Let my trip be yours.


Two weeks ago, I went to a screening of short films put on by CANADA called Pulsating Sunglasses. During the hour-long screening, curated by Allen Cordell (that’s a lot of l’s), I watched 18 shorts by 13 artists. What struck me about these films wasn’t the quality or narrative (most of them had no narrative), but the style and content. Almost every one of the films, clips, videos, and music videos employed the technique of cutting up found video footage, most of which was from VHS tapes of old TV shows, movies, and commercials. Many of these were also accompanied by strobing neon colors and repetitive, almost atonal electronic music. Now, none of the above are reprimands, critiques, or insults. I enjoyed many of the videos. In fact, most of the ones I hated were the ones that failed to use these techniques. It was the act of watching so many similarly styled films back-to-back that made me start thinking of a few things. Join me, won’t you.

Several weeks back, I was watching a music video by Jimmy Joe Roche for the song “Crystal Cat” by Dan Deacon. Along with me were Ali and Mayor, as usual. Mayor began a mild rant on disliking the video and style (the style virtually all of the Pulsating Sunglasses videos implemented). He mentioned that the video, along with the bulk of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! used this retro, VHS-y, late-80s/early-90s aesthetic and that it was neither original nor interesting (I’m paraphrasing here). While I don’t agree with all of that, I will admit that these artists certainly weren’t the first to use these techniques/styles; though they certainly have made it their own.

The main connection I draw with this style of film making is to TV Carnage. For those who don’t know, this is the project of two dudes who have been making compilations of found VHS footage since the late ’90s. This began as a mail-order service, but thanks to torrents and their YouTube channel, we can all enjoy it without those meddling US Postal Service fascists pokin’ their members into our lives. At this point, your thoughts may be hovering around “why is this a thing in the first place?” This could be answered with a few concepts/ideas. Nostalgia, of course, being a big one. As I mentioned earlier, most of the footage is from the late-80s/early-90s, so even I can relate to why so many artists my age are plundering these tapes nowadays. It doesn’t hurt that manipulating such footage is a breeze these days what with all that technology and surch out there. It seems that this time period is experimenting with found film the way Duchamp and other Dadaists and Surrealists played with found objects. And everyone from John Cage to the Books to me have used found sound for musical composition. And speaking of myself and famous artists, these techniques were pioneered for literature by Brion Gysin and later developed and made “famous” by William Burroughs. Known as the cut-up technique, they would rearrange other writing (i.e. newspapers) and form a new piece altogether. But they (and I) went beyond that and began cutting up their own works to create new works that they (and I) felt were hidden in the original. Now all of these forms were far more in depth and specific forms of something that occurs in almost all art forms since, I assume, the dawn of time: appropriation.

Essentially, this is taking anything from a piece to the whole of a work of art, and reconstituting it as your own. And this isn’t just manipulating it, I had a friend who took an LP cover he liked and put it up as his own piece in an art show for his degree program. But why is this legitimate? Well, to quote T.S. Eliot (I think I’ve earned the right), “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Or, to paraphrase, “good artists borrow, great artists steal.”

Art itself is a part of culture and therefore worthy of manipulating and interpreting for the use in other art. Even by taking an existing piece and showcasing it as is (hopefully crediting the original), you are resituating (apparently not a word) it and placing it in a new context. What was once merely an album cover, is now being presented as a legitimate piece of art (not that it wasn’t legitimate in the first place, but now it’s official!). Found art generally uses things taken from outside the context of art (i.e. garbage, thrift stores, non-music cassette tapes). The videos using the technique in question seem to fall somewhere between the types of appropriation used in found art. That is, they manipulate existing film that is mostly not considered artistic, like commercials, and attempt to make it mean something else. It often however moves beyond (or below) art and is merely used to comedic value. The Pulsating Sunglasses artists, however, don’t just cut-up footage for laughter’s sake, they often try to form a narrative, add music, and layer over the found film using crude and basic video editing techniques such as flashing the spectrum, clip-art inserts, and various other smears, splotches, cuts, and color splashing to weave together into a cinematic representation of the current psychedelic-electronic-punk music that is most often associated with these videos. There’s those keywords.

Now, watching these videos, there’s no doubt that they’re psychedelic. Albeit a new psychedelia for a new age. But we can discuss that another time (or I can). And seeing as how most of these videos are accompanied by electronic music of some sort, or are linked to electronic bands (Jimmy Joe Roche did several videos, PFFR did one, and so did Black Dice for their song “Kokomo“), that ones obvious. What about punk? Well, that leads to another discussion Mayor and I were having.

After finally reading Please Kill Me, Mayor was talking to me about the punk aesthetic and wondering what the film equivalent would be. I mentioned how there were certain films at the time of punk (i.e. Blank Generation [or The Blank Generation] and The Decline of Western Civilization) that probably fit into the ethos, but nothing that was ever as recognized as the music and fashion aspects. I felt the trouble with it existing at any point in the future, would be that it wouldn’t be dubbed punk cinema, but merely some sort of revivalist genre. If there were to be a type of punk film style, I figured it would have to be something stripped down of the glitz and glamour, something urgent and new, but with a firm (albeit at times invisible) foot in the past. It was this discussion and this description that lept into my mind while watching the Pulsating Sunglasses films. Didn’t they fit into all of that criteria? Weren’t they the epitome of crude, rude, and DIY? The fact that so many of these types of films exist and that so many artists are utilizing this style, must stem from a subconscious, united desire to react to the mainstream of film that revels in huge budgets, seamless effects, and beautifully shot HD footage. Right? I think so. And I think we’re going to see a lot more of this style in the future. Then we’ll slowly see the techniques creeping into mainstream film and video. Mark my words. I’m a pro at spottin’ trends. Then they’ll water it down, give it a snazzy name that the underground was using, meanwhile, post-cuttingupvhstapesandaddingcrazycolorsandpicturesandshit will be taking place in England, etc.

