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Group Efforts: the PowerPoint Film Festival blasts the bland



If George Orwell had been only slightly more prescient, the infamous "Two Minutes Hate" and assorted Newspeak indoctrinations in 1984 would have been delivered in the blue hues and bouncing slides of a PowerPoint presentation. This, anyway, is the idea behind Homage to George Orwell, a short PowerPoint movie by Brian Espel that will be screened this weekend at Chicago's first-ever PowerPoint film festival.

The festival is the brainchild of local filmmakers Hannah Maximova and Mike Hartigan, who met in an undergrad comedy troupe at the University of Arizona. The pair moved to Edgewater nine years ago, and recently finished their first feature-length film. They support themselves as freelance graphic designers in the advertising industry, and so far they've found the corporate world to be confining. "Everybody's unhappy, everybody's depressed," says Maximova. "You see people dying on their way down."

The idea for the festival started as a gag, and has some obvious kitsch appeal. "I think there's something beautiful about shooting that low creatively," says Maximova. "In art school, teachers talked about putting yourself in a little box and then trying to operate within the confines of what you've imposed." Because the couple's been working in a world where bullets, charts, and flying slides seem to be the mandatory wrapping for any piece of information, a PowerPoint film struck them as a perfect synthesis of the creative and the mundane.

Many of the 15-odd entries read like surreal children's books. Short narrative sentences are accompanied by illustrations culled from the vast clip art library provided with the software; more than once the same picture pops up in several pieces. "There are literally thousands of pieces of clip art," says Hartigan. "It's sort of funny that people kept choosing the same ones."

By bending and twisting their stories to make sense of esoteric yet generic images, the films call attention to the bizarre visual world that clip art creates. In The Story of Bob, Bill Walters builds an entire narrative about office racial strife around a single drawing of a white man in a suit and umpire gear standing between a black man and a white man, both dressed in suits and seemingly bent on pummeling each other. Says Maximova, "Because clip art is so purposefully bland and the images are supposed to correspond smoothly with such an incredible number of possible needs, it's doubly entertaining to misuse them."

Some of the films use other techniques--Billy Madd, also by Espel, consists entirely of a halting, low-tech animated image of a crazed driver flipping off the car behind him. The most effective (and funniest) of the entries are those that explicitly poke fun at the medium itself. These include the George Orwell piece--which presents a series of doublespeak slogans capped off with a triumphant image of a contemporary Big Brother, Bill Gates--and Hartigan's PowerPoint Theater, which adapts The Matrix for a corporate audience, reducing a film about the spirit-crushing potential of modern technology to a series of bulleted plot points and cheesy graphics.

Despite the overall ironic tone of the pieces, both filmmakers insist they have a strong affection for the software. "It's a nice little program," says Maximova. "It's so easy, and we still get paid pretty well for it."

The First Annual Chicago International PowerPoint Film Festival will be held at Uncommon Ground, 1214 W. Grace, on Sunday, June 9, from 4 to 6. Admission is $5 and space is limited; call 773-929-3680 to reserve a table.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.

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