"I wanted to have control over how my films are presented," Comerford said in a recent phone interview from Ithaca, N.Y., where he and Brown were in the midst of screening their films in someone's studio. The films were originally supposed to be viewed in the backyard of this home, but it rained. "Now there are about 30 people packed like sardines in here," Comerford said, yelling over the background din.
Comerford, who plays in a band when he's not making films or teaching at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, agrees that taking his films on the microcinema circuit is the cinematic equivalent of the DIY ethos of punk rock, in which bands circumvent institutional middlemen and take their music directly to the people. "Film festivals don't have much interest in showing experimental films," he said. But these filmmakers are taking control of distribution by slipping into the underground art and music spaces that were created in the wake of the early 1990s alternative music explosion. Traveling in Brown's 1996 Ford Ranger, they're sleeping on people's floors, accepting free meals and generally keeping their overhead to a minimum.
Although they're touring together, the two men are not collaborators. Comerford is showing four of his short films while Brown, who also teaches at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is screening two half-hour shorts. In true postmodernist fashion, the men come off as postdiluvian adventurers sifting through the rubble of a once-coherent culture and trying to reassemble something that has order and meaning.
Comerford's work centers around his explorations of the camera obscura, a device as old as civilization. Latin for "dark room," it's nothing more than a box with a pinhole at one end. Comerford converted a 16mm camera into a camera obscura, with astonishing results. "I wanted to achieve an image of a different quality. What I got was gauzy, hazy, atmospheric," he said. In his most recent work, Figures in the Landscape, Comerford's images look less like photography than the work of the pointillist painter Georges Seurat.
Brown's films are less explicitly experimental, but they have a similar historical sensibility. Alternately elegiac and whimsical, they study the pathos of disappearing places and cultures. Buffalo Common, the more recent of his two films, is a record of a trip he made to North Dakota to assay the destruction of nuclear missile silos, mandated under treaties with Russia. But his camera roves about, capturing the physical and economic desolation of a place so lacking in identity that its citizens are considering changing its name to Dakota. The result is a film that seems very much like a ruminative, ironic Harper's essay, or, as Brown has been told many times, an installment of This American Life.
"This film is part of an ongoing effort to go to places that people don't care about. Most people search for what's hot, but I'm interested in following the cold trail," he says, laughing.
As they make their way down the Eastern seaboard, Comerford and Brown have a full slate of gigs, which should keep them fed and sheltered, if not in funds. So far, the crowds have been good, with 60 people at a recent Pittsburgh gig, and 40 in Detroit the night before. "I think we're going to break even," Comerford reports.