Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

Orphans 8 Diary – Persuasion In All Its Forms

In Film Festivals and Special Events on April 14, 2012 at 9:09 am

Tom Gunning (U Chicago) in the Chroma-Depth 3-D glasses used for watching the restored Lillian Schwartz films shown Thursday at Orphans
photo credit: Allyson Field (UCLA)

by Matt Smith

I’m not gonna lie – the first full day of the symposium kicked my ass. As intriguingly academic and esoteric as I remember from my first Orphans at USC all the way back in 2006, but with new and improved gut-wrenchingly emotional (more on that later) content, Orphans 8 is now in full effect. Before moving on, a note on these entries. It would be meaningless for me to attempt a complete and coherent run-down of everything presented on, so I’m opting for the track of personalized ruminations and exaltations. Forgive me if I forget something that you loved, and for anyone out there who might be visiting this site for the first time, feel free to comment and discuss.

The first quarter of the day is a bit of a blur, not because I wasn’t awake and ready to go, but because SO very much was presented yesterday. Before getting to the stuff that intrigued me the most (advertisements and experimental films), I wish to focus just briefly on a talk that was given by Tina Campt from Barnard College. From her bio, I know that her research has focused on the African diaspora in Europe, particularly in Germany and the black population under the Third Reich. Her presentation of photographs tracing the history of a family during the 1920s and 30s in Germany was moving and philosophically dense, focusing on and pushing back against traditionally accepted modes of representation of race and kinship, and even a bit of pushing or expanding of the orphan definition to include images that might be, in fact, fugitive. Looking at a small quantity of still images, lost and then found like so many of the moving images we are accustomed to, is just as powerful. As a student and researcher of primarily the moving image, it is always nice to stretch a bit and go outside of my comfort zone, not only in content but also form.

As someone with an interest in industrial film history and aesthetics, the middle program was maybe my favorite of the day. The presentations focused on advertising films, and I want to discuss each section separately. Brevity will be adhered to when it can be.

Annette Groschke of the Deutsche Kinematek brought some restored copies of Charles Wilp’s Afri-cola campaign from 1968-1974. I have seen these films before (and there are a TON of great non-Wilp Afri-cola ads as well), but watching them back-to-back-to-back with a crowd of curators, archivists and academics was a new experience. And to see them projected was even more wonderful. Wilp’s campaign was imaginative, whimsical and utterly effective. The more of them you watch, the more there is to appreciate in the subtle differences in each, but also in the coherence of the campaign as a whole.

The campaign was also a giant Sixties drug-inspired trip. The slogan, “Alles mit Afri rauschen” is quite literally a reference to how high the drink gets you. Characterized by beautiful people, “sexiness” and the models downing entire bottles of Afri, the ads have an odd, otherworldly feel that is difficult to place. Like the movies of the New German filmmakers, the Afri-cola commercials made by Wilp are products of a time in which forms and boundaries were being pushed in Germany, and they’re just as big of a mind-fuck projected for an audience like the one at Orphans as they are when you stumble across them on the ‘Net and share them with your Facebook.

Ditto Joop Gessink’s Dollywood ad films from the Netherlands, a selection of which were brought in by EYE and the University of Amsterdam. A great bit of euro-campaigning for household items ranging from butter to household cleaners, the Joop films were eye-popping visually and engaging as entertainment. The Joop studios, which produced puppet animation, made colorful, inventive and often hilarious ads over a long period of time throughout the European markets. I’ve provided a selection of both Joop films and Wilp ads below.

One of the most impressive presentations was the work presented by Skip Elsheimer and Devin Orgeron (A/V Geeks and NC State, respectively), who did a two-for-one bit on the development of the Sugar Bear mascot for Post Sugar Crisp (now Golden Crisp) cereal. Tracing the mascot’s (and cereal’s) origins as the first pre-sweetened breakfast cereal marketed directly to children, they painted a dizzying picture of the American descent/ascent (whichever you prefer) in/to a marketplace in which buying power of parents was put directly at the mercy of children’s programming and the Saturday morning confusion between what was an advertisement and what was simply a cartoon.

One of Charles Wilp’s Afri-Cola ads

Joop Geesink’s work is largely unavailable online. This will give you some idea of what it looked like

A 1960s ad for Sugar Crisp in which Sugar Bear can be seen in all his “hip”, somewhat troubling pimp persona

It was also interesting to see the development of the character of Sugar Bear develop over the decades, from a cute bear pointing out how the cereal is “so handy…so dandy…and tastes like candy” into the hip, blue turtleneck swinger with the Dino swagger and crooner’s voice. These commercials are amazing.

The final half of the day was filled with a selection of films from AT&T and Bell Labs, with selections by Lillian Schwartz newly restored by Colorlab, and followed with an evening of Helen Hill award-winning filmmakers’ work and some of Hill’s amazing films themselves, including “The Florestine Collection,” which was recently completed by her husband after her death in 2007. I could spend all day on these films, but instead, I want to point out two things, and then make a comment.

First, the films made at Bell Labs are amazing avant-garde works of computer animation. They are abstract, experimental, and in the case of the Schwartz films, are also highly collaborative works featuring pioneers of the electronic music movement who were emerging at the time. The Schwartz selections were shown in Chroma-Depth 3-D, a process developed in the 1990s, and the added depth to the shorts was nothing short of amazing at some points.

Second, the shorts made by the award recipients, Jo Dery and Jeanne Liotta, were quite terrific, and I encourage anyone interested who wasn’t at the symposium to look them up. As experimental in some ways as the Bell Labs films shown earlier in the day, both of these women have in the past two or three decades emerged with a highly consistent and identifiable set of work. Dery’s films are largely animated with mixed media, and each one shows the intense interest of an artist at the highest levels of her work. They are touching, humorous and somewhat melancholy, but every image is absolutely gorgeous.

I think what today has shown is that women filmmakers, though often absent from Hollywood, tend to operate on their own within the artistic communities they begin to identify with. This, I think, has been the common assumption of academics since the mid-70s, but here it was on display in full force. With the exception of Bill Brand’s film “Touch Tone Phone Film” and the work shown by Hans Richter during his time at CCNY, every other film shown after lunch was by a woman filmmaker, and each one was a highly personal experience for both the author and the audience. It’s not often that an audience of any sort, academic or otherwise, gets to experience that much of women’s art cinema in a single sitting.

Lillian Schwartz’s “Pixillation” from YouTube, unrestored version

Jo Dery imagines a single sentence in animation for Electric Literature

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