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Ghost Towns and Lonely Frontiers

Experimental filmmakers take their haunting images of America on the road


Exploitation filmmakers and other film oddballs have often resorted to taking their shows on the road to get their marginal product into small-town theaters. But Lo Fi Landscapes: Films by Bill Brown and Thomas Comerford may be the first-ever avant-garde road show.Iconoclastic, experimental and defiantly uncommercial films that play with form and content, the short films in Lo Fi Landscapes are the kind of works that depend upon smaller, truly independent, risk-taking venues to exist.

This traveling anthology of short films is being toted from town-to-town by beyond-indie filmmakers Comerford and Brown, who are instructors at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Their 19-plus city tour will take them to burgs as far-flung as Minneapolis and, yep, Charlotte. The on-the-road format is an inspired circumnavigation of the usual indie venue of film festivals and clannish friends-of-filmmaker living room screenings. And with stops at venues like Squeaky Wheel in Buffalo, Collective Unconscious Theatre in NYC and Bamboo Cinema in Milwaukee, Lo Fi's exhibition strategy is as exciting as its exhibitors: offbeat cine-clubs and late-night art holes all connected like stickpins on a hipster's map.

The Light Factory plays host to Lo Fi's achy-breaky vision of America as desolation's highway on Thursday, June 27. Brown's "Buffalo Common," a wisp of a film at 23 minutes, is a veritable smorgasbord of sorrow and a chronicle of the American Midwest as a no-man's-land of dying towns and hobbling industry. Documentary rarely strives for formal beauty, but Brown's film has the luster of real art. In stunning images of spectators' backs at a Midwest car race, a neon bar framed against a turbulent nighttime sky or Main Streets as lonely as a cancer ward, Brown's hauntingly beautiful film calls to mind Robert Frank, Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders.

In "Buffalo Common," Brown trains his camera on North Dakota as a storage facility for nuclear America's warheads (nonchalantly tucked between farmers' fields) and the seeming indifference of the state's citizens to being Armageddon's welcome mat. But this isn't a snooty indictment of the small town any-business-is-good-business mentality. Brown's lazy pans and roaming camera picture these Dakota towns sympathetically, as lonely frontiers, hauntingly beautiful in their woeful emptiness. With a drifting, ethereal style as delicate as a pebble skipped on water, Brown charts North Dakota's shifting status (with changes in nuclear policy) from national self-storage unit to garbage heap as missiles are junked, citizens flee to new lives in Vegas and buildings stand empty, waiting for human company. Brown paints a lonely picture of dirt-road town squares and austere concrete buildings plunked down like monopoly houses on an economically post-apocalyptic landscape.

Brown stops in to visit an elderly Dakota resident whose hobby is tinkering with a model-railroad scale re-creation of his dying town. His grandchildren want him to put lights in his miniature buildings, he tells Brown, but you have to wonder why anyone would bother to illuminate a ghost town.

From the perspective of living in a boomtown like Charlotte, Brown's America comes as a devastating shock. There's never been a sadder film about America as a place of dashed hopes and economic obsolescence.

Brown's "Confederation Park" is an equally lovely travelogue, this time of a wintry Canada not unlike Brown's vision of the American Midwest. Brown does some of the things you'd expect anyone with a camera to do: He shoots out of the front of a train, records shifting cloud patterns and the movement of a boat on the water. But Brown's visual sensibility is unique and his films, devastatingly lovely. "Confederation Park" captures some of the ordinary glamour of the world around us when you slow down long enough to look at it.

Brown's cinematic confrere, Thomas Comerford, weighs in at Lo Fi with his own jaded romanticism in the "Cinema Obscura" series of four painterly pocket-size films whose hazy, textured surfaces suggest Gerhard Richter-on-celluloid. Comerford's soundscapes are as equally textured and moody as his images.

Shot using a pinhole camera, the films have a hazy, tunnel-vision perspective that somehow visualizes the sensation of memory. Comerford's films revisit film's novelty and the marvel of sound and image captured in a box and unspooled from another. Their resemblance to the grainy images of early cinema is therefore not an accident. Nor is the self-referential use of a train in his compilation of mini films, which recalls the original cinematic image by Lumiere of "Arrival of a Train At La Ciotat." Comerford's images have been called "post-technological" and they do feel like artifacts of some previous time, ironically nostalgic for the world still around us, and also bitterly aware of how things have changed.

Comerford and Brown are united in their visual perceptiveness regarding how melancholy, loss and nostalgia can be conveyed in shop fronts, row houses, sleek trains, cities and small towns. Both use architecture and our human inventions to articulate a retro sensibility of how much we miss when we only look forward.

The filmmakers will be attendance at Lo Fi Landscapes before packing up films and projector and gallivanting onward to the next fringe-friendly town.

Lo-Fi Landscapes will be shown at the Light Factory on Thursday, June 27 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $7. Call 333-9755.

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