ITS NOT TOO early to celebrate the death of a crazy thing called "television" and the birth of a wonderful thing called "video" -- not if you're an optimist, that is. The American Film Institute (AFI) will be doing approximately that from June 3 through June 7 at the Kennedy Center as it stages the National Video Festival, probably the most extensive event of its kind ever held.
It's more than a festival, though; its organizers hope it will be looked back upon some days as the pivotal convocation that signaled a new era. There is heady talk of new visual frontiers, new video vocabularies, new telecommunicative languages; and if the festival can attract the lofty of Robert Redford to one of its seminars, as it has, its potentials importance certainly cannot be sneezed at.
"Video" may not be the best name for the dawn-coming-up-like-thunder in mass communications, since the word suggest pictures without sound. What we're really talking about is alternative television ("alternavision" maybe?) that is going to change what people watch on TV and the way they watch it. The AFI festival, budgeted at $400,000, is devoted to the forms programming may take as all the new delivery systems -- cable, satellites, home gear like videodiscs and cassette recorders -- take effect as the vaunted revolution occurs.
All these new systems won't count for diddly if what comes over them is the same sad pap that has dominated the past three decades of corporate-controlled television.The festival is an exhaustive and ambitious celebration of Other Possibilities, from the functional to the flamboyant, the prosaic to the glorious.
Festival director James Hindman, 38, says the point of the festival is to bring together people involved in all different kinds of video production now -- those who work on industrial applications of TV, commercial and noncommercial broadcasters, and the independent artists and journalists using video -- so that they can see and discuss what others are doing. This first annual festival also serves, says Hindman, to inaugurate "full-scale video exhibition at the Kennedy Center." The most influential medium in American culture has been pompously ignored there until now.
AFI director Jean Firstenberg is apparently making more of an effort to bring independents, mavericks and fringe-dwellers into the AFI fold. "There've been some changes at the AFI in the last year or two," Hindman says. "There's a real attempt to reach out to the independent community, to other constituences besides Hollywood."
A major part of the festival is a student video competition with $100,000 worth of donated Sony TV equipment as prizes (Sony, perhaps the sweetest four-letter word in broadcasting, also gave AFI $30,000 worth of state-of-the-art projection gear.) The winning student tapes, already chosen, will be televised by WETA-TV (channel 26) on Saturday, June 6 at 9 p.m.
Video-making is to the campus of the '80s what filmmaking was to the campus of the '60s; cheaper and more portable equipment has made television much more feasible as a means of personal expression. Although Hindman says the call for entries in the student competition didn't go out until mid-January, for an early-March deadline, 330 entries from 140 institutions, most of them colleges and universities, or from videological collectives called "media centers," were received.
Television used to be dismissed by artists and intellectuals as Madison Avenue's toy, that vulgar hulk in the living room. Now we are already in the second generation of serious and dedicated video-makers, and video is being used extensively to aid the filmmaking process as well. Eventually, it will simply overtake it.
"In the early '70s, filmmakers and journalists turned to the new portable equipment to make documentaries and informational pieces for social causes -- the Vietnam war, women's rights, minority concerns," says Hindman, who has been teaching television and theater at The American University here since 1974. "These people were free from the conventions of commercial broadcasters. Their work was in some cases weak and in some cases brilliant -- but innovative, that's what's important. Now they've been absorbed into the mainstream, and many of their innovations have been absorbed by broadcast television." Hindman says he can see the influence of yesterday's avant-garde in such mainstream TV as the CBS "Sunday Morning" program (essays from which will be screened); it can also be seen in the jazzy visual effects that brighten up commercials for everything from Visa cards by Wang computers to Channel No. 5.
Redford is to make his appearance at a seminar on the new use of video in filmmaking, scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Sunday, June 7 in the AFI Theater; Redford, with help from Sony, is expioring video applications to filmmaking at his trendy movie workshop, the Sundance Institute in Provo, Utah. On the dais with him will be broadcast historian Erik Barnouw; Tom Luddy, who supervises special projects for Francis Coppola's very video-conscious Zoetrope Studios; and David Loxton, former director of the brilliantly productive TV Lab at WNET/13 in New York.
More than 50 hours of video programming will be screened at the AFI festival. Among the equipmental world premieres is a new play for TV by Joseph Chaikin and Sam Shepard, directed by Shirley ("The Connection") Clarke -- only a third of it now complete, but ready for inspection as a work in progress.
Some of the material to be screened sounds breathlessly, or just windily, esoteric. Video pioneer Nam June Paik's "Kennedy/Olympic" is a repeating two-minute tape loop of the Lake Placid winter games fed to six monitors and projected onto a 72-inch screen through a tankful of frolicking guppies. Say, when Fred Silverman hears about that one, he may try to turn it into a series.
Video artist Richard Lowenberg describes his "Thermal Echoes" as having been "produced with a thermal imaging system, consisting of a video compatible I.R. imager (camera); digital image processor and frame buffer(computer); and a color display screen (TV) . . . Each color in the thermal image represents a discrete temperature level, with the range and base level determined and calibrated by the operator. There are 10 color levels from white to black, indicating temperatures ranging from .02 degrees to 10.1 degrees Fahrenheit per level."
Ah yes -- a warm emotional experience. It all sounds pretty whew!, but a similar technical principle shows up on televison regularly in ads for Levi's jeans.
The audiences for such screenings may be specialized and small, but Hindman says, "I think we'll be beating them away with sticks" when it comes time (Friday at 2:30 p.m.) for the world premiere of Stangelovaian rockster Brian Eno's new original videotape commissioned for the festival, even if it is described in the program as continuing Eno's "investigation of static images."
