If you like material that stretches your perceptions, this year’s St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase is offering up two hours of experimental fare and animated offerings. Unlike a scientific study, whether these experiments are deemed successes or failures is strictly in the eye of the beholder, but these are the ones that left an impression on me.
The centerpiece of the experimental showcase is a love letter to Brian, Lesley, and Michelle, an hour-long piece that blends spoken word performance, testimonials, and interpretive dance in an exploration of racism, diversity initiatives, white fragility, anti-blackness, and the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. Spoken word and interpretive dance are certainly not everyone’s bag and I’ll be the first to admit that I personally have a low tolerance for interpretive dance, but even I was impressed with the way writer, director, and choreographer Hettie Barnhill (a Central VPA grad who now works on Broadway) used her camera to move with and around her performers to really capture the grace and fluidity of their movements. There is one sequence in particular that is soundtracked by Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention that I found particularly affecting. The film is at its most powerful when it’s at its most personal, as in the early going when the dancers discuss their own experiences dealing with police. That personal touch doesn’t always carry over to the scripted material, which is at times ham-fisted, but any time it starts to wobble, Barnhill snatches you back with another personal moment or perspective. This is a thought-provoking work definitely worth seeking out.
The rest of the experimental showcase features works with sub-ten-minute runtimes. Josh Herum’s Autumn Swim (7 minutes) is an excellent example of the potential for experimentation within that short format. Ben Taylor (who also wrote the short) plays a man whose relationship with his girlfriend (Stacy Hanephin) has fallen apart due to trust issues. There’s nothing particularly novel about the couple’s story, but what’s novel is the way we experience it, in glancing glimpses of the highs and lows as the perspective jumps from the past to the present and the present jumps from our protagonist suicidally drunk in his apartment to him awakening naked in a soybean field. Somehow all these disjointed bits come together, like a Magic Eye narrative that only forms the complete picture when you look through it, past it, with intense focus.
Matthew Alexander Purkaple’s The Tattoo Artist doesn’t even break the two-minute mark, but still manages to convey worlds in its imagery of a tattoo artist whose working environment more resembles that of an underwater welder. Purkaple’s animation is impressively fluid, and his surrealistic imagery recalls something you might have seen on MTV’s Liquid Television.
Island Hopping is a slight but fun animated short from Michael Long, an assistant professor of animation at Webster University. For six wordless minutes, we follow a man who steps out of a pelican’s bill onto a deserted island, then hops from island to island and encounters whales, mermaids, and other assorted obstacles as he just tries to survive. Long’s drawing style is just simple outlines, but it’s got a bounciness and whimsiness that add up to an enjoyable little jaunt.
Another wordless short, Webster Groves native Shane Dioneda’s Space Race uses exquisitely smooth stop motion animation to capture two astronauts who arrive on a strange, Moon-like planet at the same time ready to plant their flags, then get into a competition to see who can plant their flag the highest. The rounded, cartoony characters (which recall, but don’t copy, the work of Wallace & Gromit’s Nick Park) and the silly game of one-upmanship make for a fun, funny five minutes.
Other entries eschew narrative entirely for formalistic experimentation. Van McElwee’s World Skin and Zlatko Cosic’s Lungs both use gradually shifting computer generated imagery and droning sounds in shorts that imply an environmentalist message. The sum total of the visuals of Pier Marton’s (a human) being is one five-minute-long unbroken shot, uncomfortably close in on Marton’s eyes as he whispers to us, trying to convey a philosophical treatise on how we live our lives as a series of addictions but that that’s not the only path, only to talk himself out of discussing the concept further. “I don’t know exactly how to convey this,” Marton helpfully summarizes at one point, “so I’m struggling to try to make you realize that all this babble is what it is but it’s about something else.” I did manage to figure out it was about something else; what, exactly, sailed over my head, I think.
The 22nd annual Whitaker St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase runs until July 24th. The animated and experimental shorts program will screen at the Brown Hall Auditorium at Washington University (near the corner of Skinker and Forsyth) on July 22 at 6:00pm, and tickets are $15, or $12 for students and Cinema St. Louis members. Multi-film passes are also available. For the full list of feature films, shorts, and master classes or to purchase tickets, visit www.cinemastlouis.org/st-louis-filmmakers-showcase. | Jason Green