Experimental documentaries are like feature articles with a lot of breathing space. They have information for you, but they want to be creative with their Crayola markers. Only the best of creative storytellers can get away with it; ones who aren’t afraid to break the uniformity and take the risk of misinterpretation. Calculated facts mesh with rants of air. But somehow, it all makes sense.
Peripheral Produce is one of the very few experimental documentary distro labels out there. Based out of Portland, Oregon, and first founded by filmmaker Matt McCormick, the label has been around seven years and counting. Originally started as a screening series, the label has top-notch works that have been screened at the Sundance Film Festival and the Whitney Biennial, among others. Peripheral Produce represents the front lines of experimental work being made today.
Something like Flying: Short Films by Deborah Stratman (2005) intermittently follows the life of Adil Hoxur, a tightrope walker touring China’s Taklamakan desert among the Uyghurs. Although the exotic and political bystander scenery can appear meaningful at times, it goes on longer than it needs to. There always seems to be that question between minimalism and laziness. Although there is too much breathing space in this one, there are a few gem-like moments that don’t need to be framed as documentary material in order to tell a story. They just are.
In Peripheral Produce All Time Greatest Hits (2003) Jim Finn’s Wustenspringmaus brings together Willy Wonka projections with German folk-techno on a grainy escapade about a gerbil named Francoise. Much like watching a retro music video on acid at four in the morning, it is strangely alluring, even a metaphysical experience.
Experimental documentaries are also educational, like in Matt McCormick’s The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal (2001) that recognizes graffiti removal on city streets as an unintentional and unrecognized art movement right before our eyes. Although dryly academic at times, the documentary represents government works as subconscious artists because they’re making aesthetic choices about how to cover up the graffiti. With your typical textbook-like connections to the generic abstractionists like Rothko and Malevich, after all this articulation, the voices of the actual graffiti artists are nowhere to be found. Funny, I’d like to know what Barry McGee thinks of McCormick’s work, and I’d like to know what McCormick thinks of the Toronto-based art-duo, the City Beautification Ensemble because they not only observe subconscious public art, they make it themselves.
In The Next Best Place: Short Films by Bill Brown (2004), we become accustomed to the intimate narrative of Brown’s voice, which is much like hearing a storybook read from the mind of Heidegger but through the mouth of Charlie Brown. Philosophical paradoxes based around the structure of language come in the visual form of animated words written in Crayola markers, adding creative playfulness. In Roswell (1994), Brown keeps with a time travelling, meets driving, meets UFO theme, using events that transform as a departure for imaginary speculation. Brown always seems to be travelling, constantly looking for something, and we realize that with every journey he changes his mind about what he’s looking for. He’s an imaginative kind of guy who’s not afraid to admit he has got a crush on historical tour guides dressed in 18th century gear, and then question if he’s creepy because he’s fantasizing about someone who has been dead for 200 years. There’s nothing hotter than creative honesty, and the best delivery for this is the experimental documentary. (Nadja Sayej)
PO BOX 40835, Portland, Oregon, 97240, U.S.A., www.peripheralproduce.com