In Stereoscope

Sarah Lipstate's songs – and shorts – of innocence and experiments

In Stereoscope

A week from now, next Friday, March 16, Sarah Lipstate will wrap up her workday as a graphics producer at Manhattan's Tim McGarvey Broadcast Animation studio, grab her bags, and find a ride to the airport in time to catch a 7pm flight that will take her to Austin. It's here where her experimental short will show and her experimental band will showcase as part of South by Southwest's Film and Music Festivals, only months after Cinematexas awarded her its Diamond in the Rough Cut prize in October and her Chromascapes video installation debuted at First Night in January.

"Memory Scars" will be the second film to screen at SXSW for Lipstate, who graduated from the University of Texas in December with a Radio-Television-Film degree. Things are happening for her. Next Friday, March 16, for instance, is Lipstate's birthday. She'll turn 23 in the air on her way to spend 24 hours in a city she left earlier this year for Brooklyn.

"I haven't been here very long," says Lipstate by cell phone. She's talking about New York, not the Bowery Ballroom, where's she's at the moment finding a "quiet place to talk" before a bill headlined by Grizzly Bear. "I don't know where I'll be next year. Austin has informed a lot of my stuff, but I don't really identify with any particular location. If I have to connect myself to either, I usually try and do both."

She describes her music- and movie-making in similar terms. "I like combining as much of the two as possible," she says. "I wouldn't say one is more rewarding than the other, because there are always elements of the other in each. Whenever we have performances, when I can, I like to project hand-painted slides that I've done that share what I consider to be the style of my films."

The "we" Lipstate refers to is One Umbrella, the post-rock duo she formed with Carlos Villarreal. The band pronounces its sound as one that "blurs the line between ambient beauty and chaotic noise," but I'd argue that it also stretches it out. Its appeal lies not in the fact that the line is pulled taut – One Umbrella's music is by no means what I'd describe as tight – but that the instruments all strung together in pleasing loops and varied passages give you time to interact with them on a meditative level. You assemble what you hear yourself to find your own meaning. Or, I do, at least. Of course, I barely know a guitar from a theremin, both of which Lipstate plays.

Then again, I rarely know where a filmmaker is coming from when she experiments with the short form, but I respond according to my own meager senses of technical accomplishment and artistic ambition, anyway. For her part, Lipstate composes on the side to soundtrack her shorts, which she makes with found and Super 8-shot footage she paints and otherwise distresses. Like her music – and like most other experimental films – they're open to interpretation and serve as an interactive few minutes for the imagination.

But where the music stretches lines, efforts like "Memory Scars" snip them into even more nonnarrative wicks, liable to set something afire if you provided the match: Merry-go-rounds and spinning tops split-screened, few if any focal points, random voices. Lipstate says simply that it came from a dream she had, one "always in the back of my mind," one she says she couldn't resist visualizing the only way she knew how.

"I don't expect people to get the same things from it that I get from it," she says. "Very rarely do people take away the same things from the films. It doesn't really matter to me. It just matters if they got something. My films so far have been of a personal nature. I feel like if I've captured the emotion – it's all about the visuals in an emotional context – then I get something from the film. It's a success. It feels right. It's very much a release.

"How is anyone supposed to know what I was thinking when I was making it? My film that was in South by Southwest last year was called 'Phobia.' People thought it was about being afraid of these giant fish," she laughs. "It has nothing to do with that at all, but whatever. I'm happy you're even having it. If that's what you thought, great."

To be fair, of Lipstate's three circulated shorts, "Phobia" is the second to include images of giant fish. The Lafayette, La., native shot them – "these massive koi in the murky swamp water" – herself for "Radiation in Moderation," inspired by her own brush with a health crisis. "My mom was with me," she says. "And I was like, how did I come to be in this moment? What were the things, the experiences, leading up to it? It just kind of came to me to base the film on that. I had to make it."

See, I get a kick out of this. I like that films Lipstate feels she has to make – they could be a diary or a hobby – are being shown at major festivals. Whether people actually get up and go to the Dobie to watch them is all but beside the point. Lipstate's own notions of audience are at best to be determined. She has "no expectations of anything" when it comes to her screenings as part of the Texas Shorts program at SXSW Film 07 and, like a bench player on a competitive team, "is just happy to be represented." This must be the case for many of her peers – those joining her among the Texas Shorts and those with works selected for the Reel, Experimental, Animated, and High School short tracks, as well – who are attending a festival of independent film that, like its own peers, sees an increasing level of studio and celebrity involvement every year, populated ever more largely by professional filmmakers.

"I don't know what I would consider myself professionally, but I make stuff all the time," Lipstate says. "I like doing my little one-person experimental film productions. I don't expect to make a living off of doing that. And I don't really intend on pursuing something bigger or maybe more lucrative as far as that goes. But, if I believe in what I'm doing, I feel completely confident in putting my work out there. I think it's ridiculous when people don't think that they can be a part of something when they have these preconceived notions. Who cares if it's a student film or if it's an experimental thing that people won't like? Don't portray it as some shitty thing you made. Say, 'This is my work. I'm a filmmaker.'" end story

Texas Shorts

Monday, March 12, 9:30pm, Dobie

Friday, March 16, 5pm, Dobie

Saturday, March 17, 2pm, Dobie

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