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A View That's Askew : The two-man multimedia team Damaged Californians thrives on the unconventional. Now they're experimenting with cable TV.

July 22, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes regularly for The Times

VAN NUYS — The shark was scoping out the five-man underwater camera crew cornered in a coral reef off the Belize coast. "It was definitely waiting for one of us to screw up," says Scott Hessels, who with his partner, James Keitel, and three buddies was on a shoot.

And, naturally, they were nearly out of oxygen. Inch by inch, they rose-- sans wet suits--to the surface, trying to avoid the sharp coral along the way. The shark's meal of humans and 16-millimeter camera got away that day in 1992.

Hessels says, however, that he and Keitel, were looking at their mirror image in the underwater creature. "We're like sharks," Hessels says, sitting in the cozy den of Keitel's Van Nuys home. "Both of us never stop moving. We always got to get onto the next project, the next film, the next video, the next show."

In film industry terms, this is definitely a new spin on shark . Hessels and Keitel constitute Damaged Californians, a two-headed, four-legged multimedia entity that refuses to be defined or stand still. They haven't a clue, they admit, how to deal with the Hollywood business type out for blood. "They take us out to lunch," says Hessels, "and lunch is three carrots and broccoli on a huge plate. They don't get what we do at all."

Someone, though, must be getting Damaged Californians' newest work, "Below 30/Above 10,000"--the pair's first feature and the first to be shot on film--because it's on television. Specifically, this weekend on the 90s Channel (carried by United Artists Cable in the Valley), the freewheeling purveyor of independent and home video with a decidedly political bent.

But "Below 30" depicts the spontaneous camping trip of a trio of pals who arrive in the mountains only to overhear--and become dominated by--a running dialogue between (yes) the mountains and the neighboring lake. Underpinning it all is a sense of 20-ish dread, and soundtrack music supplied by such Los Angeles-based musicians as Anna Homler, Musclecar, Acorn, Kaoru and the recently disbanded Ethyl Meatplow.

Why would the documentary-oriented 90s Channel air such a nutty, surreal movie?

"We think it's a really hip combination of art film and ecological film," says 90s Channel project manager Jodi Kimura, by telephone from the channel's offices in Boulder, Colo. "Our channel is about shattering the limits of conventional TV, and Damaged Californians definitely do that in a big way."

Just a listing of the titles of their video shorts gives an idea how potentially damaged these guys are: "Hillbilly Slid Loudly" (1988), "The Radar of Small Dogs" (1990), "Airline Safety Film 4A" (1991) and "Revolutionary War Filmstrip" (1992). (All, except "Hillbilly," are airing with "Below 30.") As a measure of the developing international cult following for the D-Cals, an Australian band took the name The Radar of Small Dogs in their honor.

But, as Hessels is wont to remind, film and video are only two of the group's several media. They have produced radio projects with their constant music collaborator, Michael Whitmore, including one in which Hessels taped and edited into a montage several older women calling their cats. The D-Cals also like to go live, with performance art that has ranged from an elaborate show held on the opening day of the Los Angeles-to-Long Beach Blue Line commuter train to an act at Kelbo's Tiki Lounge featuring TV monitors as part of their costumes.

It would be wrong, though, to assume that the prolific Hessels and Keitel (already busily preparing their next work, a feature film titled "Wanderlust") are joined at the hip. Keitel says, "We're really different, which is why we're friends"--then Hessels finishes the thought--"and why we work together so well."

Keitel, 30, is ruddy, dark-haired and quiet. Hessels, 36, is slender, light-haired and effortlessly glib. Keitel studied auto technology at Denver's Institute of Technology, "but I didn't want to work on cars the rest of my life, so I took a video editing course at the Denver Free University, the only one in my class who actually wanted to make videos for a living."

Hessels majored in English at the University of Colorado, with a specialty in German literature--"especially (Bertolt) Brecht, and Thomas Mann's fragmented structure."

The D-Cals whittle it down this way: "I like to experiment with story and language," says Hessels, with Keitel adding, "and I like to experiment with things."

They co-produce their works, with Hessels as writer and Keitel as director. Even a brief video like "Radar" typically becomes a months-long project. In that piece, Hessels' entire back yard was given over to "growing weird things, building lots of plastic tubing, so the whole area started looking like an alien planet colony."

They almost outdid themselves, though, filming "Below 30/Above 10,000" on a microscopic, $40,000 budget.

A small crew ventured to the Belize coast for the underwater shooting, but its talented cameraman, Duane Manwiller, then left for paying work.

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