Magic stoned

Pub date April 25, 2007
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review


Dream catchers and rainbows. Stately dragons that soar the starry skies as majestically as a space station and more Marshall stacks than you can shake a pewter warlock wand at. Lone wolves and lynx meeting under snowy boughs in untamed, magical communion. Daggers with serpentine handles morphing gently into stalactites and snowflakes. Wizards solemnly lifting crystal balls aloft in triumph, taking a Festival Viking cruise past jagged pink quartz reefs. Look out for a metal band with feathered hair and quasi-KISS face paint rising over the mountain of gold coins.

No, it’s not an old Heart music video but the cheese-coated language of so-called crystal power – and the kitsch iconography that video artist Kelly Sears works with in her 2004 animated short, Crucial Crystal, one of three she will show as part of "Notes to a Toon Underground." Xiu Xiu, Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle, William Winant, Tommy Guerrero, Marc Capelle, and Guardian contributor Devin Hoff are among those providing the live musical accompaniment and original scores to 15 animated works by Sears, Jim Trainor, Wladyslaw Starewicz, David Russo, and Emily and Georgia Hubley.

The pieces originate from anywhere between 1912 and 2005, though some such as Crucial Crystal mine a high-low quarry that’s both timeless (power chords are forever) and already dated in rapid-cycling retro-hipster circles (truck stop lone-wolf imagery naturally begat those interminable wolf band names). It’s done to comic effect, propping up and sending up its subject simultaneously. "When you take a sampling of crystals, black metal, Marshall stacks in the snow, dream catchers, and New Age and nu metal imagery like that and collect them into one big fantasyscape in some impossible universe, it reads as superdated," Sears says over the phone from Pitzer College in Claremont, where she works as the director of production in intercollegiate media studies. "If it was made now, it would have a whole new crop of contemporary pop images that would go in it: a lot of ’70s recycled stuff and a lot of hair."

Hard-rocked and rainbow-hued, Crucial Crystal broke off from a band project, Sexy MIDI, that found Sears making videos to accompany her orchestra pit-style re-creations of MIDI covers gathered online. She culled her crystal fantasia from similar free-source locales: "It was about getting really democratic, finding those images," the 29-year-old animator says, laughing brightly. "The philosophy was, if Google image search doesn’t have it, I don’t want it!"

That hunting-gathering impulse also informs the other Sears works in "Notes": Devil’s Canyon (2005), a wryly surreal and unexpectedly poetic ode to America’s cowboy romance with expansionism and industry, which Sears describes as a "completely fantastical, dystopic manifest-destiny story of the West," and The Joy of Sex (2003), a hilariously solemn animation of the sex manual’s 1991 update.

She found the tossed tome while she was working on her MFA at UC San Diego and liked the idea of animating the book’s images of a conservatively coiffed post-Reagan-era couple in the throes of damped-down passion, using restrained, minute motions accompanied by a flattened MIDI cover of "I Want to Know What Love Is" (it will be given a new score at "Notes"). "I’m really about saving things that got thrown away," she says. "That’s why I look for imagery in thrift stores and garage sales. I really like the idea that the story told by this imagery isn’t functioning anymore and has been cast aside. It’s ready to be picked up and transformed into some sort of new story that could possibly be more relevant now."

Sears’s aesthetic may radically shape-shift from video to video, but her skill at juggling pop wit with postmodern smarts remains the same. "Kelly comes out of nowhere, but you are reminded of a specific ‘somewhere’ because her signifiers seem universal: appropriated pop and illustrations, a cult following-in-the-making," e-mails Darin Klein, who recently curated a show at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles that included a collaboration between Sears and choreographer Ryan Heffington. "Her sincerity, her technicality, and the thoroughness of her execution hint at a woman who tunes in and never turns off or drops out."

Sears’s fascination with found images emerged from her distaste for the look of digital video and her sensory appreciation of the texture and beauty of old books, National Geographics, and encyclopedias from the ’60s and ’70s. Currently, working on narratives about orgone boxes and men who modify their bodies into machines, she describes her process as "completely time-consuming": it involves scanning hundreds of images, digitally cutting each out, breaking each still into planes that will eventually move, and then working on the images in After Effects and Final Cut. Still, the time and toil appear to be worth it. "It just seems like a really great way to open up some form of culture or history that’s been produced," she says, "and get your two cents in by rearranging the signifiers in a different way." *

NOTES TO A TOON UNDERGROUND May 5, 8:30 p.m., Castro