Pixel chronicles 

Back in the late ’80s, the Fisher-Price company put out a toy video camera designed especially for children. The PXL 2000, or Pixelvision, recorded both video and sound on a standard audio cassette, utilizing 2000 pixels per screen, which is not much when compared to the average 150,000 to 200,000 pixels used for TV.

With its grainy and indistinct black-and-white images, the PXL 2000 gave the average 10-year-old the ability to shoot footage that looked more like a surrealist film from the ’20s than a generic home movie. But apparently surrealism was not what was on most 10-year-olds’ minds, for the camera was a dismal marketing failure and was soon withdrawn from stores.

But it didn’t take long for those 10-year-olds’ elder siblings who were enrolled in art school to catch on to Pixelvision’s poetic possibilities. According to Paul Malcolm in the LA Weekly, “the shifting bricks of light and dark that form the Fisher-Price PXL 2000’s picture lend themselves well to personal essays, creating an invigorating mesh of ambiguity and intimacy in every frame.” And in the same publication Mary Beth Crain wrote, “… the power of PXL is somehow indisputable. The medium becomes a means of alchemically altering the most mundane realities. Blurred, off-kilter black-and-white images transcend mere out-of-focus mediocrity to become captivatingly surreal.”

Ann Arbor-based artist Terri Sarris, who teaches film and video studies at the University of Michigan, has two of the cameras in her possession, and says she first heard about Pixelvision from her students. According to Sarris, “the beauty of the PXL 2000 is that you just put the cassette in and go. You have no control over focus, and the viewfinder is above the lens, so you never know exactly what you’re framing.” The resulting image “is primitive looking, but in a good way if that’s what you’re after. It’s as if you can’t quite see it — it’s a little ghostlike, a little eerie. It looks like a memory.”

California resident and scavenger artist Gerry Fialka has probably done more than anyone to promote Pixelvision. Fialka is the founder of the PXL THIS film festival. Now in its 11th year, the festival takes place in Santa Monica and features only work done with the PXL 2000. Fialka contends that “PXL is the essential utensil of creation. The really creative artist does a lot with nothing. PXL THIS is based on the statements ‘it is literally possible to do more with less’ (Buckminster Fuller) and ‘film will only become art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper’ (Jean Cocteau).”

Perhaps the artist Fialka had in mind in the above quote was filmmaker Richard Linklater and his 1991 film, Slacker. More a chain of vignettes than anything actually possessing a plot, this comic gem is the ’90s equivalent of Ionesco and Beckett, and can take its place in the lineage of the theater of the absurd, whose underlying assumption is that the human condition is essentially absurd, and only a work of art that is itself completely absurd can adequately depict this.

In Slacker, Linklater’s camera follows a series of denizens of Austin, Texas, as they philosophize and pontificate on the nature of life, love, politics and reality, all to no consequence whatsoever. Most of these characters don’t even have names and are just identified in the credits as the Dostoevsky wannabe, the sidewalk psychic, budding capitalist youth, aging anarchist, Tura Satana lookalike, pap smear pusher, tea cup sculptor, dairy queen photographer, recluse in bathrobe, JFK conspiracy theorist, and so on.

The PXL 2000 makes an appearance during a two-minute bar scene. Someone announces they have a Pixelvision camera, and suggests people pass it around and see what they can come up with. The camera sways unsteadily, people pass in and out of the frame, someone plays a marimba and someone else bangs on some empty Absopure jugs, then someone else speculates on how the Freemasons have had a stranglehold on American history. The scene ends with a guy walking down the street, passing a guy on crutches coming the other way. Pure poetry.

One director who is in love with Pixelvision is Michael Almereyda. His 1995 film, Nadja, uses Pixelvision extensively and does for the vampire film what Jim Jarmusch did for the western with Dead Man — that is, he thoroughly contemporizes a timeworn genre. Partly an homage to the incandescent visuality of the silent era, as well as the surrealist masters of the ’20s and the luscious chiaroscuro of film noir, Nadja is about the alluring, black-caped daughter of Dracula (played with weary worldliness by Romanian actress Elina Lowensohn) who frequents the bohemian haunts of present-day New York City. Other characters include Lucy and Jim, a disaffected young married couple who are painfully estranged from each other, and Peter Fonda in a strangely moving performance as Jim’s slightly crazed, eccentric crackpot of an uncle, the vampire hunter Van Helsing.

Perhaps what is most beautiful about Pixelvision is its accessibility — once in possession of a camera, anyone can make a film for the price of an audio cassette. Fialka’s PXL THIS festival is accepting entries through Aug. 22 (check out elvis.rowan.edu/~cassidy/pixel/index.html), so get on eBay or start rummaging through flea markets and garage sales, and try out the magic of Pixelvision for yourself.

Deborah Hochberg writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com

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