Held in Knoxville six times since it was founded in 2009, Big Ears challenges just exactly what a festival can be. It's primarily known as an experimental music festival, assembling an impressively eclectic international array of acts who defy conventions—this year included Xiu Xiu, avant garde electronic trio Supersilent, Colin Stetson’s post-rock reimagining of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, Blonde Redhead, Magnetic Fields, and Matana Roberts. New to its attempts to push boundaries in 2016 was a film program curated by Knoxville’s Public Cinema (run by locals Paul Harrill and Darren Hughes) that brought in experimental filmmakers Jodie Mack, Shambhavi Kaul, and a great selection of short films under the banner “Flicker and Wow,” plus a sidebar of films put out by Factory 25. More ambitious in this year's sophomore outing, Harrill and Hughes mounted an eleven-film retrospective of the work of Jonathan Demme, with an emphasis on performance-based films and lesser known works; shorts programs and installations by Kevin Jerome Everson and Janie Geiser, who were both on hand for discussions; and a spotlight on Jem Cohen, who shared a handful of films from across his body of work along with his latest, World Without End (No Reported Incidents), and two live semi-improvised performance pieces put on with several of the festival’s musical guests.

The range of performance on display at Big Ears is mind-bending, from epic ensembles to solo electronic sets to meditative classical pieces to eardrum-bursting noise—and to cinematic experiences like Demme’s Storefront Hitchcock (1998), featuring Robyn Hitchcock (also present to perform and introduce the movie), Swimming to Cambodia (1987), which features a spoken-word piece by Spalding Gray, and Meredith Monk’s one and only directorial effort, 1988's Book of Days—all, it should be noted, played on 35mm in the historic movie palace Tennessee Theatre, representing a step forward in presentation from 2016’s edition. The rest of the films were divided between a multiplex and the Knoxville Museum of Art.

A natural fit with Big Ears due to his fascination with filming explorative artists and his talent with bringing their vision to the screen, the Demme retro was the heart of this year’s film offerings. As he nears the twilight of his career, Demme occupies a strange slot in American cinema. A well-known name primarily attached to Silence of the Lambs and Stop Making Sense, he’s hardly ever cited as an auteur, and his oeuvre is largely glossed over. The Public Cinema’s retro did include both Lambs and Sense, as well as his latest concert doc Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids, but was mostly designed to bring attention to some underseen works (influenced in part by Demme’s own suggestions). Storefront Hitchcock captures Robyn Hitchcock at his most inspired and focused, pointedly spouting sardonic commentary in between each urgently played pop tune. Demme’s direction is equally inventive. Hitchcock plays with the window of a storefront behind him, with the odd passerby peering in. Throughout the “show,” the background changes, both from natural shifts in time of day and the use of curtains, color-tinted windows, and candlelight. Hitchcock’s humor and biting perspective is captured amidst an ever-shifting mise en scène. This has every right to be as well known a concert doc as Stop Making Sense, and even if it can’t quite approach the singular ecstasy of that film, it’s still brilliantly directed.

Another Telepathic Thing (2015) was the weak point of the retro, but still an interesting inclusion. Shot on cheap camcorders in the early digital era, it lacks directorial vision and simply finds Demme cheaply recording an absurd theatrical performance without much concern for craft, apparently as a favor to a friend—which is endearing, and it is of interest to see a filmmaker playing with new technology, even if the results are lackluster.

<i>Who Am I This Time?</i>
Who Am I This Time?

The two biggest highlights were films that most of us attending the retro had not even heard of. Who Am I This Time? (1982) is an hour-long adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut story of the same name produced as part of PBS’ American Playhouse series. It’s strange to see Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken in something so modest at a moment when they were both at the peak of their fame. Sarandon plays Helene, a shy woman just passing through town for work but roped into auditioning for a local play—A Streetcar Named Desire, no less. Playing Stanley is Harry (Walken), an awkwardly quiet hardware-store worker who always shows up on stage to give intense method performances. As they get deeper into rehearsals, Helene falls for Harry—but is she falling for Harry or Stanley? Demme’s typically soft touch is as a gentle as ever here, flourishing with the low stakes of the format, focusing on Sarandon and Walken’s playful performances; both of them get to comically shift between shy and loud, and Walken in particular plays this contrast beautifully.

Cousin Bobby, a 1992 documentary also produced for PBS, was the revelation of Big Ears. Shot on 16mm with a home-movie feel, the film modestly poses as a simple portrait of Demme’s cousin Bobby, with whom he's reunited after thirty years apart. However, the film expands into something much larger. Bobby (Robert Castle) is an Episcopalian priest in Harlem who has long been active in the community as a civil-rights advocate, infamously known for his ties with the Black Panther party and his friendship with one of its leaders, Isaiah Rowley. A family reunion becomes a discourse on race relations and the systemic oppression of the poor in America, all from the perspective of Bobby, who's had an on-the-ground POV stretching back decades. He takes Demme around the neighborhood, describing his experiences with Rowley, with clashing with the police, with his controversial standing in society in the '60s. We see that in his sermons he addresses multiple faiths and works against all divisions in the community. It was both disheartening and poignant to watch this film in 2017, and to feel like it's as relevant now as it was then. Bobby is an inspiring figure, and one of the most memorable “characters” in documentary, period. This should be a canonical doc classic in American cinema, and is begging to be rediscovered—and 2017 feels like it may be the right moment.

