Almost every city has some sort of microcinema -- a small-scale, do-it-yourself movie screening series showcasing experimental, oddball, archival and underground films and videos. But Denver needs more of them, says Anthony Buchanan, so he's launching Cinema Contra, his own wandering microcinema that will be doing monthly screenings in different venues across town.
To introduce the series, Buchanan has curated Beyond Belief, a program of quirky archival and found films including the 1975 UFO documentary Mysteries From Beyond Earth, an investigation into the Lock Ness Monster called The Monster and the religious films Armageddon and Gods of the New Age. We recently spoke with Buchanan about his series and the state of experimental film in Colorado and beyond. See also: Score Big With From Deep, Brett Kashmere's Basketball Documentary
Westword: Talk about the upcoming program.
Anthony Buchanan: A little bit of history behind the films: I have a wide amount of sources I get these films from. I get them from eBay and borrow them from friends; I get a good amount of them from my friends in San Francisco who are serious film collectors who have those microcinemas out there. A large part of the programming ideas come from them. This idea of grouping oddball films together that fit between fine art and avant-garde screenings as well as more culty-type stuff really comes from them.
The UFO doc that I've got, Mysteries From Beyond Earth, was actually one that I had sent to Pablo Kjolseth. He runs the International Film Series in Boulder. I had forwarded the film to him because I saw it on eBay and thought, "Goddammit, this film is too expensive. I can't do this."
He bought it and showed it in his back yard. I started doing a little research on it to find out what it was, and when I found out, I was like, "Holy shit, I've got to have this thing."
On a side note, the film was a huge influence on Craig Baldwin's very famous collage film Tribulation 99. Just the other day, I was doing some more research on it and found out that Mysteries From Beyond the Earth was actually made by a very prolific experimental filmmaker and film scholar under a pseudonym.
Who was the filmmaker?
Wheeler Winston Dixon was his real name. If you Google his name, a lot of stuff will come up. I can't remember his particular pseudonym that he used in the film, because he went by a number of them.
The reason I wanted to group these things together for the first show is that the material is fairly accessible and it's all found, very rare stuff. That gives it a certain amount of appeal. My intention, as I go along with these shows, is to do more explicitly experimental stuff, but since I only have film projection stuff at the moment, I have to stick with the stuff that I have access to, and unfortunately, I just don't have access to a lot of specifically experimental stuff on film. I have access to some on DVD and so on, but that kind of stuff can be harder to come by.
Read on for more from Anthony Buchanan.
The Monster tells the story of the Loch Ness Monster.
In a larger sense, what are you going for with this series? Is it a microcinema? Something else?
Well, yeah, absolutely. Living in Erie prevents me from being able to start a full-on microcinema in Denver. My idea of a microcinema comes from the idea of a place like Rhino, a sort of DIY space where people live and work on art collectively and show stuff. I guess art is a kind of narrow word. But it's something that grows organically in the culture, in the neighborhood and so on, and that is definitely something I like the idea of trying to do.
Unfortunately for now, mine is going to be a nomad microcinema, in the sense that for the most part, a lot of these shows are going to be in different venues, and so on, for now, until I can find a space that is very interested in doing them back to back. But yeah, that's my intention.
Concerning the kind of stuff I've got in these first programs, it's mostly out of a campy archival interest. These films are not the kinds of things Anthology Film Archives or somewhere like that would show. They're a little too offbeat for the fine-art crowd. But to me, that's very interesting. My approach to it is more punk rock than that, not so strictly fine arts, not strictly experimental film, but that weird unexplored area of film history that's kind of in between that and what a lot of these industrial films fall under.
Talk about how you see this project fitting within the larger Denver-Boulder film scene.
Just before I got on the phone with you, I found out that a journal has just been released that is the first book about microcinemas and their history. For the most part, these are spaces that are the film equivalent of a punk-rock music space. For the most part, they tend to proliferate in just about every city in the country. Even places like Detroit that are totally bankrupt have spaces like this -- mostly DIY.
Denver and Boulder seem to be the place where that isn't the case. People like Christina Battle and Jeanne Liotta, they do shows here and there, and that's very cool. I really like those shows. First Person Cinema, which is the closest thing to a microcinema around here, exists basically exclusively inside the institution of CU. Even though the shows are technically open to the public -- I've been going to those shows for ten years -- for the most part, I only observe students and CU people there. It doesn't seem to be something that the public really knows about. My attempt, as far as the Denver-Boulder scene goes, is to try to create a space where it's a little more accessible to the public and also a little more underground.
CU Boulder has its agenda, which tends to be a little more formalistic and a little more academic, which is not a bad thing. I'm very academic myself. It tends to cater specifically to that canonized, historical avant-garde, what the proponents of avant-garde film deem to be very important or paramount work, and I feel like a lot of other work gets brushed aside in the process of that. In a nutshell, that's what I feel like Boulder-Denver could use a little bit more of.
