Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival, the Avant-Garde SXSW, Adds a Film Program

big ears-let your light shine-jodie mack

This year marked the fifth iteration of the Big Ears music festival, held annually in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. Well established as the mecca of classic and contemporary, experimental and avant-garde music in North America, Big Ears has evolved into a polymorphic entertainment entity, with live events ranging from cathedral-sized installations, to outdoor drum circle extravaganzas, to intimate seances for acts ranging from the harshest of noise merchants to the most meditative jazz ensembles. With the addition of a film section to this year’s proceedings, Big Ears has reached its boldest, most ambitious heights yet, nurturing a cross-section of artists whose unique methodologies highlight not only a spiritual kinship between the musical and cinematic mediums, but expertly navigate the fertile ground between the two. Curated by professor and filmmaker Paul Harrill (director of the recent indie Something, Anything) and critic Darren Hughes—and co-presented by their local screening series and microcinema The Public Cinema—the Big Ears film program took a cue from its parent partner by bringing in experimental films and artists of diverse nature in a wide-ranging survey of some of the most exciting advances and achievements in recent DIY filmmaking and distribution.

Without recourse to theme, trend, or premiere status, Harrill and Hughes cast a wide net for their inaugural program. Anchored by a quartet of shorts programs, including solo presentations for the work of Jodie Mack and Shambhavi Kaul, the series moved nimbly over its four days between features and shorts, narrative storytelling and avant-garde experimentation. Kaul’s new six-channel installation, Modes of Faltering, which ran on loop at the UT Downtown Gallery over the fest’s first three days, provided further evidence of the programmers’ adventurous approach, as did a 35mm presentation of John Coney’s 1974 afro-futurist sci-fi epic Space is the Place, starring Sun Ra, whose surviving “Arkestra,” led by the inimitable Marshall Allen, christened Knoxville’s newest venue, the Mill & Mine, on the festival’s opening night. Connections like these, whether overt or associative, could be felt across the music and film programs: Noted archival artist Bill Morrison’s latest work, The Dockworker’s Dream, Big Ears’ sole world premiere, features a typically wondrous score by Kurt Wagner, whose band, Lambchop, played sets both on their own and with Yo La Tengo; the legendary Laurie Anderson, who acted as something of an ambassador for this year’s festivities, accompanying various musical acts and participating in Q&As along the way, was prominently featured in the film section with her new nonfiction portrait, Heart of a Dog; even Matt Grady, whose distribution house Factory 25 (Frownland, The Color Wheel) was subject of ten film retrospective, extolled his company’s record label-like regard for curation during a well attended midday conversation hosted by Harrill.

Befitting the title, the four Flicker & Wow shorts programs provided the most thrills and sensory pleasures. The pair of group programs played something like summaries of recent standouts from the festival circuit. Comprising the opening night program alone was Calum Walter’s harrowing Terrestrial, Philip Cartelli and Mariangela Ciccarello’s evocative historical investigation Lampedusa, the miniature self-portraits Untitled and Reminder by Behrouz Rae, Keina Espineira’s enigmatic We All Love the Seashore, and Jodie Mack’s hypnotizing Something Between Us, which together hail from the Rotterdam, Locarno, Toronto, and New York film festivals. The second program, headlined by Morrison’s montage of turn-of-the-century Portuguese laborers and exotic trade customs, was equally diverse. Beginning with Pablo Mazzolo’s Fish Point, a silent, visually charged excavation of the Provincial Nature Reserve on Ontario’s Pelle Island, the program careened between the tranquil and the visceral, the stately and optically dizzying: Stephen’s Broomer’s Wild Currents wrested uneasy tension from an unassuming domestic scene, piling on impositions and aural disjunctions; Sasha Waters utilized a poem by Sylvia Plath to meditate on a violent epoch in southeast Asian history with A Partial History of the Natural World, 1965; Michael Robinson’s Mad Ladders plumbed cheesy televisual dance numbers to strangely emotional depths; and Blake Williams’s Something Horizontal gestured toward narrative tropes while exploring various spatial arrangements through the use of kinetic anaglyph 3D.

