Mise-en-abîme 1: Ghost Movies: Experimental shorts from the Aro Valley Digital Cinema 1997-2007

These are the programme notes for tonight’s screening at the Frederick Street Light and Sound Exploration Society in Wellington, a retrospective of short experimental films from artists associated with the Aro Valley Digital Cinema curated by myself, and featuring one new film by myself… and one to be discussed later…

The Uncomfortable Film Club presents


<placing into infinity…an infinite reproduction of a sequence>

< to put into the centre>

A regularly irregular series of screenings based around buried cinemas of expansion and contraction.

First screening 24/10/10

Ghost Movies: Experimental shorts from the Aro Valley digital cinema 1997-2007

Frederick Street Light and Sound Exploration Society

Frederick St


“The future of cinematography belongs to a new race of solitaries who will shoot films by putting their last cent into it and not let themselves be taken in by the material routines of the trade.” -Robert Bresson

The “minimal realist” feature films of the Aro Valley Digital Cinema are now well documented. Less screened and known is a lively parallel/ related scene producing a large amount of similarly singular work in a short experimental vein.

This is a lively, diverse set of work – mostly previously unseen – emphasising strands of adventurous and lateral responses to the notion of a personal cinema of poverty. All produced for essentially zero funding, by set of individualistic stylists sharing an engagement with the idea of manifesting the caméra-stylo in personal ways, these films make use of a variety of techniques and aesthetic perspectives that will surprise those used to the less expressive and varied palettes of the Aro feature films.

The films:

Haircut (Diane McAllen, 2003, 4 mins)

Usually better known as the producing member of the original Gordon Productions collective, McAllens experimental video work from 1996’s Spirit Level to this series of works tends towards explorations of the textural possibilities of the medium in domestic, diaristic modes, or constructing experimental narratives around anxious or depressed female characters – usually played or referred to in the first person.

In both types of work, there’s a strong attention to the textural and lateral possibilities – characteristically of S-VHS – sometimes with ingeniously transparent variations on techniques like stop motion and painted animation.

Haircut features a variation on a frequent McAllen strategy, refilming – in this case a handheld refilming off a TV screen, of a fixed camera aimed at a mirror – behind the artist unsatisfactorily seeking comfort in a new haircut. Needless to say, even repeatedly re-applied makeup isn’t going to bring much comfort through all these screens…

Faded Memories (The tape is not damaged) (Diane McAllen, 2003, 4 mins)

…But everything else is in this aggressive reworking of a failed film about a failed relationship. Again McAllen is utilising the distinctive colour, grain and bleed of S-VHS refilming with other multiple layers of technological obsolescence to construct a bitter and baffling rejoinder to the hopes and aspirations of another of McAllen’s anxious heroines. Oh yeah, and it’s also a stop motion film that never stops… Perhaps the only way to get past all these memories of failure is just to keep glossing past them…?

Firecat (Nia Robyn, as Robyn V, 1997, 2 mins)

Robyn (also Phipps) is probably best known as the superb female lead in the Aro features Uncomfortable Comfortable, Why Can’t I Stop This Uncontrollable Dancing and Little Bits of Light, but was probably the first person involved with the Aro “scene” to actually start making films. Firecat is typical of the experimental poetics of her style: an enraptured study of the textures and shadows in dialectic of flickering flames and a cat jumping from a tree to a rooftop, set to a clattering soundtrack.

Vera (Colin Hodson, 2007, 6 mins)

The first part of Vera is pure visceral/ kinetic sensation, the joy of making films. Director Hodson and collaborator/ subject Vera play small games of hide and seek while spinning the camera around on a rope – No-one will ever lend Hodson a camera again after this! – in the middle of an nocturnal urban atmosphere.

For the second part, we shift to a static interior, a scene and a tone superficially familiar to those who know Hodson as the evasive lead in Shifter, On and Uncomfortable Comfortable. He and Vera are talking in the background, and it sounds like an intimate scene of disconnection from one of those films… Except here the play is with the expectations of the audience, here the characters are articulate and engaged… and the piece functions as a critique of the limitations of the drama of the other films.

