Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Exploding Cinema at the Cinema Museum, 13th July 2013

I like to think of myself as a pretty serious cinephile.  In a good week I'll go to the cinema 2 or 3 times and try to watch at least one film every day.  I spend most of my downtime either writing film reviews or arguing about the merits of various directors   So why have I never been to London's Cinema Museum before last Saturday night?  

As I stepped through the door I entered a wonderland of cinema miscellanea, the idols of the golden age benevolently beaming down at you from the walls.  Once you've made your way upstairs you enter a huge, vaulted room stuffed full of obsolete projectors, decorative fittings and furniture culled from London's vast array of dead cinemas.  These are the archaeological remains of what was once the prime medium in entertainment: you see 'Odeon' branded standing ashtrays, golden buttoned staff uniforms and bulb-lit signs that would once have yelled out over the bustling streets of London.  

This is all that remains of the 'Era of Glamour'.  In 50 years I doubt that anything from the current crop of multiplexes will be considered aesthetically pleasing enough to display in a museum.  Purely by existing the Cinema Museum functions as a kick in the teeth to processed, corporate 'cinema-as-product'.  This makes the Museum the perfect place to host Exploding Cinema, whose philosophy of "No Stars. No Funding. No Taste. No Proper Cameras." gives them a common enemy.

The there's two halves to tonight's line-up.  In the first half we see films submitted to Exploding Cinema and the second is devoted to the 'Disposable Film Festival'.  This is a San Francisco based festival with a similar philosophy to Exploding Film, amateur productions created on non-professional devices.

The films exhibited by Exploding Cinema run the gamut from the surprisingly complex to straightforward and simple.  The simpler ones tend to be the realisation of a single idea, like Katy Vans' My Street Today. This consists of the director walking down a street with a camera pointed at the pavement.  As she moves along the camera pauses on various chalk messages, revealing a simple story about love and loss.  This is the kind of thing that these nights are made for, a simple idea that looks like it was shot on a mobile phone.  

The importance of the concept or idea over how professionally it's executed is one of the more refreshing things about attending these events.  In mainstream cinema a fantastic idea usually gets diluted over and over again until it's the same bland cinematic sludge as everything else you encounter.  Not here.  This is cinema frolicking in a pure, punky aesthetic. 

Epitomising this is Fabrizio Federico's Virgin Rebel.  To long-lens footage of hooded teenagers loitering in some industrial British hell-hole we hear a man (who I'm 99% certain is Sid Vicious) decrying pretty much  the entirety of society. The comprehensive, egotistical deconstruction has a classically English whingy air to it, which works fantastically with the aimlessly mischievous kids we observing.  There's a bit of creepy voyeurism here, the teenagers clearly don't realise they're being filmed.  This places us in a God's eye view, the viewer deciding for themselves whether or not to view them with a condemnatory eye.  Would the grown-up punk rocker of 1977 look upon the kids today with suspicion, even as they act out the same societal roles that they did?

Both Virgin Rebel and My Street Today are experimental films, and they're wholly at home in Exploding Cinema.  But it's not just conceptual art pieces here, there'ss room for traditional forms and narrative here.  Andy Howlett's Slough tells us the quick story of a depressed young man walking around (what I assume is) the town of Slough.  In what feels like a nod to Harmony Korine's Gummo we open to our lead sitting in a tub full of impressively gross looking brown bathwater - a genuinely nauseating image.  The short is impressively shot, especially the images of water vapour slowly rising from a canal at sunrise.  There's also a great musical punchline when a papier mache body is hurled over a bridge in an imagined suicide.  In an interview after the film Howlett was asked what the budget was for the film.  He says that he had to buy some instant coffee to colour the bathwater brown and the ingredients for the papier mache and that's about it.  It's a casual statement that felt like a distillation of the Exploding Cinema mentality.

Nearly all the other films I saw were interesting in their own way, though special mention goes to Annie Jael Kwan and Helen Ormand's heartwarming Badger.  It's an elegantly made, autumnal documentary about Howard Hardiman, the creator of a Brockley-based badger comic character.  There's a clever mixing of live-action and animation that in just 6 minutes tells a full story from beginning to end with a nicely hopeful ending.  It's a gem, perfectly pitched, professionally constructed and with intelligent production throughout.  Though it's quite different from the other films on display the focus on individual, personal creation means it fits in thematically if not stylistically.

Dr Duncan Reekie
After the films there was a short performance by Dr Duncan Reekie called 'New Concepts in Modern Art'.  To footage of galleries in various cities he listed what pretty much everything modern artist might do.  So, for example: "Take something big and make it small and put it in the gallery.  Take something small and make it big and put it in the gallery.  Take something serious and make it funny and put it in the gallery."  Dr Reekie delivers this list (which takes about 6 or 7 minutes to get through) in an authoritative monotone, the repetition creating a biting critique on modern art.  Though intended as a condemnation of modern art, I found it rather useful as a catalogue of interesting ideas.  I found it a bit rich to stand there condemning modern art while doing what is essentially a performance art piece at a night of DIY experimental cinema.  Still, it was funny and interesting and something 'just' being funny and interesting is more than good enough for me.

The last part of the night was devoted to the Disposable Film Festival.  These films, are the product of amateur film-makers all over the US (and one from Canada).  There appears to be a difference between an amateur film-maker in the states and over in the UK - they apparently have a lot more money.  Additionally, it's difficult to imagine someone from Exploding Cinema thanking Quentin Tarantino for his help at the end of their film.

Despite the incongruous sheen of professionalism, the 'Disposable' films were all pretty much outstanding.  I hugely enjoyed Tap to Retry by Neta Cohen, an imaginative papercraft based short that built into a dizzyingly intense death spiral of craziness.  Similarly great was Delta Heavy - Get By by Ian Robertson, a boardgame-based dubstep music video and Tape Generations, which simulated evolving bacteria with unravelling rolls of sellotape.  This work reminded me of the work of Michel Gondry, possessing the same disposition for using in-camera effects and intense imagination to warp perceptions of time and space.

I enjoyed every single one of the Disposable Film Festival entries - it's a bit daunting how high their standards are.  But it's the Exploding Film shorts that I appreciate the most.  In the best of them there's a braveness and attractive naivety, film made by people without any equipment, money or, in some cases, without any discernible cinematic talent whatsoever.   But they prove that no matter what your circumstances anyone can make film.  Karen Barnes, director of Rebeliever #5 gave a short interview after her film was shown, and she explained that she wasn't a film-maker.  "Rubbish!" I wanted to shout, as far as I'm concerned, if you've made a film and put it out for public consideration -  you're just as a valid a film-maker as Steven Spielberg or James Cameron.  

We live in an age where practically everyone walks around with a video camera on their mobile phone.  Exploding Cinema transforms cinema from an exclusive and expensive boys club into an egalitarian, communal enterprise.  It's always uplifting and inspiring to see work like this.

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