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Here's a fun experiment

Smartly observed, cleverly crafted films offer welcoming introduction to art-house cinema

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/4/2015 (866 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A scientist conducts her experiments by tinkering with variables and recording the results, a process that might yield new discoveries or literally blow up in her face. (The outcomes are rarely so dramatic.)

The same goes for "experimental" film. Filmmakers tinker with cinematic convention, subverting narrative structure or eschewing it altogether. They explore unexpected subject matter, manipulate the physical properties of film, and devise novel soundtracks and projection setups. The results of these experiments are as varied as their laboratory counterparts: often interesting, sometimes thrilling, and (at least for this film philistine with his aging-millennial attention span) frequently unwatchable.

Filmmaker Roger Beebe.

Filmmaker Roger Beebe.

Scene from Historia Calamitatum Part II: The Crying Game.

Scene from Historia Calamitatum Part II: The Crying Game.

In Films for One to Eight Projectors, a touring program that makes its Winnipeg stop April 9 at Cinematheque, American filmmaker Roger Beebe manipulates all of these variables without abandoning the constants that make film-viewing something people actually enjoy. I had the chance to preview all but one of the works screening tonight, and I found them diverse, engaging, well-crafted and clever, "experimental" but compulsively watchable -- an ideal point of entry for anyone put off by the idea of "art-house cinema" but no less rewarding for dyed-in-the-celluloid film buffs.

Beebe's films take the form of loosely structured but neatly contained cinematic essays rooted in piercing, often humorous observation. Individual works examine Las Vegas's boom-and-bust culture and alarming suicide rate, companies jockeying for position in the telephone directory, the biblical story of creation, the vastness of space and the phenomenon of male tears. The formats are equally wide-ranging: simultaneous projections create shifting, real-time collages of impressionistic imagery and found footage; one film was "processed" on a desktop laser printer, while another piece forgoes imagery altogether.

The only single projection and only digital video, Historia Calamitatum ("the story of my misfortunes") Part II: The Crying Game, takes a playful, self-deprecating look at the snuffly side of men's emotions. Beebe draws together tearful clips from film and television (pro athletes cry a lot, apparently), a soundtrack of weepy pop songs and excerpts from his own diary of things that opened up the waterworks. (Spoiler alert: it's mostly spelling bees, Law & Order, college sports, and NPR). Money Changes Everything, shot over three days in Las Vegas, and AAAAA Motion Picture, the one about phonebooks, are both five-minute triple projections that exploit the nostalgic aura of 16mm film to gently tease out the seedier, stupider aspects of American life.

Closing the smartly sequenced program, Beginnings carves an audiobook recording of Genesis into single words, playing them back in alphabetical order--"be be be be ... Let let ... light light light ... there there..." The awkwardly clipped syllables, varying emphasis and maddening repetition create a soundscape that's both disorienting and familiar. It ends with 35 seconds of nothing but the sharp intake of breath, sounding at once rapturous, exhausted and scared. The effect is utterly disarming, and out of the darkened hush that follows comes Last Light of a Dying Star, Beebe's six-projector celestial opus. Over 25 minutes, the piece builds from swirling pinpoints of light to a kaleidoscopic pastiche of astronomical imagery, East German children's cartoons, and luminous passages of manually and chemically mistreated film.

Having only seen the works online, the click and whir of one to eight projectors faintly audible in the background, I'm as eager as anyone to experience the work in person (philistinism notwithstanding). The special presentation of Open City Cinema and Cinematheque starts at 7 tonight; tickets are $9.


Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.

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