I shot this one evening in late 2005. I wanted to get to know Vera more, and asking her to help me collaborate on a video project was a great way of getting us working together.

The second part of the video is actually a real-time erasing of the second video I wanted her to be in, shot immediately after the first part. For this video, I was wanting to capture non-English speakers talking to me in their native tongue. What I thought would be interesting is that these people would talk to me in a language I do not understand, but, because we have a friendship, there would be some sort of communication anyway – a physical one, demontrated through body language and facial expressions. After I recorded it, Vera was uncomfortable with what I was trying to do. (She states her confusion with my objective in the recording, as you hear). She asked me to erase the recording of her recounting any pets she has had spoken in Ukrainian. So what we see/hear in the second part is the overwriting of the tape, and of course, laying down a new recording in the process.” – Colin Hodson

Smoke (Colin Hodson, 2007, 5 mins)

A striking elegy for a new city about to be lost – more from the fertile series of short works Hodson made in Amsterdam in 2005.

The video camera in Smoke searches. Looking for someone to connect with. Looking in apartments across the road. Anywhere the lights are on. Nobody’s home. But it’s late 2am. So everyone’s asleep okay. Soon a few people wander by: a passing cyclist or some people at the end of the street, drinking done. But they don’t see me, don’t come close enough.

So the city itself offers me some company then, going about its stillness. Same stuff since medieval times. I’m just one person looking across the roofs late at night, but those roofs have been gazed on for hundreds of years. I can’t feel those gazes, connect to them, but I believe they must have existed. My memory of the city will be big, but the city won’t have noticed me. I’m too small.

The only thing I can see that suggests transience at the same scale as me is the blue wisp of steam curling out of that chimney over there. Smoke/steam. Steady. It keeps me company through the whole filming. And I’m filming cause I’m leaving. An accelerated year brought to a close. So the filmmaking is me hanging on. Trying to catch the feeling of the apartment I had, and the street, and neighbours you can’t see, but were there the whole time. You’ll see them, I caught them in other videos.

The sky glows, clouds fed by the light of the city. Light for who though? More people like me? Cause the light’s bleeding out of the city and bouncing off the clouds but there doesn’t seem to be any consciousness/thought behind those lights. The city’s asleep I mean.

Why the steam? What’s going on in that building? Is someone feeding that fire? Does it know about me too? That smoke, that steam, that’s what I can hang onto. It gives me something.” – Colin Hodson

Terminal (Andrew Chappell, 2004, 15 min)

A stranger who is diminished upon arrival at a dead end is played by free jazz saxophonist Rick Jensen with a stern, distant grace, and filmed with a rigour and patience that typifies the Aro features, combined with visual elegance and measured editing tones all its own by Andrew Chappell in this terse study of the tenuous gap between solitary self-possession and desolate loneliness. The emptiness of the city is the key motif here, in a film wholly attuned to the alienating rhythms Wellington can use to welcome visitors.

Chappell’s debut short – he works as a cinematographer both in film industry and on Aro films – famously made lousy genre filmmaker Greg Page say he felt like killing himself during it, a promise he should have been forcibly encouraged to keep. Any attuned audience will find it immediate and mesmerising.

Girl Yawning (Elric Kane, 2004, 6 mins)

Currently resident in L.A., but self identifying as an Aro filmmaker, Kane is probably best known for his feature collaborations with fellow U.S. resident/ lifelong friend Alexander Greenhough (Kissy Kissy, Murmurs, I Think I’m Going). On his own, though, he’s made a rich array of short experimental pieces, many like this one on Pixelvision.

Shot during a period of isolation in 2004, we’re again looking through the alienating effect of multiple frames, as the already garbled nature of online chat room videos is further visually degenerated and fragmented by Pixelvision… The attempted palliative of various and anonymous human contact thus becomes an even deeper, smaller isolation in between the requisite codes and gestures.

