Jim Haverkamp and Joyce Ventimiglia probably like that old Steven Wright joke, "Why don't they make the whole plane out of the black box?"
That's the premise upon which the husband-and-wife team founded the Strange Beauty Film Festival, which inhabits Durham's Manbites Dog Theater this weekend to show nearly 50 short films spanning every possible category, as well as a few that haven't been named yet.
Surreal animated shorts, arcane documentaries, obsessive elaborations of effects and editing techniques, silent meditations that leave you blinking through their brief credits—all these films share an out-of-left-fieldness that will stay with you after you leave the theater. And you probably won't get a chance to Netflix them again later.
"We came up with the name a few years back, after going to the Cucalorus Film Festival in Wilmington. There was a strange and beautiful short film that both of us couldn't stop thinking about," Haverkamp explains. "On the drive home, we were talking about how there's usually one of those films at every film festival, sort of like the prize in the Cracker Jack box, and how great it would be if there was a film festival where every film was like that."
"Fast-forward a few years later, when our daughter was 2 and we were looking for a project we could do together that didn't require us to leave the house much ... Hey, a film festival! We remembered the strange beauty idea and tried to make it a reality."
Year two of Strange Beauty includes the work of 14 filmmakers with local connections, as well as a feature on the Triangle Soundpainting Orchestra, a special program of archival madness by Durham Cinematheque maven Tom Whiteside and Khristian Weeks, and the Strange Beauty Aural Fixation, an audio art and documentary listening session produced by Jennifer Deer of Big Shed Audio+Media.
At the end of the festival's opening night Thursday, Whiteside and Weeks will present the hour-long "Interviewed," which uses interviews filmed in Salt Lake City in 1960 as its source material. Whiteside's program description admits, "To be honest, there is not a lot of beauty on screen in 'Interviewed,' but there is an abundance of strange."
The headliner documentary, however, is Friday night's world premiere of "Sound Between Lines: Triangle Soundpainting Orchestra," by Jason Middleton, formerly of Durham. This look into the process of our local masters of improvisation will be followed by a live performance to a Jim Kellough video work.
Plenty of innovative animation is in store. Highlights include two stark pen-and-ink films by noted underground cartoonist and graphic artist Lilli Carré, who hails from Chicago. In "What Hits the Moon," an insomniac woman's lunar contemplation twists when the moon reciprocates. Carré's spectacular, nonlinear "For the Birds" lays out a kind of childlike runaway thinking in a series of disconnected scenes. A woman sits isolated amid flip dinner conversation. Crows gather on a man's back and lift him into the air. A man transfers stuffing from a large teddy bear to his own chest.
Other notable animated shorts include the mythic "Daphne 2.0" from Marc Russo (Raleigh) and Francesca Talenti (Chapel Hill), which combines stop-motion, claymation and video to tell a devolutionary tale that's darkly environmental. The cautionary fairy tale "Sleeping and Dreaming of Food," from London's Eva-Marie Elg, unpeels layers of creepiness with onionskin-like animation techniques that bring one of legendary Swedish artist Kolbeinn Karlsson's comic books to life. If you've never found the Jolly Green Giant disturbing, after this short you might.
One of the revelations of the Strange Beauty festival is how documentarians can be somehow more reflective in a five-minute film than in a full-length feature. Durham native Richard Wiebe, now a student in Iowa, presents a reflective portrait of flamingos wintering on a lake in Cyprus in "Aliki." The birds appear old and wise against the desolate landscape, their solitude both a punishment and an enlightenment.
Durham filmmaker Nancy Kalow kept her subject in the family with a portrait of her father, Sam, who was IBM's project manager for dictating equipment in the 1950s and '60s. "The Great Dictator" tours his vintage collection of the machines, intercutting clips of Sam from IBM sales films with appearances of Dictaphones in the hands of classic movie stars. How many people can say their dad was in a film with Fred MacMurray, Audrey Hepburn, Gary Cooper and Rosalind Russell?
"Boldly Going" by LJ Frezza of Cambridge, Mass., will be a fan favorite, entirely consisting of old Star Trek footage of William Shatner as the intrepid Captain Kirk delivering the preamble to the United States Constitution to tribal aliens before engaging the rest of the galaxy in hot hand-to-hand combat. But video compression errors pixelate and morph his sword thrusts and somersaults into each other. Finally, everyone's favorite worst actor confronts his doppelgänger, uttering, "You can't hurt me. You can't kill me. You can't—don't you understand, I'm part of you." Even Christine O'Donnell would be bewitched.
The fest is being presented in four eclectic blocks of around 12 films each, so you can catch as much or as little of it as you want, but tickets sold out quickly last year. After-show parties migrate a block away to new neighbors Fullsteam Brewery and Motorco Music Hall, in the burgeoning warehouse district on downtown Durham's northern fringe.
In a town that already features the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and a number of great thematic programs at the Carolina Theatre, Strange Beauty delivers a huge helping of the weirdness that other theaters have likely left you a bit peckish for.