The 34th Annual Big Muddy Film Festival - SIU-Carbondale, IL (Or, Why Attending The Big Muddy Is Better For You Than Staying Home And Watching The Oscars)

The film was Craig Bladwin's Sonic Outlaws and the venue was the Longbranch Coffeehouse.  The screen was one of those pull-up science class film strip deals and the back room was pretty much packed as the assortment of narrative, experimental, and documentary films whirred on, the soundtracks occasionally fighting the hiss of steamed milk.  It might have been 1996.  In any case, this is the moment I think of as the beginning of my love affair with the Big Muddy Film Festival.

Bert I. Gordon's Village of the Giants (1965) 
as seen in Craig Baldwin's Sonic Outlaws (1995)
The Big Muddy has been happening around the end of February/beginning of March since 1978, screening a wild variety of international submissions in venues within the SIU campus and throughout the Southern Illinois area, always maintaining a strong focus on the evolution of documentary and experimental film, as well as the ways in which the light from those two genres bleed endlessly across one another.  The Big Muddy is a small festival that, in it's best years, brings a quality and consistency of films that rivals larger festivals.  As the Academy Awards decline in popularity and relevance, it seems only fitting to pay tribute to the Big Muddy which has proudly maintained a focus on independent film production and the evolving film underground, frequently presenting its "Best of the Fest" closing night on that once-revered night of television.  Of course, the discerning and dedicated Southern Illinois film lover will always choose the Big Muddy.  Some of the most notable winners to screen on Oscar night this year were Heather Freeman's funny and unnerving Pennipotens (Best Animation), the home-movie daydream of Luis Arnias' This Must Be the Place (Best Experimental), the bare bones documentary style of Melissa Davenport's Blueberryland (Best Documentary), the handmade black-and-white Big Bang whimsy of Rachel Moore's Pop (Honorable Mention-Animation), and perhaps the most overtly activist-oriented film of the festival, Jean-Gabriel Periot's Les Barbares (Honorable Mention-Experimental), the simplest of all the "Best of" films in terms of production, but also one of the most potent.  Built entirely of still images, Les Barbares crafts a visual meditation on the tension between the conformity of "civilized" institutions and the potential of anarchy.  In the wake of the Occupy movement, Periot's short piece serves as a welcome artifact emerging from the movement that raises the activist voice of the French professor of philosophy Alain Brossat to our ears:
If politics were to come back, it could only be from it's savage and disreputable fringe.                                        Then, a muffled rumor shall arise whence that roar is heard:                                                                                                          "We are scum!  We are barbarian!"
Jean-Gabriel Periot's Les Barbares
Periot's short piece takes me back to the power of appropriation that Baldwin was simultaneously documenting and utilizing in Sonic Outlaws, primarily focusing on the collage audio/visual work of Negativland, John Oswald, and the Emergency Broadcast Network (EBN) which led the question of Fair Use into the new appropriation art terrain of the 1980's.  In Les Barbares Periot appropriates the naturalized human architecture of the "group photograph" and disrupts it by wiping one across the other in ever quickening succession, and then finally disrupting it entirely with images of violent revolution.  Since we've come a long way from the questions of authorship that Negativland and Oswald were asking with their work in their most popular periods, it is interesting to see how collage and appropriation work has morphed in the age of You Tube.  As the borders of authorship erode in ways that the legal system can barely keep up with, the tools of film making become increasingly accessible, and the possibilities for experimentation increase as the idea of ownership is challenged and chipped away at in the online sphere every day.  This idea also resonated within the Big Muddy's retrospective presentation this year which featured George Kuchar's classic from 1966 Hold Me While I'm Naked.  Not only did Kuchar re-mix elements ranging from melodrama to sci-fi to porn in an age when underground cinema was truly underground, but the recent documentary It Came From Kuchar reveals the extent to which they are still creating remarkably strange work using consumer grade video equipment.  (And, for those who need a catalyst to start making that film to submit for next year's festival, a viewing of It Came From Kuchar might be a good place to start.)  The choice to screen Kuchar along with the late avant-garde animator Robert Breer and the meta-cinematic flicks of Owen Land is one that certainly shows how deep the tradition of appropriation in experimental film runs.  Added to that, two films by Chick Strand were presented, a film maker who often used pre-existing materials in her work, but also serves as a reminder to the Big Muddy's exceptional dedication to women in film (once again, sorry Oscar, but giving Kathryn Bigelow an award for the over-praised Hurt Locker is somehow more insulting than progressive in the face of the continuing boy's club mentality of Hollywood production).

