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David Phelps' "On Spec" Premieres Online

Longtime Notebook contributor David Phelps premieres a new short film online.


Now see (and hear) this: our long-time contributor and all around Notebook ally David Phelps has made a movie. Well, he’s been making movies for some time now, often for this very publication, sometimes for elsewhere, and always for the Internet Ether that is the online movie audience; but this goes beyond the critical video essays of his recent work. Gina Telaroli has interrogated the film and discussed its evolution with Phelps in images, text and audio here.


On Spec, his latest, longest, most ambitious, is a great Whatsit, and as much tapped into the pulp absurdity of its time as that Aldrich whose object of desire is a calamitous mystery. On Spec may be one, too—not containing the Box but is indeed what's in the Box itself. I’m not sure I understand, but I like what I see: a neo-bedroom cinema, no more filmmakers snipping reels frame-by-frame in bathroom dark rooms (which is my fanciful understanding, no doubt entirely accurate, of solo produced underground film-based cinema), but rather the “non-linear” effect of digital editing exploded out to the supposed amateur with limitless consumer video camera harddrive space (plus some 16mm stock for good measure) and free time, spawning endless possible timelines, revisions, and permutations.

Not just permutations but permeations—Phelps has created a videotrack that seems able to absorb just about anything in its proximity, from mussed Brooklyn bedrooms to flavor-text intertitles of of-the-moment headlines, questions, quotes and bad jokes, Skype, Spotify, Photobooth, and econo-politico crises piped through various laptop terminals. I’m not sure of the story—I believe it begins within a kind of ambiguous, polysexual roommate situation very precisely located at a Dead End Brooklyn apartment, wherein Phelps, who acts in the movie, stumbles Actaeon-style onto a female roomie in the shower and thereby accidentally defines some kind of new sexual dynamic and spawns metacinematic jealousy—but while its setting subtly purports to be capturing an afternoon and an evening in a single place, the location itself is clearly the inside guts of director Phelps’ computer editing suite. This suite has produced one of the richest and most elaborate sound mixes I’ve heard in some time, sound that splinters off, repeats, streams, re-tunes, pins down and flies away much as the visualtrack does. That track is restlessly trapped in an apartment full of vague youthful bohemian connotations of inactivity and Internet activity, echo chambers of e-romance and spatial-temporal fractures—and thus the suite must deploy filters and misty fog, activate canted angles, and otherwise must alter the visualtrack so that it can try to variably seek relief through opposing forked paths of collapsing into faux-docu-atmosphere or of fighting its way out.

I think—again, I could be wrong, because I feel very unstable inside this video's mise en scène—that upon Phelps’ revelation in the video’s first part he is basically absorbed by the narrative, essentially disappearing as a figure and re-appearing as a point of view operating a computer, experiencing (remembering, enunciating) a glorious rooftop layabout party reverie. The final act is where the film stretches like a Doppler effect away from me; it features a discussion with a Consolidated Edison advertiser or bill collector appearing as perhaps—who knows?—a threat to this consortium’s addiction to all things Laptop and Internet. (Without power how will we get our tunes? How will we know who’s suffering and where? Flirt with girls, see the world? Pretend to escape Brooklyn?) It ends, after a detour through the opening horror of Lost Highway, to the real horror of cinema (and surveillance, an interior motif ricocheting within the film’s frames and between its edits), footage of a woman unknowingly watched by the camera while intertitles reference a man who was recently murdered on the very block On Spec lives on and was constructed from. Surely a shrill, oblique arrow piercing the chummy improvisatory fictions of the film’s tight, diaphanous strands. The revelation throws into relief the seeming-distance, seeming-distraction of these people’s micro-quests for beauty, jokes and info.


That’s what I saw, at any rate, briefly, strangely. You can see for yourself because one of the great contemporary film journals, Spain’s Lumière, is giving On Spec a two week online run, accompanied by notes from the director in English and Spanish.

Thus the work bypasses festivals and other such localized brick and mortar premiere spaces for the global access to a moving image work enabled by the Internet (provided you pay your electric bills), and using that connected, multi-media space to surround the work with context and exploration. It is no doubt intended as vision for independent distribution, one for those who’ve had enough of the death grip festival selection committees have on the careers of young filmmakers trying something new.

It’s a bugle call, it should be noted, that sidesteps the issue of money, as neither Lumière nor Phelps will make any money on this exhibition and in fact will obviously lose money. But as a friend has said to me several times, it often seems like filmmaking and the festival circuit is one of the very few kinds (if not the only kind) of exhibition where the artist get little-to-no financial reward for the public exhibition of his or her work. Let’s hope that such a release as On Spec on Lumière is an advance step forward in the direction of carving out a new space where such a thing as wide access, wide appraisal, wide interest, and compelling compensation is possible.

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