This is a testimonial for a technically defunct medium, an endorsement for a product you can't buy, and incidental proof that sometimes you can only be taken seriously when you choose to act like a child.
I'm talking about the Fisher-Price PXL 2000, a plastic video camera manufactured in 1987, marketed as a kid's toy, and discontinued three years later. Folklore has it that images produced by this camera - black-and-white, frayed by a boxy internal border - are composed of a grid of two thousand square 'pixels'. This accounts for the camera's tacky, sci-fi name. The pixels shift and shimmer and seem to shed light as you watch, endowing everything the camera records with a distinct physicality, a lush trembling texture, a feel of floating weight and depth. In other words, the pixel image is alive - completely unlike the flat, cold quality of ordinary video.
In its customary use, the pixel camera records picture and sound on a standard audio cassette. You get about five minutes of imagery on one ninety-minute tape. Flip the cassette and you can record on the other side. This is swell, but the tape is crude and unstable and you have to contend with the cassette's considerable whirring noise which, intercepted by the camera's built-in mike, can resemble one of those machines used for polishing rocks.
Side-stepping the camera's clumsier habits, I made an hour-long pixelvision film. This involved a series of simple but apparently unprecedented technical adjustments, but it hardly qualifies me as an expert. My introduction to the medium came through Sadie Benning, the one accredited pixelvision whiz-kid, fifteen when her father Games Benning, a terrific, under-rated film maker) gave her the camera for Christmas. Late in 1991 (three Christmases later) a friend showed me about forty minutes' worth of Sadie's work up to that time.
These justly famous tapes are basically video diaries, raw, urgent and funny. The camera (occasionally whirring demoniacally) crawls over tabloid headlines or a TV screen, or ribbons of Sadie's sharp, block-lettered writing accompanied by bursts of deftly chosen music. The main spectacle is Sadie's tow-headed face, intently outstaring the camera while her dry, low voice says stuff like: 'My arm is made of ham.'
She also says: 'I've been waiting for the day to come when I could walk down the streets and people would look at me and say, "That's a dyke!" And if they didn't like it, they would fall into the center of the earth and deal with themselves.'
I remember thinking of Linda Manz, wistful and tough in Days of Heaven. And of the megawatt space embryo in 2001. Sadie Benning seemed as vulnerable and all-knowing and, under the scrutiny of this particular camera, she seemed to radiate light. But mainly I didn't think of other movies because Sadie Benning was addressing the world on her own terms, and those terms - the honesty and grit and intimacy of her voice - seemed inseparable from the effects achieved through this strange cheap camera.
I mean, there's no mistaking Sadie's out-of-the-gate brilliance, but I also got the impression that anything shot in pixelvision might be riveting, even though (or because) the image appears in danger of disintegrating as you watch. Or rather, it is disintegrating, and continuously reconstituting itself, each picture sifted through a fine but distinctly perceptible sieve of white/ gray/black pixels. It's as if the camera is prospecting for light. You have the sense that you're watching something intensely fragile and secret, on the threshold of visibility. You think of all sorts of images from lost or low-grade mediums: black-and-white polaroids, third-generation photocopies, pulpy newspaper photos. Given a dose of art history, you might also think of Degas monotypes and Seurat drawings and coarsely beautiful photographs made by Bill Brandt and Robert Frank. If you happen to love movies, you can't help thinking of silent films, the Lumiere brothers, incunabular nitrate. For that matter, you think of dreams, cave paintings in candle light, the Shroud of Turin, breath on glass.
I was smitten, raving like this to a friend on the street, when a young woman, hovering near, pulled a pixel camera out of her purse. She said Fisher-Price was selling them, used and repaired, for $45 apiece, and she provided an 800 number linked to operators in Ohio.
'Fisher-Price is a division of the Quaker-Oats Company.' This information is embossed on the flank of the camera, which is made of dull, dark gray plastic, lightweight, not much bigger than a book or a video cassette. On the door to the tape compartment a white tab reads: 'Press firmly here to close door.' There are four easy-to-figure buttons: record, play, rewind, and stop/ eject. You plug the camera into a wall outlet or power it through six double-A batteries stashed in the clunky wrap-around handle. A separate, spaghetti-thin cord links it your TV or VCR, allowing you to see exact frames as you shoot
My pixel cameras - I ordered four; three actually worked - arrived in a single box, nested among styrofoam peanuts, coiled power cords, Xeroxed instruction booklets. Director of photography Jim Denault, dissecting one camera to see how it worked, discovered that there's no lens to speak of, just a plastic disk shielding a 'photo receptor' attached to a small circuit board. 'The business end of the camera,' Jim explained, 'is no bigger than the button on your shirt.'
