In Pixelvision, everybody’s beautiful, everybody’s a hero.
—Joe Militus, “Discontinued: The Story of the PXL-2000” (1997)1
First announced at the American International Toy Fair in 1987, toy company Fisher-Price released the PXL-2000 at a starting price range of $100 to $200. The camcorder—known colloquially as the "Pixelvision"—was initially developed2
as one of many “toys for older children.” But because of its high costs and ambiguous target audience—too demanding for some kids; too juvenile for others—the Pixelvision waned in sales until Fisher-Price eventually halted its production in 19893
. The discontinuation, however, did not circumscribe Pixelvision’s noticeable surge in popularity among zealous DV aficionados. But for those in need of affordable and portable film equipment, the firmware of Pixelvision was both a blessing and a curse: Requiring only a cheap audiocassette tape, the lightweight device records eleven to fifteen minutes of grainy black-and-white footage at a time; but each frame is ruptured by inextricable, convulsing waves of static and crackling audio.
This week and into the next, the Film Society of Lincoln Center will be screening Flat Is Beautiful: The Strange Case of Pixelvision,
a survey dedicated to the artists who found themselves at the forefront of the Pixelvision filmmaking tradition. One may refer to these select few as “Pixelvisionaries”—a standard term of endearment for forerunners of the form. The relative affordability and small, lightweight frame of the child-friendly device elicited self-reflexivity for filmmakers living in a century that preceded the front-facing cellphone camera. (With no one in which to confide, the titular prince [Ethan Hawke] in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet
 faces his own Pixelvision camcorder and laments, “I have of late […] lost all my mirth.”) But the limitations embedded within Pixelvision also transformed on-camera introspection into a game, intertwining make-believe and show-and-tell. An invitation to performativity, Pixelvision served as a digital funhouse mirror for those who appropriated the device to reassemble the constructed reality of their selves, their bodies, and their lives.
If Every Girl Had A Diary (1990)
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1989: From within the walls of her bedroom, fifteen-year-old Sadie Benning presses her Pixelvision camcorder—a gift from her father, the avant-garde filmmaker James Benning—against her eye, muttering: “Some people are really sick…and I am one of them.” Here, she is referring to a “guy jacking off in the library.” She moves the lens to her cheek: “I have a pimple.” But through the transcoding of her skin into pixels, the blemish becomes a smooth, shadowed smudge, like nothing at all. The five-minute film, Living Inside, is one of two videos recorded that year. In the other, A New Year, the camera vibrates as Benning shakes a snow globe. Its white plastic flakes jitter inside; the pixelated scene momentarily becomes a white, cubist mosaic. She speaks through the lens to us as her confidants, of a girl who was run over and who twisted her leg. Another girl, she says, was assaulted; she then became a Nazi. Whether or not the girls exist does not matter. She would never tell. Benning’s signature shot is that of an open eye; but we never see her mouth confiding in us. The narrator—perhaps not even Benning, but an alternate persona—discloses lies or half-truths, but these are less for an audience than they are for herself as a teenager on the brink of adulthood, Hamlet with a video camera staring into a world of violence and perversion.
Though commonly regarded as chapters of a “video diary,” the Pixelvision cinema of Sadie Benning is held together by a thread of unabashed fiction—poetic recollections of bizarre encounters with strangers and direct addresses to an invisible, omniscient “you”—that suggest a deliberate revision of personal history. This also serves as a protective attempt to withhold the intimate details of a life, and to instead offer a staging of it. Benning’s Me and Rubyfruit, filmed in 1990, substitutes the adolescent artist’s words with those of Molly and Leota, a teenaged lesbian couple from author Rita Mae Brown’s 1973 novel Rubyfruit Jungle, who argue about whether “girls can get married.” From a distance, Sadie Benning asks, “Why don’t you marry me?” with the drawl of a punk rocker, a girl acting as woman. Photographs of naked models are filmed with a hurrying hand; their bodies pass on by as only traces of desire. Whether or not that longing is tangible, palpable, valid, is none of our business. To quote Benning’s 1990 If Every Girl Had A Diary: “If they didn’t like it…they’d fall into the center of the earth and deal with themselves.”
The gendered dimension of divulgences—women’s personal lives are disproportionately expected to be emotionally and mentally available to the public—is filtered through Pixelvision in Elisabeth Subrin’s 1995 film Swallow. Subrin gathers mismatching fragments to delineate the failing health of a woman named Sarah, a Subrin stand-in plagued by an eating disorder and screaming fits, manifestations of a deeper depression. “It was sad, and […] no one knew how to explain her,” a voice claims. Pixelvision blurs a boundary between Sarah’s psychosis and a performance of her psychology: with the tiny camera, Subrin films a TV playing scenes of Carol Anne’s paranormal intimacy with her television in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, the closest we will get to seeing the artist as a young girl. Even a reenactment of her youth, however, masks itself in parodic jest, as in when an adult woman curls up next to her “mother”—a headless torso that runs its fingers through her hair—and whines, “I hate all my friends, my classes are stupid…Everybody’s boring, I hate everything!”
Benning’s and Subrin’s films are a distant ancestor to an expanding pool of videos on YouTube referred to as “storytime videos.” To quote The Outline
’s Emily Brown: Storytime videos are “winding monologues about a salacious event in someone’s life […] [by] someone sitting in their room, talking directly to the camera. Storytime videos are almost exclusively made by […] women.”4
But whereas the average storytime video—“I slept with my boss”, “I got an abortion”—consists of a single long take recorded in high-definition, wherein we witness every prop in the room and every pore on the female storyteller’s face, in Pixelvision, experience is retold in jolting handheld. The outlines of every object seep into one another, and even facial features appear to be melting away. With clarity out the window, the filmmaker is liberated to make any and every meaning of nothing, or a hidden meaning of something, or perhaps no meaning at all. Beneath this greyscale haze, the true toy is not the camcorder but the transmutable identity at hand—a play-object to mold like clay, to rename like a doll, with just an imagination and a few hundred dollars to spare.
1. Joe Milutis, “Discontinued: The Story of Pixelvision,” 1997, http://www.joemilutis.com/NJIOsuburbs/feb07/DiscontinuedTheStoryofPXL2000.pdf.
2. Andrew C. Revkin, “As Simple as Black and White; Children's Toy Is Reborn as an Avant-Garde Filmmaking Tool,” 2000, https://www.nytimes.com/2000/01/22/nyregion/simple-black-white-children-s-toy-reborn-avant-garde-filmmaking-tool.html.
3. Andrea Nina McCarthy, “Toying With Obsolescence: Pixelvision Filmmakers and the Fisher Price PXL 2000 Camera,” 2006, https://cmsw.mit.edu/wp/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/146381064-Andrea-McCarty-Toying-With-Obsolescence-Pixelvision-Filmmakers-and-the-Fisher-Price-PXL-2000-Camera.pdf.
4. Emily Brown, “It’s Storytime,” 2017, https://theoutline.com/post/1189/storytime-youtube-where-people-confess-everything-and-nothing?zd=1&zi=73xj3bft.