Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Pixelvision: Easier Than Child’s Play

This is not a happy time for media watchers. In a era when huge TV screens are ubiquitous -- even in the locker room at my neighborhood gym -- I can’t avoid graphic reminders of the massacre at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. As I changed out of my sweats this past Sunday, I was confronted with a father’s poignant memories of his beautifully little daughter, so cruelly snatched from the world. It made me feel less like getting in shape and more like sobbing.

TV brings us tragedy, but we also turn to television to help us heal. Our President’s remarks to a community in mourning are televised. Pundits on various news shows debate what should be done. CNN, the station blaring in my locker room, featured Levar Burton discussing how to talk to children about tragedy. Why Burton? Maybe because his debut role as Kunta Kinte on Roots and his later appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation have made him a sympathetic presence in America’s living rooms. But also because by hosting (and executive producing) Reading Rainbow for PBS over 23 seasons he has become a trusted advocate for children’s literacy. TV, it seems, confers expertise.

But I don’t want to talk about TV and tragedy. I want to view childhood in a happier light, as a time of creative experiment. My visit last week to a set of brief screenings at a funky Santa Monica coffeehouse has given me that opportunity. The traveling film festival known as PXL THIS was started twenty-two years ago by Gerry Fialka, a star of the L.A. experimental film scene. (Fialka has been hailed as SoCal’s pre-eminent underground film curator and as a “multi-media Renaissance man.”) All PXL THIS films were shot with the Fisher-Price PXL-2000 camcorder, a lightweight plastic thingumabob that somehow records audio and video on the same cassette. The PXL-2000 was developed in 1987 to enable kids to shoot their own movies. Over the years it’s been discovered by artists looking for new ways to capture the world around them. Because the raw but somehow poetic look of Pixelvision’s black-and-white images meshes nicely with the sensibility of punk rock, the PXL-2000 has frequently been featured in music videos. Filmmaker Richard Linklater called upon it in 1991 when making Slacker, his break-through indie about low-life types wandering aimlessly around Austin.

PXL THIS 22 shows off the many uses to which this toy camera can be put. Two of the featured filmmakers are not quite ten years old. One of them, Chester Burnett, has staged a comic exorcism featuring a Barbie doll. The other, Donovan Seelinger, takes advantage of Pixelvision’s grainy quality for an almost hallucinatory look at Venice Beach’s skateboard park. (Donovan’s dad Geoff contributes a complementary visual study of the rush of automobile and foot traffic at a busy Venice intersection.) Some of the night’s offerings are surreal, like the film in which oddball puppets try to stage Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. Some make a satirical point; others pay serious homage to writers, artists, and musicians. I was especially fond of Fialka and Clifford Novey’s eight-minute “I Think I’m in Something,” which is hard to describe but mesmerizing to experience. (Think of one of those air-inflated advertising figures that bobs and twists in the wind like a dancer gone amok. Then add actual dancers emulating the figure’s outlandish contortions. Score this with some Alice Coltrane jazz, and you get the general idea.)

Pixelvision’s grainy, gnarly images allow artists to play like children. Too bad that in this world of ours, children sometimes must grow up far too fast.


On Thursday, January 17, USC’s Cinematheque 108 presents "Genuine Fake Films By Gerry Fialka" Admission is free.


  1. Wonder if any of those shorts are on youtube? Probably. Which would you most recommend?

    (Also, you went to Unurban for the festival? Ha!)

  2. Yes, it was the Unurban, a place I rather love because it's such a throwback to the Sixties. (I'm told the food's not bad, but I wouldn't know.) Yes, you can find some PIXL samples on Youtube. I located some here: http://www.youtube.com/user/pxlthis, but they're not from the current set of offerings. Gerry's PXL THIS link above also will take you to one very "adult" short film that was shown last week quite late in the evening, so I didn't actually see it on the screen. Thanks for asking, Hilary.

  3. What an incredible idea - this is another event I wish I wasn't 3000 miles away for! I would imagine these cameras are now more valuable than a brand new Red camera - there can't be too many left!

  4. We are just such bastions of cool on the west coast! Yes, I've heard of these cameras selling for huge sums on eBay. I believe one was selling for something like $50,000, but I never trust my memory for numbers. (That's why I went into writing, not accounting!)

  5. Nice to hear you enjoyed it. When I discovered Gerry's screenings years ago (some awesome Len Lye doco) I volunteered to help and we became fast friends. I have really enjoyed being a part of the PXL festivals the last few years and the diversity of what people create is always inspiring. Thanks for attending and spreading the good word!
    Clifford Novey

  6. PS- you can get a PXL cameras on ebay for less than $200 easily.

  7. Good to know, Clifford, and many thanks for chiming in. Gerry is a remarkable fellow, and anything he has organized is worth checking out. I hope you'll visit Beverly in Movieland again soon!