Beyond the Art House: The Experimental Film Club brings daring media to the South Side

A small man–a black-and-white cutout from a Victorian-era catalog–strutted across the void with the ironic comportment of Napoleon, rearranging sarcophagi and avoiding the lurid dance of Death. He was variously chased off by horse skeletons or Goldberg apparatus or Victorian ladies, a dizzying collage. Occasionally, he opened and closed an umbrella. And in the back the black loomed: the negative space hosting the imagination onscreen, the anti-matter for Harry Smith’s “No. 12 Heaven and Earth Magic,” the most famous film of the itinerant bohemian’s esteemed career. Smith’s negotiation of space may be the most enduring aspect of his art–here a pair of ladies’ faces, there a Gestalt illusion of a chalice; the black and the white making the scene–while the staying power of his narratives is dubious. (Describing the plot of “Heaven and Earth Magic,” Smith said: “The first part depicts the heroine’s toothache consequent to the loss of a very valuable watermelon, her dentistry, and transportation to heaven. Next follows an elaborate exposition of the heavenly land, in terms of Israel and Montreal. The second part depicts the return to Earth from being eaten by Max Müller on the day Edward VII dedicated the Great Sewer of London.” Right.) His acumen is shared by the University of Chicago Experimental Film Club, which for over six years has managed to bring the most innovative–and edgy–films in recent history to the hallowed halls of academe. More important, they get an audience every time.

“We were actually surprised by how few people were in attendance. Usually we average around thirty-five people per screening,” says club president Michelle Puetz. The amount of interest reflects the need the club fills by showing rare films, which it does at least three times per academic quarter. “These sorts of experimental and avant-garde films are extremely difficult to see, and there are very few exhibition spaces in Chicago that focus exclusively on screening alternative media,” Puetz adds. The alternative filmmakers that the EFC has sponsored in recent years include Leighton Pierce and Saul Levine, craftsmen usually limited to the constrained and impermanent showcase of the art gallery or museum. Though the club’s primary focus is on the historical avant-garde, both Pierce and Levine traveled to campus to discuss their artistic processes, demonstrating the group’s dedication to advancing experimental film from across epochs on the wider city cultural scene. Puetz elaborates: “We also work closely with other campus groups and Chicago film organizations (such as Conversations at the Edge at the Siskel Film Center, Chicago Filmmakers, and Block Cinema), with the hopes of increasing the visibility of experimental cinema in the larger cultural community. Our screenings are always free and open to the public.”

The current season is about to end. The club’s last event, co-sponsored by the Film Studies Center at the University of Chicago, will feature Jonas Mekas’ monumental “Birth of a Nation.” A summer term serves as only a brief respite before the fall signals the beginning of a new season, which will feature Sarah Jacobsen’s “Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore” and Michael Snow’s “*corpus callosum.”

The most impressive aspect of the club is the passion its members bring to the material they sponsor. Speaking about Smith’s collage masterpiece, Puetz says, “I’ve seen it a few times in the past, and this experience was quite moving for me.” This kind of sentiment is meant to be shared with new converts to the club’s creed, which is difficult because of financial constraints: “We’re constantly struggling with funding through the University, and … [we] are dependent on alternative funding sources.” But the club does its best to avoid passing on that burden to show-goers: all their events are free.

“Birth of a Nation” at the Film Studies Center, Cobb Hall, 5811 S. Ellis Ave. Third Floor. May 18. Friday, 3pm. More listings are available by subscribing to efc@listhost.uchicago.edu.