might even have to recreate the actual clay if it’s not reflecting correctly. Then you have to move the clay, and refilm it, and check the results. You go to the drawing board again and again and again.” Changing the shininess of an object in machinima requires clicking and dragging a slider. Press play, and the scene replays in real time. Don’t like it? Try again. No construction time or expendables lost.

Scenes from Value Added Cinema.

But it’s not the ease and cheapness that makes machinima unique. It’s the fact that instead of just shooting a few scenes to create the illusion of another world, the machinima producer actually creates the world, and then captures a shot of it. Kang compares the genre to J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels, which seem to be histories about a world that exists inside Tolkien’s head. “Whenever there’s a mountain or a cave in the book, you feel like you could go peek over the mountain or under the cave, and something would be there,” she says. Using machinima, it’s possible to actually put something there.

For some viewers, the richness of the story’s world matters more than whether or not it’s done with software. “There are kids to whom a videogame character is instinctively comfortable to get a story from,” Marino says, so machinima artists don’t feel compelled to focus on the photorealism of their work. Yet Kang, who spent three months working part-time with two other people to create Anna, says she wanted her piece to take viewers’ minds out of the science-fiction-and-sorcery realm of many videogames. She deliberately scripted Anna to be slow-paced and graceful. “There’s a lot of symbolism,” she says. “It symbolizes life and death, although we’re following the life cycle of a flower.” The movie’s message fits its experimental genre: What may seem like an inconsequential part of a larger world—say, a wildflower—has its own important story, even though that story is but a part of a larger world of interacting players.

Machinima is one example of how digital and interactive technologies have taken both artists and audiences in directions other than the tech inventors intended. Ten years ago, proponents of interactive media thought fans would enjoy the ability to modify the characters, sets, and action of a movie. Maybe there would be a slider to adjust how much violence they wanted to see. But today, it seems technology is most effective when it’s used to serve skilled narrators, actors, directors, and cinematographers at what they already do.

Going forward, Kang thinks there’s yet another possibility for machinima: Fans of a particular work might enjoy exploring the world that surrounds the script. They might do a little virtual tourism, celebrity-stalk the digitized characters, rather than trying to play producer. Fans who’ve watched Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King enough times would be able go exploring to see what Tolkien’s mind placed beyond that mountain, she says. “There’s a possibility for bringing your audience into your world in a way that hasn’t been done before.”

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