Chelsea Bonagura as The Machine Woman in "The Beast Pageant"
Slamdance Film Festival
Dir: Albert Birney & Jon Moses
You know the one "Simpsons" episode that makes fun of black and white avant-garde cinema? The family goes to a movie called “Kosovar Autumn” where a goat on a hill says to two army men, “I am older than time itself” (in Albanian, I think). Well, if I had hated "The Beast Pageant", I think I would have used that episode to criticize it. The film is a black and white dreamscape, definitely avant-garde in a legitimate sense, and the type of project that maybe 80% of average Joes would scoff at, get bored of, throw popcorn, and leave early. In fact, it’s almost too easy to lump "The Beast Pageant" into a category of nebulous, pretentious, too-artsy-for-its-own-good type of cinema. That being said, we’re not at a Megaplex 30 queuing up for the "A-Team" remake. We’re jammed into a sweaty conference room at an artsy-fartsy film festival in the middle of the night – and damnit, we came here to see just this type of thing! The life of Abraham, our hero, is entirely managed by machines. His world is monotonous ad nauseam and he is literally (and visually) imprisoned by the consumerism and ‘convenience’ of omnipotent HAL-ish machines. Here’s where it gets weird. Abraham sprouts a tumor that happens to be a tiny naked cowboy version of himself. The tumor cowboy is free spirited and fond of folk music. Abe and his tumor take a romp through mother nature and find her to be refreshing and full of music. Now, you could spend a few days in film class dissecting this bad boy, and I think you’d come up with some pretty fruitful conclusions. The film’s themes are less inscrutable than, say, a Lynch short, and audiences can leave a first screening with enough understanding to be satisfied (although, in an ideal world, one would see "The Beast Pageant" more than twice). Thankfully you don’t need to dissect symbolism or take notes to enjoy this movie. I was right there, trying to understand, and enjoying the process, but what ended up giving me the most pleasure was the fantastic zero-budget sets, props, and costumes. Abe’s world is built from sparklers and vacuum hoses, circuit boards and heating ducts. Rather than try to hide its non-existent budget, the film seems belligerently proud of it, and this fact makes it very fun to watch. For example: on zoom-in shots, Abe’s cowboy tumor is just the actor himself poking out from a cloth made to look like Abe’s shirt; on zoom-out shots, the tumor is clearly a wooden doll, and no attempt is made to ‘fool’ the viewer into seeing it any other way. The arts-and-crafts physicality of the props sets and costumes made for a much more honest and fun approach than, say, low-budget CGI would have. It’s tactile, it’s ridiculous, it’s smart without being pretentious and it’s just exactly the kind of movie I come to Slamdance hoping to see.