I shot whatever was at hand, every day for the next few weeks. Clouds out the window, pictures in books, anyone who strayed into my apartment. You can kill a lot of time in this way.
I should give this some context by confessing that in the spring of 1988 I had directed a feature film called Twister. It was my first feature, brought in on budget ($3 million) and on time, but it was hardly a happy experience. Arguments between me and the producer, a former friend, escalated throughout post-production. By the time editing was completed, the film seemed tainted; I was furious and heartsick and couldn't bear to look at it. But the film, of course, had a life of its own - a decidedly peculiar life, as time rolled on. Vestron, the company that financed the picture, declared bankruptcy before releasing it, and all prints (only three were struck, I later learned) were pre-emptively withdrawn from circulation. But there had been two press screenings, and Rolling Stone magazine printed a premature review in which Peter Travers, the appointed critic, breezily summarized the film's plot before concluding on a feverish, upbeat note: 'Almereyda's debut augurs a stunning future. . . Twister emerges as outrageous, original entertainment.'
On a good day I might read such stuff with perfect scorn, but the whole year had been bleak and I found myself clinging to each word like wreckage in a storm. Other approving reviews trickled in - notably from the New York Times, Village Voice, LA Times - but these arrived about nine months later, because Vestron sold Twister to video before allowing an intrepid independent distributor to book the film in art houses, where it reliably generated business as an off-beat oddity, a cursed cult film.
Needless to say, such a film and such a history did not impress anyone in Hollywood. My stunning future! While awaiting its arrival I proceeded to write one or two new scripts per year, attaching actors, drawing up budgets - and getting routinely dangled, rejected and refused by every imaginable source of film financing.
So by Christmas of 1991, watching Sadie's vividly brave and simple tapes, I was primed for a change. By mid-January I had written a script, about forty pages, specifically for the pixel camera. The story of two messed-up young men and their involvement with perhaps too many young women. The action was confined to two apartments, a stairwell, a roof. You wouldn't be overly literal-minded to call it a home movie. It's possible that an element of giddy desperation, specific to downtown New York and to my life at the time, found its way into the story. My downstairs neighbor Nic Ratner consented to play a version of himself, heroically supplying his apartment, his music collection and the better part of his own dialogue ('Michael,' he will tell you, 'has the humanity of a tape recorder'). Otherwise, professional actors were recruited. (In this I was aided by the unerring eye of Billy Hopkins, who took time out from casting the latest Oliver Stone movie.) I also enlisted a few obliging friends and a fourteen-year-old Indian elephant named Daisy. Everyone (except the elephant) worked without pay.
The actors, confronted with what one of them called a 'pixie camera', were all exceptional and selfless and the merest thanks I can offer is to name and commend them here in one quick gush: Isabel Gillies, Bob Gosse, Elina Lowensohn, Paula Malcomson, Liza Pariseau, Tom Roma, Maggie Rush, Barry Sherman, Mary Ward.
Tom Roma (a great photographer) also crafted aluminum brackets that allowed us to mount the camera on a tripod and dolly. There was a minimal lighting package (the guy at the rental house actually laughed when he took the order) and a crew of five. Everything was storyboarded and scripted, but I like to think we went at it with a kind of inspired amateurism, the same spirit you'd apply to something made with poster paint, pipe cleaners, glitter and glue.
The pixel camera practically forces you to be reckless and original. If you're shooting something at a distance, with a crowded background, detail goes out of the window; you might as well be using a bank camera. So it's necessary to compose shots with an eye towards compressed space, to stage action with an awareness of how silhouettes register and relate to one another, and to favor close-ups, which the camera delivers with startling detail. (The crude little photo receptor homes in on the exact grain of any surface, a face, an eye down to individual lashes, reflected glints in the pupil.)