So, that’s what was going through my mind as I watched these videos (sorry, they got kinda boring after awhile). Of course, right about the time I finished this essay up, I found this:


I was throwing in all the necessary links, when I found the original blurb for the screening on the CANADA website. It basically says all the things I just said. On one hand, that takes the steam out of my essay by showing that all the brilliant analysis I did, was really just a bloated version of the synopsis the curator provided. On the other hand, it shows how much of a genius I am because I hadn’t read that beforehand.

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Comments on: "Punk Cinema & the VHS Revival" (8)

  1. […] See the rest here: Punk Cinema & the VHS Revival […]

  2. itstimetoblogg said:

    Leave it to you to write a blisteringly long, detailed blog symphony about the exciting, some might even say startling, future, or present or whatever, of punk cinema, with its retro cuts and all that jizz, only to declare YOURSELF a genius at the end.

    Well…you are. We all know this. Brilliant analysis by the way. Oh wait, you already pointed that out yourself, didn’t you?

    I’m only ribbing ya’. This was a great read, and it emphasizes a disappointing point that I’ve made about myself before. That is, I don’t recognize innovation when I see it or hear it. If you guys hadn’t drilled it into me, I wouldn’t have had any use for Animal Collective. Thankfully, I saved that one from the casualty pile.

    When I watched the Dan Deacon video with you guys, the point I was trying to make was that I considered its retro-ness a little bit too self-conscious. Which is to say that I thought Roche’s video was winking at its audience a little too much. It had lemon juice in its eye. Am I making any sense? I don’t even know what I’m talking about.

    Another instance of my ignorance occurred one evening at the Brooklyn Art Museum. On display was a very short, rudimentary film consisting of a man fucking around with a kite. It was shot on plain ol’ vhs and once again I wondered what the hell it was doing in a museum. “I could do that” I proclaimed. Suddenly, from out of nowhere a voice cried out, “Ah, but you didn’t.” It’s a fantastic point. And it goes right to the core of our punk rock discussion.

    I’m gonna look at more of this type of film making because I think you make some really good observations that I had not yet pondered.

    I’m REALLY interested to see if this seeps into even more popular mainstream productions and how it does it. What would Michael Bay do with this type of thing? Or is that like asking, “Wouldn’t it be cool if Led Zeppelin covered Pink Flag in its entirety?”

  3. christianbeforechruch said:

    Thank you for succinctly wrapping up who I am and what I’m all about. Brought a lil smile to m’face.

    And I totally feel totally bad. I used our talk as a jumping off point and forgot to ever really resolve it, making it seem like I’m making an argument against you, when I’m really just arguing the merits of the style, which certainly has its flaws and you are certainly allowed to dislike. I understand where you’re coming from, and I’m not even saying that this style is the punk of film (that was just a snazzy title), just that all those things we talked about coalesced when I watched these films and made me think. I’ll go back in and try and clear that up. Whoopsie.

    As for the “i could do that thing,” the “but you didn’t” argument is really just used by those (and I’m among them at times) when someone criticizes modern art and you can think of anything else to say. It’s true to a point, but that doesn’t make something good. The simple act of doing something doesn’t constitute art. But we could talk all day about that crap.

    As for your last remark, are you implying that those that make these videos are similar to Pink Floyd?! Now that’s an insult! I would like to see Michael Bay use that style of film to make a documentary on Led Zeppelin covering the entire career of Pink Floyd. Won’t the future be grand?

  4. lishaface said:

    We’ve talked about this post long before its physical form premiered, so sorry to exhaust the subject with an additional comment. The novelty of VHS and old footage (vintage, duuddde!) tends to evoke a warm, fuzzy feeling. Not only because of content, but the overall look. The fading, scratches, and warbled sound feels slightly less pretentious or “clean-cut”. Sound familiar? Speaking in relation to overall aesthetic and mediums, there are many similarities to the preference in recording with analog equipment and listening to vinyl. Even the films presented that were not in the strobing neon cut-up form were made to look as though they were being played on a VHS. It arguably makes for a more intimate experience to the audience. As you know with music, simply recording with 4-track tape these days will not make you the next Ariel Pink. If this trend does explode, (which I’m also predicting it will) we will see oodles of films trying to fit a circular content into a triangular style.

  5. itstimetoblogg said:

    No no no. Read it again Matt. Pink FLAG, not Pink Floyd. Which is funny because I originally used Pink Floyd as my example instead of Zep.

  6. @ itstimetoblogg haha. whoopsie again. freudian slip

  7. @lishaface that’s a good fuckin point. i really didn’t think about the analog/lp link but that makes a buttload of sense. yr not so dumb after all

  8. lishaface said:

    love you too, darling.

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