Film Encounters of the in*situ Kind

Show Me Yours, I'll Show You Mine

by Gene Shirey

Experimental films and videos often elude the uninitiated. One is unlikely to stumble upon these unusual works in the course of daily life or at the flip of a TV dial. Blockbuster Video doesn't carry them, and the average multiplex cinema doesn't show them, either. But a new collective of Austin filmmakers and videographers called in*situ is bringing the art form out of obscurity and into local bars, coffeehouses, theatres, and other alternative venues.

The Austin group debuted last summer with a presentation of some rarely seen, experimental films at the Carousel Lounge. Since then, they have popped up with a variety of programs projected in a variety of venues.

At Quack's Upstairs last month, the show starts late as in*situ members struggle with their equipment. Technical difficulties plague the evening and, in the lull between the films, some of the audience is lost. Most stay, however, to watch the low-budget, but often surprisingly good work of local video artists and filmmakers. The downtime is spent socializing and drinking beer, with everyone quieting when the flashlights go off and the screen flickers.

"Cinema is a social ritual," says founder Jon Ausbrooks. Or, as filmmaker and music video artist Heyd Fontenot says, "We all talk and throw food." Socializing seems to dominate their meetings as well as their public events. At a recent meeting, the 20-odd members spend about an hour talking about karaoke as an art form and eating quiche before getting down to business. Their plans are sometimes definite, somewhat philosophical, and often vague. Ideas include doing a screening in a parking garage, making a feature-length film, and publishing a magazine with haiku movie reviews and an astrology column. The group has thus far showcased local independent film around town, and pulled experimental musicians out of the woodwork to perform.

Fontenot says that for him, in*situ functions as a peer group. He contrasts the experience with a recent meeting of the local chapter of the Association of Independent Video and Film, then compares it all to a gay bar. "These are people [the AIVF] who do industrial and mainstream films, but it wasn't like there was a sense of cohesion. We got together because we all work in films, but they aren't interested in what I'm doing, and I don't care about what they're doing," he says. "It's like, I'm gay and when you go to a bar you think `Oh great, my brothers and sisters, finally I'm in the fold,' and then you realize that you don't have anything in common with many of these people except being gay. That's like the film community."

In some ways, in*situ's

first few shows mimic the early days of the Austin Film Society (AFS), which sponsored experimental nights at the Continental Club as well as Quack's Upstairs (in its former incarnation as Austin Media Arts). These days, the AFS primarily exhibits feature-length films at the University of Texas and the Dobie theatres. The AFS is more like "an institution," Fontenot says, while in*situ is "more like a salon."

At in*situ's show last month, former manager of the AFS Katie Cokinos hid in the bathroom while her film, Red, played. It is a very personal piece, she explains. During her own tenure with the AFS, Cokinos says little attention was paid to work by independent Austin filmmakers. "I rarely showed local stuff; I regret that," she says. "I was so enamored with feature film." But, at the same time, she adds, there was not as much local film being produced as there is now. "Everyone was working on someone else's film, or was trying to make a feature."

Now, Cokinos hopes the AFS will take on "the old grandfather or grandmother" relationship with in*situ. She's taken on an advisory role with the group, helping them out with things like grant-writing and organizational details.

Ausbrooks, however, good-naturedly calls in*situ a "bastard child with a different lineage." He traces its origins back seven years to a Nashville group of the same name that Ausbrooks founded with current Seattle film animator Andy Norman. Their focus was guerrilla cinema. The group projected films off buildings and in parks, until the police inevitably showed up and closed them down. "Problem was," says Ausbrooks, "the cops started letting us do it half the time."

The group scaled back its activities after a near disaster. Armed with an old drive-in movie projector and generator mounted on the back of a pick-up truck, they targeted as their screen surface a full-scale replica of the Greek Parthenon residing in a Nashville city park. A cone of light from the projector cut through falling snow, casting images of waves washing up on the building which turned to flames as if the structure were burning. People encircled the building with boom boxes, playing a white-noise mix of sea waves and the sound of Atlanta burning from Gone With the Wind.

A small crowd gathered to watch for about 20 minutes before the police arrived. The pick-up truck took off on the planned escape route, down an alley. In the ensuing chase, the cops missed a turn and smashed into a telephone pole. While no one was hurt, the group decided it was best to lower their profile.

Watching a film in a bar is

very different than watching it in a movie theatre, Ausbrooks says. When the lights go down at a theatre, your surroundings disappear -- your neighbor disappears, and finally you disappear.

By contrast, you're quite aware of your surroundings at the Carousel Lounge. You're aware of the beer in your hand, the barflies chatting with the waitress in the back, the huge Pink Elephant peeking from behind the movie screen, and the people walking in front of you because they've gotten bored with the 30th atomic bomb explosion onscreen.

The group continues to challenge people's expectations of how and where we encounter film. Nomadic by nature, in*situ's future plans are as expansive as they are germinal. In addition to their public screenings of historic works and local endeavors, plans for magazine and TV projects are also in the development stage and will thereby increase the potential points of access for viewers.

Upcoming plans include a co-presentation with the Austin Film Society of a Century of Cinema Celebration on December 28. The screening will consist of a series of shorts by early film pioneers, Georges Méliès and Louis and Auguste Lumière. Immediately following the 7pm screening at the Dobie Theatre is a party with live music at the Voodoo Lounge (308 E. Third St.). Attendees are encouraged to dress up as their favorite cinematic figure. (Admission is $5; $4 for AFS members; $3 for those in costume.) Other events on the calendar include a Valentine's Day screening called "50 Feet of Love," a screening of locally solicited Super-8 projects on the topic of love. Further info can be obtained by calling 322-2063.

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