Any film geek worth his weight in black-framed glasses knows the joy of sitting in a dark theater listening to the whir of the projector. The sound of delicate celluloid shooting through that machine in the booth overhead echoes an earlier era, when cinematographers changed film in thick sacks, their hands laboring unseen inside the bags with the deftness of professional artisans, protecting the film from overexposure. It was a time when editors and directors sat crouched over editing tables together for hours, splicing and re-splicing individual frames and then piecing them together before matching the sound, chasing the elusive syncopation of a finished product. It was a time before computers and DV cameras, when filmmaking wasn't something everyone could do, but a feat that only those true magicians of the cinema were capable of. That time is fast disappearing.
But there are still cinema purists out there. There are still pasty-faced cinephiles seated in the back of theaters who notice the occasional cigarette burns at the top right corner of the screen, then listen eagerly for the almost inaudible ca-chink from the booth as one reel is seamlessly changed out for another while the rest of the audience is completely oblivious. Film-goers who notice and appreciate the inherent blips and skips of the medium will be in their element at Friday's unspooling of The International Experimental Cinema Exposition (TIE) Fifth Anniversary Tour.
For example, in Peter Tscherkassky's haunting Outer Space, one of two 35mm prints in the exhibition, you can't help but notice the intrinsic film qualities of the short: The sprocket holes from the side of the reel literally chase the protagonist throughout the frame. The other films in the exposition -- highlights from around the world from the four previous TIE events -- are just as effective, allowing viewers to appreciate the craft by stressing the physical nature of what is seen on screen over plot or dialogue.
Included in the eleven films is the only print in North America of Jean Genet's Un chant d'amour, a 1950 film banned for its explicit homosexual content. The print was smuggled into the country by Jonas Mekas, a forerunner of American avant-garde and independent cinema, and was an enormous influence on the films of Andy Warhol.
Started in 1999 in Telluride, TIE was created with the goal of preserving the art of movies shot on strips of emulsion. "All of a sudden, there was this huge digital movement," explains TIE director and founder Chris May. "Everywhere you went, there was digital technology -- at cashier stands, on video monitors. At the same time, there was the sense that with all this new technology, anyone could make a film. Filmmaking became really easy. I wanted to preserve the notion of film actually shot on film." May is quick to defend the integrity of digital media, but he prefers the long tradition of celluloid. "It's like watercolor versus oil painting," he explains. "Neither one is necessarily better than the other, but, you know, kids can water-paint. Not just anyone can pull off the richer, darker nature of oil painting."
May invited the late Stan Brakhage, a pioneer experimental filmmaker and longtime CU professor of film, to serve on the board of artistic directors for the exposition. "I used to attend his salons," May remembers. "I learned more in those salons than I did in my four years of film classes." What he learned was that experimental cinema, a forum that by nature tests the limits of the medium, is a great way to call attention to the art of celluloid film.
"This exposition is a rare opportunity to see these types of films in Colorado," May says. And it's an increasingly rare opportunity to enjoy the magic of actual reels running through a projector.