“What’s your favorite color: concrete, feathers, plastic, or grass?” says the host of an unnamed talk show in Sam Barnett’s short film, “Tommy Boy.” The interview subject, a fictitious rapper/actor of the same name, thinks for a minute and says “Hmmm, Imma just say ‘colors.’ I love rainbows.” Then he draws a picture of himself as a plant while a reversed laugh track plays in the background. Welcome to the world of experimental film.
“The simplest way to define experimental film is to say that it’s non-narrative in a traditional sense,” said Barnett, a film student at UC Berkeley whose latest film, an animated short called “Breathe,” will be screening Thursday night at The ATA Film-&Video Festival, one of the few festivals in the world dedicated to short-form experimental film. Over two days 17 films will be shown.
“Experimental film basically lacks any sort of storyline that’s easy to understand. It’s definitely kind of a niche thing,” Barnett added.
“Experimental film is for people who think like fine artists,” said Kathleen Quillian, development director/online managing editor for Artists’ Television Access, a non-profit providing equipment, education, and screening space for independent film and video to artists in the Mission. “They’re interested in ideas and trying new things. They’re on the fringe, definitely not part of the mainstream.”
Blake Kimmel, a graphic designer and film fan who attended Television Access’s recent distribution panel, echoed this sentiment. “Experimental film is valuable because we all like to look at pretty things,” he said. “It’s similar to artwork you’d see on a wall at a museum. It’s not consumed by many, but that’s because you have to look deeper to appreciate it.”
For many filmmakers, experimental film is less of a distinct genre and more of a playground for experimentation. When making an experimental film, one doesn’t have to worry about character development, plot or coherency. They just think about aesthetics and sound.
“I’m working my way toward producing feature-length films that are more normal, but that also have these strange ideas in them. Experimental film is sort of training ground for that,” said Barnett.
Tommy Becker, who teaches visual arts at Gateway High School and video classes at John F. Kennedy University, said he never even considered making feature length narratives or commercials. “I like to keep my life and my art separate,” he said. “I’m a teacher and I have no desire to make money with film. I’d just get burnt.”
Becker’s work, a sprawling series of experimental shorts, is heavily influenced by poetry and often made to honor people in his life. The film he’ll be showing at the ATA Film-&Video Festival Friday night, “A Poem to be Read into a Flashlight with a Microphone Placed Above the Breast of a Pregnant Mother,” was conceived as a tribute to Becker’s wife and unborn child.
Like many of his other shorts, this film consists of a man reading a poem while a series of tenuously related images cycles and flashes on screen. Sometimes the man’s voice changes to a higher or lower pitch and, at one point, cartoon fireworks drift out of a woman’s nipple. None of that makes sense, of course. But to criticize Becker, or any other experimental artist, for that is to admit you’re a philistine.
“It takes some stamina and a toughened gut to stomach some of this experimental stuff, said Becker. “But it’s like learning to appreciate fine wine. It’s worth it.”
The ATA Film-&-Video Festival kicks off Thursday night at 7:30 at the Artists’ Television Access screening space/gallery (992 Valencia St.) with experimental/underground film screenings from around the globe and musical performances by Newtown and Karma McCartney. For more information and tickets ($7-$10), go here.