On Tuesday night, in front of a nearly packed house of moviegoers at the Music Box Theater in Lakeview, a deeply troubling incident occurred: Local filmmakers, Chicago directors, discussing their newly completed films, one after the other. They destroyed one by one. First they showed the works. They’re not crazy. But unless you’re in that audience to see those works on Tuesday night, unless someone is filming the big screen with a phone — which is a plausible possibility — you’re just out of luck.
Rather, buzz, sizzle, crackle, puff. It’s gone forever. The method of destruction was a blowtorch. The title given to this extraordinary annual celebration of the transience of art and the fickleness of viewer memory, “Destroy Your Art,” was created in 2017 by . Rebecca FonsShe is the director of programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center and her husband, Jack Newell, also a filmmaker. In the first year, films shot on SD memory cards and not on more expensive, flammable celluloid were ground in a grinder, but for the audience this turned out to be unexpected. They moved on to films that were crushing in the vice, except that not every director was strong enough for that. They considered acid and liquid nitrogen. But they wanted to make sure a movie was destroyed. gone.
I mean, welding torches.
As the audience entered, Chicago artist and filmmaker Blair St. George Wright, wearing a pink hat, sat in his chairs and looked at peace with what was about to happen. A friend touched his left shoulder: “How are you feeling?” Wright nodded. A few women took their seats a few seats back and noticed several welding machines and a black welding helmet waiting on the table in front of the stage. One of the women said she was surprised and somewhat relieved when she saw this: “I was wondering, what will they do? View the movie, then drag and drop a file, to delete – this much?”
Oh, no, no.
Fons walked onto the stage and noticed that the first few rows of seats were strangely empty: “If anyone wants to come to the front… It’s better to witness the burning…” He addressed the first director, Ariella Khan: a recent graduate of Northwestern University and her work often relates to her Pakistani-American roots. She explained that she was a “grown-up, dramatic kind of person” and that this was a transition, horror short. “I’m excited to see it and I’m excited to light it,” she said. Engaging, patient, controlled, vaguely John Carpenter-like, it was more mood than narrative, shot late at night at a Libertyville gas station with actors, a half-dozen crew, and even a few special effects.
It was a slow burn – then someone shouted “Don’t destroy it” – then a real burn.
Khan ran the blowtorch around the memory card like it was a candy bar. And the card, hanging from a long metal arm, turned into bright orange stripes and the audience screamed. “Okay, whenever you want to stop…” Newell said jokingly from the wings.
Khan extinguished the torch.
“I didn’t know I’d be upset,” she said, looking down at two weeks of smoldering work. (After the screening, Khan said he spent about $500 on his film: “I don’t want to add that.”)
Fons said earlier in the day that the goal of “Destroy Your Art” is not to make anyone question the quality of his films or feel nihilistic about the vulnerable state of the film itself, but to get them to think about the perishable nature of art. How do people consume it?
In other words, as the great wise Barbie said last summer, can anyone ever think about death? Moreover, apart from Shakespeare and Barbie, has anyone considered what endures and how little actually endures? “I’m a film exhibitor and my husband is a film producer,” Fons said. “I talk a lot about film in terms of film bookings, how much money a film will make, and for Jack it’s, ‘When are you shooting?’ or ‘What are you working on?’ It’s not so much art, it’s too much work. So we wanted an antidote to encourage people on both sides (artists and audiences) to see something singular. We constantly discuss the longevity of films, but maybe knowing that a film will end is a freeing force for the filmmaker’s brain. Can you unlock the part? Doesn’t that need to be valuable in every respect? And if a movie doesn’t last, does that change how the audience sees it? Do you know people who pull out their phones as soon as a movie starts? What are they doing? What if they need to pay attention? What if a Once the movie is released, this much?”
If the movies on your Netflix watch list disappeared forever, your list would be shorter.
Similarly, filmmakers might have stood a better chance if they had known that their work disappeared after a screening, if there was no return to tweaking or re-editing. Fons said that’s at least what he and Newell saw from the filmmakers involved in “Destroy Your Art.” He said quality is rarely rushed and new muscles are flexed. A drama director might try comedy. Once, a local director in attendance asked a few friends to tell him the secrets of a movie, only to realize that the secrets would be erased along with the movie.
Fons and Newell have had four filmmakers blow it this year. Local filmmaker Michael Glover Smith, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, set aside his thoughtful style for a moment of lively laughter. Ines Sommer, who teaches film at Northwestern, eschewed the usual social issues for a beautiful documentary she shot over the summer.
Anyway, all this is over now.
When Fons and Newell ask filmmakers to shoot something that will be destroyed, they give one instruction: Make it five minutes or less. They give memory cards. But nothing else. They get a variety of responses: “Some say, ‘No, you have to pay me,’ and ‘I’m not going to destroy my business,’ but some say, ‘(expletive-filled) yes!’ taking. “They want experience.”
Smith introduced his film with a beer in hand and a smile, saying he approached the work “as a kind of Buddhist exercise in renouncing material things.” He teaches cinema history and says, “In the back of my mind, I hope my work will continue, but realistically it probably won’t.” BlairSt. George Wright made a visual poem about nature and spirit using an anecdote from their own life that was repeated by his friends in various languages; because they sent certain parts of the anecdote to certain friends, and because each narrator spoke a different language, only the filmmaker knew the full story.
The film burned in long flame pedals. Newell asked how they felt destroying it.
“It’s pretty good,” the filmmaker said.
Of course, no one broke new ground here. Cultural history is full of self-inflicted destruction. Radical regulations, so to speak. Franz Kafka burned manuscripts deemed insufficiently Kafkaesque. At the age of 24, Jasper Johns destroyed almost everything he had ever done. Claude Monet cut 15 water lily paintings just before an exhibition. Nikolai Gogol burned years of writings, convinced that God did not approve of sequels to “Dead Souls.” Minneapolis band The Replacements threw their master recordings into the Mississippi River, angry at their record company. A painting by Banksy sold for $1 million was smashed in front of a stunned auction house after it was revealed to have a shredder hidden in its frame. Even Hollywood directors unhappy with their films have a formal way of distancing themselves from their work: “Directed by Alan Smithee,” an agreed-upon tribute to a rejected film.
Somer wasn’t denying his film was shot on Lake Michigan and at an Italian festival in Niles. He stood in front of a wall and watched the game being played just once. He said he felt “bittersweet” burning it.
Then he lit it, really nice – “like I’ve been burning movies all my life.”
If you’re wondering how Fons and Newell ensure that a film is destroyed after burning, they just can’t do it. They require each filmmaker to sign a contract drawn up by a lawyer. “But it’s also possible that some of these filmmakers kept a copy,” Fons said. “I doubt it, though, and if they do, they’re missing an experiment.” Before home video, it wasn’t uncommon to catch a movie once and then be unable to access it again. The film may not have been destroyed, but it certainly may have seemed that way to some in the audience.
That world is gone; Most of cinema history is just a click away.
“But these movies are really like that gone,” Fons said, “and you know what? “I remember every one of them.”