Everything Is Illuminated

Nick Pinkerton at the 4th Everything Is Festival

Neil Breen, Fateful Findings, 2012, digital presentation, color, sound, 90 minutes.

IN THE BEGINNING there were movies, and for a moment, we’re told, they were enormous, consuming, everything. Throughout the twentieth century, though, those towering movies and the great, unified masscult audience that they served were brought down to size by a thousand little cuts, by television and cable and video games and home theaters. Then finally, mercifully, the digital revolution and the Internet, Netflix and VOD and illegal downloads, killed the movies stone dead, as they would everything.

The Everything Is Festival completes the cycle: Having defeated the cinema, the Internet has become the cinema. For the fourth year, EI’s found-footage and comedy bacchanalia—this edition subtitled “The Dreamquest”—was held in Cinefamily, on Fairfax Avenue in West Hollywood. Before 2006 this same theater space, as the Silent Movie Theater, ran a program of strictly pre-1929 fare. Today the marquee still reads Silent Movie Theater, but the framed silver screen icons hung on the walls inside had been playfully defaced as part of a carnivalesque festival makeover—part loft rave, part haunted house.

Is Everything Is a “film festival”? Its program is loaded with figures and formats (Vine Film Festival, Cute Animal Film Festival) associated with Web culture. I saw exactly one 35-mm print projected there—more than you’ll see at many perfectly respectable film festivals these days. The print was The Dragon Lives Again (1977), starring Bruce Leung, one of the numerous “Lee-alike” imitators who popped up in the wake of Bruce Lee’s death. The film concerns Bruce’s adventures in the afterlife; between boner jokes and specious moralizing, Lee/Leung fights his way past knockoff versions of James Bond, Zatoichi, the Man with No Name, and soft-core queen Emmanuelle. With its junky, pastiched unseriousness, The Dragon Lives Again exemplifies the qualities valued by the EI programmers, for whom the ridiculous is sublime.

Everything Is is short for Everything Is Terrible!, the name of a Chicago-based collective of VHS crate diggers formed in 2007 by Dimitri Simakis and Nic Maeir, who began dicing up their finds into found-footage mixtapes. While programmers across the country struggle to bring in young audiences, EIT has successfully managed to “eventize” its one-night-only appearances and high-energy traveling live show—nearly all of the programs that I attended during the nine days of EI were sold out. This year’s EIT showcase, Everything is Terrible! Does the Hip Hop, was themed around the clueless co-option of urban culture by commercials, workout tapes, educational films, and, generally, honkies. The screening was preceded by Simakis and cohorts charging out in laser tag–futuristic get-ups to chuck glow sticks into the fired-up crowd, then followed by a lanky kid called “Trash Humperdink” rapping onstage.

Derrick Beckles’s TV Carnage, EIT’s most noteworthy precedent in the found-footage mixtape game, has employed increasingly complex associative-leap edits and callback loops. EIT, by contrast, tends to collate its material in straightforward chapter sections, often relying on the simple shock of recognition for a punch line, à la Girl Talk. (Does the Hip Hop, however, does do an inventive job of using interstitial songs and matching beats to segue between segments.)

It was far from the only piece of cultural dumpster-diving going on. As much lecture as screening, Cinefamily’s Most Outrageous Video Games used slide shows and custom-made montages to illustrate a discourse on various phases in the history of the medium, including the pornographic gaming boom most infamously represented by interactive rape-fantasy Custer’s Revenge, the clunky experiment of the faux-cinematic CD-ROM, and a montage of post–Mortal Kombat carnage called “Pixelized Blood.” (For those wanting more, an upstairs room at Cinefamily had been designated “The Island of Misfit Video Games” and made into a cluttered, makeshift arcade, replete with Custer’s Revenge on Atari 2600.)

Trailer for Mondo Public Access.

Every screening came with that extra something, a Cracker Jack prize. Mondo Public Access, a program ripped from the airwaves across the contiguous forty-eight states, was followed by a live musical performance from David Liebe Hart, auteur of LA public access’s simply unbelievable The Junior Christian Science Bible Lesson Program, who attained a measure of cult fame on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Bellowing a song about a visiting alien curing his porn addiction, fanny pack-wearing Liebe Hart was accompanied on-stage by grandmotherly Francine Dancer, another local public access mainstay, doing a rheumatic hoochie-coochie striptease.

