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JUST SAY NO TO FAMILY VALUES
by Anthony Nield in Home Cinema@ The Digital Fix , 2.06.2011
 
During the 1990s Channel 4 dedicated a midweek slot to Midnight Underground, a few hours on a Wednesday night in which to sample the best in classic and current experimental cinema. Initially it was the classic which took central focus with screenings of the likes of Un Chien Andalou, Pull My Daisy, Little Stabs at Happiness and The Big Shave. As the years progressed the shift then turned towards more contemporary examples of the form, whether it be the latest from Stephen Dwoskin (or Jayne Parker) or some new emerging talent. Watching Just Say No To Family Values it’s hard not to be reminded of the Midnight Underground, particularly its latter years. Here we have seven films made between 2004 and 2008, from across the globe - Israel, Poland, Germany, Austria, Estonia, Italy - but unified by a shared theme, complemented with a classic short from 1971. Even the running time matches that used by Channel 4; essentially feature-length but arguably richer given the wealth of differing angles and approaches taken by these assembled filmmakers.

Setting the ball rolling, and introducing the overall theme, is Just Say No To Family Values, Antonello Faretta’s 2006 short from which the compilation also takes it name. This five-minute piece is shot on digital video in a single take, its focus being the beat poet John Giorno as he recites his eponymous work. The presence of Giorno is a significant one, tying Faretta’s film back to the Andy Warhol pieces in which he appeared (Sleep, a number of Screen Tests) and his various associates over the years: as well as Warhol, there have been collaborations on record with the likes of William Burroughs and Patti Smith. In other words he’s a point of connection, a means of insisting that the films present on this particular are as valid as the works by these better known artists and are, in their own way, continuing in a similar vein. Furthermore, Giorno’s words serve as an introduction to the unifying themes which bring together Just Say No To Family Values’ disparate collection of filmmakers and ideas. His spirited performance considers sex, drugs and fundamentalism through hedonistic discourse thus opening the doors, as the booklet notes put it, for “a multi-part glance from various perspectives and geo-political contexts on body and gender roles as well as sexual politics”.

Mirroring Faretta and Giorno’s film, Just Say No To Family Values offers its multi-part glance primarily through performance and documentary. Such elements have a persistent tendency within experimental cinema, although here both play an overtly crucial part. Films such as Keren Cytter’s Der Spiegel and Deborah Schamoni’s Dead Devils Death Bar are constructed almost wholly or solely in single takes thus placing an additional burden/emphasis on the performers on screen; the movement of the actors and the movement of the camera becoming part of the same dance. Other titles, notably Jaan Toomik’s Invisible Pearls and Karol Radziszewski’s Fag Fighters: Prologue are explicitly documentary in their approach, albeit with a narrowed down focus as befits their under 15-minute durations. The two remaining shorts, Patrycja German’s Leg Wrestling and Maria Petschnig’s Kip Masker fall somewhere in-between, occupying an area between the documentation of performance art and straightforward performance; an interesting blur which arguably contributes to their impact.

Impact is certainly the key word as there’s a confrontational edge to many of these films. In the case of Der Spiegel the target is the conventions of love, sexual attraction and their representation onscreen. Five actors - three female, two male - perform a narrative in which one of the women fails to live up to expected norms: she no longer has the body of a 16-year-old; she does not speak in French and so cannot enact the standard conventions of erotic cinema. The other two women effectively become a chorus, commenting on and highlighting the ‘inadequacies’ with a wit that counterpoints the cruelty. Sexual norms come into play too in Kip Masker and Invisible Pearls albeit through very different means. The former, a brief three-minute wordless piece shot on digital video like so many of these titles, presents a series of static images of near-naked body parts trussed up absurd clothing. The aim is to consider the body and fetishist ideas through this absurdity, forcing questions of what is normal through something that appears pointedly abnormal. Invisible Pearls, meanwhile, continues this strain of going “beyond the so-called normal” (as the booklet notes have it) by documenting those who have undergone a distinctly marginal form of penile enhancement for both hetero- and homosexual pleasure. The confrontational elements are also no doubt abetted by the necessary need for some explicit imagery.

Not all of the films are quite so ‘in your face’. Leg Wrestling is a simple record of a piece of interactive performance art in which the audience participant takes on an equal role. In this case it involves taking on Patrycja German in the titular game, one in which she attempts to overpower the thighs of a male challenger. Readings of gender roles and sexual superiority are clearly available, but the film is also rather playful in its tone which leavens any potential heavy-handedness. Conversely, Fag Fighters: Prologue is arguably the subtlest film to find its way onto Just Say No To Family Values. We watch an elderly woman as she slowly knits a balaclava in shocking pink wool. This headwear is the sign of the eponymous Fag Fighters, a mock-guerrilla outfit dreamt up by director Karol Radziszewski as a means of playing up to the perceived right-wing vision of the homosexual community in his native Poland. As the title suggests we are only getting the prologue here to a much bigger project, but nevertheless the hints and insinuations remain.

This blend of approaches and subjects - each different yet interconnected - makes for an intriguing compilation and a largely rewarding whole. Particularly pleasing in the manner in which it is topped off with Paolo Mezzacapo de Cenzo’s Under Water, an Italian short from 1971 shot on 8mm by a director who had died before any of the other had even enter gestation. As such it comes like a voice from the past and counters many of the films found within the main programme: black and white as opposed to colour; film stock as opposed to digital video; non-synch soundtrack (screenings would be accompanied by Arnold Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht) as opposed to the simple audio means of modern technology; and a sexual openness that is markedly different from the other Just Say No To Family Values films inasmuch as it seems unencumbered by a particular stance or point-making. And yet it makes for a perfect fit courtesy of its narrative source, an 1896 poem by Richard Dehmel concerning itself with new sexual moralities and a confrontation of convention. The age of both this inspiration and the film itself may suggest a voice or voices from another era, although ultimately it simply confirms that Just Say No To Family Values’ compiled shorts are merely the latest additions to a long line of thought that stretches back through the centuries.

THE DISC

Just Say No To Family Values is the latest release from Austrian experimental cinema specialists Index. It follows their usual approach of a region free PAL disc with an additional bilingual (English and German) booklet and high standard of presentation. Each of the films comes in their original aspect ratio, some of which come 1.33:1 whilst others are framed at 1.78:1. (The latter have all been anamorphically enhanced.) Interestingly this release is more English-friendly than previous packages meaning that where subtitles are needed they come burnt into the print as opposed to there being an option to go with or without. This doesn’t really affect the presentation, although in the case of Dead Devils Death Bar they are a little on the small side. Given the digital video origins of the majority of these pieces any visual flaws (artefacting, ‘jaggies’, etc.) would appear to be inherent; similarly with the additional short Under Water, whose near-home move style necessarily shows itself in the dirty 8mm image. Much the same is also true of the soundtracks, with any issues no doubt being inherent in their production and not in their transfer onto disc. As for the booklet here we find an engaging essay tying the various shorts together, plus individual credits and notes for each title oftentimes by the filmmakers themselves.
 
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