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Filmmaker at Play

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To most people, "film" means "feature-length narrative," and right up into college, Jim Mueller was no exception. As a high school kid in Columbus, Ohio, he loved neo-gangster flicks such as Miller's Crossing and Reservoir Dogs. Not until he started studying film at the University of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Filmmakers did he see what he'd later identify as his first experimental film.

 

At his work-study gig, Mueller had befriended other employees at Filmmakers' equipment office, many of them artists themselves. One was Gordon Nelson, who showed Mueller Dogwalk, his short shot on the old low-grade Pixelvision video format.

 

Dogwalk is "about" nothing more than a dog waddling down a sidewalk for a minute, in charmingly grainy close-up. "I was really mystified why it [Dogwalk] had happened," says Mueller. He liked Nelson, but he disliked Dogwalk and he didn't know why. His curiosity led him -- first socially, then artistically -- into Pittsburgh's community of experimental-film enthusiasts. "I was interested," he says, "in playing the way they played."

 

A decade later, Mueller is still at play. At the Jan. 9 Film Kitchen, he'll screen some of his latest work. Also screening is Kristen Lauth's Drawn to Storytelling, a short documentary about the art of storytelling centering on popular local cartoonist/storyteller Joe Wos, and The Eye, a stylish short comedy by Lucie Rouche.

 

Mueller describes the two shorts he'll show at Film Kitchen as sort-of antidotes to each other. Union Jingle 2009 began as an exercise to teach himself Final Cut Pro editing software. Shot on Super-8 mm film and edited digitally, it's a twisted take on a personals ad gone wrong; Mueller calls it "kind of Tron meets When Harry Met Sally." But the software was harder to learn than he expected, and the year-and-a-half it took him to create the strange effects he wanted made him pine for the in-camera simplicity of Super 8.

 

Thus was born AUGUST SEPTEMBER AUGUST, three three-minute rolls of artful home-movie-style footage recording things such as a summer bicycle trip with two friends along the Youghiogheny River. AUGUST captures the play of light on water, the play of clouds in reflective wraparound sunglasses and, in one case, Mueller's own parents, temporarily unaware of the camera's presence. Mueller says the films were inspired by the diaristic shorts of avant-garde pioneer Stan Brakhage -- whose only "actors" were his own family and friends -- and also by similar work by Mueller's Pittsburgh contemporaries, including Greg Pierce and Brian Dean Richmond. It's the purity of this approach that Mueller admires: filming what you love, with no budget to speak of and no concern about making any money off the enterprise.

 

Mueller also exhibits films, and they too are a far cry from the narrative features he grew up enjoying. As a collaborator in Mule-Kicked Visions, he helps create multiple-projection phantasmagoria for rock shows with everything from trippy abstract film "loops" to dust-dry old classroom films. And, with Adam Abrams and former equipment-officemate Gordon Nelson, Mueller runs the monthly screening series Jefferson Presents ... -- something of a godchild of Orgone Cinema, whose 1990s programs of local and visiting artists, found films and experimental classics were among his artistic inspirations in the first place.

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