It's a fortunate artist who discovers a subject that's also a vessel for saying everything she wants to say -- the right seacoast to paint, the perfect form to sculpt. Cécile Desandre-Navarre has found hers.
Because she works in an expensive, collaborative medium, it's taken awhile: Seven years elapsed between her short film "Harder Faster Please" and its sequel. But that arch, three-character comedy about a dominatrix, her mother and a client has spun off into the puckish portrait of a neighborhood.
Desandre premieres "Harder Faster Please II" at the March 10 Film Kitchen. The monthly series also screens 2001's "Harder Faster Please" and new work by local filmmakers Madelyn Roehrig, and Chris Smalley with Dylan Stern.
Desandre's earlier film wasn't meant to launch a cycle. In fact, it didn't even screen much after its own premiere, also at Film Kitchen. But in Desandre's mind, the film's concept grew: The three characters got her thinking about people who live "together" but are isolated. "My idea," she says, "was like a dollhouse" -- a sort of cutaway view.
The 10-minute new film's role-playing dungeon, again, inhabits an ordinary basement. But this building has other apartments, each with its own quirky inhabitants, and a roof that's a stage du jour for an unhappy man who's threatening to jump while, below, nebby and rather unsympathetic neighbors give him more grief.
Backed with a $5,000 grant from Pennsylvania Council on the Arts; props and costumes donated by local theater companies; and the volunteer cast and crew, Desandre shot the sequel over two years. Each shoot had a different crew, though the handsome camerawork is mostly by professional cinematographer Jeff Garton.
Other collaborators included her husband, John Allison, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor who helped with the "period" dialogue in the medieval role-play scene and has a bit part. (He was also featured in part one.)
But Desandre's "muse," she says, was local actor Dean Novotny. Novotny's drag persona, Sissy Fit, who played the mother in "HFS," in part two herself dons Middle Ages finery to bestow just (and much appreciated) punishment upon a cringing knave -- until their game is interrupted by the ruckus outside.
Desandre, a native of Paris who teaches French at Pitt and CCAC, lives on the North Side. She says her film also comments slyly on contemporary urban neighborhoods. "This is a bit of a parody of what community awareness has become," she says. "People are so into community, with not great results, with a lot of infighting, and it's a very segregated neighborhood."
"HFS II" spent two years in post-production. If she can get more funding, though, Desandre will make part three: "Now it's the only thing I'm going to do in my life, film-wise."
Madelyn Roehrig also wants to tell stories. Her pursuits in still photography grew not into classic narrative, but rather into video-art explorations of the shifty boundary between fact and fiction.
Her seven-minute "Fernscape" begins with a minatory montage about looming environmental collapse, then offers a scientist who proposes to combat global warming through the massive cultivation of ferns. The piece is punctuated by screenfuls of video static and ends with images of a house engulfed by gigantic ferns.
Meanwhile, Roehrig's "Translated Traditions" looks like (and is) two minutes of old home-movie footage from Italy, rephotographed off a TV monitor and fitted with a soundtrack which suggests that a story is being cryptically told.
Roehrig, of Upper St. Clair, coordinates the adult-education programs at the Carnegie Museum of Art. She's in a "low-residency" MFA program at Vermont College, for which she made these shorts. "Fernscape" is about mass-media-induced terror, she says. Its nonlinear structure is deliberately disorienting: "It's sort of like playing with truth and fiction."
The 8 mm footage in "Translated Traditions" is her father's, shot while visiting family overseas. So while the script is a pseudonarrative, she says, "The old people are all my relatives."
The bulk of the March 10 screening is consumed by "America: From Pittsburgh to Park City." It's three young filmmakers' literally episodic account of their cross-country journey to deliver the weird little car from the wacky 2006 indie comedy The Guatemalan Handshake to the film's director at the Sundance Film Festival.
Chris Smalley, Dylan Stern and Jared Larson are affable protagonists, and this shaggy document of odd characters, automotive breakdowns, beard-growing and small towns has moments of here-be-Americana charm and the odd satiric dig. (When one of the guys calls Nebraska "a land we've never seen before," the camera show us a generic four-lane highway.) But at 10 chapters of five minutes each, it all starts feeling pretty self-indulgent, scored by endless ironic refrains of Simon & Garfunkel's "America."
Film Kitchen 8 p.m. Tue., March 10 (7 p.m. reception). Melwood Screening Room, 477 Melwood Ave., N. Oakland. $5. 412-681-9500 or www.filmkitchenpgh.org