Rock video is one more offshoot of the video explosion, and in addition to Eno's opus, there will be a screening of works featuring the music and images of David Bowie, Toni Basil, Commander Cody and The Contortions -- the kind of New Rock/New Video shown monthly in Washington at the 9:30 Club, 930 F St. NW. Robert Ashley's "Perfect Lives (Private Parts)" is billed as nothing less than a video opera, one which features, says Hindman, 26 channels of information with boogie-woogie piano as the unifying motif.
There are more practical, functional tapes to be shown as well, and the range of these indicates how widely television or video, has penetrated American life. One tape, "Cindy Holden: Aftermath," was produced to encourage an out-of-court settlement in a Dallas, Tex., case involving a woman injured in an amusement park ride. Her lawyers put together the documentary to show how the woman's life had been affected by the accident; and they got their settlement after showing the tape to the defendants and their lawyers.
Hindman says he is sorry, but he was unable to include any video wills in the program. So hard to get the rights, you know.
"Worn Tongs," produced for the Southeast Drilling Company, tells oil rig operators what will happen if their tongs wear out.
Also merrily on the bill is "Dynamics on Track," which was produced by the C&O Railway to teach locomotive engineers about train-track dynamics and includes, raves Hindman, "some of the most beautiful visuals you'll ever see." In his program notes, he says business video is now a $1 billion a year industry in itself; from 13,000 such tapes produced in 1974, the field grew to an estimated 100,000 tapes in 1980.
Hindman says the festival is not intended as an opportunity to "pillory the networks" or commercial broadcasters. Few examples of broadcast television are included among the screenings. But attention will be paid to some of the true trailblazers in independent video, some of whose works did show up on commercial or public TV.
From the Downtown Community Telelvision Center in Chinatown, New York, the festival will screen such tapes as "Fidel [Castro] Comes to New York," and "Third Avenue: Only the Strong Survive," a flawed but memorable tour among representative denizens of the 16-mile East Side street. mThe show is stolen by the Pascone family, who cling to treasured traditons even as their Brooklyn neighborhood turns modern and mean.
Top Value Television, the witty and mischievous Los Angeles group that later became TVTV and is now disbanded (most of its former members are working in television or film), contributed such dazzlingly original programs as "Lord of the Universe" (about the 16-year-old Guru Maharaj Ji); "Super Bowl," an impudent but accurate history of television; and "TVTV Looks at the Oscars," with Lily Tomlin falling asleep in front of a TV set on which is appearing the Academy Awards of 1976.
Other groups represented include Chicago's Videopolis, San Frnacisco's Optic Nerve, New York's Global Village (whose prize works include "Giving Birth" and "Home" by Julie Gustafson and John Reilly) and the incorrigibly irrepressible Ant Farm in San Francisco, home of the brave souls who planted the Cadillacs in the sand near Amarillo, Tex., and thus burrowed their way into the iconography of the '70s.
Not everything sounds irresistibly zingy. One of the retrospected offerings from the University Art Museum in Berkeley, Calif., " Call It Sleep Parts 1, 3, and 4)," is described in the festival program notes as "a video essay directed toward the emergence of the post-ideological sub-class whose characteristic traits seem antithetical to their supposed radical grounding." Oh boy.
Something for everyone? Perhpas not. But as Hindman says, there is probably something in the festival for everyone who "takes television seriously." The indications are that the number of people who take television seriously -- not counting those who take it seriously for their daily bread -- is growing rapidly. It is hard to remember a time in which mass communications seemed more genuinely on a threshold -- not, perhaps, since television made its first great national impact in the late '40s. "We hope people will get from the festival a feeling for where we're at now, a sense of this enormous potential," Hindman says. "The blue skies are there, but what are we going to do about it? There are all kinds of questions and a lot of worry, not just unbounded optimism.
"We've heard people say, 'Don't worry -- there'll be satellites and videodiscs and pay cable and all these things, and everyone will be able to invent his own video experience." That was the fantasy in print three or four years ago. Today there's a sense that what people are buying over the new delivery systems is 'Jaws.' There's a lot of fear and caution. Will the new delivery systems simply go to movies and the old standbys of the mass market?"
Hindman had to turn down a request -- a pretty insistent one, as Hindman recalls it -- by Michael Fushs, and executive at Time-Life's hugely profitable Home Box Office pay cable network, to appear on one of the festival panels. In terms of the sensibility with which the AFI is approaching the medium, HBO has nothing to do with television. AFI is talking about real television, not a glorified movie projector hooked up to a satellite.
The notion of reinventing television isn't too grandiose to entertain now, nor is the pursuit of, as Hindman says, "a new language, a new vocabulary," to which this festival could point the way. Television holds out the promise of a new libreration and at the some time the threat of a new imprisionment; the AFI festival asks nothing less important than what will meet our wondering eyes in the remaining sputtering years of the 20th century and beyond and what will become of us as a result.
"As people get the ability to control the television experience more themselves," Jindman says, "I think that will change the passivity of it, because you can get involved in it. It will take a while, economically, for the mainstream to absorb all these new technologies, but already all these options are out there.
"What some people think will happen is that television will no longer be only what the networks choose to program. There's a whole range of possibilities, and that can only be good." Within the realm of possibility there still remains, despite much of what we've suffered through from television since it began, the belief that it will one day take us farther than the eye can see, farther than the ear can hear, and into some new realm not only of communication, but of understanding. If that sounds a trifle unlikely, it might be remembered that a silly hope is better than none.