Artist and filmmaker Melika Bass uses several elements to bring an experimental quality to her films. But there’s one thing she wishes she could convey, especially when it comes to her 2011 film Shoals: smell.
“Shoals has a really heightened sense of sweat and wind and grime,” Bass says of the film, which is set on set on the grounds of a rural sanitarium and follows three young women under the control of a cult leader. “It was in this sort of dairy farm country and, man, it just smelled like dung for the whole shoot. Somehow that helped us in our endeavors.”
On March 21, Shoals will be shown along with Bass’ new film, Creature Companion, at the Silver Eye Center for Photography for Prairie Gothic: Films by Melika Bass. The event marks the Pittsburgh debut of Bass, a Chicago-based experimental film and multi-channel installation artist whose work has shown in museums and at festivals all over the U.S. and abroad, including the BFI London Film Festival, the Kino der Kunst in Munich, and the Torino Film Festival in Italy.
Shoals and Creature Companion will screen as part of Channel Silver Eye, a microcinema series showcasing experimental films and videos. The films are also being shown in conjunction with Silver Eye’s current exhibition Gothic Fictions, which features three artists who draw inspiration from the gothic stories of writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Flannery O'Connor, as well as modern horror and true crime narratives.
Bass, who grew up in North Carolina and Virginia, admits to having “predilections towards Southern Gothic themes and images and tones.” This fascination continued when she moved to Chicago and began transposing the style and tropes familiar to gothic literature and images onto what she calls “seemingly neutral” Midwestern landscapes, which is displayed in Shoals and Creature Companion.
“[The films are] definitely both haunting and creepy,” she says. “But they’re also both a little funny, and I think the absurdity that’s in the movies about the situations that we’re looking at and about the way people are behaving is also critiqued … The films are making certain banal, everyday behaviors a bit uncanny and hopefully asking people to question that.”
She adds that the films deal with the female body and the power dynamics associated with that, as well as the idea of wellness. “[Creature Companion] is a much more overtly feminist film, and it’s definitely about women whose bodies are being watched or being managed in some way, which Shoals is as well,” says Bass, adding that Shoals also features a rink-a-dink rural “snake-oil salesmen.”
The films are shot on 16mm or Super 16mm film, respectively, and then digitally transferred, a process Bass says allows her to retain the grainy, textural quality of a celluloid image while still being able to manipulate the color and sound. It also enables her to give Shoals, a historical fiction film, a look that is something like “1870 meets 1970” by copying the style of early photography and albumen prints.
Creature Companion, a performance film described on Bass’ website as a “slow-burning, saucy, abstracted fable on the longing and laboring female body,” also showcases her dance and theater background. Bass, who has been making films since 1995, believes filmmaking allows her to explore her various interests.
“What I’m making is definitely on the edge in some ways of being documentary and fiction and experimental and art world,” says Bass. “It has its toes in all of those.”
She looks forward to showing how experimental films have the power to challenge viewers, especially in the case of Shoals and Creature Companion, which take on the guise of social experiments by dropping the audience in the middle of situations that force them to scramble and figure out what’s going on.
“Even if they haven’t seen any experimental films or even know what that is, I would encourage people to come to have a kind of unusual experience with an open-ended immersive narrative,” she says.
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