My favorite 3D film in recent years, the 3-minute prismatic spectacular Let Your Light Shine (pictured at the top), capped a program of five films by the ever-endearing and infectious Jodie Mack, who was on hand to introduce and speak about her work and singular approach to animation. Within that style she’s produced a wide range of work—exemplified early on by Something Between Us, which features a scenic dimension to complement the material interests which drive her hand-crafted collages—but the “Let Your Light Shine” quintet remain the best introduction to her worldview. The silent reverie of New Fancy Foils and its indexical montage of prints and patterns and papers manages to recalibrate the mind’s eye for the tie-dye wash of Undertone Overture and the rippling flow of sequin shapes in Glistening Thrills, which together bookend what many consider her magnum opus to date, Dusty Stacks of Mom. Certainly her most ambitious project, the 40-minute stop-motion experiment, a kind of familial chronicle comprised of bric-a-brac gathered at her mother’s poster store and set to the tune of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (to which Mack sings along live, reimagining the lyrics), pushes the parameters of personal filmmaking by spinning memory and materials into strange new configurations, indivisible from one another. With her interest in the rhythmic component of images and the visual music induced by abstract animation, Mack may be the quintessential Big Ears filmmaker.

At a glance, the work of the India-born Shambhavi Kaul might not appear as conducive to such a setting. But with her multivalent interest in the form and function of arcane imagery, her spatially conscious and interactive approach to the gallery environment, and extra-cinematic conceptual designs, Kaul is equally equipped to bridge performative boundaries. In addition to Modes of Faltering, which utilized its six screens and channels to fashion a loose yet vivid melodrama from six isolated video loops, she presented “Planet,” a program of five shorts and a selection of readings delivered between each film. The corresponding elements between the installation and the films were easy to trace, as Kaul’s customary employment of repurposed film footage—of Indian or otherwise Eastern lineage—outlined the visual spectrum of Modes of Faltering just as it has previous works such as Mount Song and 21 Chitrakoot. Along with offering contextual and thematic particulars, Kaul’s readings also highlighted the often times unrecognized humor coursing through these films, as well as poetically situating them within her own personal background (the final reading, which Kaul stitched together from texts gathered from in-flight magazines and brochures, offered a kind of verbal analogue to her antiquarian formal conceits). As the program proceeded in reverse chronology, with the films sketching an inverse account of her artistic and biologic development, a holistic portrait of the artist emerged, exotic and beguiling.

Like the many and varied Big Ears musical acts, what unites these films and filmmakers is less a style than a sensibility, an intangible yet deeply felt artistic synergy that takes on a variety of shapes while maintaining a spirit of unbridled creativity. It’s an energy which forcefully animates those receptive to its unique allure, whether that be a distributor like Grady who formulated an entire curatorial philosophy for Factory 25 around a film as strange as Frownland, or a pair of programmers like Harrill and Hughes whose faith in the power, magnetism, and integrity of such seemingly disparate cinematic visions was great enough to launch a grassroots film festival in hopes of nourishing the imaginations of artist and audience alike. Over its eight years of existence, Big Ears has grown improbably from a regional concern to an event of worldwide interest—a music festival par excellence. Based on the evidence at hand, it has all the makings of a great film festival, too.


  1. I’m from Knoxville and have been to all 5 of the Big Ears festivals. You wrote a lot about visuals, and during her performance at the Bijou Theatre your NYC cellist Maya Beiser had the best visuals that I’ve seen. She said that she put it together especially for Big Ears.

  2. I’m from Knoxville and have been to all 5 Big Ears festivals. You wrote a lot about visuals. During her performance at the Bijou Theatre your NYC cellist Maya Beiser had the best visuals that I’ve seen at Big Ears. She said she put it together especially for Big Ears.


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