Film series and retrospectives are a dime a dozen in L.A. There are a number of venues and organizations around town involved in exhibiting and/or preserving films of all stripes. On any given weekend the revival and repertory film scene in L.A. can be a bit overwhelming. So it is an accomplishment that REDCAT manages to offer something unique, important, and off the beaten path with its own film and video series on mostly Monday evenings in the Fall and Spring. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. The Jack H. Skirball series, curated by CalArts faculty member Bérénice Reynaud and School of Film/Video Dean, Steve Anker screens material you’ll see nowhere else. The screenings focus heavily on experimental works from all over the world and almost completely eschew the type of mainstream commercial or “art house” film production that still dominates much other public film programs around town. Some of my best evenings at REDCAT have been in the film series from the documentaries of Ulrike Ottinger to the salvaged late 20th Century assembled by William E. Jones. Much of this superb and provocative programming unfolds under the watchful eye and sharp, dry wit of Reynaud who is an absolute rock-star of the first order. Half of the pleasure of these programs come from her incisive commentary and intelligent questioning and make these evenings a must see for anyone interested in the art of the filmed images.
The Spring portion of the film series started on Tuesday with an event entitled Music + Image which was presented as part of the omnipresent Pacific Standard Time art collaboration around town. The focus was on short video works made during the early to mid-1980s expressly for television by a variety of American artists. All of these works are included in the Long Beach Museum of Art’s Exchange and Evolution: Worldwide Video Long Beach, 1974-1999, a retrospective of video work shown at the museum over the last 25 years. Exhibit curator Nancy Buchanan was on hand to speak about the films as were several of the artists including Carole Ann Klonarides, Michael Owen, and director and 80s pop icon Toni Basil. The 14 short films shown in the program explored some of the fertile artistic ground that the monstrosity that would become MTV grew out of. While a few of the films could be considered traditional “music videos” most were not although all of them explored a rapidly changing relationship between sound and image in the early years of this kind of video art. Purely abstract visual works like Bob Snyder’s colorful Icron and Tempest from DeWitt, Sorensen, and Winkler gave way to a variety of more narrative and structured works. There were at least two seminal early “music videos” including Laurie Anderson’s O Superman (above) and the Toni Basil and David Byrne-directed clip for the Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime.
My favorite pieces though were some of the earliest that exploited the whole notion of recording video images to begin with. Cynthia Maughan’s Thank You, Jesus consists of little more than static black and white images of a well-appointed period living room from 1981, The rooms in this suburban home act as imagined settings for a hysterical voice over monologue about a woman meeting Jesus in a dream and rejecting much of what she imagines he has to offer. Dara Birnbaum’s 1978 Wonder Woman (at the top) is exactly what it says – a collection of short sequences taken from the 1970s television program of the same name starring Lynda Carter which are rapidly repeated creating an endlessly spinning Carter responding to staccato explosions in the background. The piece ends with the nearly nonsensical text from a novelty disco hit of the era on the topic of the character projected onto a blank blue screen underscoring some of the sexual politics under critique in the piece.
The screening was followed by a fascinating Q and A where the panel explored the loss of a spirit of experimentation in the video arena by the start of the 1990s. It was a fascinating discussion, but this is standard procedure in the Skirball series under Reynaud’s tenure. There are at least 10 more screenings between now and the end of May including a new work from Lee Anne Schmitt on Feb 13th, works form Daniel Eisenberg and Sharon Lockhart in March and April. And Bill Morrison will bring his collaboration with Johann Johannsson, The Miners' Hymns on April 23rd. Check out the full schedule and mark your calendars now.