Jerry King Musser was lying on his back, dreaming awake. "Well," he thought, "it would be great to have a chair bolted upside down [to the ceiling]."
Shortly the vision was also populated by baby dolls, and roses. Soon the vision became "Reluctant Angels," a three-minute blossom of video art in which cherubic hunks of molded plastic appear to tumble, in slow motion, toward the chairs and the roses (both rendered right-side-up), only to think better of it and embark on another ascent.
The effect is surreal, haunting and funny -- three adjectives of which at least two apply to most of the short videos Musser has created since digital movie-making entered his life a few years ago. One such video, "Piano Sfera," even qualifies as a sort of international hit: This rhythmic, modernist composition for untuned piano guts, rolling marble and video camera has screened in festivals in Europe, and the video magazine Res included it on the DVD insert of its December 2004 issue, distributed worldwide.
On Nov. 8, the central-Pennsylvania-based visual designer brings "Piano Sfera," "Reluctant Angels" and a dozen more distinctive shorts to the Film Kitchen screening series, part of the Three Rivers Film Festival. Also screening is "The Specials," a short by Christopher Reed and Pittsburgh's Randy Kovitz.
While Kovitz is an actor-turned-filmmaker, Musser started out in film. The son of a Bedford County coal-mining and farming family studied film and television at Temple University, graduating in 1973, but by the late '70s had shifted into visual design, for a Harrisburg-based ad agency. There was some moving-picture work on the side. In the mid-'80s, Musser and collaborator Fred Miles created three 10-second station-ID spots for then-fledgling MTV, including one that was nominated for the ad industry's Clio Award. (In it, the "TV" portion of the logo takes the form of a chrome hood ornament, seen from the perspective of the driver of a moving car.)
Musser, who lived briefly in Holland, also co-directed -- with longtime friend Paul deNooijer -- a couple music videos for Dutch rockers Golden Earring. But eventually 16 mm film, the day's dominant medium of the indie filmmaker, proved too expensive to purchase and process. For about 15 years, Musser shot no more moving pictures, sticking with design for brochures, annual reports and advertising.
Then came consumer-grade digital-video cameras, and their complementary software. "When Final Cut Pro came out, everything came together," says Musser, referring to the popular editing program.
Musser lives in Columbia, Pa., with his wife, artist Janette Toth. Video collaborators have included poet Gene Hosey, some of whose spoken-word pieces Musser has turned into short movies. One is "Artiquette" -- benign footage of a gallery opening wedded to Hosey's sardonic voice-over ("Arrive late, arrive hungry"). A longer work, the starkly beautiful "Evidence," features actor Scott Bookman as a solitary artist at work in a wastelandscape.
But what Musser enjoys most about digital technology is the opportunity to realize his ideas almost as easily as can a draftsman with a sketchpad. "Piano Sfera" arose when, fooling around one day, he rolled a computer-mouse tracking ball across the strings of the spinnet piano he was junking. "As soon as I heard it, I thought, oh my god, that's beautiful." Ninety minutes later, the video was shot. In "Svankmajer," a tribute to the great Czech animator, "My left hand was my actor and my right hand was my production company," he says.
"An idea occurs to me and I'm not so good at being bored," says Musser. "When I get to the point of being bored, I do something."
While Film Kitchen marks a Pennsylvania premiere for Musser, it's rewarding that festivals from Long Island and Brooklyn to Argentina and Montreal have agreed to show his work. "It made me think it's kind of fun to do this."
But he's not looking to change careers. "Frankly, I'd be a little worried if Sony called and said, 'Hey can you do a commercial for us?'" Musser says. "I'm just compelled to do them just to see what happens."
Randy Kovitz studied theater at Carnegie Mellon University in the 1970s, and after graduating did something not every acting student does: He worked as an actor. First in Pittsburgh, later in New York and Los Angeles, on stage and television, complementing his roles with gigs as a fight choreographer.
After a while, though, it became less satisfying. "I was frustrated with playing too many doctors and lawyers," says the tall, square-jawed Kovitz. "L.A. is sort of a pigeonhole town. Once they find a place for you it's hard to break out of that."
Kovitz found a niche for personal expression in spoken-word pieces he performed with a band called Lies Like Truth. One piece he liked enough to turn into a short film: "The Specials" finds a waiter at a trendy restaurant tantalizing (or is it mocking?) patrons with a recitation of the day's increasingly absurd dinner specials. The eight-minute film premiered in October at Toronto's DNA Film Festival.
Kovitz took an even bigger step after he performed last spring in Pittsburgh Playhouse Repertory Company's production of The Visit. The experience was so satisfying -- and Hollywood opportunities for middle-class actors so diminished in a time of reality TV and runaway Canadian productions -- that he and his wife, Deborah Hosking, moved here in July.
"The Specials," it turned out, was prophetically autobiographical, says Kovitz. "I realized after I was done it's a complete metaphor for leaving L.A."