Intense, short-form documentaries. Bizarre and optically overwhelming animation. Meditative and visionary filmworks that connect back to the earliest cinematic traditions, or to no known traditions at all. We know what to expect of Durham's homegrown Strange Beauty Film Festival, now in its third year.
Husband-and-wife team Jim Haverkamp and Joyce Ventimiglia founded Strange Beauty, the third iteration of which occupies the Manbites Dog Theater Thursday through Saturday, as an alternative to genre- and theme-oriented festivals. Driving home from those programs, they'd talk about the one or two odd straggler films that had emotionally affected them. Why not make a whole festival out of just those?
This niche has quickly widened. Haverkamp and Ventimiglia received about 200 submissions this year, up from 120 just a year ago. Word is out, and not just regionally. Although North Carolina filmmakers make up about a third of the 48-film program, work from Taiwan, Germany and the United Kingdom will also be screened. Oh, and eight films from Winnipeg.
"It's strange. We just got a lot of films from Winnipeg and a lot of them were great," Ventimiglia chuckles. "I think there's a little film mafia there."
Although the festival unofficially kicked off last Friday night with a preview before the Greensboro band Invisible performed downtown, the first full night is Thursday. Highlights include Kudzu Vine, an immaculately shot documentary by Duke instructor Josh Gibson, and Pennipotens, an animated Flemish fairy tale by Charlotte's Heather Freeman.
Gibson's transfixing editing intercuts the snakelike time-lapse growth of vines with characters who assign virtues to its persistence and tenacity. You also learn that kudzu leaves fry up like potato chips and are intelligent enough to know to grow under railroad tracks.
Freeman combines cut-out animation with traditional drawing to skirt the fine line between fascinating and creepy in every scene of her wordless film, in which one sister protects another from their murderous mother.
Friday night leads off with an intriguing structural short by Illinois-based Deron Williams. American Discotheque Number One shows a set of reflections of a Burger King in something like mirrored vertical blinds, which evoke Las Vegas as cars pass jerkily through the segmented image. A slowed recording of Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" provides the soundtrack. Oddly transporting, it's the quintessential Strange Beauty film, implying a social commentary with the smallest possible cinematographic vocabulary.
Friday also features Stephen Crompton's Mall Church, which chronicles the toehold opportunities for religion that the recession has created with the closings of malls. And CAM Raleigh patrons will recognize Marc Russo's computer-animated The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the recent ID:ENTITY show.
Several other Friday films pick up Crompton's and Russo's themes. "I don't know if it's the zeitgeist or what, but themes emerge," Ventimiglia notes. "This year we definitely have kind of a weird spiritualism-religion block on Friday night."
Saturday is the Strange Beauty marathon day, with afternoon and evening programs. Charlotte Taylor, from Flat Rock, will distribute handmade 3-D glasses to the audience for her stereoscopic 16mm novelty The Edge of Summer—exactly the kind of diamond that other festivals leave in the rough. Another brief masterpiece of mythopoeia on the afternoon bill is Lindsay Greer's Circus, which superimposes old and new circus footage with hand-painted film beneath a spare, whispered voiceover that's an excellent poem in its own right.
The evening group of films on Saturday features several heavy hitters. D.L. Anderson's Mr. Percy's Run describes Johnston County's legendary moonshiner and foxhound trainer Joshua Percy Flowers through the voices of a variety of friends and colleagues. The vertiginous way that the camera follows hounds through the forest is a kinetic thrill. (Disclosure: Anderson is a staff photographer at the Independent Weekly.)
Vancouver-based Brian MacDonald's Murder and UFOs combines fantasy, documentary and conspiracy theory in a historical mash-up that explains the Roswell connections between the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Jack and Robert Kennedy and gangster Sam Giancana. Through masterful editing, footage of the characters is combined with subtitles to create never-before-seen-or-imagined scenes that give the inside story.
The fest concludes with another terrific example of strange beauty—Anja Struck's How to Raise the Moon. In an unabashedly explicit homage to the Brothers Quay, the Cologne, Germany-based Struck nonetheless creates an original allegorical storyline in which Death and Sleep contest the soul of a young woman. It's a perfect idiosyncratic vision, revealing the winner in a final moment worthy of the 16th-century portraitist Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
Struck's film begs multiple viewings, as so many of these do. And we have Strange Beauty to thank for the opportunity to see them at all.