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Coming to you in glorious pixelvision

At the PXL This festival in Santa Monica, a discontinued kids' camcorder is the center of attention.

November 09, 2002|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

There's no other film festival quite like Gerry Fialka's PXL This. Any film submitted is guaranteed to be shown. There are no fees, no awards. All Fialka asks of filmmakers is that they make at least part of their film using a PXL 2000 videocam, the vintage Fisher-Price toy he has loved for 12 years.

Fialka is as amazed as anyone that he has so much company in his devotion to the plastic toy. Since Fisher-Price stopped making the camera in 1989, filmmakers started snatching them up as a tool to make cheap little black-and-white films. A small national cult of "pixelvisonaries" and "pixelators" arose -- artists, filmmakers, students nerds and technogeeks -- all excited by the dancing grainy images that bored Fisher-Price's original target market, kids 10 to 16.

Work by the most accomplished artists has been discussed in serious art texts and archived in museums.

Tonight, the 12th annual PXL This festival, at the Midnight Special Bookstore in Santa Monica, will show its largest number of entrants to date, 36. A distilled version of the program will be shown in February at Santa Monica's Vidiots video store.

"I never expected 'PXL' to get to this," says Fialka, at home in Venice where he lives in a cluttered two-room guest cottage. "We're amazed every year people are still using this failed toy. You don't see Etch-a-Sketch in hotsy-totsy art books or museums."

Fialka, friendly and talkative, wears his hair in a long flowing ponytail and has purple laces in his sneakers. He says he was raised in Michigan on Super 8 home movies. After graduating from the University of Michigan, where he studied film, he moved to L.A. to make his way in the entertainment industry but became discouraged by the commercialism around him. "Film as an art form has been swindled by capitalism," he likes to say.

Fialka worked briefly for Los Angeles' old and much beloved film festival Filmex and then 10 years for musician Frank Zappa. One day, Fialka says, a journalist came to interview Zappa and brought a PXL 2000. At the time, home video cameras sold for around $1,000, he said. Fialka rushed to the nearest Toys R Us and bought a PXL 2000 for less than $100.

Now, he says, he lives on his savings, makes films in pixelvision and runs experimental film festivals from his home, which he shares with his wife, singer Suzy Williams.

"The whole idea of PXL This is to have a film festival where there's no money involved," he says. "I would like to see more emphasis on people creating art, not product."

Some fairly mainstream filmmakers have inserted pixelvision into their movies. Richard Linklater used pixelvision in "Slacker" (1991) to show the point of view of a camera being used by a character. Director Michael Almereyda's 1995 "Nadja" used pixelvision to show how Dracula's daughter might view the world. Pixelvision has also been used to document extreme sports and was the basis for a porn festival in Los Angeles.

The more recent digital video revolution has taken much of the wind out of pixelvison's sails, says Canadian filmmaker Dwayne Beaver, who's making a documentary on the camera.

While pixelvision was the first to hand art back to artists through cheaper materials, Beaver says the original pixelvisionaries, like Almereyda, have moved on to other media. "Now when people shoot pixelvision, it's because they love the aesthetics. They're doing it more as paying homage," he says.

Rummaging around the books and toy parts, scarves and paintings in his house, Fialka finds tapes of this year's entrants. He climbs up on a daybed under a window overgrown with vines and pops them into the VCR one by one. His leans forward to better observe the images on his 2-inch monitor.

The films look like a cross between a security tape and a transmission from outer space. But they also have a ghostly and surreal quality that could capture your attention, make you laugh, impart a sense of profound meaning.

Or not.

One documentary, Ellen Lake's "Rubber Band Ball," tells the story of San Francisco shopkeepers who have created a 2,327-pound ball of rubber bands in their market. "See the close-up? Look at that texture," Fialka says. "To me, that's the essence of PXL This.

Another describes a trip to the North Pole and the "sounds" of the aurora borealis picked up with special equipment. In the narrative "Down There," the screen splits into four; in one, a girl eats her doll. In "Dip," a man leaps out of his bathtub backward.

The festival usually draws 80 to 100 people, who pack the bookstore. Usually a lot of them drift out before the festival is finished.

Fialka hopes that this year people will stay to the end. The final piece is "Strange Weather," a 50-minute film once shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York about Florida crack addicts in Florida as they ignore the pending disaster of Hurricane Andrew.

Most films last between three and five minutes. "Every one of them is equally as good, in my opinion," he says.

There is some controversy in pixel land, Fialka says. A small band of die-hard "purists" insists on shooting on the audio tape and editing in the camera. Others have modified their cameras or rigged them to record on digital video cameras, which they can edit on their computers. Fialka comes down in the center.

Contrary to some concerns that pixelvision is an endangered medium because the plastic toys eventually wear out, Fialka says the adaptations will allow it to survive. And as long as he keeps finding pixelvision films, he says, so will his festival.

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