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    Scene from My Dinner with Weegee. in New York Video Festival
    Scene from "My Dinner with Weegee."

    The vids are all right

    Be prepared to leave the theater uncomfortable as people with cameras stick their grim visions in your face at the New York Video Festival.


    Maybe because it's cheap and almost anybody can pick up a camera and make a movie. Maybe because it has that you-are-there, reality-TV look. Maybe because it can be circulated over the Internet as easily as a bad joke. Maybe for all of these reasons, video has fast become the medium of the moment for getting something in your face and trying to make you squirm.

    Video shorts and features at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center.

    Related links: Official site
    That's what they'll be trying to do at the New York Video Festival for the next week at the Walter Reade Theater. Among the short films we previewed were several quite uncomfortable stories, either true or made to look true, and a couple of funny takes on unusual subjects.

    Most disturbing — perhaps even unethical — is "My Dinner with Weegee," in which Canadian filmmaker Donigan Cumming keeps the camera running as he visits Martin, a broken-down old alcoholic whose only claim to fame is that he once knew renowned New York photographer Weegee. Cumming helps the old man, or at least seems to be trying, all the while focusing closer and closer on his pathetic subject, exposing both mottled flesh and addled brain. It's a kind of biological and psychological horror show that might make you turn away in revulsion, but if you're honest with yourself you'll see that this man could be the image of a parent you someday need to care for — or you, yes you — some decades from now. This is really the horror of the everyday.

    From The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal. in New York Video Festival  
    From "The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal."
    "Hostage: The Bachar Tapes" is a moving series of personal statements by Souheil Bachar, who was held hostage in Beirut alongside Terry Anderson and others. They wrote books, he notes, and he's making videos — it's just the way he's chosen to make his statement about the experience. And what he wants to talk about is not necessarily the big political meaning of his experience but the human behavior of hostages and his own steady loss of dignity.

    Another uncomfortably close personal portrait is "Confessions of a Sociopath," Joe Gibbons' frank account (seemingly staged but maybe not) of his life of drinking, drugging, "liberating" art books from bookstores, checking with his probation officer and trying to keep from getting a job. It's often grim and occasionally funny, as when he puches out a pot of flowers and scowls, "I'll teach you a thing or two about beauty." Gibbons also scores with "Final Exit," a five-minute short in which he explains to a friend with brutal forthrightness that it's time to die. A twist that's revealed halfway through makes the whole conversation darkly funny.

    And my favorite video is a complete departure from these — "The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal." The film looks at the artistic "works" of laborers in Portland, Oregon, who are resposible for keeping the city beautiful by painting over graffiti as fast as they can find it. Their creations are called "one of the most important art movements of the 21st century" and compared to those of celebrated modern artist (and fellow Portlander) Mark Rothko, and who can deny the similarity? The serious academic-speak voiceover adds to the absurdity of presenting this whitewashing as an art movement. (See the official site.)

    But wait — maybe it's no joke. In fact, the film just might convince you that there's real art going on. The filmmakers interview some of the painters as they choose discerningly between buckets of "halation" and "dove" colored paint, and there's a moment of gleeful triumph when they extract an admission from a city official that there are aesthetics at work in the process. "What makes it intriguing is that the artists themselves are unconscious of their artistic achievement," they conclude. Okay, art it is!

    JULY 13, 2001

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