“Avant-game,” a co-programming venture of Los Angeles Filmforum and UCLA's Melnitz Movies and student gaming organization LUDUS, spotlights machinima at its highest brow. These seven experimental shorts engage in a dialogue with video games thematically and materially, some using gaming tropes as a filter, others treating images from Grand Theft Auto and Tomb Raider game play as found footage. The results are always hypnotic, even when implicitly didactic. Tasman Richardson's The Game mashes up movie clips about “play” from sources as disparate as War Games, The Shining and The Seventh Seal with game graphics and army iconography, creating a strobe effect that's so immersive it's headache-inducing (in a good way). It's like a horror film with the aesthetics of a rave. Equally spooky but at very different pitch is Windshield Baby Gameboy Movie. Clint Enns takes footage of a car crash, loops it and processes it through a Game Boy camera — pushing the image to the limits of digital abstraction, and flattening the horror of a baby's violent death into a cloudy spray of pixels. Even bleaker: Brakhage contemporary Phil Solomon's Last Days in a Lonely Place, which repurposes GTA imagery into a series of black-and-white, chiaroscuro noir landscapes that are both haunting and oddly serene.
Peggy Ahwesh's She Puppet, a discourse on female subjectivity starring Lara Croft, stumbles in and out of lyricism. Ahwesh sends the impossibly hot archaeologist through Tomb Raider's various worlds, sometimes allowing her to be the pistol-packing robo-babe she was intended to be, other times pushing Croft into danger without weapons, turning the heroine into passive bait for literal vultures (not to mention tigers, tribesmen and military police). Croft thus dies a dozen little deaths, each accompanied by a wavelike convulsion and a girlish but guttural two-part moan. The game only allows us to see Croft die from behind — we can't see her facial expression, or even the fatal wound — so out of context, her cries of pain could easily be confused with pleasure. Puppet is less elegantly evocative than the more formalist works on the program, but Ahwesh earns points for playing intertextual games with the game itself.
AVANT-GAME | Melnitz Movies at UCLA's Melnitz Hall | Tues., April 20, 7:30 p.m. | Free | gsa.asucla.ucla.edu