Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sunday Night in Greenpoint: "Mono No Aware" Film Performance at East Coast Aliens

Ignoring the chilly downpour at 6 p.m. tonight, we took the fabulous G train two stops north to Greenpoint Avenue and walked the four blocks to the Franklin Street studio of East Coast Aliens to join a crowd of hipsters for "Mono No Aware," a program of live music, performance, and audio to accompany 16-millimeter and Super-8 film prints.

According to Wikipedia, Mono no aware (物の哀れ, literally "the pathos of things"), also translated as "an empathy toward things," or "a sensitivity of ephemera," is a Japanese term used to describe the awareness of mujo or the transience of things and a bittersweet sadness at their passing.

"NO DIGITAL!" said the guidelines calling for entries at Mono No Aware's website. Explicitly not a film festival, the event's focus is "the cinematic experience," one its organizers believe can best be achieved by "the magic in seeing the film as a print." Here's the genesis of Mono No Aware:
In 2005, four friends got together to watch a recently finished film piece on 16mm. The film was thread, curtains drawn, the lights dimmed and a brilliant image took the screen. Seconds into the film, a collage of audio from the streets filled the room drowning out the hum of the projector. It was an urban soundscape. Created by children playing, construction in the distance, and the rustling of the trees, this accompaniment seem to be written for this piece. For the next two years these filmmakers have turned backyards, rooftops, and living rooms into microcinemas creating film events which live in the moment. Unable to rely on the surrounding sounds, they began to add their own live music, poetry, stories, and performance.

Deciding that others should share this experience, the four friends pooled their spare cash and sweat equity to start the first Mono No Aware event in 2007. Tonight's event took place at the capacious salon of East Coast Aliens, an enterprise that combines professional artistic services, like a couple of huge production studios, and a center for art, culture and debates.

Seeing the event listed from "6-10 p.m.," old fool that we are, we got there around 6:15 p.m., following the bearded young Japanese guy in a leather jacket in the first car of the G train whom we correctly spotted as someone going to Mono No Aware.

We found a second row seat in the bleachers as music blared and we watched people put up four big white screens, at least three of which seemed to be bedsheet-type material duct-taped to the walls. As it turned out, the event wasn't going to start for another 75 minutes or so.

Lucky for us, we heard someone call our name. Our young friend Francisco, an up-and-coming photographer and a former student, was sitting just behind us. So, rather than being bored, we got the pleasure of boring someone else.

Otherwise, like the Ancient Mariner, we'd have to stoppeth one in three at random and go on and on. And in Francisco, we had someone who endured two of our classes and mastered the art of staying awake while we blather on. Actually, he told us about some interesting projects he was working on, one involving televisions and magnets, and we shared our enthusiasm for Nam June Paik.

People drifted in and mingled by the bar or got seats in the bleachers. We explored the space a little and were impressed, even by the downstairs. The crowd was mostly under 35 - we were, as we often are, the oldest person around - but all were grateful when a dreadlocked young guy who didn't give his name but obviously was one of the event's founders, got our attention, thanked us for coming, and said we'd see better from the floor in front of the screen in which the first film would be shown.

After about twenty minutes into a melange of ever-shifting blurred images, one of the mishaps to which film projectors are prone to occurred. We're old enough, of course, to remember those 1950s and 1960s movies in the basement. Our dad had an expensive projector, but there'd often be unspoolings, reels burning up, and other problems like the one that at Mono No Aware tonight caused various freezes, white nothing, and delays.

By the 1970s, our projector got use mostly for the Safari Awards, a legendary annual event in the East Flatbush home of our friend Lenny Tropp, who showed the experimental movies he made on 16mm. (We are in one as a traffic cop set on the old LIRR freight tracks south of Brooklyn College.) Soon after, our dad's old weirdly-colored movies of childhood birthday parties, a boxing match we had with Brucie Davidson when we were four-year-olds (the shaving cream commercial is the highlight), and our brothers costumed as Mighty Mouse and Alfred E. Neuman for Halloween were transferred to no-fuss, no-muss VHS tape.

