Plays Sept 6-30 at the Little Theatre.
Two sweaty punk-rock chicks sit in a shack in front of a jury-rigged pirate radio board. Each holds a microphone. Their on-air banter is meandering, unfunny, and recognizable to any insomniac who has ever listened to college radio in the dead of night. Suddenly the image tilts and they seem to slide sideways. Now we see the clumsy cameraperson's feet, coiled cords, and a shag carpet that looks like it has embraced a thousand cigarettes. The women laugh as the image slowly straightens. "Hey, you gonna use that? That's gonna be in the movie?" someone cackles. This glaringly authentic moment in Greta Snider's The Magic of Radio perfectly captures the spirit of an explosive form of portraiture showcased by the Northwest Film Forum in a month-long program entitled "First Person Cinema: Personal Documentary."
The idea of personal documentary was originally conceived in Boston in the '70s by an influential group of then-young filmmakers who studied under old-school documentarians like D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers. In response to what they perceived as the unavoidably pretentious and exploitative nature of these documentaries, people like Ross McElwee (Sherman's March) strove to create a more personal form of filmmaking, which explicitly acknowledged the presence of the filmmaker. Well, now these bad boys are teachers themselves, and under their tutelage a new generation of young film students have taken their lessons to heart. Armed with cheap, readily accessible methods of recording reality and a desire to poke at their own privates, they've come away with astonishingly painful and pure results.
"It's an embarrassing art form that involves nakedness," laughs Deborah Girdwood, the Director of Cinema Programs at NWFF. "The four Seattle films on the program inspired it all. We just wondered why the most interesting films we'd seen in a long time were all so deeply personal. Now we know that it's an enormous phenomenon. An explosion, much like the zine culture was."
The comparison is apt. Just like zines, these scrappy little films are made quickly and cheaply, often consist of endless navel-gazing, and are among the few forms of communication not yet preyed upon by mass-media conglomerates. It would be hard to imagine Time-Warner-AOL sanctioning The Baby Cinema, Robert C. Banks Jr.'s frantic, compelling condemnation of the commercial appropriation of Malcolm X's image. Nor is it possible to see them giving the green light to Greta Snider's Portland, a riveting tale about three punk-rock pals who try to rendezvous in Portland for a weekend of partying. "I got arrested and had to do 10 days in Eugene, Oregon picking up trash by the side of the road, but at least I could smoke outside," grins a filthy girl through a mouthful of smoke, as she takes a swig on her Mickeys big-mouth.
When I confess to Girdwood how much this film, or maybe just the people in the film, irritated me, she laughs. "I was annoyed by Portland too, but it stuck with me for years," she admits. "Maybe it's because Snider's making movies about real people. In 20 years people will look back at these films and see how people really acted and sounded. And sometimes it's stupid. But don't you think it's nice to see art made out of everyday life, as opposed to seeing everyday life blown up into drama?" she asks.
I have to think before I answer. I admit I do enjoy a film that tells a story. And to cop a phrase from NWFF co-founder Jamie Hook, these young filmmakers are certainly shameless "Lumière heads," pointing the camera reverently out the windows of moving cars at birds, at electrical wires, and most often at their own shoes. But when I remember the girls from Snider's film in that pirate radio shack sending their message out into the darkness, I can't help but feel heartened. Hey, I may not actually listen to pirate radio, but I know our airwaves need it. Just like our movie theaters need these stubbornly individual films. We'd all be better off if we made more room for them on our dial.