Friday, January 13, 2012

Professor Beebe's Traveling Picture Show @ C.Emerson FIne Arts

Roger Beebe, Projector array.
Professor Beebe's traveling picture show came to C. Emerson Fine Arts last week, under the title "Films for one to Eight Projectors", transforming the gallery into an impromptu micro-cinema. He takes his show on the road (and air), around the world, from the Antarctic to Times Square. For closer trips, like this one, he crams the entire show into his Prius.  He has a degree from Amherst, one in English from Duke, has studied elsewhere, and teaches Film and Media Studies at the University of Florida, which wisely gives him time to go on his tours. What's a guy with an English degree doing in experimental film? He's doing quite well, winning awards and making film festivals around the world. The apparent contradiction is but one of many around Beebe.

Roger Beebe and projectors.
His methods are low-tech. For example, he synchronizes his multiple projectors by hooking them all to a power strip, and using the on/off rocker switch to start them. His ideology is sophisticated and cutting edge. The films are not digital videos, but made on film, on old 16mm Bolex cameras (exquisite, gorgeous, sturdy machines that he buys 2nd hand for as little as $10.00) and shown on old high-quality projectors. Implicit is the idea that almost anyone could afford to make films and appropriate the means of production. Some were edited in-camera (!). Don't make the mistake of thinking the outdated technology to be primitive. It's not. Digital may be new, but it is still in its infancy. Some of his films, like TB TX Dance, were made sans camera. One is totally conceptual, sans projector or imagery, besides that in the viewer's head, fueled purely by the soundtrack. Outstanding stuff. Beebe manages all these apparently paradoxical elements in his work gracefully, sometimes with light-hearted humor and razor-sharp wit, using them to convey his ideas.

On the floor below the projectors.
Roger Beebe is a skinny guy with random hair, beard and an intense gaze, the kind practiced visual artists sometimes develop. I arrived a little early, and watched him preparing the show, almost like a magician, behind the row of projectors, looking like an installation in itself. Wires and reels on the floor, Beebe calmly going about his routine. Finally, when the lights go out, he emerges as our guide on this wild ride. In between films, he changes reels, sets up the next one etc. He is at once conductor and a one-man orchestra.

His English background is readily apparent in films like AAAAA Motion Picture, which has to do with the first 14 pages of the Manhattan phone book and the various businesses who have capitalized on the alphabetical listings to move towards the front of the book. That background, with a overtones reminiscent of French semioticians, appears in other films of his. One is confronted in Strip Mall Trilogy, shown on two projectors, with a seemingly endless, almost subliminal torrent of signs of brutally absurd, nomenclature of the suburban dystopia. There's apparent Walker Evans influence from photography there with his obsession with signs [Link] (which was derived from Atget). Another photographic influence or parallel might be Robert Adams [Link], whose photographs of the Western US dystopia share some things in common with Beebe's strip mall movie. The staccato rapid fire pace of images condenses and heightens the inherent generic vacuum of these ubiquitous sites, though a subtle underlay here is that the images are specific, from one mile-long parking lot of one strip mall. It seizes on the artist's creative ability to make anything malleable, and synthesizes new forms, connections and the filmmaker's brand of strange beauty.

One thing about the multiple projections is that unlike a regular movie the images instantly become relational. While you can focus on one frame at a time, the others insinuate themselves, creating complex second (or multiple)-order narratives and forms. Each has its own pace, allowing Beebe to phase them in and out regarding the others, so some recede while others assume dominance, and sometimes they are tenuously balanced, just-don't-blink.

Beebe has said elsewhere that he couldn't stop filming during the three days spent in Las Vegas making Money Changes Everything.  He referred to Las Vegas as a place of “constant renewal and constant dereliction ... of a place where there probably shouldn’t even be a city.” He reaches further than that, exploring the fact that the city is also a suicide destination. The toxicity and ultimately, the lethality of what we bought is unmasked here, though implied in other films. The city as machine, consuming its inhabitants, ideas, trends, etc. A spiritual desert in a desert, enveloped in a fantastic, blinding and deafening cacophony of  cartoonish, overstated architectural styles. It's not only the visual experience of the place, or its metaphorical aspects, but there's a sheer forceful visceral dimension that makes the viewer feel somewhat like a character in the Film Hangover.

The Grand Finale was Last Light of a Dying Star. Six projectors, one of them a Super 8 throwing an articulated mosaic of light on the wall. Beebe, now a shadow standing in the shadows, tells us this film is about the early days of the buzz around space travel. The audience sits, as humans have for tens of thousands of years, now surrounded by sheetrock instead of cave walls, the fire in the projectors. The films roll. The soft ticking noise of the projectors is like a secondary subliminal sound track. Last Light of a Dying Star was originally made for an installation/performance in a planetarium at the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Macon, GA, but now it's loose, out of that context, and a magnet, accreting new meaning with each reveal. A thing like this is almost impossible to describe and do justice to its extraordinary visual phrasing, similar to a complex piece of classical music. There's the exploration of outer space, digital snapshots, found footage, an old German educational film The Drunken Sun, hand made loops of graphic imagery of stars, rockets (some looking familiar), and much more. The soundtrack, as with all his films, is eerily in synch with the masterfully choreographed near-chaos onscreens. Throughout the work, resonances between memory, realities, intentions, expectations, outcomes, dreams, early cinema, expanded cinema,  the excitement and exploration of inner space and more. The screens demand a reorganization of the viewer's way of seeing, more field and less pinpoint-oriented. Images, thoughts and feelings rise and fall, twinkling on and off like stars.

--- Luis

Here's links provided courtesy of CEFA to You Tube fragments of the films:

[Link], [Link], [Link], [Link].

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