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Punk Cinema & the VHS Revival

Originally posted on The Present Is Now, 8/11/09




Two weeks ago, I went to a screening of short films put on by CANADA called Pulsating Sunglasses. During the hour-long screening, curated by Allen Cordell (that’s a lot of l’s), I watched 18 shorts by 13 artists. What struck me about these films wasn’t the quality or narrative (most of them had no narrative), but the style and content. Almost every one of the films, clips, videos, and music videos employed the technique of cutting up found video footage, most of which was from VHS tapes of old TV shows, movies, and commercials. Many of these were also accompanied by strobing neon colors and repetitive, almost atonal electronic music. Now, none of the above are reprimands, critiques, or insults. I enjoyed many of the videos. In fact, most of the ones I hated were the ones that failed to use these techniques. It was the act of watching so many similarly styled films back-to-back that made me start thinking of a few things. Join me, won’t you.
Several weeks back, I was watching a music video by Jimmy Joe Roche for the song “Crystal Cat” by Dan Deacon. Along with me were Alisha and Tom, as usual. Tom began a mild rant on disliking the video and style (the style virtually all of the Pulsating Sunglasses videos implemented). He mentioned that the video, along with the bulk of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! used this retro, VHS-y, late-80s/early-90s aesthetic and that it was neither original nor interesting (I’m paraphrasing here). While I don’t agree with all of that, I will admit that these artists certainly weren’t the first to use these techniques/styles; though they certainly have made it their own.

The main connection I draw with this style of film making is to TV Carnage. For those who don’t know, this is the project of two dudes who have been making compilations of found VHS footage since the late ’90s. This began as a mail-order service, but thanks to torrents and their YouTube channel, we can all enjoy it without those meddling US Postal Service fascists pokin’ their members into our lives. At this point, your thoughts may be hovering around “why is this a thing in the first place?” This could be answered with a few concepts/ideas. Nostalgia, of course, being a big one. As I mentioned earlier, most of the footage is from the late-80s/early-90s, so even I can relate to why so many artists my age are plundering these tapes nowadays. It doesn’t hurt that manipulating such footage is a breeze these days what with all that technology and surch out there. It seems that this time period is experimenting with found film the way Duchamp and other Dadaists and Surrealists played with found objects. And everyone from John Cage to the Books to me have used found sound for musical composition. And speaking of myself and famous artists, these techniques were pioneered for literature by Brion Gysin and later developed and made “famous” by William Burroughs. Known as the cut-up technique, they would rearrange other writing (i.e. newspapers) and form a new piece altogether. But they (and I) went beyond that and began cutting up their own works to create new works that they (and I) felt were hidden in the original. Now all of these forms were far more in depth and specific forms of something that occurs in almost all art forms since, I assume, the dawn of time: appropriation.

Essentially, this is taking anything from a piece to the whole of a work of art, and reconstituting it as your own. And this isn’t just manipulating it, I had a friend who took an LP cover he liked and put it up as his own piece in an art show for his degree program. But why is this legitimate? Well, to quote T.S. Eliot (I think I’ve earned the right), “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Or, to paraphrase, “good artists borrow, great artists steal.”

Art itself is a part of culture and therefore worthy of manipulating and interpreting for the use in other art. Even by taking an existing piece and showcasing it as is (hopefully crediting the original), you are resituating (apparently not a word) it and placing it in a new context. What was once merely an album cover, is now being presented as a legitimate piece of art (not that it wasn’t legitimate in the first place, but now it’s official!). Found art generally uses things taken from outside the context of art (i.e. garbage, thrift stores, non-music cassette tapes). The videos using the technique in question seem to fall somewhere between the types of appropriation used in found art. That is, they manipulate existing film that is mostly not considered artistic, like commercials, and attempt to make it mean something else. It often, however, moves beyond (or below) art and is merely used to comedic value. The Pulsating Sunglasses artists, however, don’t just cut-up footage for laughter’s sake, they often try to form a narrative, add music, and layer over the found film using crude and basic video editing techniques such as flashing the spectrum, clip-art inserts, and various other smears, splotches, cuts, and color splashing to weave together into a cinematic representation of the current psychedelic-electronic-punk music that is most often associated with these videos. There’s those keywords.

Now, watching these videos, there’s no doubt that they’re psychedelic. Albeit a new psychedelia for a new age. But we can discuss that another time (or I can). And seeing as how most of these videos are accompanied by electronic music of some sort, or are linked to electronic bands (Jimmy Joe Roche did several videos, PFFR did one, and so did Black Dice for their song “Kokomo“), that one’s obvious. What about punk? Well, that leads to another discussion Tom and I were having.

After finally reading Please Kill Me, Tom was talking to me about the punk aesthetic and wondering what the film equivalent would be. I mentioned how there were certain films at the time of punk (i.e. Blank Generation [or The Blank Generation] and The Decline of Western Civilization) that probably fit into the ethos, but nothing that was ever as recognized as the music and fashion aspects. I felt the trouble with it existing at any point in the future, would be that it wouldn’t be dubbed punk cinema, but merely some sort of revivalist genre. If there were to be a type of punk film style, I figured it would have to be something stripped down of the glitz and glamour, something urgent and new, but with a firm (albeit at times invisible) foot in the past. It was this discussion and this description that lept into my mind while watching the Pulsating Sunglasses films. Didn’t they fit into all of that criteria? Weren’t they the epitome of crude, rude, and DIY? The fact that so many of these types of films exist and that so many artists are utilizing this style, must stem from a subconscious, united desire to react to the mainstream of film that revels in huge budgets, seamless effects, and beautifully shot HD footage. Right? I think so. And I think we’re going to see a lot more of this style in the future. Then we’ll slowly see the techniques creeping into mainstream film and video. Mark my words. I’m a pro at spottin’ trends. Then they’ll water it down, give it a snazzy name that the underground was using, meanwhile, post-cuttingupvhstapesandaddingcrazycolorsandpicturesandshit will be taking place in England, etc.

So, that’s what was going through my mind as I watched these videos (sorry, they got kinda boring after awhile). Of course, right about the time I finished this essay up, I found this:


I was throwing in all the necessary links, when I found the original blurb for the screening on the CANADA website. It basically says all the things I just said. On one hand, that takes the steam out of my essay by showing that all the brilliant analysis I did, was really just a bloated version of the synopsis the curator provided. On the other hand, it shows how much of a genius I am because I hadn’t read that beforehand.

Video clip of Pulsating Sunglasses

[Note: Reading this now, I am fascinated by the foresight. I doubt I was the first to notice, but it is incredible how much all of these techniques have permeated indie music, art, film, and fashion.]

    1. 4 notesTimestamp: Thursday 2011/07/14 18:25:0090sallen cordellartblack dicecanadacinemadadadan deaconelectronicessayfilmfound artfound filmjimmy joe larochemarcel duchampmusicnew yorknycpffrpsychedeliapsychedelicpulsating sunglassespunkretrorevivaltape culturetv carnagevhswilliam burroughswriting
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