Danny Plotnick roared into the underground film world in the 1980s. Fueled by his love of punk and alternative culture and infected with DIY 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 highbrow and lowbrow 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 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 as part of the Big As Life exhibition focusing on Super 8 films.
In the 2000s Plotnick left celluloid behind and embraced digital moviemaking. During this period, Plotnick collaborated with musicians with a greater focus on music videos. He also got in on the ground floor of podcasting releasing 15 episodes of his storytelling/comedy podcast Nest of Vipers.
Plotnick’s films have been sought out for inclusion in the Hugh Hefner Moving Image archive at USC as part of their collection of punk rock and small gauge cinema.
Plotnick continues to fight the good fight. He is currently the director of the Film Studies Program at the University of San Francisco where he is inspiring a new generation of filmmakers. He teaches both analog and digital technologies to his students.
His current project is Super 8: An Illustrated History, a coffee table art book to be released in October of 2019. The book shines light on the history of Super 8 filmmaking.
About the Films
Tales of Filmic Mayhem And Other Ruminations From A Subterranean Standpoint
The most recent films on this site were shot and edited digitally. Have a look at Take Back Your Beaver, Not My City Anymore, Out of Print, and World of Wonder. Those pieces will make sense to your modern sensibilities. But what about the work that goes back a couple of decades—the analog films made on 16mm and Super 8? Some introduction might be necessary for the modern viewer to fully wrap their heads around that work.
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 complex. Worse yet, if you shot something poorly, it was difficult to salvage. Additionally, support at the lab level was hit or miss. 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 only had a couple of hundred dollars in your pocket, you had no choice but to shoot in Super 8. A lot of filmmakers refused to make that compromise. They thought Super 8 was rudimentary and would damage their vision. I embraced the medium, but refused to be victim to its limitations. I was 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 challenges. But by the time I was 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 the sound mixes were not complex, but there's no way this body of work could have been made any other way. 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. Many festivals didn’t even show Super 8. Undaunted, I started booking my own tours of alternative spaces, cafés, warehouses and music clubs. 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 hit the road showing films and doing Super 8 production workshops along the way.
Further complicating things for me was that my films were 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 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 12 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 my Super 8 films up to 16mm. It seemed the way to go for archival and exhibition purposes.
In 1996, 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 10 years and as an artist I was ready to try bigger things. In 1999, I made Swingers' Serenade in 16mm. Swingers' was my biggest achievement to date 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.
As the new millennium dawned digital video became not only accessible, but the quality quickly closed the gap on analog filmmaking. Where it once made sense to work in Super 8 from an economic perspective, that factor no longer held water. MiniDV and then HD technologies offered more affordable approaches to filmmaking and I jumped on board. Technology didn’t change my aesthetics however. Take a gander at Take Back Your Beaver, and you’ll see the irreverence that was on display in my early works is still hanging in there today.
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 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 10 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 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.