The Kids Stay in the Pictures
How teenage wunderkinds are keeping the year-old Motion Media Arts Center young at heart
The trouble with owning an all-region DVD player these days is that I never seem to leave the house anymore not when there are 1,001 nights of obscure, Region 3 Japanese horror films to catch up on. This has changed, however, in the past three weeks, since lately the only thing playing on my Sony XV-N55 has been a home-burned compilation DVD of movies created by the kids over at the Center for Young Cinema, which merged with longtime Austin film group the Cinemaker Co-op in Spring 2003 to form the Motion Media Arts Center.
The dozen shorts range from old clips from the days of Barna Kantor's Cinemaker Co-op to a handful of some of the most astonishingly well-crafted, edgy, snarky, smart, and downright "wicked megabrilliant" (as one UK drop-in commented the other night) films by young people under 20 I've ever seen. They're all unique, but the one among them that's become something of a demo-disc around my place is Natasha Gohsn's "Hey Cool," a clever, almost lush, and accomplished piece of dual-narrative filmmaking set perfectly to a lilting soundtrack of the Essex Green's "Mrs. Bean" and Stereo Total's "Movie Star." It combines the use of split screen, a nuanced color palette you'd hardly expect to find in a major studio production, much less in an off-the-cuff short by a 17-year-old, and some fine acting from fellow CYCers Jen Kirsten and Lance Walker.
Gohsn, in an e-mail from her hometown of Houston, had this to say: "'Hey Cool' was really just an experiment. ... It's pretty dumb, actually I'm not much of a story writer. My main medium is illustration and graphic design."
But people, I tell you, she lies. "Hey Cool" is, all hyperbole aside, a remarkable film that has stuck in my memory since the first time I saw it, and now threatens to take over my Sony for good. It's a breathtaking piece of work. And that damn Essex Green is now an iPod staple.
Several of the films on the disc feature local 16-year-old master thespian Rusty Kelley, of Bryan Poyser/Jake Vaughn Slamdancer Dear Pillow fame. (One of the shorts, in fact, is titled "Master Thespian," directed with a loose-limbed, improv-y assurance by Natalie Aston.) Kelley is the son of CYC head/MMAC Director of Education Anne Goetzmann Kelley and the CYC prime mover to which many of the other kids seem to gravitate, his already having fronted local Austin punk band the Snobs (and now Toru Okada). He's also the demented psycho-thruster between the disc's other showstopper, 16-year-old Carleton Ranney's "Save Manson," in which Kelley, in full (and fully disturbing) geek mode, expounds from his bedroom on the "totally unfair" media depictions of serial bad boys Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, and Richard Ramirez (he of the pentagramed paw and East L.A. sneer). Kelley's warped turn here is beyond description the subject matter alone is likely to turn more than a few parents' heads (and stomachs), but he's so tuned into this bizarre role that you can't take your eyes or ears off him, even for a second. "Save Manson" is edgy to the point of bloodshed, but it's also a masterfully shot and edited depiction of every young male's sporadic obsession with death and the grotesque. Humor and horror have always gone hand in hand; it's just a momentary shock to see the twinning of the two coming from these kids young enough to be ... your kids.
If you are of a certain age, you may think it's too much, but think again: It's our society they just live in it. And now they've got the digicams. Prepare yourself.
The only reason these kids are doing the amazing things they're doing is that they have a place to do it and adults to help them do it adults who can show them how to do it right.
Goodbye, Cinemaker Co-op, Hello, Motion Media Arts Center
Enter Motion Media Arts Center Executive Director Erica M. Shamaly, who arrived from a curatorial position at the Austin Museum of Art while the former Cinemaker Co-op was treading rough waters. Under the stewardship and energetic direction of filmmaker Barna Kantor, the Cinemaker Co-op had been Austin's bastion for small-gauge filmmaking for the better part of seven years. Super 8, 8mm, and the occasional 16mm films were regularly screened and techniques taught, everything from how to in-camera edit to making animations, with an eye toward the artistic and the inherent power of visual media arts. Cinemaker's mission statement was "dedicated to the belief that filmmaking is a financially accessible art form encouraging freedom of expression and the proactive exchange of ideas between filmmakers."
More than that, however, was the notably European sensibility that the Hungarian-born Kantor brought to the group, an all-access media arts badge of honor that had as much to do with inclusiveness toward anyone with the slightest proclivity toward filmmaking, and a seemingly endless fount of creativity.
It was in 1999 that Kantor founded the Center for Young Cinema with interested mom Anne Goetzmann Kelley (who had initially approached Kantor about teaching son Rusty and his friends the basics of Super 8 filmmaking) under the auspices of Cinemaker, as a way to both help teach media arts to Austin youth and to branch out from the Co-op's usual plateful of weekly screenings, minifests, and microcinema outbursts. The CYC was an immediate hit with both kids and parents, thanks in large part to Goetzmann Kelley's tireless recruiting efforts and Kantor's well-known and decidedly nontraditional cinematic state of being.
Energy is finite, however, and by 2003 Kantor was showing signs of moving on a master's degree beckoned, as they so often do. A chance meeting between Kantor and Shamaly revealed their mutually complementary notions of exactly where the struggling Cinemaker Co-op should go from there.
"Barna had had this idea about a 'media arts center,'" recalls Shamaly. "He was interested in how media literacy is taught. And because he comes from Hungary, he had more of a European background to media literacy how they teach and how they interact with media is different than it is here.
"The way he put it is that here in the United States, there's more of a fear of technology and media, almost a mistrustful view of it. But also there's more of a vocational focus on it in the U.S. when it comes to media, and much less of a media arts focus or educational focus. He viewed media arts literacy more through the lens of art as opposed to a commercial or vocational lens, and that was one of the things that I'd already been thinking about in terms of starting some sort of media arts literacy group. We clicked in that regard."