But we actually enjoyed watching two of the organizers working on the projectors (one was brought in a substitute in medias res) as they at several points had to thread or feed the film by hand or grab it as it went out of the projector. It sort of reminded us of Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory. If it made some in the audience impatient, it was also a reminder that older technology provided less than seamless experiences, ones more spontaneous and surprising than we often see, akin to the problems in live music performances or poetry readings (malfunctioning mics, badly-tuned instruments, lousy acoustics) that make them earthier.

The second film performance, on four screens, took place after half an hour break. A couple Francisco knew - we think they're also students at our beloved School of Visual Arts - began dancing, though surprisingly, given the excellent sounds throughout the evening, no one joined them. The second film featured a variety of images, most black and white and seemingly footage from the 1940s and 1950s, with live sound accompaniment and the performance of a woman in a sultry black and crimson dress who occasionally held a guitar and walked around the space where the prints, on four varying-size screens on two walls, were being shown, as she made strange movements and seemed to be playing with her split ends.

Some of the images in the film project seemed to be the much-missed Salvo detergent tablets from an old TV commercial; a horde of Formosan women, all looking like Mme. Chiang Kai-shek, marching around in a huge gymnasium; a press conference, perhaps given by former Rhode Island Senator John Pastore; an upside-down horse; a luncheon in Olanthe, Kansas, or Ladue, Missouri; leggy preteen tap dancers, both girls and boys; older very square square dancers; lots of foam; the causeway to Miami Beach during Arthur Godfrey's heyday.

(Photo courtesy The Roaring Twenties (Lucas Cometto), who skillfully documents lots of NYC events at Flickr)

"That was the worst thing I've ever seen," Francisco's female friend told us when we came over to say good night, as we were tired. True, people did start to get up during the half-hour, but we've been to lots of these events. We saw something very similar back in Soho in the 1970s, and in the East Village in the 1980s, and in South Beach in the 1990s.

This young woman, if she is to be any kind of visual artist, will no doubt see many more things she will think are worse. Granted, it seemed a little pretentious, but that's what these things are supposed to be. And we've been surprised at how conventional the tastes of many twentysomethings seem to us. Just last week one of our students told us she'd never seen any film so "weird" as the establishment masterpiece we'd recommended, Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Anyway, we are grateful to the people who set up Mono No Aware - which, if nothing else, got us out of the house on a chilly, rainy Brooklyn Sunday when all sensible people are at Art Basel Miami Beach. Here are the accepted entries from this year:

Fern Silva / Doron Sadja

The geo-political rise and fall of a future American hero, a vague visionary representation of the assassination of our new president. Conceptually influenced by the 8mm Zapruder film of the assassination of JFK, which made waves around the world, the importance of motion picture. Sound will play a part in this by creating overwhelming psychological collages through feedback, mutated instruments, extreme frequencies, dense splashes of light, color, texture, & action.

Brittany Gravely & Jennifer Pipp // Ken Linehan, Rick Prior, & Sean Andrews

A common affinity for scientific-nostalgic-hallucinatory-mystical-types of sounds, feelings, & imagery leads the way for this group. A collage of electronic-analog sounds respond to sequential images while projections are modified by hand with filters, focus & prisms in response to psychedelic sound. Depending on strategy, but mostly telepathy & synchronicity, the performance unfolds … strange at times, capricious, and surprising to both performers and the audience.

Sam Dishy

A series of moments captured in a way only Super 8 knows how to do. This film is a simple and pure expression of cinema. A reminder to the audience of the short glances, daydreams, and emotions which carry us through life. The piece will be accompanied by guitar and violin.

Seyhan Muaoglu & Jess Ramsay

Abandon all conventions associated with performance as the boundaries between audience & artist are blurred in a roomful of film projections, sounds, contemporary dance & audience participation. Projectors, an array of analog devices, digital instruments, & live sampling of sounds help marry technology with obsolete media. Driven by fascination and obsession of all mediums, the visual language is expanded upon expressing the beauty of film, cinema as experience.

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