Some distance into Kip Fulbeck's
LA Christmas, a documentary look at his family's holiday celebration, his mother begins to critique his filmmaking style in her Chinese-accented, sharp little voice.
"Blurry," she says, aptly appraising the piss-poor image quality of her son's camera. "Isn't that your concern? Suppose to use best equipment."
The old lady's got a point. Fulbeck, with the other filmmakers featured in the Best of PXL This film festival, is shooting using the PXL 2000, a toy camera manufactured by Fisher-Price during the late '80s that recorded images onto audiotape. The resulting footage looks like something you'd see on a tiny, portable, black-and-white TV plugged in under a bridge during a thunderstorm. You spend a lot of the show straining to figure out what the heck you're looking at, but in the hands of the better filmmakers, it's more than worth the eyestrain. In the hands of the less-gifted filmmakers, the constant static is like a big dollop of crunchy grit atop an already unappetizing dish.
To be fair, only one film on the bill, Muther Mumesons, is truly awful. If you sat down with some smug, stoned college students in 1972 and invited them to prattle on about the Cosmic Mysteries for several hours, periodically taking breaks to demonstrate their ineptitude on a variety of musical instruments, and edited the subsequent footage down to 14 brain-pulping minutes of the least interesting monologues, you'd pretty much have this film. The copyright date is 1989 (and, weirdly, 1996), but it sure does play like a time capsule straight from the patchouli-scented dorms of Nixon's America. If anything, the film's image resolution is far too crisp; by the 13th minute, you'll be pleading for more grit to obscure these interminable talking heads from view. I had the luxury of the fast-forward button for my press copy, and even at superspeed, the thing dragged on forever. You poor bastards will have to sit through it at its intended pace; God have mercy on your souls.
The remaining films on the bill range from flawed but fascinating to flawed but kind of fun to flawed but not so bad you want to gouge out your eyes. Lance Wagner's God's Little Soldiers is a documentary shot during a protest outside an abortion clinic; it's a riveting, street-level view of the abortion battle, marred only by the filmmaker's near-total smugness, the maddening crackle of the film's images, and a dystopian coda only slightly less subtle than the playlets ninth-grade theater students scribble in their notebooks.
There are some music videos (a clumsy Andy Warhol homage and Maintenance, some guy's harmless novelty tune about what a lazy bastard he is), a couple of mildly diverting shorts about bugs, an amusing tale of a first confession called, aptly enough, Laura's First Confession, and a noir picture (Venus in Flames) that would probably be pretty good if I could make out what happens at the end. Somebody dies, I think, this being noir and all.
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The two stand-outs on the bill are Fulbeck's film and Michael Almereyda's The Rocking Horse Winner, which closes the evening. Fulbeck is a wise-ass who takes great glee in annoying his mom. Early on, she calls him a pest, and while she's right, you get the feeling Fulbeck had to grow up that way to survive his mom's endless, snarky put-downs. There is a crackling tension in the air between them (rendered more visceral by the pixels also crackling in the air between them), but you can sense their true affection as they waltz together to the cringingly inappropriate accompaniment of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On." It's hardly a Norman Rockwell Christmas, but it works for them.
Almereyda's is the real gem of the show, an adaptation of a D.H. Lawrence story that would be unqualifiedly superb were it not for the goddamned snow, grit and murky sound that left me clueless about a crucial plot development. Almereyda's picture does not prove that the PXL 2000 is, as it has been hailed by legions of goatee-sporting hipsters, a worthwhile medium for artistic expression; rather, it proves that the device can almost sabotage even the most skilled directors.
For novelty value alone, PXL Thisis worth seeing; but having seen it, you'll probably hope, like I do, that some of these filmmakers are given real cameras for their next projects while the others confine their artistic pursuits to less demanding mediums. Like, say, some nice, quiet Crayola crayons.
The Best of Pxl This screens at the UC Irvine Film and Video Center, Humanities Instructional Building 214, Campus & W. Peltason drives, Irvine, (949) 824-7418; ww.humanities.uci.edu/fvc. Thurs., May 9, 7:30 p.m. $3-$5.