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In between Kermit and Big Bird, Jim Henson took some time off from Muppet-making to dip his toe into the avant-garde. The result, "Time Piece" (1965), is a zany meditation on the nature of time, filled with scenes of Henson — who writes, directs and stars — painting an elephant pink, riding a pogo stick and running a lot, sometimes dressed as Abe Lincoln. It's a fascinating window into the development of a great artist: utterly bizarre, but like Henson's best work, long on goofy charm.
That's the idea behind "Famous Firsts," a program that kicks off the Arkansas Underground Film Festival this weekend at the Malco Theatre in Hot Springs. Along with Henson, the program (6 p.m., Friday) includes shorts by David Lynch, Guy Maddin, Roman Polanksi and Martin Scorsese, all made when the directors were, as festival director Dan Anderson says, "nobodies."
Anderson, the 27-year-old program director of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute, first came to Hot Springs two years ago with his traveling experimental film festival, Bearded Child. He liked Hot Springs and decided to return and, ultimately, stick around when the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute hired him to put on last year's underground festival and, later, to come aboard as institute program director. In everything he's worked on — including the documentary fest and the HSDFI's summer film series — he's injected a welcome dose of the weird into the programming.
But the ARKUFF is Anderson's opportunity to really indulge that tendency. Like last year, the three-day festival celebrates experimental film that exists in the margins of popular culture. Though, as with "Famous Firsts," Anderson makes it a point to book works from known filmmakers and artists, though they're rarely the films for which they're famous. One possible exception: David Lynch's surrealist cult classic, "Eraserhead" (9:15 p.m., Friday).
More towards the margins, on Friday, "Arkansas's Finest" (7:15 p.m.) celebrates two of the state's underground stars: Locust Bayou's Phil Chambliss, whose sensibility suggests that he is Lynch's exponentially weirder Southern cousin; and Nancy Silver, a filmmaker Anderson compares favorably to Chambliss who's recently become something of a cult star in the UK underground.
Saturday, Yoshie Sakai, an experimental filmmaker from California, will be in attendance as an installation of her short films runs on a loop. She stars in them all as an "unassuming underdog lost in a complicated world full of obstacles."
Possibly the most accessible program of the weekend — particularly for families — is the William Wegman retrospective (2 p.m., Saturday). A multi-media artist famous for working with Weimaraners, Wegman was also, according to Anderson, a pioneering video artist. Many of the videos included in the retrospective star Wegman's delightfully deadpan dogs, often with Wegman offering dry voiceovers. The program concludes with "The Hardly Boys in Hardly Gold," a terrifically funny, spot-on parody of the Hardy Boys books, with Weimaraners playing all parts.
Later Saturday, "Riot Girrl" (3:30 p.m.) features cult icon Sadie Benning's diary-style home movies shot on a Fisher-Price PXL-2000 toy camera and twee art star Miranda July's pre-"You, Me, and Everyone We Know" experimental video, "Nest of Tens." The contemporary cinema program "Abstractions and Dreams" (5 p.m.) includes a film by Anderson called "Bird Nest" that he and co-director Bobby Missile made with analog video mixers.
If you are a true-blue avant-garde cinephile, you'll want to make sure and catch Saturday night's line-up. Shown in 16mm, "Avant-Garde Classics" (6:30 p.m.) features shorts by Bruce Conner, including "Looking for Mushrooms" (with Timothy Leary), and Kenneth Anger, whose tour of the supernatural and occult, "Invocation of My Demon Brother," has a Moog-laden soundtrack courtesy of Mick Jagger. Largely because of that film, Anderson warns that the program is intended for mature audiences only. Saturday's schedule starts to wind down with a 16mm print of "The Hart of London" (7:50 p.m.), a 79-minute feature that avant-garde godfather Stan Brakhage hailed as "one of the greatest films ever made," followed by new films from Matthew Silver and Mara Mattuschka (9:30 p.m.), which Anderson calls "perhaps the most bizarre program of the festival."
Sunday, Andrew Busti, from the University of Colorado at Boulder, offers a workshop introduction to super 8mm and 16mm and its application to experimental film (noon to 6 p.m., $15-$25). At 8 p.m., the festival shifts to the Low Key Arts Building (118 Arbor St.), where contemporary films highlighting the "American Bizarre" and the short films of the Hungarian Buharov brothers screen. Anderson says that fans of the surrealist puppetry of the Brothers Quay will want to catch the Buharov brothers.
On Friday and Saturday at 11 p.m., Low Key Arts hosts dance parties with visuals. Admission is $7 or free with a VIP pass. Admission is $7 per day or $10 for a VIP pass, which also affords access to the workshop at a discounted price.