George Kuchar's Hold Me While I'm Naked 
Other notable "appropriation" films that screened at the Big Muddy this year were Johanna Vaude's UFO Dreams and Michael Robinson's These Hammers Don't Hurt Us which resurrects Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson in a film that juxtaposes clips from their Egyptian incarnations.  Cinemascope's Michael Sicinski wrote on Robinson as a significant part of the new shift in experimental film, one that the Big Muddy has continued to spool out in all of it's twists and turns for the last three decades plus.  Sicinski says that Robinson's work could be seen as the answer to a precise problem in the world of experimental film studies and appreciation:
How can experimental cinema retain its connection to history, remaining cognizant of the various crises of representation, without lapsing into nihilism? Or, for that matter, how is it possible to harness filmic effects in order to produce feelings of dread, longing, or even spontaneous release, without veering into ridiculousness or self-importance? How can we accept the failure (for now) of the grand designs of modernity and still operate on a plane of sincerity, commitment, and belief?
In an interview with Robinson, he describes his films in terms that reach back through the subjects of Baldwin's Outlaws all the way to the early days of recombinant visual frontiers marked by the works of Vertov, Duchamp, Man Ray:
I consider my films as taking the surface of various things, as in the surface connotation of a given landscape, text, song, etc., and forcing these surfaces into proximity with one another so as to create some kind of new resonance between them. In a sense, none of the films are “about” the different elements they contain, but are more concerned with the distance and movement between sources, and with how to forge a narrative arc out of essentially non-narrative materials.
Michael Robinson's These Hammers Don't Hurt Us
Though the more experimental portions of the festival may have limited mass appeal, it continues to be one of the most exciting portions of the festival for me, and this year's screenings were not shying away from the aspect of cognitive disruption that often accompanies these showcases.  One of the showcases, which included Robinson's film, was capped off by the delightfully noisy and eroded compositions of Ana Geyer's Goodbye Pig and the brain-scrambling flicker-film aesthetic of Scott Stark's Tenpin Arpeggio, a pairing certainly appreciated by those who want their cinema alive and kicking, as opposed to the dead-on-arrival, over-hyped pics of the Oscar elite.

Scott Stark's Tenpin Arpeggio
Meryl Streep as The Iron Lady 
As the Oscars transforms even more dramatically into a way to peddle mediocre cinema to mass audiences (egregiously punctuated by the increase in Best Picture nominations), the experimental film front shows continued flickers of promise.  While we're not going to see something like Thomas Imbach's moving experimental feature Day is Done nominated anytime soon, or the 16mm beauty and strangeness of Ben River's Slow Action, it should be noted that the Academy did nominate what might be the most avant-garde film to have ever been nominated for Best Picture, Terrance Malick's The Tree of Life.  Of course, this triumph is sullied by a number of factors, most notably the nomination of Brad Pitt as Best Actor for a different film, the lazy decision to just toss another one to Meryl Streep, and the ultimate win of The Artista film that not only pales in comparison to any of Malick's work, but whose long-term survival might in fact be hindered by having won the whole shebang.

Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life
Where the mainstream mostly rewards films that are immediately accessible, films that recycle material in an "appropriate" fashion (with the goal of making money), a festival like the Big Muddy acknowledges that film is one of the most complex of the arts, one that, in it's most refined forms, should be allowed time to digest and a vigorous community to discuss it with after.  In an age where the success of a commercial film seems to be a foregone conclusion regardless of it's quality, festivals like the Big Muddy ask us to truly look at and engage with the world, which could also be said of the best works of experimental, documentary, and narrative film.  This point becomes more important with a bit of historical context, given that the history of film has inhabited some pretty dire spaces, allowing us at times to hide in the ethical blackness of movie halls in ways that nurture our worst impulses.  The most common examples of this would probably lie in the works of Griffith or Riefenstahl;  in contrast, I often think of the best experimental films as throwing their light back at us, as the opposite of us throwing ourselves into the dream worlds of cinema making fascists.  Looked at through that lens, great films and film festivals kill fascists and keep us from being sheep.

Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will  
One of my fondest Big Muddy memories is of a film that achieved this in a very literal way.  I can't remember the name of the film, but it was during a retrospective of the progenitor of the American avant-garde, Stan Brakhage.  I believe the title of the film was a number (3?...11?), and I remember that we were watching a fairly quick succession of Brakhage shorts, some of which can be very short and do not always announce their beginning points in easily recognized ways.   This particular film seemed to begin with a nearly minuscule point of light at an off-center point in the screen.  No sound.  As most of us sat there wondering if this were some kind of projector malfunction or the beginning of another film, the point began to gradually open wider at an almost imperceptible rate until the screen was simply a gaping hole of light, and the entire audience awash in bright, white light.  And, that was it.  Us, illuminated and together for a brief moment, caught in the light of cinema.  It's hard to explain now, but it was a kind of joyful discomfort, as if the film had offered our collective presence up to us to discover anew.  I marveled at how a trick of light so simple could seem so unprecedented and revolutionary.

Stan Brakhage
That particular Big Muddy retrospective was conducted by Chicago Reader critic and artist Fred Camper, and I remember him punctuating the point of how film "takes time" much better than I ever could.  He told us that in order to properly discuss Brakhage's work we should take an entire day to watch all of his films.  Then, we should take another day to watch them all again.  Then, after the third day of watching them all, he suggested we might reconvene to begin the discussion.  Although it didn't go down like that, I see the spirit of the Big Muddy Film Festival reflected in that comment, and in the way the collection of films the organizers of the festival have put together over the years allows us to see the refinement of technique that it takes to make a truly great work of film, no matter what length or genre.

Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan's Between Two Rivers
Speaking of great works, one of the festival highlights this year, and winner of the Audience Choice Award, was Between Two Rivers which documents the once thriving town of Cairo, IL, delving deep into the history of racial tensions that mark that tragic city.  The screening I attended at the University Museum was certainly overfull, but the positive response to the film was not affected in any way by a few folks having to pull up a floor.  One of the most captivating elements of Between Two Rivers is the combination of archival footage and photography, as well as how adeptly it identifies the history of racism in the area without being exploitative.  A fondness for the Southern Illinois landscape, strikingly captured by Cartwright and Jordan's cinematography, and an adeptness at weaving the stories of the area together in a way that rambles and co-mingles like the place where the waters of that once crucial intersection meet, Between Two Rivers is a documentary that will certainly communicate beyond it's local appeal.  Another feature of the film that is woven in effectively is the use of narration, expertly handled by a friend to ECSTATIC, Southern Illinois actor and film maker Bob Streit.  Steit was recently featured on ECSTATIC for his directorial debut Confidence Man, a documentary about another piece of So.Ill history involving the rise of the Woodbox Gang and the ultimate imprisonment of their front man Hugh DeNeal, which Streit created with Daniel Overturf and premiered this year at the St. Louis International Film Festival alongside the likes of Steve James' The Interrupters and AJ Schnack's Kurt Cobain About a Son.  Streit and Overturf were both involved in the production of Between Two Rivers, so congratulations to them and everyone involved for their successful showing at the Big Muddy.  Between this film and Elena Esquibel's exceptional ethnographic performance piece Sundown in Southern Illinois that was produced in SIU's Kleinau Theatre last year, I have re-focused insight into Southern Illinois history that I never came close to in the 5+ years I lived in the area.
To check out where you can see Between Two Rivers, click on their Facebook page.

Between Two Rivers
As always, I remain looking forward to next year's festival.  For those who live in the area, I can't stress enough how important it is to get out and support the Big Muddy Film Festival.  If you're a  student at SIU, you should be ashamed to let this great event pass without at least taking in a screening or two, especially since those who plan the festival do all they can to create discounted and free screenings for students.  Finally, thanks to all those who organized the festival, and congratulations on another rich year of films.  Long live the Big Muddy!

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