There’s an exciting new film movement in town — so new you might not have heard of it. It’s the brainchild of two passionate film fans that were disheartened that many worthwhile films, too eccentric to get a distribution deal, never found an audience to appreciate them. So Charlotte Taylor and Lisa Sousa formed Mechanical Eye Microcinema to bring those films to Asheville audiences. They don’t yet have a theatre to call their own, so they take their show on the road, going to different venues, teaming with various community co-sponsors. It’s literally mobile microcinema.
Microcinema is a flexible term that includes amateur, low-budget, small-gauge films (16mm) and videos. They’re “experimental,” or “avant-garde,” meaning they push the boundaries of conventional filmmaking, galloping to the forefront of new techniques and subject matter, just as avant-garde artists in other fields do. Before YouTube came along, hardly anyone saw these films. Though she appreciates the convenience of video, for Mechanical Eye co-founder and co-director Charlotte Taylor, film will always be first in her heart. “It’s one of my favorite things in the world,” she says. She loves the sound of film going through the projector, the feel of it as she holds a strip up to the light, the shape and heft of a round film can. Taylor is a full-time professor and the program coordinator in the film and video department of Blue Ridge Community College in Flat Rock; not only a film scholar, she is also a filmmaker, specializing in experimental animated films. “As a filmmaker,” she says, “I need to make a film. It builds inside me and I need to let it out.”
Taylor’s partner in Mechanical Eye Microcinema is Lisa Sousa, whose day job is Director of Grants and Agreements for the American Chestnut Foundation. She worked in film for many years before she and her husband moved to Asheville. Sousa loves documentaries. “Real life is just as fascinating as something you can make up,” she says. These films, because they often can’t get distribution, are also included in the microcinema umbrella.
Experimental film had its roots in Europe and the Soviet Union in the 1920s. The most well-known experimental film is Un Chien Andalou (1929), a 16-minute film full of Freudian images. It was made by Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali (1904-1989) and Spanish director Luis Bunuel (1900-1983), who went on to make the Oscar-winning feature film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).
Today’s conventional filmmakers often borrow experimental film techniques, such as the use of found footage. For example, the music video of Michael Jackson’s 1988 song “Man in the Mirror” is a montage of film images showing the suffering of people worldwide, transforming what could have been a celebrity vanity piece into a timeless plea for compassion. Some feature film directors have been greatly influenced by experimental films, such as David Lynch (Twin Peaks), known for his dream imagery and disturbing violence.
Taylor and Sousa chose the term mechanical eye to identify their project. The lens of the camera, its mechanical eye, looks into the world just as the human eye does. The phrase comes from a revolutionary film manifesto of Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertof (1896- 1954), calling for film to be used to uplift mankind.
In the 1980s, in cities with strong film cultures, such as San Francisco and New York, it became popular for fans of experimental films to form groups and move the viewing venues as needed. Taylor and Sousa thought Asheville was ripe for a similar concept. After they found one another on a list serve, and met in person at Firestorm Café, they immediately drew up lists of the films they wanted to show. In honor of where they met, they decided on Firestorm Café as their first venue in September, thinking that the theme of the films they chose would appeal to the transient nature of some of the restaurant’s customers. They were right. They presented “nomadic” filmmaker Bill Brown and Hub City, his 1997 film about Lubbock, Texas, as well as Who is Bozo Texino? The Secret History of Hobo Graffiti, from director Bill Daniel. A lively discussion about life on the road ensued.
In November at the YMI Cultural Center, to tie-in with the elections, they showed Unbought and Unbossed, a rarely seen documentary about African American Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 run for the Presidency. Most of the young people in attendance had never heard of Shirley Chisholm before — another successful film choice.
Taylor and Sousa’s next event will be at Spellbound Children’s Bookshop inside the ZaPOW Gallery in downtown Asheville. To honor beloved children’s book illustrator Maurice Sendak, who died earlier this year, they will present Tell Them Anything, a 39-minute portrait of Sendak, co-directed by documentarian Lance Bangs and feature film director Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are). Don’t assume the film is going to be kid-friendly, warns shop owner Leslie Hawkins. It’s not. Sendak is in curmudgeon mode, reminiscing about his childhood terrors. Adult fans of Sendak’s work will find the film riveting, amazed to learn how Sendak, who never had an art lesson, illustrated more than one hundred books. For Taylor and Sousa, and Mechanical Eye Microcinema, the event will be the chance to add more film fans to the growing Asheville underground film community.