Film Fantasia

While everyone is accustomed to watching music videos and commercials, only the cinematic cognoscenti is accustomed to considering them first and foremost to be works of art. RESFEST – which kicked off a 33-city international tour September 9-12 in New York – expands the definition of film beyond that to which a traditional film festival ascribes.

At this festival, advertisements, experiments and music videos hold as much weight as filmic shorts or feature films – and each command the same $12 admission fee. The result is a festival that is simultaneously esoteric and accessible: Many viewers will find themselves lavishing an unfamiliar type of attention onto Nike commercials, movie trailers, and Radiohead videos. Similarly, corporate sponsors have taken on a central role in this seemingly counterculture festival. Corporate sponsorship – albeit "cool" corporate sponsorship – is integral to and warmly invited into RESFEST. Advertisements are screened as artistic works during the festival and Canon has scored a spot on the RESFEST schedule with a presentation of its XL2 digital video recorder. The program entitled Handheld Cinema, available only to select guests, showcases cell phones, PDAs and other teensy-screened personal technology items that are equipped to play digital videos. RESFEST fuses film festival and high-tech trade show.

But the festival is also home to short films that prize narrative above pure aesthetics. RESFEST saved the political program "Bushwacked!" for 8pm on September 11th, thus exploiting the Tribeca Performing Arts Center's location just north of Ground Zero, from where the two towers of light ceremoniously projected that night.

The festival, now in its eighth year, shows off the digital medium's commitment to slickness not only in its individual films, but in its presentation, parties, and displays. The waiting area under the festival tents just outside the theater, called the RES lounges, played a part akin to that of a rave's chillout room, complete with easy chairs, graphic displays on flatscreen monitors, and lounging late-twenties film enthusiasts. The festival's packed opening night party at Tribeca's Dekk featured a back room in which works of digital art and clips from the night's series of shorts were shown, well out of the way of the crowds hassling the bartenders for the event's free drinks.

"Bushwacked!" brought together shorts critical of the current administration. United by a common anti-Bush theme, the shorts in this series ranged from the serious to the satiric. Michael Moore contributed a documentary music video covering the world-wide protest on February 15, 2003, and director Saam Farahmand positioned George Bush and Tony Blair in sexually suggestive, homoerotic stances in his video for the Electric Six song, "Gay Bar."

RESFEST also includes a three-part selection of film shorts by emerging digital directors that stretches over the course of the festival's tenure. As true of the shorts in many film festivals, the quality and level of ambition of the different entries vary significantly. One notable entry is the vividly colored short "Oedipus," by Jason Wishnow, in which a chorus of vegetables enact Sophocles' trilogy.

The short begins with Oedipus, a potato shepherd, leading his cauliflower sheep down a country road. En route, the group runs into a broccoli King of Thebes, who ironically remarks, "I had a son Oedipus... but he's dead," before taking his meat cleaver and embarking on a brutal battle to the death with Oedipus, who is armed with a vegetable peeler. Oedipus then finds his plump tomato Jocasta singing in a tavern dressed in a black taffeta strapless. He follows her back to her poster bed, and then their round, orifice-free bodies somehow, somewhere connect in the dark, and the legacy is complete. During the Q & A session, Wichnow, who could get into film school on the merit of his black clothes, slight build, and thick-framed glasses alone, assured the audience that "ninety percent of the vegetables used were real," and that none of them were hurt.

Director Talmadge Cooley of "Pol Pot's Birthday" prepares his audience for a slow, somber political film with his prologue explaining the horrors ravaged by the former Khmer Rouge dictator. He then flips this statement on its head by presenting a pathetic birthday party for "Brother #1" in a sweaty office bathed in fluorescent light. The four main celebrants are office employees so afraid of Pol Pot that they cannot look him in the eye while mumbling out the happy birthday song. In Cambodian. Because this is posturing as a normal office, Pol Pot instructs his reverent intern to taste the cake first. (Yes, he has an intern.) Unlike in a normal office, every act here is conducted in ominous air, and we are not sure if the intern will be made to suffer as a result of eating the cake. Pol Pot receives gifts, too: a puppy that immediately pees on his shirt, a neck pillow, and a how-to book entitled "Managing for Results."

Other short films, such as Marc Craste's beautifully animated "JoJo In The Stars," call the viewers' attention back to RESFEST's selected medium of production, and exploit the possibilities of digital film.

Others, such as "Papillon d'Amour," in which all images are doubled along a central axis and made symmetrical (like a butterfly), seem more like directorial exercises in digital filmmaking than they do films ready to be viewed.

Several programs in RESFEST are retrospective tributes to organizations or people whose work has been featured and well-received in previous RESFESTs. In its program "Shynola Rarities," RESFEST screens selected works from Shynola, a British-based film collective that works with both animation and live film.

Shynola's work has been popular at past RESFESTs, and its members here have curated a retrospective look at their work. Shynola works in both animation and live video. In the collective's many music videos, for such artists as UNKLE and Radiohead, the symbiotic relationship of video and electronic music is made clear.

RESFEST closed with a retrospective of the work of Jonathan Glazer, whose high-contrast, tightly filmed videos and commercials shown here seem perfectly in line with his first feature-film, Sexy Beast. A lengthy commercial for Guinness depicts an aging but high energy working-class British man shaving his chest and then participating in an annual swimming race. The perennial winner of the race, he takes exactly as long to complete his swim as it takes the pint of Guinness, waiting for him at the finish line, to be poured and settle. In this and other commercials, such as a Nike commercial that plays Blur's "Parklife" as men play "football" in a park, Glazer exposes the same sense of humor and intimate connection with British working class life that he displays in Sexy Beast.

One unfortunate absence in the festival is that of female filmmakers. Out of twenty-five shorts in the three-part shorts program, only three are directed by women. Likewise, the subjects of the festival's tributes are all male – Shynola consists of four male college friends. While understandably it is this male collective consciousness that is sellable in the world of digital filmmaking today, a festival like RESFEST would have nothing to lose by attempting to expand this vision, rather than simply upholding it. That said, RESFEST is an insightful overview and useful introduction to the state of digital filmmaking today. Its concentration on creative music videos and commercials plays well to a crowd of digital film buffs that knows that these commercial productions can serve as a (well-financed) platform for their artistic production, and likely hold the key to a future career in digital film.

Information on the RESFEST tour is available on their website.

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