Live cinema. Soundtrack composed by Elric Kane and performed by Haulout Seal Orchestra.

Bardo Follies 2 – Burn Baby Burn (Dick Whyte, 10 mins, 2006)

Dick Whyte is definitively the most prolific of the Aro Valley digital filmmakers…

Since the late 90s he’s produced a dizzying amount of experimental film work, much of which remains unseen – although his most recent work is usually produced for and released online (see http://www.wayfarergallery.net/artdick/ ). He’s also a theorist, poet, writer, musician and painter – among other things.

This is a sequel (NOT a remake) to Owen Land/George Landow’s classic avant-garde film “Bardo Follies” using an old 16mm projector (thanks Alex) and some film originally from the New Zealand Film Unit (thanks Toby and Melissa). Although the images are projected on 16mm, the film was made digitally by filming the wall.
I was interested in the idea of making sequels to avant-garde films to question the avant-garde’s reliance on the ideology of the “new.” In a postmodern world (where “everything has been done”) how can the avant-garde operate successfully? And why is the avant-garde classically afraid of revisiting ideas?” – Dick Whyte.

Live cinema performed by Dick Whyte.

Curator’s response:

A cinema retrospective is always an interaction with ghosts. With this one, even more so: themes of isolation, disconnection abound, ghosts of relationships, memories, failures bleed through all these works… The same thing is visually expressed through the play with multiple frames and low resolution formats breaking down the image resolution, accuracy, manifestation… and the singular and personal approaches constitute a kind of “ghost genre”, made in ways that are shadows of the traditional film-making apparatus, approximated responses to cinema history well and truly separated from the main lines – left to germinate, then break down in a quiet cul de sac suburb off the side of a small, self-deceiving city of bureaucrats and middle people…

But from here I like some of my ghosts, I don’t want to exorcise them all, they keep me company in my small house. The reason for bringing all these ghosts back tonight is to come to terms with them – to claim a place for them in the world. Isn’t that what a ghost really wants? To validate the death? Otherwise they can get too close.

But any time spent in such a town of damnation – that is, any town anywhere, for an underground artist – usually involves, by necessity, avoiding a too intimate contact…of course it’s not always as simple as that. So, to keep moving, walking around the streets in solitude, listening to the music of the place, is just a normal practice… but they’ll always catch up with you again.

Being alone and intimate with a ghost can provide for an uncertain relationship to solitude. Ghosts aren’t predictable, they don’t manifest in accordance with the laws of physics… Instead they switch on and off, dart from time to time, or place to place. Their physicality is not made manifest but remains perceptible, and obviously…. haunting…

You can’t ever quite capture and contain them, but the process of trying to do so can create something else just as meaningful, impactful. Hopefully.

With this is mind, here are two very different new films that constitute a curatorial response to this programme:

Town of Damnation

AABCD (Both Campbell Walker, 2010)

Mise en Abyme is curated by Campbell Walker, who wrote the notes unless otherwise credited. He can be contacted at uncontrollabledancing@gmail.com, and these notes will be available on his film blog, http://www.sealinthesea.wordpress.com

Thanks to all the filmmakers, Daniel Beban and Sally Ann McIntyre.


There is an Aro Valley digital group on vimeo: http://www.vimeo.com/groups/arovalleydigital

Dick Whyte’s work can be found at http://www.wayfarergallery.net/artdick/

and at http://recons.tumblr.com/

Colin Hodson is at http://www.colinhodson.net


3 Responses to “Mise-en-abîme 1: Ghost Movies: Experimental shorts from the Aro Valley Digital Cinema 1997-2007”

  1. mark williams Says:

    very hard to read the gray text chum….

  2. Thanks for the great screening Campbell. Good stuff!!

  3. […] .. “Dick Whyte is definitively the most prolific of the Aro Valley digital filmmakers. Since the late 90s he’s produced a dizzying amount of experimental film work, much of which remains unseen – although his most recent work is usually produced for and released online.” (Campbell Walker, Ghost Movies programme notes) […]

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