Shamaly was then holding the fort at Cinemaker, and in May of 2003, the Cinemaker Co-op and the Center for Young Cinema were officially combined into the new, improved Motion Media Arts Center, located in the same small office at the media-centric 501 Studios off Fifth and I-35, with Kantor exiting soon after to resume his film studies.
Media City and the CYC Austin is one of the most heavily media-saturated cities in the world, as anyone existing here for more than an hour can attest. Note the myriad plans of film, media, and transmedia studies offered by the University of Texas (now including the ambitious Film Institute). And the wealth of both above- and below-the-line talent available on demand. And that this is a wireless city smack dab in the midst of a digital revolution that rivals no joke the industrial revolution in terms of how it will impact the way the world functions. In view of such overwhelming evidence, it's difficult not to conclude that Austin is the Place to Be for the media savvy.
"Motion uses the Cinemaker Co-op and the Center for Young Cinema as a foundation for what our mission is," says Shamaly. "And, to paraphrase it, that mission is to get people to make films. Obviously the appreciation, the education, and the thought processes are very stressed. We're about providing low-cost workshops and low-cost, if not free, equipment for members to use. And then once the films are created within a reasonable amount of time whether that means a weekend festival or a two-week class or a five-week class or however long it then becomes all about getting people to finish their films and providing them with the resources to make that happen. And then to have a screening venue for those films, and finally to have distribution and assistance in getting the finished film into festivals or museums or wherever they might best be served and seen."
That said, the new MMAC offers a wealth of opportunities for adults eager to expand their knowledge of media literacy in a variety of ways, from the basics of utilizing cinematic apparatus to their Media Resource Center, "an informational clearinghouse for members and the community, which provides details for all media disciplines, including film, video, digital art, computer software and the Internet ... distribution, and grants."
And speaking of grants, the MMAC's recent acquisition of 501(c)3 status, according to Shamaly, means that "there's going to be a lot of corporate grants and foundation grants going out. What we've been really focusing on these days is this incredible network of people within the community that are interested in what we're doing and have the means to support us. And so we are in a really good place right now because of these relationships. It's just a matter of doing it."
Board member and screenwriter Joe Conway (of MGM's forthcoming film Undertow, directed by David Gordon Green) adds, "We're beginning to look at fundraising and using the access we have here and that I have begun to establish in Los Angeles. ... I'm meeting a lot of people myself and making connections, and what I'm finding is that film is a very small world, and a lot of the people I talk to in Los Angeles know Austin and love Austin. I think there's a real opportunity to take some of that good will and get it here."
The comprehensive nature of MMAC's everything-and-the-kids-too structure precludes listing everything they offer here, but interested parties are directed to the group's Web site at www.motionmac.org.
Which brings us back to the group's linchpin, and, one assumes, the saviors of future cinema: the kids of the CYC.
Under the tutelage of Goetzmann Kelley, the CYC has evolved from its initial forays into youth-oriented (ages 10-18) outreach into sponsoring their annual summer film camp, at which hands-on tutelage and homegrown industry professionals are used to teach kids the basics of camera and editing techniques. (Upcoming workshops/lectures by local filmmakers Bob Ray [Rock Opera] and Kat Candler [Cicadas] are in the discussion stages, as well as an upcoming DIY Skate Video Workshop [see "CYC Offers DIY Skate Video Workshop"].) After that, it's more or less up to the kids themselves to figure out what they want to do with the tools they've been given, and more often than not, what they come up with is amazing.
Gimme That Old-Time Punk Rock DIY Filmmaking Ethos
"Kids these days are really media-savvy," notes Shamaly. "It's so easy for kids to pick these things up, and we have to keep up with the fact that they're coming into the CYC and MMAC already having a lot of media knowledge, just from growing up in our current society. CYC is the driving energy behind MMAC right now, and it's become a case of us keeping up with the kids, and not the other way around."
"How quickly they figure out what's going on in the world," adds Goetzmann Kelley, "amazes you. We're dealing with a bunch of kids that don't watch the news, but they get it on the Internet. They don't check e-mail anymore, they just Instant Message each other. They distribute their own works to each other via the computer, be it music, video, digital art, or film. It's unlike anything we've ever seen before."
In addition to providing the kids with the tools, the CYC is currently looking at expanding their Web presence so that the kids can have their own shows online. "They like to create their own things, put it on the Web, and show each other. They're in touch with other kids in England, Japan, all over the world. They're all connected."
What this border-defying youthful interconnectivity and make no mistake, it's everywhere now, not just in Austin or New York or Tokyo or Berlin means for the future of film, media, or art in general is anyone's guess. Global youth culture indeed, global culture as a whole is experiencing a state of tumultuous flux unlike anything seen before. All bets are off, thanks to our pal the Internet and its cohorts, cheap digicams and editing gear. The only sure thing is that with groups like the MMAC and the CYC behind them, kids today are both more explosively creative and empowered than at any time in the past. You only have to watch their films to see that.
"This may sound mushy," says Goetzmann Kelley when I ask her what she's most proud of in her time at the CYC helm, "but it's that we've created a space and environment where young artists, filmmakers, video artists, animators, scriptwriters, producers soon to be skate videographers and musicians can come and have access to the tools, the teachers, the mentors, and resources, and just hang out and create. The creative energy they give each other and the adult filmmakers who work with them is inspiring. I'm proud that I've helped to create an environment that allows kids to seriously follow their passions and to be recognized as not just students but true artists who are going somewhere."