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Color, Light, and Mind-Plasma: Notes from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Student Film & Video Festival, Spring 2004

By Eric Beltmann

The same weekend Troy infiltrated city theaters, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee unleashed its own Trojan horse, a student film festival designed to pierce Hollywood's shrunken notion of what qualifies as "the movies." When I was film critic for the West Bend Daily News, I wouldn't have been allowed to write about a local smorgasbord of fiction, animation, documentary, and experimentation, primarily because these student pictures aren't readily accessible, commercial, or otherwise fashionable -- as if their specialized status automatically makes them artistically irrelevant and therefore dismissible. Yet if we believe that cinema matters more as art than as commodity, to shrug off pictures merely because they don't carry commercial baggage is to disregard the vast majority of what constitutes the lifeblood of cinema. Attending a single student festival doesn't really improve our comprehension of regional or global film, but it does help foster awareness of how much more there is to "the movies" than what appears on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. In other words, the ideas offered by this spring's four student prize winners -- Anne Barber's Bloom, Mariko Ujihisa's Louis & Me, Diego Costa's Pangaea, and Drew Rosas' Mind-Plasma -- are all more interesting than Brad Pitt running around with a spear.

According to T.J. Richter, the performance artist at the center of Drew Rosas' DV documentary, the term "mind-plasma" refers to the "strangeness that blows your mind and feeds your eyes." He explains how a woman's mole can be more alluring than her cleavage, which is an insight into beauty that also accounts for why some audiences might skip the current multiplex sugar high in favor of, say, an esoteric compendium of student work. Unfortunately, not much about Richter's strangeness blows my mind, and while Mind-Plasma means to venerate his chaotic, crude, multi-media interpretations of dream-space, I couldn't help but envision this as an extended version of a satirical MTV interstitial.

Equally obnoxious is Porcelain Dreams, a black-and-white collaborative class project about a public restroom that stomps and then inspires the mook fantasies of a shaggy janitor. Surreal, sardonic, and plenty snarky, it relies on the kind of toothless irony you might expect smart-aleck college kids to revel in (and commend with an Audience Award). The same adolescent tenor informs Chris Staats' Circumstantial, a black-and-white DV short about a couple trying to convince a discomfited friend to join a threesome. Some of the best non sequiturs ("I can't sleep with you!" "Because we work together?") augment the film's twin themes of anxiety and sexual hesitation, but Staats eventually gives in to coarse jokes about oral sex and self-mutilation. It's like Chasing Amy stripped of purpose.

It might be difficult to ascertain the meaning of Eric Gerber's What Remains, but I think the title provides an entry point into these black-and-white close-ups of a man cautiously preserving insect bodies. Read as What remains!, the title suggests the consuming power of obsession, of study, of appreciation. Yet What remains? asks what happens when we allow that power to engulf us. Nearly the only sound is a squeaking chair, heightening the film's sense of an isolated, interior existence, and when the man begins to film his collection, it feels like a literalized depiction of Stan Brakhage and the kind of internal fixation required to concoct something like Moth Light.

Chris Bierden's prosaic Scene Missing, which strings together images discovered in the discarded footage bin, also alludes to a better-known, more symphonic cousin. While Bill Morrison's Decasia presented clips of decaying, archived "found" film as an elegy for how cinema dies right along with us, Bierden achieves much less. He is more successful with Trial By Error, a 2-minute DV animation that blends Pavlov, Chaplin, and Tati into a gentle comedy about a man being zapped for thinking an apple is more appealing than Britney Spears. Cultural iconography -- and American consumerism -- takes a more conventional hit in Mariko Ujihisa's black-and-white comedy Louis & Me, about a woman whose obsession with Louis Vuitton handbags leads to unsurprising tragedy.

There's a great deal more to grapple with in Diego Costa's Pangaea and Chris Delisle's A Fossil from a Satellite. The first delicately employs overlapping images to ruminate on the male body, locating complex, mythical metaphors for human connection in everything from bodily fluids to land masses to text messaging. The second is a black-and-white psychological piece narrated by a young boy who buries a box containing... well, I guess artifacts that symbolize the contents of his young, innocent, inquisitive mind. Delisle's beautiful images, which jostle with shards of light for dominance in the foreground, mix sci-fi with stark poetry, and the final shots of a rotating planet and a space traveler reminded me of Chris Marker's La Jétee.

The festival's strongest, most natural acting belonged to Michael T. Vollman's parents, who appear in his Valentine's Day as marrieds amiably bickering about the price of jewelry. (They were also seated directly behind me at the screening.) More than any other entry in the festival, this conversation farce captures the rhythms of reality, tenderly presenting life's small idiosyncrasies as high comedy. Throughout it is impossible to distinguish how much is staged and how much is documentary, which is entirely to Vollman's credit.

Still, the two best pictures in the festival were experimental pieces about color, light, and the possibilities of cinema. Anne Barber's Bloom features a woman sleeping, under sheets of various shades of pink that commingle with her skin tone. Flesh becomes Barber's canvas, as she "paints" and animates bruises, wounds, splotches, and rashes infecting the body. These injuries "bloom" into breaches of aesthetic beauty -- violence as violation -- but then unexpectedly become beautiful themselves: Bloom is a movie about how form can trump content. The same point is made by Lilly Czarnecki's hyper Polkadiddles, which at first appears to feature only jiggling cells of light dancing to a jazzy musical score. Frankly, that was toe-tapping lovely enough for me, an impressive treatise on the abstract functions of light in black-and-white. By the end, however, the movie has surprised us about the source of the dots, and revealed something about how artists can use cinema to sway and manipulate audience perception. Now that's mind-plasma, if you ask me.

Article published 05.17.2004.



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