It’s one thing to laugh or cringe at Dancer’s inelegant Little Egypt show, the incompetent stagecraft of Liebe Hart’s program—or the messianic, narcissistic sci-fi fantasies of Las Vegas real estate broker–cum–actor/writer/director Neil Breen, who was here with his latest, Fateful Findings—before the privacy of one’s own laptop. It is quite another to do so right in front of them, to their faces. This element of uncomfortable confrontation raises the EI experience above the level of collective YouTube jamboree, forces the spectator to ask the hard question: “How do I feel about this?” The answer to that is too complicated to go into at length here, but what’s sure is that, in arbitrarily assigning self-awareness or lack thereof to a performer—or judging their very competence to put themselves forth as a performer—you reveal little but your own prejudices. And intentionally or not, beneath the surface of the clumsy entertainments produced by outsiders like Liebe Hart, Dancer, and Breen—beneath much unearthed in the excavations of EIT/ Cinefamily—are jarring truths, the distorted mirror image of a corporatized popular culture that has immured itself from American reality.

Over the last two decades, no native humorist has chronicled that reality and its myriad absurdities better than Idiocracy writer-director and Beavis & Butthead creator Mike Judge, on-hand at Cinefamily to present and live-narrate his own found-footage mixtape. Composed of oddities which Judge taped from TV and re-edited in the 1990s, the “Judgemental Sampler” offered a valuable vantage on Judge’s obsessive connoisseurship of everyday insanity. The showcase for Maria Bamford, whose confessional comedy relies heavily on mining her OCD and suicidal episodes, was somewhat less prepped, though Bamford is a wonderful ad-libber, and it was nice at least to see someone drawing out women in numbers—throughout the fest the lines to the men’s bathroom were epic. Traditions like the potpourri Talent Show and the Found Footage Battle Royale continued unabated. A quiet, deferential young man humorously called “The Sadist” won the latter, in which the can’t-be-unseen takeaway was an instructional video illustrating homespun Chinese remedies for impotence.

After each screening, the crowd was invited to take a break on the theater’s back patio, where VHS tapes of the kind you usually find set out on the curb were up for grabs, and pop-up restaurant JUNK was serving watermelon Oreos and burgers on halved glazed donuts. And there on the patio, before a midnight screening of Dan Kapelovitz’s Triple Fisher, a shuffling of the three major network’s separate made-for-TV movies about the “Long Island Lolita,” you might see vocational scumbag Joey Buttafuoco posing for Instagram snaps with what I suppose were fans and well-wishers. (I didn’t see Francine Dancer getting the same reception.)

Still from the trailer for Cinefamily's Most Outrageous Video Games, 2013.

Here the joke isn’t so funny anymore—burgers on donuts is a gross fourth grade double-dare and, even assuming he isn’t getting paid to show up, what’s the good in further congratulating Joey Buttafuoco for his dingy, two decade-old notoriety? “If everything is terrible, then nothing is” goes the EIT motto, but a few of us fuddy-duddies must persist in thinking that some things are more terrible than others. The most truly terrible work that I saw at EI, however, was the film most likely to receive play on the traditional festival circuit, György Pálfi’s Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen—which, sure enough, had a sidebar appearance at Cannes. Collaging clips from 450 different films, ubiquitous blockbusters and Hungarian classics and hard-art fare, Pálfi creates a fluid, linear narrative. The narrative, however, is “Boy Meets Girl,” and in hitching together fragments of these disparate, complex movies to tell this rudimentary ur-story, Final Cut effectively reduces the entirety of film history to the lowest, most insipid and sentimental level, as if the medium’s last century has been spent reiterating one epic weepie.

Having built an audience, one hopes that Everything Is will begin to challenge it—to violate the sugar-high, all-thriller no-filler ethos with some work requiring a bit more patience. On the whole, though, the lively EI gave the impression of vitality for the next century of moviegoing. This was not a cut-and-dry matter of desanctifying the holy cinema into a great big secular living room. Adding a performative, eventizing element to screenings is, after all, as old as the flickers, as old as “Roxy” Rothafel or Sid Grauman. At the Silent Movie Theater, it didn’t feel that the Internet had invaded the traditional domain of the movies—but that the cinema, that great, tenacious synthesizer, has slyly begun to annex the Internet into itself.

The fourth Everything Is Festival ran August 12–21 in Los Angeles.