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Director’s Cuts: Andrew Bujalski on Video

By Andrew Bujalski on July 11, 2013

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Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (opening Wednesday, July 17, at Film Forum) was shot on a Sony AVC-3260 video camera, and the results have been much praised in these pages by Amy Taubin and Kent Jones. FILM COMMENT invited the writer-director to select a few samples of adventures in early video, from Eggleston to... Spielberg?

First & foremost:

Stranded in Canton

If you’re able, I’d recommend getting your hands on the DVD & watching it somewhere besides your laptop monitor, but go ahead & get yourself a taste of it here on YouTube first, I won’t tell. I first encountered clips of this footage in Michael Almereyda’s documentary William Eggleston in the Real World, and I was immediately transfixed. I’m sure I’d glancingly encountered Portapak footage before but something about this stuff gave me a powerful fantasy of trying to apply these aesthetics to narrative, which led eventually to Computer Chess. Of course, Eggleston’s footage is a good deal stranger than mine: he did have the advantages of being a documentarian in this instance, and of being in Memphis, and it being the early Seventies—it’s hard to compete with all that. (Also, I believe he retrofitted the camera with infrared tubes! Which helps to explain some of the even-more-beautifully-ghostly-than-usual-Portapak night footage, in seedy bars & parking lots...) There’s something amazing to me about the fact that this footage could not possibly look less like the lush color photography that Eggleston is justly famous for, but still somehow clearly represents the same artist’s vision.

Sony AVC-3200CE vidicon camera sunburn

Here’s a camera enthusiast in New Zealand picking up one of these beautiful old cameras for the first time & giving it a whirl—and committing the gravest error possible short of dropping it: pointing it at the sun & burning out the tube. Later chip-based cameras like the VHS camcorders I grew up with would not have this issue (and I certainly pointed mine at the sun with impunity). For me this is a fine and poetic illustration of the difference between the analog technology we’ve abandoned and the digital technology we’ve embraced: the latter is essentially impervious to all organic elements—you can do whatever you want with it. Whereas the old stuff responded to its environment like ancient peoples fearing vengeful God(s). Doesn’t it seem almost Biblical? Like Lot’s wife turning into salt because she looked over her shoulder? This camera bites the dust because a foolish mortal has the hubris to point it at the mighty sun.

The Police Tapes

Most of the Portapak work that made it out into the world for public consumption was documentary, including this stunning feature-length one from Alan & Susan Raymond. Like crystal-synch sound recording equipment had for the vérité pioneers a half-generation earlier, the new technology opened up tremendous new possibility for run-and-gun street photography, and it don’t get much more street than this. I’ll confess that I haven’t seen it the whole way through (that’s the problem with watching stuff on the computer—no attention span), but I think it’s a safe bet that anywhere you click to on this timeline will offer something jaw-dropping for you. I’ll also confess that though there is plenty of brutality & rough stuff on display, still I can’t help but see it through a rosy lens of gentle Seventies romanticism. There are moments of surprising civility throughout.

Red Krayola with Art & Language

Nick Smith, who had the migraine-inducing job of supervising our postproduction workflow, sent me this link. I have no idea who these guys are, but this is rad.

Steven Spielberg watches Oscar nominations in 1976

A couple of different friends sent me this one. It’s from ’76, a later color-model camera, but I believe still tube-based. I love that this clip seems to suggest that Spielberg only has two bozo friends, and one of them is the guy who played Gazzo in Rocky! That’s amazing! I’m sure he’s made way more friends since.

Boardinghouse trailer

Almost definitely a cheat as I’m fairly certain that it was shot on a chip camera, though it’s tough for me to tell. Still, relevant to Computer Chess as, when I initially racked my brain to ask myself if anyone in the pre-DV age had ever attempted a commercial release of a movie shot on video, this was the only one I’d ever heard of—and it is a “curiosity” for sure. I finally saw it this year (on a 35mm print!) & it did not disappoint. These days our culture seems more or less to be in a free fall as far as “quality” is concerned, but consider that it took real balls/madness in 1982 to shoot a movie on VHS-quality video & spend lord knows how much money to blow it up to 35mm & try to pass that off in theaters. I don’t believe anyone else ever tried it. The movie is pretty good.

To learn more about the history of video cameras, visit the Experimental Television Center's website.  

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