Back in the 1980’s, during the boom of home video cameras, the Fischer-Price toy company put on the market a video camera that was intended solely for use by children—the PXL 2000—a camera that was a very unique video apparatus. It was compact and lightweight, designed for point-and-shoot recording by young and active youths. Even the lens was a specially crafted plastic that could hold its focus for both distances and close-ups with clarity
These cameras also had another distinctive feature. They recorded the images in analogue fashion on traditional audio cassette tapes and came with their own playback monitor. As for the image quality? It blew walnuts, to put it mildly. Not only did it record in black and white but the play back was distorted with crude pixilation, it was prone to washed out and blurred imagery, and the tapes often produced static trails across the screen. At times the images are haunting, or recall early Hollywood cinematic attempts, or look like poor security videos. These problems all led to the camera existing barely 2 years on the market—lasting only from 1987 until after the ’89 Christmas season.
However, soon after its demise groups of contemporary film makers embraced this iconoclastic recorder and they have formed a cabal of sorts; artists who strive to commemorate the brief era of this unit’s lifespan. This is actually a 2-disc DVD set of short films produced using the PXL 2000, and the end result is—well quite honestly, I fear it falls in that tried realm of being “In the eye of the Beholder.” I can appreciate what the organizers of this event saw in the bizarre little hand-held cameras: they produce such distinctive visuals that understandably some creative minds would spot that chance for idiosyncratic imagery. The problem lies with the gathering of film makers on these discs.
At the start of things there is a feature about the cameras themselves. When these artists first sought out the cameras years ago they were readily available at garage sales and consignment outlets. But once the demand flourished the prices skyrocketed. One interviewed filmmaker detailed the mechanics of the cameras, saying the problem today is that with breakdowns you can only repair about one half of the parts—which are not on the market—while the other half are simply unable to be repaired. As a result he says that every time you use a PXL 2000 you bring it that much closer to extinction.
As interesting as the history may be, the shorts are a different matter entirely. What I had a hard time fathoming was just how many of these films truly did little with the display qualities heralded in the literature. The first short on the disc, “Ghost Story” is a prime example. It starts out with the director’s face looking creepy by being bottom lit with a flashlight. The camera’s effects make him appear nefarious, but he tells an idiotic tale and he can barely keep from laughing. Then at the end his mother walks in on him as he’s shooting.
Better things come from “Toy Soldiers” by Kyle Cassidy. A child plays with plastic soldiers in the sand as the narration tells of his feelings while his father was fighting in Viet Nam. The visuals transport you back to the era and also convey the boy’s anxiety. “The Simplicity of Facelessness” was essentially a rock video that used the camera to conjure some interesting visuals. In the same way, “Familiar” provided evocative visuals for a somewhat abstract story of a girl and her life with pills.
Yet more often you get treated with videos that were simply cheap to shoot and do little to exploit or enhance the PXL camera’s visuals. “PME—Post Military Era” is nothing more than a head shot of a codger conspiracy buff who holds up various cards to support his cant on world affairs. “Bird Songs in Your Garden” is much the same, an interview with an ornithology professor who later begins to warble his bird calls on camera. At least “Alfred Shoots Adolph” was interesting in that it was an interview with an elderly Jewish man who at one time was tabbed to be a photographer in Germany for the Hitler Government. But again, visually it did nothing with the traits of the camera.
Worst of this lot is “Camel Jockey”, a one-shot of a guy wearing nothing but a Mid-East headdress and a pair of boxer shorts as he plays the xylophone, singing a song that is mostly the words, “I’m a sand nigger.” And “Zap Yer Ass” consisted of the director’s face while playing a stoner inventor who talks about the device he made that shocks people who talk on cellular phones. Why these were included is beyond my grasp.
The best aspects of this collection are found on Disc 2. Here they segregated what are multi-media efforts using the PXL 2000 as well other video techniques. The standout effort is by Bruno Derlin and Mark Doyle, who together made three distinctive shorts that implemented the PXL with black and white scenes shot of DV. The first,”Twice a Lunatic”, is an avant garde piece set to a poem about a troubled relationship. “Modern Prometheus” is a retelling of the Frankenstein story, and “Smeared” features a young woman being haunted by another lady. Together they make up an impressive triad of shorts.
Each of these are well shot and acted, with sharp visuals that are occasionally enhanced with the PXL 2000 for dramatic effect. These three movies in particular, as impressive as they are, are also the undoing of this collection. That is because in the end they underscore how poor the attempts were on the first disc. You get a sense of what kind of things work in this capacity, and those who relied solely on the PXL camera suffer by comparison. In the end the attempt to make an engrossing film with a sub sub-par camera is like a symphony recording on an 8-track tape from a portable radio. Any talent is likely to be partially obscured.
As interesting as the history of the camera was and the possibilities it provides for artist to extend their craft this collection would have been better served with a stricter standard of quality. Eliminating about two thirds of the shorts and condensing the rest on one disc, with maybe the interviews, histories, and extras on the second disc, would have made for a better product, and in the end, a better representation of the passion behind these filmmakers.