If you had a choice between going to a theater to watch two hours of music videos or standing in line at an overcrowded rock show, which would you choose? Let’s say, for the sake of argument, you get in to the rock show, and the show is fairly good. Even with the guarantee of a good show, I would still choose the music videos without a second thought. But as the spotty attendance at this year’s Resfest bore out, most of my fellow music fanatics must disagree, because they were all standing in line at CMJ, or stuffed into small, badly ventilated venues waiting hours and hours to see their favorite bands (!!! anyone?). CMJ is many things — an unparalleled opportunity to see live shows, hang out with unsigned bands, and discover your next rock obsession — but Resfest is the best under-the-radar film and music festival out there, and when the scheduling gods deem the two are happening on the same weekend, I’m spending my weekend at Resfest.
Resfest is a touring festival, which means it will hit over 35 cities across the world in the next few months. New York is the festival’s opening city, so if you missed it here, it’s possible to catch it in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal. If intercontinental travel à la Sydney, Barcelona, and Istanbul is more your style, you’re in luck. Resfest is there too.
After nine years, Festival Director Jonathan Wells has mastered the art of programming an innovative and wide-ranging lineup without stuffing an irrational number of events into four days. The roster of short films, music videos, features, motion design, guest speakers, panels and live music is completely manageable. The festival crowd is similarly low-key: digital filmmakers from France, England, Canada, and the States mix with art students, music nerds, teenage skateboarders, and the occasional 12-year-old kid with mom in tow. Most events take place at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, and between panels and video programs people mill around its cement courtyard, smoking cigarettes and talking film non-ironically. The most interesting thing about Resfest is its ability to bridge mediums — film and music, graphic design and street art, advertising and music videos — and the crowd reflects this merging of, and interest in, diverse forms of media.
I made it to three video programs — Cinema Electronica, Videos that Rock, and a Beck retrospective — and one panel, Inside Music Videos. Cinema Electronica was much stronger than Videos that Rock, and also far more crowded (it was nearly sold out, Videos that Rock was only about a third full). Electronic music seems to lend itself to more innovative work, whereas the rock videos had a hard time getting away from certain music video tropes — the performance shot, the lead singer’s face, words from the song showing up on screen. Both programs had stellar work (I’ve picked out five of the best videos that can be found online), but the coolest program I saw by far was the Beck retrospective.
Res usually chooses a director (last year was Jonathan Glazer) for their retrospectives, but based on the caliber of this year’s program, they should consider sticking with a musician. Beck has an impressive roster of music videos to his name. Watching him mutate over the course of the 17 videos — from ‘Loser’ to ‘Sexx Laws’ to ‘Ghettochip Malfunction (Hell Yes)’ — was fascinating because as much as his sound changes, the inherent Beckness of it stays the same. The video aesthetic is wacky, offbeat, a-logical, resisting coherence and easy meaning as much as Beck’s flotsam and jetsam lyrics. The few non-live action videos are the least compelling of the bunch, because Beck is such a character in his music that you want to see him in the video. Anything less is somehow not Beck enough.
There are lots of events I didn’t make it to, and the ones I did skewed to the music side of things because that’s what I like. I missed the feature films, the digital shorts programs, and a street art walking tour that looked awesome. I wish I could have spent four solid days at Resfest, absorbing the newest and greatest stuff in film, graphic design, and animation. But I can’t complain. I spent six-plus hours watching crazy inventive music videos, talking to filmmakers, and learning about how music videos are made. If I want to see more, there’s always Sao Paolo (or Vienna, or Amsterdam…)