It happened, says Chris May, with stunning speed. Between its first shows in 2000 and its fifth anniversary, The International Experimental Cinema Exposition went from being one of many U.S. film festivals that accepted only works on celluloid to, Mays claims, the world's lone film-only festival.
It's a worthy mission as well as a distinction worth making, as May hopes to demonstrate on Sat., April 16, when Pittsburgh becomes one of just 10 cities on TIE's first-ever exhibition tour. As artists continue turning to cheap, efficient digital tools -- and as many festivals unbolt their 16 mm projectors -- Colorado-based TIE perseveres, encouraging and celebrating the craftsmanship and experimental legacy of its chosen 110-year-old medium.
May was inspired to create TIE as a regular in the 1990s at avant-garde film giant Stan Brakhage's Sunday-night film salons in Boulder, Colo., 16 mm screenings and discussions that cemented May's love of experimentation. May prefers film to video partly because of the tactile nature of the medium -- artists splice by hand, not by mouse -- but mostly because of how we watch it. It's a distinction played out on the neurological level, where film requires viewers to assemble 24 images per second into the illusion of movement, while video simply bombards the retina with pixels. "It actually takes some work to go into a theater and watch the film," he says. "Watching TV actually numbs your mind."
Some of the 10 short, mostly newer films comprising the 100-minute program May selected for his Pittsburgh stop reflect avant-garde film's tactile tradition. "Blutrausch (Bloodlust)," by Germany's Thorsten Fleisch, shows what happens when the filmmaker uses his own blood to create both the imagery and the soundtrack that's optically read by one of those endangered 16 mm projectors. In "Metaphysical Education," the American Thad Povey splices found footage sideways, so the sprocket holes and soundtrack are visible as the pictures slide left to right across the screen.
Jonathan Schwartz's "Den of Tigers," alternately, combines experimentation, traditional documentary and an essayistic approach to communicate the filmmaker's experience on a trip to India. Meanwhile, in "Clown," Luther Price films himself in a cheap clown mask, confronting the audience with such sights as his tongue squeezing through the little mouth hole. "You can look at it as a very disturbing film or funny," says May. "Most people think it's disturbing." The program also includes an avant-garde classic: Kenneth Anger's black-magic-themed "Invocation of My Demon Brother" (1969).
Perhaps surprisingly, May says that despite all the hype surrounding video, he's had no trouble keeping TIE's reels full. "A lot of young people are really interested in what we're doing," he says. "They're growing up in the digital age, and they actually find what we do fascinating. There's a huge wave of young filmmakers working only with film."