SPLICE: CUTTING-EDGE FILM FESTIVAL | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
Like the term "alternative music," the words "independent film" don't mean too much any more. That is, they seem to connote whatever the speaker wants them to, including films with big-name stars, sizable budgets, and distribution via some arm of the entertainment-industry octopus.

But that wasn't always the case. So for this year's film-festival class at Carnegie Mellon -- an annual offering in which students curate, organize and carry out their own fest -- instructor Melissa Ragona wanted to introduce students to the roots (and some of the branches) of the modern American independent cinema movement.

Those roots go back to around 1960, when filmmaker and theorist Jonas Mekas instigated the New American Cinema Group, whose platform included favoring personal expression over mass-audience appeal, creating new forms of financing and distribution, and embracing international cinema.

Those were heady years for independent cinema, with the first gritty, self-financed narratives of actor-turned-filmmaker John Cassavetes and the wild visionary works of experimental godfather Stan Brakhage, among many others. The CMU students' Splice: Cutting-Edge Film Festival covers a lot of ground, from Cassavetes' first feature, Shadows, to Brakhage's "Pittsburgh Trilogy," along with in-person visits from experimental luminaries such as Pat O'Neill (The Decay of Fiction) and Yvonne Rainer (MURDER and murder). Also screening are first features by notable contemporary directors including Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It. There's even work by CMU students, programs of avant-garde short films and videos, and nods to the present-day indie spirit with films such as Richard Linklater's Tape.

That's a lot of good film. But how does it constitute a themed festival? Jesse Dubus, a senior and head of the festival's selection committee, categorizes the picks as "groundbreaking films from different periods" and "filmmaking from a non-traditional, non-mainstream viewpoint." Adds Ragona, "It's more tracing a lineage than it is a theme."

The Splice film festival runs from Tue., April 22, through Sun., April 27. Tickets are $1 for students and $3 for non-students; all-festival passes are $7 for students and $14 for non-students. All films screen in McConomy Auditorium, CMU campus, except where otherwise noted. Call 412-268-5097 or see www.cmufilmfestival.org for more information.

Following are brief reviews and descriptions for programs through April 24, plus the schedule for the remainder of the festival.

Tue., April 22
8 p.m. MURDER and murder. Perhaps surprisingly, one reference point this 1996 feature by influential feminist filmmaker Yvonne Rainer conjures is the earlier films of Woody Allen, especially their talky self-diagnosis, their intelligence, and their pleasure (a la Annie Hall) at having characters visit other phases of their own lives. Here, however, the heroes are two formerly married, later-in-life lesbians: a college professor named Mildred, and Doris, a performance artist battling breast cancer. The film's chorus, meanwhile, consists of a teenaged Mildred and Doris's mother; still another commentator is the arch, halting figure of Rainer herself, who pops up wearing a tux and discoursing with an essayist's acuity and wit on topics including gender politics and her own mastectomy. But while MURDER and murder ponders breast cancer at length -- speculating on environmental causes, among other things -- it's also a playful, irreverent film. Its lovers suggest a vaudeville team, with Doris (Joanna Merlin) ethnic, anxious and rumpled, and Mildred (Kathleen Chalfant) WASPy, tailored and coolly intellectual. Even its silly side has a serious side, of course, but the wonderful lead performances ensure the film remains as warm as it is sharp. (After the screening, Rainer will be interviewed on-stage by former Carnegie Museum of Art film and video curator Bill Judson.) (BO) * * *

11 p.m. A Film About a Woman Who. Yvonne Rainer was a pioneering modern-dance performer and choreographer before turning to film; this 1974 work was her second full-length feature.

Wed., April 23
5:30, 7:30 and 10 p.m., and 12:30 a.m. Student Film Festival. Four different selections of narrative, documentary, non-narrative, animated and experimental films by Carnegie Mellon students.