Cousin Bobby

One of many unique occurrences at Big Ears was composer-vocalist-performance artist Meredith Monk's tremendous show in the Bijou Theatre. A rare print of her film Book of Days screened the following morning. Opening with a Tarkovsky-influenced sequence in a Middle Ages town, the camera cranes up slightly as we see people go about their morning routines, the textures of buildings and the rained-on cobblestone street surfaces all gorgeously shot in black and white. That initial aesthetically inspired moment unfortunately isn't matched by what follows, but this peculiar one-off movie is full of amusing and occasionally striking touches (as when villagers performing their daily routines are interrupted for interviews from a voice behind the camera). The film has an allegorical dimension as well, with Christians dressed in white and Jews in black marked with a yellow circle. At times Monk’s characteristically theatrical expression feels trite when translated to the big screen, but as the film cuts to color shots in the present day, and continually plays with what she can do with the medium, it’s hard not to be won over by her creativity and ambition.

The prolific Ohio native Kevin Jerome Everson presented an extraordinary handful of shorts. Much of his work is concerned with labor, and specifically working-class African-Americans. Work activities are abstracted from the everyday, from installing insulation (R-15) to handling anonymous pieces at a factory (Production Material Handler) to football practice (Tygers) to stealing manhole covers and selling them (Fe26). Everson articulates images largely absent from our collective consciousness, oftentimes constructing “documentary” through fiction. Janie Geiser, working with archival photographs, discarded materials, and intricate plays of light and shadow, creates intriguing unsolvable mysteries. Her greatest tool is sound, which evokes the cinematic and gives life to otherwise lifeless objects.

Two “Flicker and Wow” programs featured recent shorts from the experimental-film world. Some are prominent on the festival circuit, such as Manuela De Laborde’s astonishing As Without So Within, a twenty-odd-minute 16mm piece composed of various shots (sparingly punctuated with sound) of rock-like sculptured props obscured by shadow and enveloped in candy-like watercolors. These alien objects evoke a sense of otherworldliness as well as a sense of fiction, dwelling in the frame long enough to become even less discernible than at first appearance. Ryland Walker Knight’s meditative Ghost Comb navigates a Columbarium in crisp, stuttering black-and-white images that are virtually stills giving an impression of unnatural movement through the space. It feels like a search, but for what is unclear—the location evokes death, and a whispered poem on the soundtrack gives the film a quality both haunting and hopeful. Spotlight on a Brick Wall, co-directed by Alee Peoples and Mike Stoltz injected some humor into the proceedings with a Jerry Lewis-esque sensibility. Playful uses of text, disassociation with sound, and physical comedy were a refreshing mix of elements to throw into the program.

Janie Geiser's GHOST ALGEBRA

An unofficial festival highlight, playing by coincidence at the 1010 gallery, was an installation by local artist Nathan Smith titled Ride or Die. Featuring scenes of Paul Walker and Vin Diesel from the Fast and Furious franchise surrounding a candlelight vigil in the gallery space, the piece is tremendously moving. A recording of Diesel singing the Rihanna song “Stay” poignantly plays in the background, re-contextualized by the untimely death of Walker. The sense of friendship between the two actors fills the room, as well as the clash of real life and fiction by which an action hero perpetually rides again when in actuality his life ended in a car crash. A five-or-so-minute loop gets increasingly sad as it repeats, and the beckoning for Walker to “stay” can only be answered in the affirmative by cinema. Images of a traffic light signaling stop and then go underlines a sense of fate that works against our conception of screen actors, and in particular action stars, as something more than human.

Knoxville son James Agee was given tribute this year both with a screening of one of his favorite films, the rarely seen and recently restored Farrebique, and a pub crawl through some notable haunts. Directed by Georges Rouquier in 1947, Farrebique feels like a spiritual cousin to the Italian neorealism, which Agee also praised in the era. Set in the French province of Rouergue, the film is a documentary-like portrayal of rural life on a farm that gives importance to small moments, daily chores and duties, and simple everyday beauty. Borrowing a structure from the four seasons, Rouquier takes us through a year in the life of a real family—their trials, labor, harvests, and dramas—with a poetic eye and a rich sensualism.

Roger Beebe’s Films for One to Eight Projectors was perhaps the most in step with the spirit of Big Ears, a perfect meeting place between projection and performance. Having set them up amidst the audience at the Knoxville Museum of Art, Beebe ran between his eight projectors, switching them on and off, at times playing nearly all of them at once, their images arranged next to one another on the screen with sometimes comically clashing soundtracks. Working with archival footage, Beebe creates a fast-paced onslaught of Americana through landscapes literal and figurative. Like the rest of the film programming at Big Ears, Beebe’s piece works to redefine the context of watching film, underlining the present moment in the act of viewing, the transience of performance, and the participation of the viewer in a specific place at a specific time, in a specific context. In an age of Vimeo links, discreetly exchanged screeners, streaming, and illegal torrents, Big Ears creates a singular sense of active moviegoing that simply cannot be recreated elsewhere.