The films of Roger Beebe and Bill Brown sometimes constitute sociology by other means. Take Beebe's The Strip Mall Trilogy (2000), his nine-minute whack at coming to terms with the antic banality of the built environment of what was then his new home in Gainesville, Fla. A rapid montage of commercial-strip signage, cut to the musique concrí¨te of electronic beeps and automotive clamor, gives way to the atomizing of the signs into single letters, scored to the kid-sung sing-song of that familiar abecedarian tune; finally, paced more slowly, there's a pattern study of "X-formations," as though these constituted the DNA of the prototypical 21st-century landscape.
Strip Mall is one of the shorts Beebe plans to screen on Aug. 10, when he and Brown visit the Mr. Roboto Project as part of their 11-city "post-capitalist love songs" tour. Shot mostly on the small-gauge film formats of Super 8 and 16 mm, their films typically seek to carve a sense of place from a monolithic culture that seems intent on erasing it at every opportunity. The roughly 80-minute film program will be followed by music by local drag-king lounge band Laz-E Boyz and visiting Gainesville experimental punk band Nuclear Family.
Other films in their repertoire include Brown's engaging Mountain State (2003), a bemused yet earnest travelogue that tracks the ghosts of history, from colonial to recent, in West Virginia and environs. His typically motionless camera records memorials to Native Americans slaughtered by whites; the place where a spirit's testimony led to a murder conviction; and a tour of the bunker, now decommissioned, built for Congresspeople to hide in during a nuclear attack. With captions and his own voiceover wryly commenting on these sites, Brown asks what becomes of history once it's denoted only by plaques along the landscaped sides of four-lane highways.
Beebe, a professor of film and media studies at the University of Florida, admits he doesn't travel as much as Brown, who's on the road so often he's practically unreachable by phone. (Though that hasn't cost Brown airtime on the Sundance Channel, or a recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.) But Beebe -- whose own work has shown in venues as diverse as Times Square's CBS Jumbotron and the International Film Festival Rotterdam -- does take his camera on the road. On a recent drive to Minneapolis, he stopped in little Campbellsville, Ky., to document its Amazon.com regional distribution center -- one of four such facilities nationally which Beebe wants to visit in an attempt to represent the mysterious space occupied by e-commerce.
Though Amazon employees chased him off, Beebe found Campbellsville more agreeable than he expected. Likewise with Gainesville's strip malls, which so disheartened him at first.
"I know I have to live with these things, and I did want to get to a point where I could imagine how to live with them, or find something pretty in them," says Beebe, who's 32. "We can't live with this full negative reaction."
"Ideally, the world I want to live in does not have strip malls," he says. But art like Strip Mall Trilogy can transform the undesirable, if only by bringing its image under the artist's control. "We need to find the coping mechanism at the same time we have to seek to change it."