Thu., April 24
1 p.m. Titicut Follies. Master documentarian Frederick Wiseman's first feature-length film was this harrowing, 1967 cinema vérite look inside the State Prison for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Built around the annual inmate stage show, or "follies," the film so unflinchingly depicts staff and inmates that it was suppressed for 30 years by Massachusetts courts. It remains among the most memorable and important American documentaries ever made. * * * *

3 p.m. La Noire de ... /Black Girl. Anyone who's seen the charming and incisive Faat-Kine, the latest feature by revered Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, knows the octogenarian's still got it. Here's a chance to see where he began, with a rare screening of his 1966 first feature, which is also considered sub-Saharan African cinema's first major production. Sembène -- a tradesman, Free French sharpshooter, dock worker, union leader and novelist before turning to film at age 40 -- relates a tragic drama about an African servant working in France.

5 p.m. Killer of Sheep. A laid-off African-American slaughterhouse worker in Watts and his family are the subject of this stunning 1977 first feature by Charles Burnett. Shot in black and white, the film is part of the Library of Congress's National Film Registry. Burnett went on to direct 1990's excellent To Sleep With Anger.

7 p.m. The Decay of Fiction. As both a business model and an aesthetic proposition, classic Hollywood died ages back -- more than 50 years ago, to be more exact. So it's fitting that veteran experimentalist Pat O'Neill turns to the cinema of his youth to suggest the tricks memory can play when mixed with the movies. Decay (2002) is a gorgeous yet unsettling 70-minute anti-narrative shot in an abandoned Hollywood luxury hotel in which the ghostly images of film noir dames, gangsters, G-men, maids, cooks and show-biz types come and go. The actors are shot in transparent black-and-white at normal speed, while the settings -- passing sunlight, billowing curtains -- blink by in time-lapse color, giving the sense that the fiction is at once more real and more evanescent than O'Neill's nerveless appraisal of a building beautifully gone to rot. The actors' words and gestures coalesce into a collective dream, seasoned with a little bit of nightmare. The film's craftsmanship is amazing (besides his experimental work, O'Neill has done special effects for Hollywood movies). O'Neill and Decay of Fiction cinematographer and sound designer Gary Lockwood will visit from Los Angeles for a question and answer session after the screening. Also screening: O'Neill's 1996 short Trouble in the Image. (BO) * * *

10:30 p.m. Ratcatcher. The 1999 debut feature of Scottish director Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar) is a coming-of-age story about a 12-year-old boy during a summer garbage strike in Glasgow. This is its Pittsburgh theatrical premiere.

12:30 a.m. Easy Rider. Directed and co-written by Dennis Hopper, this low-budget 1969 road movie -- featuring songs by The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf and others -- was an anti-Hollywood statement ... but also a box-office smash that convinced Hollywood to aggressively pursue the youth market. Hopper and Peter Fonda star in the story of two bikers out looking for America; Jack Nicholson co-stars.

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The rest of Splice
All films at McConomy Auditorium, CMU campus, except as otherwise noted

Fri., April 25
1 p.m. Spanking the Monkey (USA, 1994)
3 p.m. Taste of Cherry (Iran, 1997)
5 p.m. Animation Program I
6 p.m. Animation Program II (featuring Pittsburgh's Jim Duesing)
8 p.m. The Decay of Fiction (repeat program with filmmaker Pat O'Neill) Melwood
9 p.m. Shadows (USA, 1959)
12 a.m. The Last Dragon (USA, 1985)

Sat., April 26
1 p.m. "Eulogies to the Undead: Private Rockers Meet Little Lieutenants" (contemporary experimental shorts)
3 p.m. "Stan Brakhage Tribute" (featuring Brakhage's "Pittsburgh Trilogy")
5:30 p.m. TBA
8 p.m. She's Gotta Have It (USA, 1986)
9 p.m. Special event: Live image and sound design by Benton Bainbridge. Regina Miller Gallery, Purnell Center, CMU campus.
12:30 a.m. Gummo (USA, 1997)

Sun., April 27.
5:30 p.m. Stranger Than Paradise (USA, 1994)
7:30 p.m. Visiting curator Astria Suparak presents "Looking is Better than Feeling You," a collection of contemporary film and video by women artists
10 p.m. Tape (USA, 2001)
12 a.m. The Toxic Avenger (USA, 1985)

Mon., April 28
8 p.m. Visiting curator Astria Suparak presents "Broken Music," contemporary experimental video shorts.

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