The filmmaker Jonas Mekas, now in his 90s, is one of those rare artists who uses his work to promote and discuss works by other artists, which makes him the perfect study for the seasonal closing of Focus Group, a screening series at the University of Texas' Visual Arts Center.
The focus this semester has been on Screening Room, a 1970s television series hosted by filmmaker Robert Gardner that focused, in part, on experimental film.
"Jonas Mekas is a huge proponent of experimental film. He created his own institute ... and archive," says Xochi Solis, the director of events and public programming at VAC. "We're ending with him because the episode [of Screening Room] screens his own work, but also filmmakers he's supporting. It leaves us feeling hopeful."
Focus Group is a "newly branded" educational screening series, meant to introduce students and other artists to other ways of working, which also comes out of Solis' personal interest in avant-garde, animated, and experimental film.
"A lot of filmmakers began as visual artists," Solis says. "And young artists position themselves in one medium or other, but their work can be translated in multiple ways."
Solis recently discovered the Screening Room series with a Suzan Pitt episode. It was outdated, technically and socially. And Gardner himself presented an imposing figure, who "wouldn't shut up," Solis says, though she came to understand that Gardner was trying to reframe the interviews for a lay, television audience. The series, she decided, was a strange experiment worth sharing.
"There were these screen shots of Suzan Pitt and Robert Gardner floating in one of her animations," Solis says. "And I thought, 'Well, that's so bizarre.' They went down that rabbit hole of who she is."
A longtime friend and collaborator of Experimental Response Cinema's Ekrem Serdar, Solis enlisted the Austin-based film group to discuss issues and screen films related to the Screening Room episodes. The Mekas-centered program features a film print of "Reel 2" of Mekas' Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches, also known as "Notes on the Circus," with a discussion by ERC's Scott Stark.
The 40-minute "Notes on the Circus," Serdar says, features Mekas' signature style of fast-moving images, made using the classic method of filming slowly, known as undercranking. The hectic scenes assume a comic, nostalgic air as circus performers hurry about, cut on and off the screen, and fade in and out of focus to honky-tonk music. The style is so familiar one might have a hard time pinning down just where he's seen it, though one could easily see the opening credits of The Wonder Years, for instance, being derivative of Mekas.
Walden is among the more narrative works Focus Group has screened this semester, even if it doesn't necessarily have a narrative arc, but storytelling isn't the point of the series so much as experimentation, on- and offscreen.
"A lot of programming out of VAC is just putting it out there for people to try, whether for five or 500 people," Solis says. "There's no programmed response. It just leads to conversations."
Focus Group's final Screening Room event for the semester, featuring Jonas Mekas, will be held Thursday, May 9, 7pm, at the UT Art Building, Rm. 1.102. The event is free.
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