Correspondingly, since everything the camera takes in is slightly, shimmeringly out of focus, near and far objects seem to share the same focal plane; you have an illusion of infinite focus and you can stage moving shots that'd give a camera assistant (focus puller) a nervous breakdown. Add to this the fact that the camera records with a slight delay, an internalized step-printing effect, which heightens even the most casual movement or look
All of which makes pixelvision inherently ghostly and graphic and fun to watch, but also qualifies it as a medium particularly sensitive to actors and to their essential business: the transmission of moments of true feeling.
We shot for one week. Two newly written bar scenes, inserts and roof-top scenes were picked up over another weekend. There was an effort to create the moment-to-moment impression that the story was being cooked up from scratch, life caught with a hidden camera, a notebook in which things are pasted in, scribbled over, ripped out. But nearly all the jump cuts and discontinuous sound cues were specified in the script, and editor David Leonard and I, holed up at Gloria's Place in a back room full of video monitors, worked hard to keep the rhythm rough, open and alive. (As a stranger to video editing, I took a while to get used to the Mission Control aspect of monitors and buttons and unaccountable electronic mayhem. Occasionally David would make an edit, hit playback and be rewarded with a blizzard of red, gray and green squiggles streaking through the image like a new kind of language. We are routinely thrilled, however, when we moved to the Calaway room to conjure up slow-motion shots, reversals, dissolves.)
The resulting film, Another Girl Another Planet, with its conspicuously odd look and sub-feature length, has found a life at festivals, where I'm always asked how we fit an elephant into the apartment. It's the first thing that comes up. Over time, the answers vary. I once insisted, 'That wasn't an elephant. That was a guy in an elephant suit.' Jim Denault, eschewing difficult technical talk, provided the best explication to a woman writing an article for American Cinematographer. 'It was challenging to shoot the elephant,' Jim said, 'because the elephant was very big, and the camera is very small.' This article, for some reason, has yet to appear.
But reviewers have been more than generous, their enthusiasm matched, it seems, by an underlying amazement that anyone would be foolhardy enough to make a movie with a $45 toy. All the same, the most flattering adjectives thrown at the film - 'haunting', 'romantic', 'dreamlike', 'hypnotic' - are simply direct descriptions of the innate properties of the pixel image. I have two new pixel shorts in the works, and a script for a future feature-length project, part 35mm, part pixel: a contemporary version of stories by Edgar Allan Poe, set in Poe's native Richmond, Virginia. Pixelvision, after all, seems to me the perfect medium for a world in which deep and twitchy emotions infect the surfaces of daily life, characters obsess about eyes and teeth, the walls are forever closing in, and there's no escaping the shadow of doomed lost love. Image a contemporary Poe character, looking something like Merle Haggard, at large in a Goya etching. Imagine an ethereal, raven-haired woman discoursing in a bar-b-que joint about Poe's theory of unparticled matter. Neurosis! Pathology! Fear and love! I dream of a descent into a maelstrom of pixelated images: Richmond's haunted skies, Civil War statues, candlepin bowling, a juke box glowing like an enchanted palace and, behind the basement wall, a corpse with a black cat on its head-
But I seem to be getting over-excited. Allow me to locate a glass of water, and to conclude, regretfully, with the dim news that Fisher-Price discontinued their used camera service shortly after I got wind of it. Pixel cameras are floating around but remain scarce. A hopeful rumor: the camera's inventor, James Wickstead, is alive and well in New Jersey. I hear the camera's patent has reverted to him, and he intends to retool and market the device ... as a toy for teenagers! He's also working on a color version.
A final confession. I still harbor vast hopes to direct big-budget films. Films with lavish sets, spectacular action sequences, actors everybody knows. Films that feed and reflect the immensity of pop culture. Basically, I want Tim Burton's job. But what is cinema, anyway? 'Love. Hate. Action. Death. In one word: emotion.' Sam Fuller's blunt inventory makes sense to me, and pixel- vision can cover those bases as well as the usual high-priced machinery. So there are days when I'm content. Days when I can pick up a pixel camera and leave my stunning future behind. Film makers, after all, are born free, but are everywhere in chains. The PXL 2000, if you can get your hands on one, remains liberating, spell-binding and inexhaustible.