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Insights into The Experimental: A Conversation with Christy LeMaster

July 20, 2011 | By | 1 Comment

Erica Peplin

Christy LeMaster is bored. A local cinema expert, accomplished curator, and outspoken force on the Chicago DIY film scene, she recently sat down in the lobby of the Gene Siskel Film Center and expressed her impatience with the mind-numbing uniformity of mainstream movies. Between comic book superheroes and the endless torrent of sequels, prequels, and threequels, “we’re watching the same movie over and over and over again.” For LeMaster, the industry is trapping audiences with the same representations of people, the same style, the same writing, and the same tiny breadth of story.  As audiences continue to lineup for the latest Pirates of the Caribbean, LeMaster confirms, “we haven’t been able to write an original story in a really long time.” Not only do movie-goers deserve more variety in their entertainment audiences are “starved for something different – anything different.”

Chicago Curator and Cinema Expert, Christy LeMaster

LeMaster developed a career-defining commitment to avante-garde film. In addition to serving as Managing Director for the Chicago Underground Film Festival, LeMaster has helped coordinate the Chicago Cinema Forum, the Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival, and in 2008 she founded The Nightingale Theatre. Located near Milwaukee and Division, the cutting-edge and community-centered venue shows primarily underground features and documentaries. “When I opened the Nightingale, if there was one hole in the scene at the time, there weren’t a lot of venues for experimental makers. We needed and I think we still need more experimental venues.” According to LeMaster, “experimental” film is “anything that is pushing against the traditional, anything that is finding new ways to engage people through the art of cinema. And it’s just that damn broad.” Although experimental film has been criticized for “not knowing its identity,” LeMaster poses the question, “why do you even need some classification genre?” LeMaster insists, “our identity is eclecticism.” The experimental it is about crossing genres and bending the conventions of film, “A lot of it is about remixing or re-purposing footage from different areas and then re-contextualizing it by mashing it up or cutting it up.”

LeMaster aims for audiences to reconsider any preconceived notions about experimental filmmaking as an elite or exclusive sphere in cinema. “What the Nightingale tries really hard to do is always be accessible. I don’t ever want the space to feel unwelcoming.” The choppy, bizarre, often unstructured methods of filmmaking may be initially disconcerting to viewers, but “watching experimental films absolutely builds audiences for future experimental films.” By ensuring a relaxed and welcoming environment, she believes audiences will grow increasingly receptive and appreciative of the unusual content in the experimental. The Nightingale Theatre upholds a unique style of presentation while building an audience for the contemporary avante-garde outside of cinephiles and academics. Rather than electronically-printed stubs, individualized tickets made by artists are dispensed and a raffle is held prior to each screening. Although the filmmaker is typically available for conversation after showing, LeMaster will never force any erudite Q&A to take place. “I don’t need an expert to catalyze my conversation… I do way better learning and thinking about things when we pull the screen up, turn the music back on, and all hang out for a minute.”

With avenues such as the Chicago Underground Film Festival and The Nightingale for experimental film, LeMaster thinks Chicago audiences are becoming increasingly accustomed to subversive styles of cinema. Showcasing films that resist generic classification and play with the technical standard of cinema, LeMaster’s efforts promote the experimental while appealing to audiences who are sick of mass-manufactured Hollywood sameness. Exposing viewers to non-traditional approaches, LeMaster claims, “that’s how audiences move forward.”

As much as she criticizes its monotonous content, LeMaster thinks recent Hollywood features such as Enter the Void and Tree of Life are beginning to incorporate experimental techniques, an incorporation that is radically changing the landscape of mainstream cinema. “These directors are maneuvering the camera in ways that are totally tearing up narrative structure.” The swooping camera movements, bizarre angles, and disruptive editing are techniques typically seen in the realm of the experimental.  As a result, alternative methods of filmmaking are becoming an increasingly viable tactic for challenging and revising the tiresome conventions of the Hollywood industry.

At the recent Chicago Underground Film Festival, a handful of Chicago filmmakers including Jerzy Rose, Monica Panzarino, Usama Alshaibi, Jennifer Reeder, and  Jesse McLean, contributed films with experiential elements. In Rose’s feature and opening night movie, Some Girls Never Learn, the plot is a twisted, ahistorical mindtrip as the main character receives inexplicable messages from the spirit of Amelia Earheart and another character travels to an underworld. Actors are adorned in outlandish outfits and and the screen erupts with luminous colors and eerie smoke. Panzarino’s film is a three-minute recorded performance of herself as she sings the “Star-Spangled Banner” with the assistance of a self-made audio-bra contraption. McLean’s short, “Magic for Beginners” is an unforgattable assemblage of found-footage, voice-over narratives, Warol quotes, and YouTube-style snippets of American pop culture. These are just a few examples of the experimental filmmaking strategies coming out of Chicago today.

Still from Jerzy Rose's feature, Some Girls Never Learn

LeMaster emphasized Chicago as an especially “vibrant” city for non-traditional filmmaking. Unlike New York or Los Angeles, “most people here don’t expect to make their living doing this.” Since the scene is not overly professionalized, “things are accessible” and “the artists here do it because they love it.” Chicago offers a doorway into experimental film for the uninitiated. Provoking thought and banishing boredom, experimental filmmaking, though all too often under-appreciated, is a complex and ever-evolving cinematic playground.


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Comments (1)

  1. John Gravely

    This is good for Chicago, and this story gave me lots to look for, good links, I like.


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