The Eclectic Film Selections of Big Ears Festival 2018
Every spring, avant-garde bands, musicians, DJs, and performers gather in Knoxville, Tennessee for the Big Ears Festival. For the past several years, Knoxville’s own Public Cinema, a non-profit run by critic Darren Hughes and filmmaker Paul Harrill that organizes free screenings of hard-to-find indie and foreign films throughout the year, has added an ambitious film program that always includes both popular, accessible films and plenty of experimental films. 2018 is no exception.
This year’s slate of films included four different programs of varying accessibility. The most anticipated run of films for the weekend, for me at least, was the Stereo Visions program, a survey of 3D features and shorts. Big Ears boasted that those who attend every 3D screening throughout the weekend would wear five different types of 3D glasses. A highlight of Stereo Visions was the crowded Saturday night screening of Jackass 3D (2010). Being Johnny Knoxville’s birthplace (and nickname-sake), Knoxville maintains a certain reverence for the work of the jackasses. The colors, fluids, and intricate idiocy explode from the screen in 3D.
The Stereo Visions program was guest curated by Blake Williams, whose film Prototype (2017) also opened the festival. A standing-room only crowd, no doubt groomed by the good folks at the Public Cinema to withstand more challenging films than Jackass, watched as Williams’s film transformed from an affectionate project into a provocative 3D experience over 60 minutes. Prototype moves in several parts, teaching viewers to first understand the surface, then the frame (hundreds of haunting frames), and then finally light and dark. The image deconstruction is not entirely new for experimental films, but Williams’s expertise of 3D images created an experience wholly unlike any of my prior film experiences. Stereo Visions also showcased Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder (1954), Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language (2013), and Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011) in 3D, among many fantastic shorts.
Outside of the 3D programming, Big Ears 2018 shined a light on many nearly forgotten independent films. A Sense of Place, the program curated by Harrill, showed 10 independent films made outside of New York and L.A. between 1962 and 1989. Some of the titles included Property (1979), Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Carnival of Souls (1962). Perhaps the jewel of the entire Big Ears film lineup, though, was John Waters’s 1981 suburban-nightmare Polyester with newly-printed Odorama cards. Upon the release of Polyester, Waters printed off scratch ‘n sniff cards for each viewer of his movie. Throughout the movie, the audience can smell the sometimes pleasant, often foul odors that fill Francine Fishpaw’s (Divine) spiraling trajectory. A Sense of Place offered a unique look into the independent cinema of the late-20th century, so much of which has been forgotten or left behind in the 21st century.
An overlooked gem for many festival-goers was the Canyon Cinema program. The Canyon Cinema preserves and restores short and avant-garde films from the 1930s through the present, and one of the most fascinating offerings of the 2018 Big Ears program was the Canyon Cinema roadshow that showed dozens of films over a few programs. These programs showed mostly shorts by filmmakers with whom I was unfamiliar, but the beginning of each one held an anticipation and sense of potential discovery that wasn’t as present in other festival screenings.
A personal highlight, and a major event of the festival was the Lewis Klahr screenings. Klahr, the collage filmmaker who also attended Big Ears and offered a Q&A after the screenings, showed his melodic feature Sixty-Six (2015) as well as many of his shorts. Klahr described his work as elliptical, saying, too, that he tastes texture as he works. The collages of Sixty-Six seem antithetical on first glance to the Stereo Visions program which so engrossed me the rest of the weekend. The images are the extremity of 2D: paper on paper, stop-motion with fantastic soundtracks. As Klahr’s films delve into the texture of the nostalgia-inducing comics and magazine designs of the 50s and 60s, though, the images maintain a natural depth, and every once in a while, he will indulge and reveal familiar depth and shadow that strikes a deeper chord than it could otherwise.
Other than the degrees of experimentation that tie together the Big Ears programs, the sense of depth, be it the immense depth of 3D, the characters in A Sense of Place, the discovery with Canyon Cinema, or the tension between depth and the lack thereof in Klahr’s work, unifies the programs into a cohesive, unparalleled experience. What other festival could you possibly watch Goodbye to Language and Jackass 3D in the same program on the same day? Seriously, let me know.