An ‘Eclectic Celluloid For The Cinematic Soul’ Weekend

by | Apr 25, 2023 | COMMUNITY NEWS, FILM & TV

Begun out of two VCU departments – Art History and Photo & Film – in 1994, and later becoming a nonprofit on its own, the James River Film Society has presented “ECLECTIC CELLULOID FOR THE CINEMATIC SOUL” for 29 years. Since 1999, my personal attendance and intention have been to catch at least one screening each year for inspiration and education – always priceless. My memory bank of past screenings is added to with each year’s program. This year, I had an immersive audience experience catching a large portion of the program, though I wasn’t able to make it to all the screenings. I missed Thursday night’s movies as well as Friday and Saturday’s daytime programs. This note is about the attended events and screenings.

Rain (1929) directed by Joris Ivens
Manhatta (1921) directed by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand
Apropos de Nice (1930) directed by Jean Vigo

Friday night at the Grace Street Theater was the Silent Music Revival presentation of “City Symphonies” with live music by Hotel X. After Jameson Price’s introduction about the genre of City Symphony – a form of films popular in the 1920s as a document and commentary on city life – we were treated to a selection of three films: Joris Ivens’ Rain (1929), Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta (1921), and Jean Vigo’s Apropos de Nice (1930). Hotel X members Tim Harding, Carter Blough, and Chris Vasi each composed accompaniments for the short films. Rain was brilliantly scored and sound-designed to create patterns and audio of rainfall, waterworks, puddle splashes, car exhausts, and other industrial city noises – a beautiful soundscape accompanying the film. Manhatta featured a melodica-based soundtrack and score, with percussive industrial city-building rhythms creating a dazzling play of sight and sound of New York in the past. The final film by the radical Jean Vigo, Apropos de Nice, began with a dramatic portion of held silence as the credit titles played, followed by a sudden flurry of sound as a firework burst on screen. The film started with a very beach-infused French guitar-led score, presenting visuals that alternated between different social strata depicted and documented at the time. It contrasted the leisurely wealthy vacationers on the beachfront with the laborers and workers of Nice while also showcasing a Carnival preparation and celebration. The mix of music and film offered beautiful and wonderful harmonic synchronicities. Concluding the event, Hotel X invited Gary Lucas up for a jam session of Hotel X songs with electric guitar embellishments by the incredible Lucas, who has been a festival guest five times.

Rewind & Play (2022), directed by Alain Gomis

The second program on Friday night was a screening of Rewind & Play (2022), directed by Alain Gomis. The film was made from historic video outtakes of Thelonious Monk’s visit to Paris in 1969, where Monk sat for a television interview with Henri Renaud. In between the raw footage of different takes of questions and answers, stressful montages of Monk sweating under studio lights showcased the apparent disrespect and entitled exploitation of the genius musician. His own spoken narrative was interspersed with stunning performances by Monk at a piano playing his music. This documentary provided great insight into Parisian media and cultural translation shortcomings.

James River Film Society Festival 2023
James River Film Society Festival 2023

Saturday’s program was centered at The Byrd Theater. The third program of the day was The Album (2022), directed by Kevin Houseman, a documentary that positions the history of selling an album of recorded music itself within the art and larger business of the music industry. It shows how the images and marketing tell a visual story to the music on a record, tape, or CD. The film tells the story seen clearest after decades of sales and resales hindsight, and how the marketplace is impacted by technology advances and sales culture to internet influence. For all the classic album covers showcased, there were portfolios highlighted of the art directors, teams of artists, tradespeople, photographers, typesetters, and artist relations execs – a huge team of creatives that defined visual and music culture the world over. From the collective awake dreams of fans holding album art to the multiple digital assets that seed all music platforms of today, the film is a history lesson and master class on the music industry.

Saturday evening continued with two Music Video showcases, the first a highlight spotlight on Good Day RVA works from 2014-2018. This collection of seminal artists and musicians captured at iconic locations in the Richmond area defined online social media music video virality of the local music scene for the second decade of the 21st century in an online culture boom. I noted thoughts cascading about “how much the world and city has changed since these videos were made,” “how much the band’s landscape changed,” “how neighborhoods, landmarks, trends, technology, venues, families, collectives, companies, relationships had changed,” “what’s classic and long-standing,” “what preserves,” “what makes a good day in RVA?” These thoughts and a nostalgia for Richmond gone by fleeting daydream documents of mid-sized city culture realness renaissance now since fleeting to this new post-quarantine rebuilding moment and “content creation.”

