A Toy Camera That Doesn't Play Around
by Ellen Barnes
Gerry Fialka isn't surprised when half the audience jumps ship during one of his PXL THIS Festivals. The festivals can be tedious to sit through, he admits, as they exclusively screen films recorded with the PXL 2000, a plastic, handheld Fisher-Price® toy camera sold briefly in the late eighties.
Not unlike an old Gothic horror film, PXL 2000 footage is grainy black and white, and difficult to make out. In order to record seven minutes of sound and picture on one side of a 45-minute audiocassette tape, the camera motor spins swiftly. As such, the whir of the motor is always audible, and picture breakup is common-both properties which some experimental filmmakers find charming.
"If you watch PXLVision on TV it looks pretty good, but on a film screen if you blow it up it looks pretty bad," Fialka says, fondly. "Sometimes the picture washes out completely, and I've just lured 100 people into a theater to stare at a blank f*$@ing screen."
His festival, in its 16th year, usually receives a small number of submissions-two to three dozen from across the world. Nevertheless Fialka screens every single film he receives, so that an eight-year-old's entry may run just before a professional filmmaker's. "There is no good or bad at my PXL fest," Fialka says. "It's all just celebrating a tool."
Why, in an age of advanced digital technology, celebrate a toy plastic camera with poor picture quality? Fialka and other PXLVision filmmakers say they're energized by the camera's limitations. "To us they're advantages," he says. "The picture is real basic, raw. We uphold so much of the experimental and avant-garde manifesto. Pixel's ideal for appreciating visual imagery because it's so sensitive to white light." And Fialka likes the fact that the camera is elementary to use. And cheap.
In the late eighties, the PXL sold for $100 and was quickly considered a commercial flop. In later years, the camera gained a cult-like popularity with low-budget filmmakers who couldn't afford the going rate of $1,000 for a camcorder. Today the PXL 2000 sells on eBay from $20 to upwards of $300. If you purchase a broken PXL2000, there's even a PXL repairman, who's linked to on Fialka's page: www.indiespace.com/pxlthis.
For nearly 20 years, Gerry Fialka has coordinated his annual PXL THIS Fest in Venice Beach, California. Wary of capitalism of any sort, he's careful to not profit from the festival. "I'm basically an antiquarian ne'er-do-well," he says. From the background, Fialka's wife shouts: "You're an art curator. You're a party putter-on-er."
"I'm a reality performance artist," Fialka adds. "A fake-fake artist. The really great thing is when you fake being fake. You can get into more breakthroughs if you fake being fake." Fialka's got a point. One might think the PXL 2000 would be used largely by smarmy elitist filmmakers looking for a hipster gimmick. Instead, they're in the hands of filmmakers who want to access filmmaking at its most basic.
Throughout our talk, Fialka quotes philosophers and artists, writers and friends, endeavoring always to put the PXL 2000 into a relevant social context. "Pixel is like a children's chalk drawing," he says. "[Andy] Warhol and [Marshall] McLuhan both said art is anything you can get away with. And [Frank] Zappa said art is anything you can make and sell."
Gerry Fialka was first introduced to the PXL 2000 camera while working as an archivist for Zappa. Soon afterwards he went to Toys 'R' Us to purchase the toy camera, but used it only once before putting it away in a closet, disappointed with the film's quality.
Several years later, he would dig the camera out again after being intrigued by a piece in Mondo 2000 magazine. The article profiled an eccentric filmmaker named tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE, who'd begun a project called "Philosopher's Union Member's Mouthpiece Mega Project." Using the Fisher-Price® camera, tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE filmed close-ups of hundreds of friends, acquaintances-and eventually strangers-confessing their life's philosophy. Even today the PXL 2000 commonly gets used in this way. With a feature called "infinity focus", extreme close-ups can be the most haunting and the most discernible footage the camera produces.
A young woman named Sadie Benning, daughter of avant-garde filmmaker James Benning, also captured some of the toy camera's first media attention. Now an accomplished director, the teenage Benning created some controversy after using a PXL 2000 to document her budding lesbianism.
Over the years, PixelVision has even elbowed its way into several major feature films. Filmmaker Michael Almereyda had Ethan Hawke carrying around a PXL 2000 in his adaptation of Hamlet (2000), while Richard Linklater used the dreamlike footage in 1991's Slacker. The camera has also found a place in the hallowed halls of major museums like the Whitney Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, and at film festivals like Sundance and the London Film Festival.
"[PixelVision] will never get big, no matter how hard anyone tries," Fialka says, without a note of disappointment. "But it's an interesting format to be around for as many years as it has been. It's this funny little fluke that just continues on."
to the tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE movie-making "Press: Criticism, Interviews, Reviews" home-page
to the "tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - Sprocket Scientist" home-page
to the "FLICKER" home-page for the alternative cinematic experience
to find out more about why the S.P.C.S.M.E.F. (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Sea Monkeys by Experimental Filmmakers) is so important
for A Mere Outline for One Aspect of a Book on Mystery Catalysts, Guerrilla Playfare, booed usic, Mad Scientist Didactions, Acts of As-Beenism, So-Called Whatevers, Psychopathfinding, Uncerts, Air Dressing, Practicing Promotextuality, Imp Activism, etc..
for info on tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE's tape/CD publishing label: WIdémoUTH
to see an underdeveloped site re the N.A.A.M.C.P. (National Association for the Advancement of Multi-Colored Peoples)