Charles Pinion Interview: Part Two: Madball
(In Part One of this interview, we discussed the making of Charles Pinion’s first feature film on video, the skater punk rock splatter movie Twisted Issues. In Part Two below, the Underground Film Journal attempted to discuss his second feature video, Red Spirit Lake, but get diverted into Pinion’s brief foray into film.)
Underground Film Journal: It seems like you had a really good reaction to Twisted Issues that I’m sure helped inspire you to make another video feature. How did the release of Red Spirit Lake compare to the release of your first film?
Charles Pinion: Funny, it’s only through retrospect and in reading the comments of others that I had any notion that Twisted Issues was a “seminal work of the shot-on-video movement” (a pull-quote I used for some time from Timothy Thompsen, who did a zine called Lunatic Fringe). My goals, then and now, was just to make art and get it seen, if possible. It was years later, after shooting We Await, that I came up with the Pulp Video Manifesto, which was me creating my own aesthetic sub-ghetto, because even the Cinema of Transgression folk didn’t want to mess with video, and I was getting frustrated being shunted to the side.
After making Twisted Issues, I moved to New York and made Madball, my one-and-only completed venture that was shot in film. It was actually a class film from a six-week course I took shortly after my arrival in the Big Apple. You got 500 feet of film and made a movie.
One consistent aspect of my approach to art has been that I tend to practice in public. For me it’s been less about craft than it has been about attitude. This applied to my singing, bass-playing, etc. and certainly applies to my movies. (Let me clarify: As a former painter and printmaker, wooden floor installer, housepainter, etc., I DO believe in the importance of craft. I like a nicely sanded edge. I like a well-applied brush stroke. And I like a nice-looking frame in a movie. But “energy and attitude” to use Jack White’s words describing Flat Duo Jets’ Dexter Romweber, is more interesting to me than virtuosity.)
After Madball, it just made sense to do my next movie, Killbillies, in film. Remember, this was before digital video. Hi-8 was “coming soon” and was “the next big thing” and was supposed to deliver close to what used to be the apogee of video perfection: “Broadcast quality”. It’s easy to forget what a closed club making movies was, particularly when it came to video. “But is it broadcast quality?” was the perpetual buzz-phrase when one would speak of shooting in video. Punk rock me said “Fuck that” and made Twisted Issues. But recent NY transplant me wanted to move to the next level, whatever that meant, both aesthetically and in terms of peer exposure.
(Side note: The issue of “broadcast quality” became moot after video of the Rodney King beating was released. Shot on VHS-C, it kicked a foot through the door of the notion of what is and isn’t a watchable image. It also exemplifies the truism that story trumps all.)
Journal: Well, having been only recently introduced to your work, there are clearly some gaps that I need to fill in. So, a little bit more on Madball, I have two questions that I think tie together. First, how did shooting on film compare to your video experience? Second, not to harp too much on connecting your work to the Cinema of Transgression “canon,” but it’s interesting (to me, at least) that so much of Nick Zedd’s original Transgression manifesto is a rant against “boring” film school work and Madball was made for a film class. So, how did the film go over with the class?
Pinion: Shooting the film wasn’t really all that different from shooting video, except that I wasn’t handling the camera. I did look through the viewfinder and design every frame.
It was nice to have the hustle and bustle of a crew, which I had never experienced before. Of course I had people helping me with Twisted Issues, but there is a forward motion that a “real” movie has, with clearly defined tasks for everyone, and there is an A.D. who cracks the whip and keeps things moving.
You can kind of shoot video forever, which you can’t with film. I had 500 feet of Plus-X, which is about 15 minutes, and Madball clocks in at around 3 minutes. So there was ample film to tell the story that I wanted to tell.
There is an excitement, or tension, from the sound of unexposed celluloid film clickety-clacketing through the camera. There is a romance to it, for sure. You don’t get that with video.
I completely understand Nick’s comment about “boring” film school work. When I was in art school as a figurative, “representational” artist, I felt removed from the post-modern stuff most of my classmates were doing. There is a stultifying quality to an institutional approach and institutional aesthetics.
To be institutions of learning, and not just indoctrination, art school, film school, and acting school each involve exposure to that art form’s canon of aesthetic movements, which were usually vilified in their nascence. I guarantee you that some day, an institution somewhere will be teaching about Nick Zedd and his colleagues.
I come from a family of teachers and professors, and I like learning stuff, particularly stuff I can use. I arrived in New York with not having shot any 16mm film (and no Super-8 for years), so it just made sense to me to learn from the ground up in as efficient a way as possible.
For me, film school was a six week sync-sound program. Five students, each handling one task, helping each other out with 5 projects. (On the We Await disc, one of the extras is a behind-the-scenes short shot on super-8 by Kevin Skvorak, the star of Madball, where you can see the process.) By course’s end, I had run the Nagra on one classmate’s piece, boom mike on another, was cinematographer on another’s (Lorna Johnson, who later went on to make the feature Just Another Girl on the IRT.), lighting on another, and of course I was the director on my project, Madball. (Side note: Madball features Mechanical Sterility’s Mike Schafer as the witch-doctor character on the roof.) The teacher, filmmaker Richard Cox acted as Assistant Director (AD). Later, we edited our films on a flatbed Steenbeck, did our sound mixes, etc.
It was a great overall immersion in the filmmaking process. It was based out of Film/Video Arts (formerly Young Filmmakers), an equipment access center and post-house for independent filmmakers. After the class, I got myself an internship there, which was a great way to get access to editing bays and equipment. Everyone at F/VA was doing their own projects and had widely varying approaches and aesthetics, and it was fun.
Madball wasn’t a “student piece”, and because the editing was done outside of class, I never saw the other students’ work, or they mine. The teacher did see it and asked me what it meant, laughing, “Was it a wet dream?” (The answer: no. A vivid, visionary dream, yes.)
To address Nick’s comment in another way: I had long stopped listening to institutional perspectives on art, and I was way past “film school.”