The Cinema Project screened two hyper-hypnotic and abstract films last weekend — the aural-optical dreamy kaleidoscopic Chumlum and the similarly psychedelic, dissociating yet relatively graspable Christmas on Earth. It was an off-beat celebration of the season, as both proved to be exemplary works for the volunteer-driven film collective which continues to unwrap the genre of avant-garde cinema for anyone willing to venture in.
The two screenings, which were presented in their original 16mm formats (awesomely!), were held at the VFW Hall, a two-story, crumbling-on-the-outside although trendy-on-the-inside building in Southeast Portland. I admire how fitting this location was in terms of atmospheric introduction that night. Upon walking towards the entrance and taking in the ominous industrial area of SE while preparing for what I knew was going to be some strange movie watching, I felt that I was up to some clandestine behavior of menacing implications; like how I imagine angst-ridden, imaginative teens feel when they begin dabbling in esoteric arts when their parents are not home.
Now for the films themselves, indeed they were peculiar. Chumlum, made by the mythic, experimental film-making trailblazer, Ron Rice in 1964, was an hallucinatory and spiritual visual-poem, in which eccentric characters fade in and out of fantasies of ethereal beauty and confusion. Then comes the headlining Christmas on Earth, a landmark underground film by performance artist Barbara Rubin. It is surreal and blunt, and either a perverse or liberated (depending who you ask) exploration on various facets of human sexuality. Interestingly enough, this film (as instructed by Ms. Rubin herself) was screened by two separate projectors overlaying two distinct images on top of one another, with a live DJ accompanying the audio in a seemingly improvisational fashion. Chumlum did not incorporate this, but instead featured a bizarrely spellbinding score of an ever-changing rolling sound of a cymbalom, which was as unsettling as Christmas on Earth‘s soundscapes.
Both of these films, each under 30 minutes, were tantalizing, twisted and never not nutty, in the way that transcends intellectual comprehension, and maybe even a critical response. Avant-Garde is a genre which classifies films that can appear to be utterly random, nonsensical, and indecipherable, when really, if the film is of quality, its bizarreness and/or vagueness is more intention than haphazard. But ah, here we come to the golden core of art critique — how is the critic to know the true Intent of an artist? Without being aware of the Intent, or at least any form of surrounding context, critiquing anything can lead to condemnation, which is like judging a bird for not being a tree. As such, formulating a mere interpretation, I believe, is an accomplishment.
Truly understanding these seemingly fragmented, mind-bending films as they are is almost impossible. Then it came to me that this entire genre is almost a complete free-for-all in terms of how one chooses to interact with them, because there is no clearly defined way in approaching and experiencing them.
And that is why I think avant-garde cinema can be such a fulfilling genre, for both audiences and filmmakers. A filmmaker can be as imaginative and unorthodox as they choose as long as it complies with the filmmaker’s intention. An audience member can decide, for themselves, what to take from these excursions, whether that be inspiration, understanding, emotional-gain, etc.
Personally, I approached Chumlum and Christmas on Earth as being realities that were valid in and of themselves, each operating under a distinct logic, and I allowed the films to go (thematically, emotionally, etc) wherever they wanted to go. The better the film was, the less I felt woken up or taken out of this reality. I also used the sexual bluntness of Christmas on Earth to serve as a personal Rorschach Test for myself as I gauged how uncomfortable and/or liberated I was from societal or personal insecurities. In this light, avant-garde cinema (and cinema as a whole, and dare I say your day-to-day reality) becomes much more interactive, as it allows the audience member to play with the filmmaker’s work just as much as the filmmaker got to play with it. They are inherently subjective for a reason.
God Bless the Cinema Project and their commendable aspiration for maintaining Underground Film’s relevancy and awareness among cinema aficionados. Chumlum and Christmas on Earth were cinematic roller-coaster rides into the esoteric and odd, and sometimes these roller-coasters can lead the individual to awesome gains of personal awareness and aesthetic ecstasies.
Check out the link below for Cinema Project news and future screenings.