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Creating something from nihilism

Elisha Shapiro rejects all value systems, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth his while to direct one of the oddest film festivals around.

October 22, 2006|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

THE film titles from years past tell you all you need to know about the Nihilist International Film Festival held each year in Santa Monica. There's "Psycho Happy Place," "Toilet Bowl Confessions," "Senseless Violence," "The Loneliness of Animals," "Zombied" and "Trash Baby."

Last year's top prize at the festival -- $100 -- went to "Donut Run," a short film about a waitress who has had it with a cop/customer and kills him -- and then hides his remains in the doughnuts she then feeds to his annoying cop/customer buddies.

It's all courtesy of the admittedly demented mind of Elisha Shapiro, a good-natured, bearish-looking man with salt-and-pepper whiskers and wispy hair who takes delight in championing nihilism, a philosophy that rejects all value systems and questions all bases for moral choice. He does so through performance art, using absurdity and the illogical to attack convention and, he hopes, force audiences to view art and culture in a different way.

He calls it his "comic world view." And the film festival is just one vehicle for sharing it with the masses. "I'm not a proselytizer or a philosopher," Shapiro said. "I'm just an artist. But my art has a lot to do with getting people to see outside the box. People buy into certain proscribed sets of values. Those are social constructs. It would nice if people could see outside of that."

Shapiro has a long track record of gaining attention through public spectacles, often by wedging himself into the election process. This year, he's running for governor against Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his Democratic rival, Phil Angelides. He has been busy collecting signatures so that his name appears as a qualified write-in candidate and a vote for him will count.

While Schwarzenegger and Angelides discuss such issues as debt and taxes, Shapiro embraces a more eye-popping platform: The Nihilist Party candidate says California should secede from the United States of America. (If elected, he says he would also end tax breaks for children and churches, permit only gays to get married and appoint comedian Jon Stewart and activist Angela Davis to the state Supreme Court.)

In 1988, Shapiro ran as the Nihilist Party candidate for president against George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, filing candidate papers in all 50 states. He also ran for L.A. County sheriff in 1994 on a platform of bringing disorder to the county.

A 53-year-old who teaches remedial English at Santa Monica College, Shapiro hosts a cable TV talk show called "Nihilists' Corner" that airs in L.A. and in New York and delights in using that outlet to prod a public he believes is benumbed by mindless media chatter, rampant commercialism and "pinhead" politicians.

There are other attention-getting stunts as well.

Each year, Shapiro sells a "Nihilism Calendar" that includes photos from some of his more outrageous artistic exploits. (One photo shows Shapiro in sunglasses, smoking a cigarette, and wearing women's hose and underwear with his private parts exposed.) Once, he shaved his entire body and posted the pictures -- and saw traffic to his website,, jump from 30 to 50 hits a day to 800 to 1,000.

Before that, he staged a Nihilist Olympic Games as an antidote to the mega-hyped 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, with events like the decathlon of housework, where people were graded on dusting and other household chores, and the U-turn competition, where judges stood at five busy L.A. intersections holding up scorecards as vehicles attempted to navigate difficult U-turns.


Pointed humor

FOR some, there's art amid all this wackiness.

"In this era of media glut and double-talk pollution in the world of politics as well as mass entertainment and commercialism, what Elisha does is he kind of shakes you up, spins you around to make you step back and see things from a completely different perspective," said his friend Jacki Apple, who teaches at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and performed with Shapiro in the 1970s. "And he does it with humor, satirical, deadpan or parody humor.... He gets people to think how absurd the culture we live in is."

The Nihilist International Film Festival started in 1999 as part of one of Shapiro's bigger events (the World's Fair of Nihilism) and was so popular it evolved into an annual event. Each year, about 40 filmmakers from all over the world submit their short films to compete for a top prize of -- that's right -- $100.

The event is held each December, and some of the films submitted are so strange or gross that even Shapiro rubs his eyes in disbelief.

"There are a lot of disturbed people out there," he says with a laugh. "Some take themselves too seriously and end up not making" the cut.

Shapiro's website posts the titles of films that were in competition along with filmmaker comments describing their works.

One film, "Zombied," poses the question "Have you ever wondered what it's like to be a Zombie?" Another film, "Windless," promises to take viewers on a journey into the minds of normal people, where "we discover that nothing we once knew as fact can be used as evidence for the justification of mankind." A third, "The Second Bakery Attack," is harder to describe, according to the filmmaker's comments: "When I started on this thing and people asked what the story was about, I had a tough time trying to explain it, but to me that's the sign of a good tale."

Elysia Skye, 24, who wrote, produced and stars in the dark comedy that won the top prize at last year's festival, said she submitted "Donut Run" to the Sundance Film Festival and other big festivals but found no takers. "I wondered, 'Why ... not?' Then I submitted it to the Nihilist Film Festival, and it was accepted. I figured, of course, it's because my movie is weird."*

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