The shoulders of the past versions of Richmond music before and what will be legacies written and ongoing generational handoffs, independent dependency, gifted and blessed to be in a city and part of a time that was special collective history blending into each other. Era to era really resonates with alchemy. What can be built together and for all suits this city and world. Stories like that cascading out from Welles and Vigo to Good Day RVA put in context traditions and coming together, as throwing a music festival or movie production can do. Industrial spaces – used, abandoned, reclaimed, destroyed, turned over, gentrified, bettered, or worsened – all unfold in the settings, a background story of the videos. Art gone, buildings gone, dirt gone, memories forgotten, some remembered prompted by this collection, only a fraction of what was produced touchstone memories of space, places, people, vapor, and auras, connected and released rhythmically lost to a river’s time, refound in a movie theater dreaming from a camera to computer export to projection screen. Lives connected and intertwined, begun, ended, carrying on online, impermanent permanence revealing the levels of dystopian late capitalism while being culturally layered and rich of the fleeting moment documented in a song’s performance.

History markers which came before a different sort of City Symphony cycle of life, school days to graveyards. Machines and music gear a time of past lives and how it was in decay and distortion all along. The collections and curation reveal larger stories, altars, collections, people and pets to keep us company, and gardens to feed the soul from. At the conclusion of the showcase, the core Good Day RVA team, with a call-up of all artists and crew who worked on the videos, Laney Sullivan remarked what we all may have been thinking: the program was like “taking a tour of Richmond.” Chris Damon did promise that the Non-Profit form of the collective would be rebooting and to expect to see many more projects and events soon. The collection of work can be found at:  https://gooddayrva.com/

RVA Music Showcase Part 2:

Following a set of music by the reformed 1990s band The Seymores, the second history trip sampler of Music Videos expanded on the collected grouping of artists and years in an expanded Richmond showcase of snapshot videos of time and trends, groups of peers making video creations. The bittersweet march of time moved through the bulb of the projector. These finite reels with a sense of “when” and what was. Once the last reel plays and time stops for a movement or era from the 1970s to today. Time is merciless, shown in the historic selection of music videos, and music history itself runs the gamut of pop, funk, jazz, reggae, rap, hip-hop, folk, metal, and all the different rock genres of pop music percolating out of Richmond, each very much of its day in history. These music video extensions of the city life operas were well-curated, covering the architecture and natural beauty of the region. Echoed in the expanding size format and tech ratio, each piece spoke on its own about film and video history as well as the personalities and people who made the city’s music scene each blip of a decade. Video making is so creative one can’t overstate how big an impact RPI and VCU arts had on the music and art scene, but certainly, the music of the city is not defined only by an educational institution; it is a large shadow. Beautiful work video stream with a spectacular meta finale shot on location inside The Byrd for Lucy Dacus, this celebration of cinema and the home (music) video was a cheer for independence in music and cinema for the soul.

Too Much Johnson (1938), directed by Orson Welles

The final program of the night, after a second The Seymores set, was Too Much Johnson, a film installation reel and an unfinished Orson Welles curiosity. Gary Lucas’ introduction contextualized how it was made in the late ’30s as part of a multimedia experience for a theater play Welles was directing. The film would’ve been shown as either an intermission or interstitial, yet the theater it was to be included in was not able to handle projection needs, and the idea was abandoned. Then, Welles took the call to Hollywood to go make Citizen Kane. These reels, thought lost to a fire in Spain, were later found in Italy. The film was shown unedited, which is its own sort of highlight reel of takes and open to repetitive interpretation.

The film pairing does pay its own complement to Rewind & Play the night before, in its outtake moments that show more angles of the truth in the individual scene capture. Gary Lucas’ accompaniment was a bluesy funk rock soundscape that was transcendent and otherworldly, with guitar licks turning into sound-affected expressions complimenting the bizarre playing of a story out of love, jealousy, and chase by two men for the affection of a woman who has many lovers. The chase around New York warehouses, city rooftops, and alleyways, Keystone Cops tropes, and Howard Lloyd inspired stunts revealed the grave dangers of the time making movies without a safety net. It takes us through an abstract story form in the repetition of film and music loops. As a Welles fan, seeing this work was amazing, and it was great to see sort of a first appearance on screen of Joseph Cotton. I would have loved to see what the intended edit would have been, but as an editor seeing rough dailies and rushes has its own sense of magic and possibility. Unresolved and unfinished visions make me think of an unfinished life differently than the pat happy endings or tragic open endings we come to expect with a movie.

