Probably the best known film to come out of the I Am Eye scene opens with a view from the cameraman’s car as John Heyn and Jeff Krulik pull into a a sweaty asphalt parking lot full of Wayne’s World clones. “I’m ready to rock!” the spandex-clad kids with big hair exclaim un-ironically, throwing up devil horns and alternating between sloshing around beer bottles and back-bent air guitar. The next 15 minutes or so of Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986) is nothing short of sheer brilliance and even though the film– which has won praise as “the original viral video” and “the Citizen Kane of wasted teenage metalness”– is approaching its 30th anniversary, it feels supremely right-now. In a lot of ways, this “sleeper” bootleg hit anticipated the kind of cheeky, ironic tone that today we see everywhere in art-making.
Likewise, I Am Eye, the DC-based “independent film forum” that ran from 1982 to 1991 out of a DIY venue called dc space, was a hotbed for underground filmmakers whose influence is still felt today, even if what they screened back then is seriously hard to find now. But for the first time in 25 years, the founders are gathering up their old reels and holding a screening/reunion at Microscope Gallery in Bushwick that opens this weekend.
The two-part series, I Am Eye: a Moment From the Temporary Autonomous Zone, starts Sunday, June 26 and includes 20 films split into two separate programs. The vast majority of shorts are Super 8, save for two 16mm that organizer and founding member Pam Kray said she “snuck in.” But all were made when the forum was active and will be shown in their original format, as a nod to the original I Am Eye screenings. The lineup includes work by Kray, Paul Bishow, and Pierre DeVeaux, plus short films from three other forum regulars, Bill Jordan, Mike Horsley, and Rick Rodine.
“I picked films that were somewhere between ‘greatest hits’ and what would maybe stand the test of time,” Kray explained. The “mini-retrospective” is also being touted as one that represents the series itself, as ones that feel “particularly representative” of the filmmaking philosophical leanings and aesthetics of I Am Eye.
For nearly a decade, the forum members held Monday-night screenings at a venue called dc space. The vibe was open and fun (the place functioned as a bar and venue as well), and screening slots were open to anyone who wanted to screen their work. Kray recalls there being plenty of crossover with the visual arts community as well as the music scene that sprouted bands like Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Fugazi, and the Subhumans. That gritty, glued-together punk sensibility runs rampant in the films included in the retrospective.
“Our original intention was just to be there and show movies,” Kray said of the forum. “There were definitely people who came to it that we didn’t know and didn’t know each other, but they brought stuff and that was really great. People would come from Baltimore pretty regularly. But after a while, there got to be kind of a group that got pretty enthusiastic about making stuff and showing it. The stuff went from being these disconnected, cut-up little three-minute reels to actual narratives and lyrical kind of movies. It got to be its own scene, and of course it was in a bar, so it was just a really fun Monday night.”
After dc space closed, I Am Eye had a hard time carrying on the same momentum anywhere else, and eventually the filmmakers all went their separate ways, for the most part. Kray moved to San Francisco in the early ’90s when the forum was winding down and is now based in New York, but while she sees Rick Rodine around the city and is connected to Bishow by their son, she’s been fairly distanced from the rest of the crew. “I haven’t really met up with Mike Horsely for years and years, and Pierre DeVeaux– [until recently] we probably hadn’t seen each other since the end of I Am Eye,” she recalled. Over the years, Kray thought about putting together a reunion of sort, but it was the death of Bill Jordan, who Kray hadn’t seen in 15 years, that convinced everyone it was time.
As ahead of its time as I Am Eye was, the founders were also heavily influenced by cinema’s proto-art-house beginnings, especially the early Soviet filmmaker and OG weirdo Dziga Vertov. Influenced by the post-October-Revolution futurist artists and poets, Vertov assumed a nom de guerre that roughly translates to “spinning top”– which makes “The Rock” sound like a god-given name straight from the dang Bible. He was also an early adapter of montage techniques and one of the first filmmakers to prioritize the editing process and the physical act of shooting, which paved a road for practitioners of the medium to move far away from theater and led to a whole universe of pioneering experimentalism.
Vertov’s concept of “kino-glaz” (or “kino eye”) argued that staged cinema was outmoded and, according to revolutionary Marxist thinking, had to be thrown out and replaced by newsreel footage and “life caught unawares” (also the alternate title of Vertov’s 1924 cinema verité film, Kino Eye).
“Physical activity was really a part of it– of being out in the world and shooting, working with rhythms,” Kray explained. “Some [of our stuff] could be pretty lowbrow, but I feel like the Vertov thing was just that early film resonated with us, and people that were around at the beginning of the medium itself, because like them, we had our hands in it.”
Kray’s film “The Million Heirs” (1988)– on view at Microscope during part two of the series (July 8 and 10)– is a choppy, almost glitchy 16mm cinematic collage about “inheritance and legacy.” The scenes are spliced together from dreamy sceneries in a rainbow of filters spanning deep-sea blue to overexposed July sunshine. The footage is shaky, and maybe the most figurative shot is one of a woman seated at a vanity, combing her hair. “I had some very high-minded ideas about multiple exposures and shots of a woman in front of a mirror that reminded me of some Renoir paintings,” Kray explained of the 20-minute film she files under “The Naive Years” on her website.
“Our films, they’re all really different but I think in some ways they come from these processes that we got excited about by watching Man With a Movie Camera, just this idea of the physical movement of working with the Super 8 and then editing the footage,” Kray said, pointing to two more films in the lineup– Paul Bishow’s Coffee Interviews (1984) and Pierre DeVeaux’s Radioactive Heroin (1984).
Something of Vertov’s Marxist thinking could be seen in the original I Am Eye series too. The screenings were eclectic, and although Cinema of Transgression figures like Nick Zedd participated (Kray recalled “he would bring down a lot of New York underground movies”) and the founders certainly shared in their filmmaking vision, anyone and everyone was welcome to submit their films. The results were unexpected discoveries and films that Kray described as “completely unique.” She vividly recalls the work of an 85-year-old French guy, whose daughter reached out to Pierre and asked if her father could show his 16mm films. “We were like, ‘Yeah, great. Sure,'” Kray said. “It turned out this guy was a friend and had worked with and around Fernand Léger, they were friends and his movies, they were art movies, but he was an engineer too– so they were kind of incredible.” The filmmaker, of course, was completely unknown, and she described the experience as a “once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
But I Am Eye wasn’t just about screening high art. Heavy Metal Parking Lot was another example of cinematic insanity, albeit a totally different kind than what was seen in those Léger-influenced films, though nobody realized just how weird until years down the road. “It had a life of its own, even 30 years later,” Kray laughed. “They just brought it in and said, ‘We just finished this and we love it, can we show it?'” Heyn and Krulik screened their film at I Am Eye in 1986, but it wasn’t an underground sensation until the mid-’90s. “People heard about it not just through word of mouth, but someone had a video and they made a copy of it and people had copies of Heavy Metal Parking Lot all over the country, all over the world,” she explained. “And it’s just so funny because it’s a movie about, you know, tailgating at a Judas Priest show. It was great.”
While Heavy Metal Parking Lot won’t be screening at this particular event, we’ll get plenty of lolz from Kray’s Penis Puppets (1987). “Who doesn’t love penises with a pleasant demeanor?” she explained. As for Piss Mission (1990), Kray said simply that people “are just interested in it.” Agreed.
“I AM EYE (1982-1991): A Moment from the Temporary Autonomous Zone”: Program I, Sunday June 26 and Saturday July 9 at 7:30 pm, Program II, Friday July 8 and Sunday July 10 (7:30 pm) at Microscope Gallery, Bushwick.