In 2001, a twentysomething New York artist named Susan Buice showed up at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, where she experienced what she now calls "an existential meltdown around creativity." Four years later, footage of the VSC appeared in Four Eyed Monsters, a feature film Buice wrote, directed and starred in with her boyfriend Arin Crumley. In the film, about a relationship between two people who would rather write and draw their feelings than say them, the artists' retreat appears as "Studio Vermont," a crunchy hamlet presided over by an overexcited bohemian.
"We fictionalized what it was like there," Buice assures in a phone interview. That's probably a good thing, since Four Eyed Monsters will screen this Thursday in Burlington as part of the 22nd Vermont International Film Festival. Buice and Crumley's 70-minute drama is the first film ever distributed in its entirety on YouTube; in 2005, The New York Times used it as a case study for the impact of Web 2.0 on filmmaking.
That makes it an unconventional choice for VIFF, which in the past has favored films that address weighty environmental and human-rights issues.
Not that those will be absent this year: On Saturday, for instance, Ripton environmentalist Bill McKibben will discuss Everything's Cool, billed as a "toxic comedy" about global warming. But Erik Esckilsen, a member of the fest's board of directors, confirms that board members are "trying to rebrand the festival a little bit. We want to keep issue-oriented cinema at the center of what we do, but bring in some lighter movies as well."
Some changes are cosmetic: The VIFF has a hip new logo designed by artist Tyler Stout, best known for his show posters for Higher Ground. Others are organizational. In the past, VIFF issued an annual "call to entry" to filmmakers all over the world. It was up to the board and artistic director to cull the submissions and decide on a program - which was "difficult logistically," Esckilsen says. So this year, says Board President Deb Ellis, the group decided to "hand pick" the films. Nine filmmakers whose work "fit with our vision" were invited to send it to Burlington.
"We decided to shrink the festival a bit," says Ellis, to create "more space for conversation and discussion about the films we're doing. It allowed us to focus on programming, putting together panels." Still, both she and Esckilsen say they'd like to return to the "call for entry" system next year.
For now, though, Ellis says she's pleased with the fest's "renewed focus on Vermont filmmakers." Films in the VIFF's Vermont Showcase are still selected from an open pool of entries. Some notable ones this year include Living on the Fault Line: Where Race and Family Meet, a documentary about transracial adoption in Vermont by Jeff Farber of Middlesex; "Digital Pamphleteer," Bill Simmon's short about blogger Steve Benen (The Carpetbagger Report); and Beyond the Politics of Life and Choice: A Conversation About Abortion by Anne Macksoud and John Ankele of Woodstock.
Among the invited films are names indie fans may recall from bigger festivals and metropolitan screenings, such as Strange Culture, about an artist accused of bioterrorism after his wife's sudden death; and Habana Blues, a drama about Cuban musicians who get a chance to leave the island for the big time.
Then there's Four Eyed Monsters - which, despite, its free availability on the Net, has played in brick-and-mortar theaters in more than 30 cities, Buice says, and should soon have a conventional DVD release. It's also premiered in the virtual environment "Second Life." Why do people - especially young people - respond to the film? "Looking at MySpace and YouTube - all these ways people are trying to connect with each other - what we did makes sense," Buice speculates. On Friday, she'll appear on a panel with local filmmakers and video bloggers called "Filmmaking 2.0: Making and Marketing Your Film in the Age of New Media."