The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords (1998), directed by Stanley Nelson

Sunday was a day at the Leslie Cheek Theater and VMFA, starting with a documentary from 1998, The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, directed by Stanley Nelson. As much as The Album was an essay about the music industry, this film was about the full history of truth in journalism, a tradition important to Black-owned and edited newspapers offsetting lies of the dominant press. From before the Civil War to the repercussions in mainstream News Media of the Civil Rights movement, the documentary informs and highlights major movers and figures of Black American Journalism. In this century’s crisis of corporate-owned propaganda and algorithmic AI news of tomorrow, the loss of these newspapers echoes loudly. From Frederick Douglass to Ida B. Wells and Robert S. Abbot to Charlotte Bass, the film chronicles legendary newspaper people whose legacies and inspiration are needed today to carry on the work they dedicated their lifetimes to in putting truth in print that was not limited by advertisers’ demands or biased illusions created to denigrate, as White-owned papers made a habit of to further limit progress.

On these social networks of communication today, watching influencer-infused red carpet bites of fashion-focused film festivals with gala award shows, there’s something wholesome about a film festival screening of profound documentaries about the very nature of the communication industry; it feels like a curriculum and curation rather than a commercial. The lifestyle is learning from cinema mise-en-scene, not strictly selling product placement seconds. Part of the problem with present understanding of problems is that so many of them are actually consequences of previous crises and situations in history unknown or unknowing of how we got somewhere allows for the adage of history repeating itself to actuate from a controlled ignorance. The reveal of interconnected and overlapping systems of oppression and support come from an understanding of different forms of media expression, study and informative different industries, news, journalism, entertainment, music, film and again the understanding of bias and sensitivity of reading visual metaphor and understanding or and implied author voice to context understanding the impact of apps. The more we are disconnected and unaware of these things the easier it is to be sold a bill of goods that is not accurate or intelligent. The work of these journalists is underseen and unknown to too many, myself included until seeing this screening. This is a timeless and important documentary. Thank you to Mike Jones for including this in the program.

The closing event of the festival was a Silent Music Revival matchup of Maya Deren Films with Sun V Set. The mother figure of cinema dreams and experimental films, Maya Deren was a mirror and window of mid-century filmmaking. The show began with a solo performance of Linnea Morgan to The Very Eye Of Night (1955) with dancing constellations and haunting angelic singing, a singular vibe set. Following this was the full band Sun V Set songs to Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), At Land (1944), and Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), a trilogy of sorts in black and white celluloid. With a certain portion of my cinematic DNA an outgrowth of Deren’s work, I was not expecting how emotionally pulverized I’d be by the beautiful music of Sun V Set mixed with Maya’s exquisite work.

ed. note: To purchase films by Maya Deren you can go HERE for the catalog.

The Very Eye Of Night (1955) by Maya Deren
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) by Maya Deren

Partially impacted by how much my own three mothers of movies left me to figure out now, Joan Strommer, Maya Deren, and Judy Raviotta, without them, I wouldn’t be the filmmaker I am; I would be nothing without them. I thank the World, Universe, Moon, and the Cinema Gods for giving me their cameras to carry forward, their lessons on editing and insight to share with students and artists of all types here out. This closing event of this edition of the James River Film Festival built off each screening of music and movie hybrid beautiful synchronistic qualities of the music acts and the films playback, a wonderful weekend at the cinemas in Richmond. 

Big shout outs to Mike Jones Jameson Price, Laney Sullivan, Trent Nichols, James Parish, all the volunteers, and guests of the festival, thanks to VMFA, Grace St. Theater, The Byrd Theater and other venues, I left more in tune then from which I arrived, ready and inspired to hit the cameras and editing tables again.

At Land (1944) by Maya Deren
Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) by Maya Deren

Here are a few more by Maya Deren, courtesy of Re:Voir

Find out more information at www.jamesriverfilm.org
Follow James River Film Society @jamesriverfilmsociety

Main image credit © Tavia Ito, estate of Maya Deren. Courtesy of Re:Voir

Todd Raviotta

Todd Raviotta

Artist in many forms. Sharing love for cutting things up as editor and fine art collage media mixer, love of music as a DJ, and love of light in photography and video. Educator of Film Studies and Video Production for over two decades. Long time RVAmag contributor and collaborator.




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