The five founders of the new group X-Film Chicago are recalling their perplexed first encounters with experimental films. Martin Rumsby says he saw a film from Oklahoma--David McCullough's Four Possible Variations--about 20 years ago in his native New Zealand. "A static camera viewed four bowls, and the same cracker was put into different types of soup and slowly absorbed," he explains. "We saw these crackers disappear at differing rates. I thought it was pretty interesting," though, he allows, a bit "impractical." Francis Schmidt saw Kenneth Anger's films in his teens, and "afterward I suddenly realized I could remember every single frame and nuance," which had never happened to him before. Chicago native James Bond, viewing Len Lye's abstract Free Radicals on an editing bench rather than a projector, remembers being "blown away by the richness and color and subtlety of each frame."
The group, which also includes Scott Trotter and former New Yorker Gregg Biermann, was born out of frustration with the lack of exhibition opportunities in Chicago. "For nine years I wrote letters, sent videotapes, and even came to Chicago from Regina, Saskatchewan, and showed a program to a programmer," says Rumsby, who owns many films by a variety of filmmakers. Schmidt recounts a string of unanswered letters, faxes, and phone calls until the Film Center finally showed one of his movies as a short before a Myrna Loy comedy.
But the group, expressing reservations about the few U.S. institutions that show experimental films, has no formal structure--they have not incorporated and plan no grant applications. Trotter, who met Biermann while in film school, says the San Francisco Cinematheque is "morguelike," almost as if it pays "final respects" to the filmmakers it does show. "Even for the established people you'd either have to die or be leaving town for good to get a film show there," he says with some exaggeration. "Gunvor Nelson, she left for Sweden, that's how she got her show."
Ironically, Schmidt says art schools and venues advocating avant-garde films are often hermetic places, codifying the experimental aesthetic and thereby behaving "almost like monasteries holding on to Latin manuscripts that they don't even understand."
X-Film takes a more open approach, screening a mix of short works, both from the past and present, at the International Cinema Museum and the Lunar Cabaret and Full Moon Cafe. They feel a kinship with Cinema Museum director Carey Williams, who "doesn't rely on grants to operate day to day: he's built what he has out of his own pocket," says Biermann. "He has a passion and he's sharing it," adds Rumsby. Bond, who designs and builds projection facilities for a living, supervises the group's screenings.
The group spurns the thematic programs that have become common in recent years. Trotter knows a woman filmmaker who's weary of taking part in shows billed as women's programs. "It's not going to be a show of good movies," he contends. "It's going to be a show of this issue or that issue." Biermann prefers programs combining apparently unrelated works: "I do that in my own films and I also like it within a program."
Not surprisingly, the five can't agree on a single name for the kinds of films they show. Biermann chooses the label avant-garde film. "I dislike the word "experimental.' Experimental means it's an experiment, not a real thing." Trotter prefers to call them "personal," because most of the films seem to be made by one person. But Schmidt has always disliked the term personal because it offers an excuse "for people to make films that don't have to be perceptible to anybody else but themselves." For Bond, any name poses the danger of offering a "handle to grab, a prejudice" that may keep the viewer from truly "tasting" the work. All were ambivalent about naming their group, hence the identifier "X," an unknown quantity.
For Bond, a more explicit moniker might "take out the chance experience of somebody otherwise coming to a screening with no expectations." Having mounted public screenings in Chicago parks, Bond says his "ideal venue would really be random outdoor locations."
No one in the group is paid, and the filmmakers whose works are presented will receive little or nothing. But money isn't the object. With even well-known filmmakers having trouble getting their works shown, the group is finding many happy just to be included.
Rumsby hints at a utopian dream behind their enterprise. "If there's going to be social change of any sort, or even individual change, then you have to have pictures of the place you want to go."
X-Film Chicago screens movies at 10 PM every other Tuesday at the Lunar Cabaret and Full Moon Cafe, 2827 N. Lincoln, and at 7 PM every other Wednesday at the International Cinema Museum, 319 W. Erie; tickets cost $3 to $4. This Tuesday, May 23, they'll show short works by Len Lye, Vincent Grenier, Arthur Lipsett, Michael Wallin, and others. For more information, call 327-6666.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Nathan Mandell.