Black Maria

On Monday night I paid a visit to the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which houses the creative writing and film department at Naropa University here in Boulder. Naropa was the first fully-accredited Buddhist university in the US; the Kerouac School was co-founded by poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, both of whom studied Buddhism here in Boulder under Naropa’s founder.

Anyhow, I went there on Monday night to attend the Black Maria Film Festival. Now in its 28th year, this traveling festival brings its jury-selected collection of  short avant-garde and art films to universities and galleries around the country. For each showing, founder and director John Columbus assembles a particular set of films from among the 50 titles included in the Festival’s portfolio for the year. Columbus travels with the films, introducing and discussing them with the audience.

It’s a free event, which I suppose partly explains why the auditorium was SRO: I’m guessing 300 or more people, comprised mostly of students from Naropa and the University of Colorado, packed themselves into the place. I arrived early, so I struck up a conversation with the projectionist and the guy standing next to him. This fellow turned out to be Chris Pearce, professor of animation at the U. of Colorado and the local coordinator for the Black Maria Festival. Apparently the U. and the Festival have a long collaborative history, owing to the influence of experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who chaired the film studies department at the U for many years. When I mentioned to Chris that I’d seen some of the recent student films and had profiled two of the filmmakers, he told me that Ingrid Echeverry had made her film as an assignment in his class last semester. “There’s Ingrid now,” Christ remarked as she and her boyfriend took seats a few rows in front of us. So I got out of Chris’ way and joined Ingrid and her friend for the show.

I don’t believe I’ll discuss in detail any of the twelve films that comprised the Boulder showing. It was striking to me how each of the purely abstract experimental films had been assembled in a similar way: a series of scenes are shot from multiple angles, with each shot being split up into segments of a few frames each and then jumbled together with segments from other shots of the same scene. By preserving the continuity of particular scenes within the quick-cut discontinuity, the film conveys a sense of almost-seeing, of seeing beneath the threshold of perception, of something like unconscious vision. It’s ironic that such a precise, mechanical, and painstaking technique for constructing a film frame by frame would be used to instill such vague impressionistic experiences in the viewer.

One of the films was made by Patti Bruck, a faculty member in the U. of Colorado film department. Afterward she and John Columbus discussed the film, and the filmmaker entertained questions from the audience. The questions weren’t particularly probing, and afterward I kind of wished I’d said what was on my mind: this is a film that gets me thinking about making my own film. Much of it was assembled from found footage shot mostly in the 1950s, interspersed with freshly-filmed shots of ordinary objects watched intently, almost obsessively, often from odd angles and distances, bestowing on them a kind of eery nostalgia that veered toward repressed memory. Art is as much about ways of seeing what’s already there as it is about making new things; Bruck’s movie made me want to see.

Recall that Josh Minor’s film on this blog was a riff on The Wizard of Oz. Incredibly enough, one of the films shown in the Festival worked this same vein. In it we’re shown a very short clip of Dorothy singing Over the Rainbow, cut into even shorter segments and distributed across grids of images of the same scene: first 4, then 9, then 16, then 25 separate images, each contributing its own fragmented sonic elements. The result is an undulated abstract musical performance completely unlike the original — the same assembled-abstraction technique I described previously, this time applied to sound rather than image. I think Josh’s rendering is more effective, frankly.

I love this idea of taking a film festival on the road. Between February and June Columbus takes his show to more than 70 different venues. If the crowds elsewhere are anything like the draw in Boulder, that’s something like 20 thousand people who get to see and to discuss these unusual and challenging films.

Explore posts in the same categories: Filmmakers

3 Comments on “Black Maria”

  1. Robert LaRue Says:

    Darn… there’s that problem of really getting the audience sufficiently inspired/enraged/disturbed/aroused/impressed… to actually actually make insightful comments, challenge the artist’s vision, or ask a difficult-to-answer question.

    Film makers want to talk about their films. Film festivals make hay from promoting the opportunity to speak with film makers… then the questions are insipid.

    As explored previously, perhaps the large audiences inhibit the conversation. How about a new format? Show the films to a large audience (the experience of sharing the viewing with a large crowd significant differs from watching at home, even on a large screen), then break into smaller self chosen groups in smaller rooms, one room per film. Now only those people deeply interested in that particular film can interact with the film maker whose work they are most interested in. That may improve the quality of the conversations.

  2. john doyle Says:

    Typically I can’t get to a place of asking a good question until I’ve had a chance to think about the movie for awhile. John Columbus, the director of the festival made some comments about the film and asked a few questions, but this exchange too seemed sort of clumsy and forced. I was left with the impression that the filmmaker was a bit reluctant to say what she thought about her own work. Perhaps as a matter of principle she’d rather not impose her own interpretations on the viewer. Alternatively, maybe she too felt comfortable with such a large audience, partly because as a professor she’s usually on the other side of the conversation, quizzing her students about their work rather than the other way around.

    I like your idea, Bob, about breaking into smaller groups for discussion. Prior to the festival Chris Pearce said that John Columbus likes to talk, so that the post-showing period lasts for quite some time. I don’t think the audience shared that expectation, especially since most scheduled events attempt to hew to a tight schedule. The post-screening discussion focused more on Columbus, his festival, his selection criteria, etc. rather than the films themselves.

  3. […] wrote a bit about last year’s festival here. My favorite movie from this year’s offerings is Fuzzy Insides by Michaela Olsen, currently […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: