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Moving Pictures 

Emulsion gives local filmmakers a shot in the dark

On Sunday night, one floor above Stuporbowl fans cheering the televised game at Nectar’s, about 50 people are sitting at bistro tables in a darkened room, intently watching and discussing experimental films made by local artists.

This sober bohemian enclave is called Emulsion, a film forum held every other weekend at Club Metronome in Burlington. A kind of underground society for cinéastes, it might seem familiar to earlier generations — in the heyday of Bergman and Fellini — that took the art form seriously. In an age of throwaway culture, Emulsion’s eclectic fare renews the belief that film is important.

Two silent, black-and-white shorts by Paul Helzer of Charlotte are set in Paris — where Godard and Truffaut crafted existential French New Wave flicks in the early 1960s. Shot last summer, while the 21-year-old University of Vermont junior was attending a film program in the City of Light, both 16-mm projects boast more ambiance than plot.

“At the risk of sounding too flaky, this tends to smack of the quality of dreams and memories,” suggests Peter Miller, one of four young men who host the free Emulsion gatherings. “Is there some underlying meaning?”

Helzer explains that, because much of his footage wound up overexposed or out of focus, he had to rewrite the storylines as he edited. “I wanted it to be very ambiguous and very strange and very French,” he adds.

The work is also “very Emulsion”: Participants of the group like to explore the avant-garde side of a medium dominated by the often formulaic storytelling seen in commercial theaters.

In photographic terms, emulsion means the layer of light-sensitive silver salts, suspended in gelatin, that coats the base of film. This recipe for creating images captivates Miller, Jacob Alexander, Joel Fichman and Keith Spiegel, the collective that launched the alternative-viewing enterprise last October.

Alexander and Fichman are Burlington College film students; Miller is a Hampshire College graduate. Spiegel directed Groupies, an original road movie starring Ally Sheedy (St. Elmo’s Fire) and Justin Henry (Kramer vs. Kramer) that is still being edited years after it was shot. Such is the life of an independent filmmaker.

Fichman also is Metronome’s bouncer. “We thought we’d just get some Burlington College [films],” he says of the Emulsion venture, “but it turns out there’s tons of stuff out there. We have a waiting list.”

This particular Sunday-night lineup includes “The Here and Thereafter,” Alex Martin’s brief look at the Marxist theory about workers alienated from their means of production. Scenes of assembly lines, sampled from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and Koyaanisqatsi, underscore a narration that surmises: “Unfortunately for today’s proletariat, some things never change.”

Martin, a UVM senior, assembled the piece for a sociology class. “None if it was shot by me,” he acknowledges. “I edited it and gave it a new spin.”

“Cool. Well done,” says Alexander, who alternates with Miller as emcee.

When it comes to cool, Frank Z. — who declines to give his last name — radiates it aplenty after screening his short video depicting two guys drinking, smoking and fantasizing to a blast of Van Halen’s “I’m Hot for the Teacher.”

“I have nothing to say for myself,” says the enigmatic Frank Z., when invited to offer post-screening commentary.

Christopher McBride has plenty to say, however, during his slide-projection documentary — a thematic and technological departure from the evening’s other presentations. The Westford photographer narrates the environmental essay, featuring his vistas of mountains, waterways, flora and fauna around the world. He methodically illustrates “nature’s absolute perfection, its delicate structure and its exquisite interaction.”

McBride’s snapshot of Angel Falls in Venezuela provides conceptual continuity to the waterfall at the center of UVM film professor Ted Lyman’s “Scotland With No Clothes,” in which a hand-held camera with a zoom lens wobbles ever closer to the cascade.

A serene glen becomes ominous, soothing sounds become furious and the real becomes abstract, all in a matter of minutes. Ten minutes, to be exact, although the initial footage is only about one-fifth of that length.

Lyman reveals that he optically reprinted the original two and a half minutes of celluloid to create slower, apparently intermittent motion. The devotees in the crowd are riveted by this explanation.

In turn, Lyman is thrilled to be here. “This reminds me of the old days,” he tells the assembled Emulsionistas. “A roomful of people. Non-theatrical films.”

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