The Austin Chronicle

Deconstructing Film

Aaron Valdéz seeks the ephemeral in a permanent medium

By Chale Nafus, July 12, 2002, Screens

Aaron Valdéz sits in a dark space of the Ritz balcony sanding the face of a young girl. With each passage of a short loop of film through the projector, he removes emulsion from the surface of the celluloid until there is nothing left but a ghostly smile. This is the "real film" that Valdéz wanted the audience to experience -- an image undergoing a continuous transformation. Through this intrusion, Valdéz reminds the audience that a film image isn't "real," but an illusion easily scratched away.

To get to that abrasive moment at the Ritz, Valdéz had to leave the "Houston suburbanite shell" for Austin, where he figured he'd "give the film thing a shot." It must have worked, because the Cinemaker Co-op is hosting a retrospective of the 26-year-old artist's films on July 16.

Valdéz left Houston for the University of Texas in 1993, but, after acquiring a Super-8 camera, he began cutting classes to make films instead. Discovering some of the greats of the American avant-garde film tradition (Harry Smith, Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger), Valdéz became far more interested in the essence of the film medium -- "light moving in time" -- than in three-act narrative tales. A UT animation class with Francesca Talenti taught him to focus on the artistic possibilities of each individual frame.

Scratching and dripping became an obsession, etching words, symbols, or abstractions into the emulsion on exposed celluloid. Along with fellow filmmaker Jen Proctor, Valdéz dripped black India ink onto each frame of a strip of celluloid and pressed his fingerprints into the liquid, thereby creating cinematic body art in the piece "Prints."

Fortuitously, Valdéz met the creative folks at Cinemaker Co-op, where he acquired an appreciative audience for his films. With access to their equipment, classes, and screenings, his creativity and exploration of film forms blossomed.

Seeing film as the art of light and shadows, Valdéz is naturally drawn to making films about light sources (artificial and natural) and shadows created by stationary or moving objects blocking out the light. He has also become an aficionado of purposely out-of-focus shots, with the camera viewfinder serving as his window on the world as he generates "light smears."

Valdéz added 16mm to his toolbox by acquiring some "found footage" from a TV station -- discarded feature films, documentaries, newsreels, educational films, and industrial films. Editing a conglomeration of pre-existing images into new contexts became a passion. Window Film is his major "dumpster" movie. Beginning with a short loop of film, Valdéz added new footage every Tuesday night for three months as the film was projected onto a window of Cinemaker for audiences outside. Chance often determined where he cut into the pre-existing film. Pieces of Hollywood classics, industrial "how to" films, and documentaries began to divulge new "meanings" about society through surprising juxtapositions, just as hip-hop turntablists make us hear the "familiar" in a new way.

Pop culture provides a template for some of his experiments. Melding selections from a Super-8 "Cliffs Notes" version of the classic Western High Noon with scenes from a documentary on the life and death of RFK, Valdéz created a stately and emotional film of American mythology, "The Life and Times of Robert F. Kennedy Starring Gary Cooper." In "TV Election," he tackled the political. Taking eight hours of nonstop video taped on Election Night 2000, he selected one frame from every single shot and created a vertiginous amphetamine-paced collage of Gore/Bush, yes, no, this state, that state, definite, not yet, maybe, we don't know, tune-in-tomorrow imagery, complete with commercials.

Chosen this spring by the Austin Museum of Art as one of "22 To Watch," Valdéz exhibited his magnum opus, "Throwing Stones at the Sun," which continues his exploration of film form. Building on his Super-8 work, he revisited similar images with a 16mm camera: trees, walls, shadows, neon, sun and clouds, signs, graffiti, windows, posters, and textures. Then he captured new imagery: convenience stores by night, a grooved roadway, zigzag reflections in a river, Close Encounters silhouettes at Barton Springs pool, blank billboards, abstract expressionist grease spots on concrete, an anti-Bush inauguration march. What started out as a documentation of abstractions evolved into a somewhat more political attempt to "make sense out of our surroundings as Americans."

With that new vision in mind, Valdéz is now ready to revisit his hometown of Houston to examine how "our physical space has been influenced by our culture." He will seek out images of freeways, empty space, sprawl, strip malls with recurring franchises, the last remains of individually owned small businesses -- capturing sites and sights in a "partial state of decay" before they exist only in one man's celluloid experiments. end story

An Aaron Valdéz retrospective will be presented by Cinemaker Co-op on Tuesday, July 16, at 8pm at the Hideout (617 Congress).

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