Danny Plotnick roared into the underground film world in the 1980s. Fueled by his love of punk and alternative culture and infected with d.i.y. spirit, he started making films that captured a similarly snarly attitude. His films were pegged as bawdy, bad-mouthed and beautiful, straddling the line between high-brow and low-brow art. It's no surprise that his work has screened from the MOMA in NYC to mortuaries in Baltimore to the Independent Film Channel. With little opportunity to screen this type of work in the 80s, Plotnick took to the road, projector and films in trunk, screening in bars, warehouses and cafes. Plotnick trail blazed a path for the underground film world that exploded in the early 90s, a scene that would ultimately champion his work.
Plotnick started his career shooting comedic super 8 shorts in Ann Arbor. In 1987, he moved to San Francisco and dove headlong into the burgeoning independent film scene. He perfected his craft through the late 80s and early 90s. His films struck a chord not only in the film world, but in the pre-grunge, indie rock world of the day. He began screening his films at international film festivals. Not content to be limited to festivals, Plotnick championed alternative methods of distribution and embarked on a series of national and European film tours, as well as releasing his films into the home video (vhs) market.
In the late 90s his films began to garner more broad-based acclaim with Swingers' Serenade screening on the Independent Film Channel and Pillow Talk screening at the MOMA in NYC.
In addition to working on a feature-length script about a corrupt advertising agency preying on the ideas of artists, he is working on a series of music videos, hosting the Nest of Vipers Podcast and doing design work.
Tales of Filmic Mayhem And Other Ruminations From A Subterranean Standpoint
I'm not entirely certain what the youth of America will think of these films in 2008 and beyond. Back in the 1980s when the first of the films in this collection were made, independent filmmakers had two choices. Shoot in 16mm or shoot in super 8. Video existed, but it sucked. Most filmmakers opted to shoot in 16mm. The problem with 16mm was it cost an insane amount of money. It cost around $80 to shoot three minutes of film, and that didn't even include the cost of renting a room at an edit facility that contained a flatbed editing system. That left super 8 as an option. The problem with super 8 was that the technological support was gamey. Recording films with good sound was challenging, and editing sound films was weirdly complex. Worse yet, if you shot something poorly, it was very difficult to salvage the footage. In other words, if you didn't shoot it properly on location, you were doomed to have a bad film. Additionally, support at the lab level was atrocious. Labs were inconsistent, the ability to create dissolves and transitions non-existent, and the ability to strike prints was a can of worms that was painful to open. But at the end of the day if you wanted to make a ten minute film and you didn't have $5,000 in your pocket, you had no choice but to shoot in super 8. A lot of filmmakers simply refused to make that compromise. They thought super 8 was a rudimentary film medium that would do damage to their vision. I had no choice and embraced the medium, but refused to be victim to its limitations. I was essentially self-taught and worked hard to figure out its strengths and weaknesses. Along the way I made mistakes and many of these films have awkward moments where the seams show through or where I failed to master some of the finer technical points. But by the time we were shooting Steel Belted Romeos in 1990 I had a strong grasp on how to use the medium and make films that were approaching the level of 16mm productions for a fraction of the cost. Sure there are only straight cuts and sure the sound mixes were not as complex as I would have liked, but there's no way this body of work could have been made any other way. And ultimately I feel the work stands tall, warts and all.
Exhibiting these works was no walk in the park either. Many alternative screening spaces lacked adequate projectors to screen super 8 sound films. Also, without prints of many of these films, I was reluctant to send camera-original material to a venue whose projector I couldn't personally inspect. And at the end of the day, many festivals simply did not show super 8. Undaunted, I started booking my own tours of alternative spaces, cafés, warehouses, music clubs and other subterranean spaces willing to take a chance on my work. Later, many of these spaces would be dubbed "microcinemas," but that wasn't a word bandied about in the early 90s. With projector in hand and a box of films in an old typewriter case I'd hit the road showing films and doing super 8 production workshops along the way.
Further complicating things for me was that my films were chock full of piss and vinegar. While this may have been the prevailing attitude of youth culture fueled by the rising American indie rock tide, the alternative film world was more traditional. They liked things artier and a tad more ephemeral. There were certainly a number of filmmakers working in the same underground vein that I was, but a full-on movement wasn't recognized until the early 90s with the rise of The New York Underground and Chicago Underground Film Festivals. When Steel Belted Romeos came out in 1990, I was able to hustle a number of screenings at alternative venues. But as for broad-based festival acceptance the road was frightfully slow. Between 1990-1994, Steel Belted had four festival screenings. Between 1995-2000 it screened at twelve different festivals. That defies how the shelf-life of films works. You're supposed to get screenings when the films come out, not 5-10 years later. But acceptance of this sort of aesthetic materialized when it did.
As the mid 90s progressed, screening super 8 became more and more difficult. In 1996, I embarked on the rather costly task of blowing all my super 8 films up to 16mm. It seemed the way to go for archival and exhibition purposes.
In 1997, Kodak discontinued super 8 sound stocks. Essentially the way I had been making films for a decade was dead. Strangely, it wasn't tragic for me. I had been making films one way for over ten years and as an artist I was ready to try bigger things. In 1999, I made Swingers' Serenade in 16mm. Swingers' is by far my biggest achievement and simply couldn't have been made in super 8. Oddly, Kodak's decision to discontinue certain super 8 stocks at this time spurred a mini super 8 revival. Super 8 prints that were gathering dust in my bedroom closet were now being constantly sought after for screening. I had all these brand new 16mm prints and nobody wanted to show those. Ahh, the irony.
Technical stuff aside, I hope people enjoy the films, the stories, the content. When I started making films I was fascinated by the amount of confrontation I witnessed in the city. People seemed in a state of constant agitation. Many of my films are based on true stories. I did get punched in the face at a stoplight (Steel Belted Romeos), I did lay awake at night hearing my downstairs neighbor beat the crap out of his wife (Pillow Talk), I did see high school kids constantly pick on those at the bottom of the food chain (Dumbass From Dundas) and I did have kids size me up as someone they could hassle at a laundromat (PIPSQUEAK PfOLLIES). I was a firm believer that real life offered up stories richer than those one could fabricate. But it wasn't enough to regurgitate those stories in a realistic form. I was interested in imploding these stories, employing the absurd. What could be worse than being trapped at a stoplight for a minute? How about ten minutes? What could be worse than being hassled by one kid? How about being hassled by gangs of kids? I was trying to get into the mindset of the victim. When you're in a bad spot it seems endless, like there's no exit. I was trying to bring that dizzying sense of hopelessness to the proceedings. People have said that stylistically my movies progress like cartoons. I like that. People have said the films have a burlesque quality to them. I like that. I always considered this hyper realism-an amped up look at the day-to-day interactions in the big city where tempers are short and tolerance lacking.
Oh and they're funny. In many respects, the comedic tenor of these films was out of step with the prevailing tides of the art world. I loved what I saw in the independent, underground and experimental film world of the 80s and 90s, but it was all so serious. Nothing makes me happier than a pitch black comedy, the darker the better. I was fortunate to surround myself with people who made me laugh a lot. Ray Wilcox, Chris Enright, Alison Levy. Hysterical. We certainly had a good time making these films. I hope you enjoy watching them.