Roger Beebe loses control at Eyedrum

The filmmaker looks at contemporary American landscapes for the Film Love series Films for One to Eight Projectors

“I normally feel like I’m in total control of my films,” Roger Beebe says. Watching some of Beebe’s films — which range from spliced-up 8mm visions of strip malls to laser-printed black-and-white animations — you get the impression that “total control” might be an understatement.

A tall, lanky professor at the University of Florida who wears a permanently disheveled beard, Beebe makes films on his own terms and budget. One film, TB TX Dance, cost about 30 bucks. Beebe’s films are both erudite and punk, lo-fi yet high-brow shorts that wrestle with a disfigured, contemporary American landscape.

Beebe visits Eyedrum with the Film Love series Films for One to Eight Projectors. His latest technique involves using multiple projectors to create “expanded cinema” by combining 16mm and 8mm film with digital formats. One of the films he’ll screen, Last Light of a Dying Star, uses no less than eight projectors. Attempting to run all the machines simultaneously is a performance in itself, with Beebe changing films and keeping all of the projectors functioning properly. The scope of the approach has changed something fundamental: “It exceeds my ability my totally control it.”  

Beebe began making experimental films in the mid-’90s, after he finished his undergrad at Amherst College. A major breakthrough happened in 1999, when he took a group of films, including one of his own, on tour through the U.S. “Every town has 25 bands that tour,” he says, but being a touring filmmaker is less common. Beebe says the practice dates back to Dziga Vertov, the Soviet filmmaker who made the 1929 experimental classic Man With the Movie Camera. Vertov would ride the state-run Agit-Train that navigated the lengths of Russia and screen films all across the country, spreading revolutionary arts. “I fantasize that it’s sort of a Johnny Appleseed endeavor,” Beebe says.

Driving from city to city, as he’ll do this fall, is also a way to take in the land Beebe’s films are somewhat obsessed with. “I lived in Paris for months,” he says, “but I never had the urge to pick up my camera. I was in Las Vegas for three days and I couldn’t stop filming. I could shoot and shoot and shoot.” From those reels, Beebe created Money Changes Everything, a three-projector film that examines what he calls the “constant renewal and constant dereliction ... of a place where there probably shouldn’t even be a city.” A radio discussion of the remarkably high suicide rate in Las Vegas provides the film’s soundtrack. Responding to a suggestion that the film was black humor, Beebe said, “Funny? Well, funny maybe in the way that we have to be able to laugh at the destruction of the American landscape.”

The centerpiece of Beebe’s latest tour is Last Light of a Dying Star. The presentation’s eight projectors use a progression of film loops that meditate on space, moving from abstract images into found educational shorts, sequenced digital stills, and an East German animated film The Drunk Sun. The film uses the rhythm and repetition of so many short loops to create a minimalist, almost imperceptibly shifting progression that recalls the music of composers Terry Riley and Steve Reich.   

Beebe doesn’t dwell too much on the experimental aspects of his films. As much as his work can reference an obscure style or investigate a method of thinking, it’s also immediate and viscerally engaging. “This isn’t some sort of insular activity for members of some secret underground culture. I work to be accessible,” he says. “Maybe not accessible in the way that Transformers 2 is accessible, but still accessible.”