Read on for more from Anthony Buchanan.
The kitchy documentary Mysteries From Beyond the Earth is a film about UFOs made by Wheeler Winston Dixon.
Mysteries From Beyond the Earth
What's the need for avant-garde film these days? Because so much of it seems institutionalized, perhaps it's been stripped of some of its power? Where are we now? What's going on with it as a medium?
That's a very good question. Hmmm. I guess it would depend on where you were in the country. When I was living in San Francisco, for example, it was a very different sort of vibe because there is so much experimental and underground film out there because it's seamlessly interwoven into the street activism and the guerilla counterculture that we always associate with San Francisco. In a place like that, it obviously exists in the institutions out there, too, but you'd be very hard-pressed to argue that in a place like that, experimental film and underground film exists exclusively in the institution. Whereas places like where we are and the Midwest, because it's a largely unknown thing, it's kind of protected by the institutions. Were you asking about the medium also?
As a medium, yes, but more as a genre.
Oh, I see. I think it's fair to say it has migrated like most other cinematic forms. It's basically largely been replaced by online substitutes for it. That's obviously a very general statement. What I said about San Francisco would totally contradict that. It's hard to say.
There are lots of filmmakers, like MM Serra, who was out here in February. She's a product of the New York underground film scene, and it's still very much what it used to be. They still predominantly use film. A lot of them are lucky enough to do that, whereas the majority of younger experimental filmmakers these days are more comfortable using video.
As far as genre goes, boy, there was a time where everybody was imitating Stan Brakhage. Every experimental film was predominantly abstract painting and so on. I think that's largely been replaced by recycled material, in other words, found footage or collage work, like Jodie Mack, whose show at CU is going to be a day after mine. She's like the new wunderkind of that aesthetic. She's extremely prolific. I guess her work, in particular, falls under animation, but she still works with predominantly found images. Coincidentally, that's kind of my motivation for starting to collect a lot of these older films. On the one hand, I don't consider myself predominantly a found footage filmmaker. On the other hand, in terms of showing that stuff for shows, I think this older kind of scrapped cultural detritus, these films are burned into our collective memory, whether we realize it or not. I think that's an interesting aesthetic. I feel like, for the most part, the larger genre of experimental film tends to be collage and found footage. Keep reading for more from Anthony Buchanan.
When I think of this concept of the avant-garde and modernism, there was this idea of the "new" and forging ahead. It seems like now there is a nostalgia that has taken over.
Well, yeah, that actually kind of follows on what I was saying. Again, every filmmaker is going to be different for the most part. I don't think of myself as a modernist in that sense, because I think that carries a lot of very serious, almost fascist-totalitarian ideals about everything.
I, as a filmmaker, am motivated by innovation. I reject 99 percent of my ideas. It's why I'm not very prolific as a filmmaker, because I feel like, "Oh, God, that's already been done" or "That's not cutting-edge enough." A lot of filmmakers aren't motivated by that. Most of the filmmakers I know act a little more on impulse.
On the other hand, going back to what you're saying about nostalgia, that's kind of like what I was saying earlier about how there are so many Brakhage imitators out there and so many found footage filmmakers. I mean, one of my favorite filmmakers of all time is Craig Baldwin, the guy I used to live with in San Francisco. He's the predominant found-footage filmmaker these days. In certain ways, avant-garde film has reached a barrier that way because found footage has become so commonplace that it's almost, I don't want to say the word cliché, because I don't want to be putting down a lot of my friends' work, but it has become kind of stagnant. They're kind of spinning; it's kind of spinning its wheels.
I think the nostalgia part is very true. Personally, I think that's probably the same reason we'd say our whole culture in general is kind of nostalgic. We could say that about film, but we could just as easily say that about painting or music. We definitely fetishize the past. The reason for that might be that as far as underground cultures go, there was a time that the underground had a lot of power. There was all the great music and artists coming out of the lower Eastside, and then New York became very gentrified. Now the same thing is happening to San Francisco.
I think people feel like they have to imitate that older, super-hardcore punk-rock rebelliousness that in many ways has dissipated from the culture. Don't necessarily quote me on that. That's me trying to explain why I think the culture is nostalgic. What should audiences look forward to with this upcoming program?
I think it's a very unusual thing. It's something I think is largely lacking in Denver and Boulder. I hope people come. It's going to be a pretty relaxed, bring your own beer and have a good time kind of screening. It's going to be the first of many. I hope to be organized enough to be planning something like this once a month. I just hope people come and have a good time. The first Found Footage Frenzy screening is 8:30 p.m Sunday, September 21, at Stage Fam Fam, 3547 Brighton Boulevard. For more information, check out the event's Facebook page. Find me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris
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