B y M a r i W a d s w o r t h
SINCE ITS RENAISSANCE in the 1980s, video art as a viable artistic medium has faced a skeptical audience of television-weary viewers. The tension between the "boob tube" and other media like books, newspapers and visual arts has made the television itself a scapegoat for the mainstream programming it projects. While critics see the television set as the epitome of mindless entertainment, the enemy of creative thought and, at worst, a manipulative tool in the hands of corporate America, television is an empty set--a vessel for whomever chooses to fill it.
Throughout history art has been a reflection of the times, a mirror of society's often blemished face. The resistance to video art, whether in accepting the documentary nature of the images themselves or the electronic media in which they are presented, may be no more than a traditional resistance to new forms, as reactionary as the response to impressionist paintings by the likes of Claude Monet in the late-1800s, which one outraged critic called "paint thrown in the face of the public."
In the technologically driven world of the Information Age, video proves an appropriate and necessary art form for remaining "tuned in" to our culture. Let's face it, if you're going to carry on a dialogue, you've got to speak the same language as the audience you're trying to reach.
Along with a local series called VideoTENSIONS (see Collage), a summer series on PBS affiliate KUAT, Channel 6, called Point of View enters into its eighth season as television's only continuing showcase of independent non-fiction works. This year's series combines broadcasts with an unprecedented host of interactive features including on-line dialogue, mail-in "video letters" and a World Wide Web page.
"We've learned that viewers appreciate television that presents a challenge--not just as escape," say co-executive producers Ellen Schneider and Marc N. Weiss. "When we present passionate stories and invite dialogue through new technologies, we begin to see some really productive and entertaining possibilities for the interactive future. That's a role that only public television is likely to play."
True to its name, the series takes a refreshingly pointed look uncommon on the television spectrum. Topics range from a "soap-umentary" following the unpredictable trials of a blind horsewoman and an Academy Award-nominated program on Alzheimer's disease called Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter, both broadcast earlier this month, to upcoming programs in July covering Indian fishing rights in Northern Wisconsin, an inside look at people living with Tourette Syndrome, a documentary on suburban Southern California living, and the business and subculture of New York's gem trade.
The series continues on July 4 with Lighting the Seventh Fire, an uncompromising documentary of the angry protests following a 1993 court decision allowing the Chippewa Indians to fish off their reservations in Northern Wisconsin. While on the surface the story deals with the incongruence of Indian law, state law and federal treaty law, it also captures the underlying spirit of a culture struggling to survive within another culture, a poignant topic for Independence Day. Says Native American filmmaker Sandra Sunrising Osawa, "America's love affair with our past has made it extremely difficult to call attention to our present day stories which are just as compelling.
"I'm not a fan of the back-and-forth type of documentary where you're supposedly objective, but you're not," she explains, "I wanted to focus more on experiences and give voice to Native American viewpoints. This is also what I call my honor song video or my way of honoring...people of all races who stand up to right a wrong and thereby inspire us all." The Seventh Fire is the first major political documentary produced by a Native American.
Twitch and Shout, set to air July 11, is a riveting, unsettling and frequently funny look at people with the neurological disorder Tourette Syndrome (TS), as seen through the eye of photojournalist Lowell Handler. Produced and directed by Laurel Chiten, herself a victim of TS, this is true video artistry, using a combination of color, texture and motion to create an experience for the viewer beyond that of passive observation.
The video intersperses still frames of Handler's photographs and jerky, black and white time-lapse camera work with interviews documenting the everyday experience of four "Touretters" as they describe how they deal not only with the physical challenge their "tics" pose, but the fear and misunderstanding they confront in their daily experience. Particularly captivating is Toronto artist Shane Fistel, who has such a pronounced case of TS that a simple walk down the street is transformed into a restless, idiosyncratic ballet.
Conversely, Jenny Cool exploits the flat, amateurish feel of the camcorder in Home Economics, her portrayal of suburban homeowners facing the complex realities of "living the American dream in '90s," scheduled for broadcast July 18. Here, her static camera work with the three women she interviews and sprawling, dismal imagery (a sequence of developers' billboards shot from the passenger side of a car as it speeds down the freeway, the filmmaker's own hollowed-out voice in the background saying, "Slow down, I want to get the words," contribute to the feeling of emptiness and disposability.
This sense of watching a home movie, devoid of script and distorted by sounds that are either too close or too far away from their corresponding images, creates an intimate, at times monotonous, setting not inappropriate to the frustration and disorder-within-order she seems to view as the true suburban experience.
Most disturbing of all is a scene near the end, where the once-ecstatic new homeowner talks about the responsibility of buying a home. She begins talking about the upkeep of the house, of "keeping things nice," and "getting out of it what you put into it," transferring seemingly unconsciously to a commentary on her relationship with her husband and daughter. At times it's hard to discern whether she's speaking of the house or the family that dwells there, the line seemingly blurred in her own mind. She ends with a surprising, tearful confession that she's "not sure what's going to happen" (to her marriage and family).
Bombarded as we are by rapid-fire images from mainstream television, P.O.V. is a welcome respite from the insipid and predictable viewing experience. While its status as art may as yet be contested by some, at least it puts a vision back into the tele.
Point of View continues at 9 p.m. Tuesdays through July 25. Check local listings or call KUAT-TV at 621-5828 for information on programming and "Talking Back" video-letter submissions. E-mail reactions to P.O.V. programs to email@example.com; or check out the site on the World Wide Web at http://www.pbs.org/pov.
Cutline: Exposing negative images: Photojournalist Lowell Handler has traveled the world photographing people who, like himself, suffer from Tourette Syndrome.
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