As local film festivals have appeared and evolved over the past few years, they've served to introduce Memphis audiences to a wave of local filmmakers. Most of these emerging talents have proffered films that fit into familiar forms, narrative works that aim to match established models whether they be mainstream, indie, or underground.
But there might not be a more distinctive voice to emerge from the film-fest scene than that of Ben Siler, whose ongoing series of short videos have been a consistent highlight of recent IndieMemphis and MeDiA Co-op film festivals.
Siler's films, the early ones anyway, come across as deadpan diary entries, wry first-person accounts of work-place anomie, romantic angst, political discontent, and the sterility of suburban life. The filmmaker appears in most of his works as a protagonist, perhaps unintentionally tapping into a long history of filmmakers who build their work around their own on-screen personas, a lineage that starts with silent-era stars such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and continues through the likes of Woody Allen, Albert Brooks, and -- perhaps the best Siler comparison -- Southern documentarian/diarist Ross McElwee. And the filmmaker's penchant for both revealing the nuts and bolts of the filmmaking process and writing ideas directly onto the screen (often in lieu of dialogue) owe a debt to French new-wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard, even if Siler confesses he isn't much of a fan. ("There are always good bits, but sometimes I think he's enjoying himself but no one else is," Siler says.)
Siler, 25, who grew up in Germantown and got an English degree from the University of Alabama, introduced himself to local filmgoers with his memorably titled post-9/11 work The Year Thousands of Innocents Died I Made Several Avant-Garde Video Projects. Shot at his family's Collierville home, the video's sardonic depiction of domestic family life is broken up by global tumult: "And then one day a lot of people died in New York," Siler writes on the screen in quiet staccato blasts. "And there were flags everywhere. Nothing else changed."
Siler's other Class of 2002 shorts were no less unnerving or compelling. In I Swallow Here, the filmmaker awakens with the word "racist" scrawled across his face in black marker. In Latent, he mixes seemingly personal domestic moments, both family and romantic, but opens with a rehearsal of a "scene" that later appears as ostensible documentary. And in Sara, Siler makes out with a giant teddy bear, a stand-in for the departed girlfriend of the title.
All these films and others will be shown Thursday night, May 26th, at the screening room of the First Congregational Church (1000 S. Cooper). Siler's first retrospective of his work is part of a mini film festival organized by the Memphis Digital Arts (MeDiA) Co-operative.
Siler got involved in the local film scene through the MeDiA Co-op's weekly filmmaking workshops and has since moved out of his parents' home and into the Midtown-based film scene populated by other co-op-connected filmmakers. Siler went to college with the notion of becoming a poetry teacher but has instead worked a series of odd jobs while finding a different creative outlet.
"What I saw at Alabama, which might not be a good representation, was that all the poetry teachers were depressed and tended to drink a lot and were just lonely little guys, and that didn't feel like a very good thing," Siler says.
Those who confuse the filmmaker with his on-screen persona might conclude that he's already met the fate of the poetry teachers he describes. With his thin frame, pale complexion, and often unkempt hair and beard, Siler has a nebbishy, insular air about him that he underscores in some of his films. Last year's Classified Ad opens with a series of extreme close-ups on the filmmaker, accompanied by titles that offer up the kind of honest descriptions you never see in personal ads: "dead eyes," "yellow teeth," "bad skin," "no discernible [crotch] bulge." And the self-deprecating credits Siler appends to his films -- such as "Perhaps You Should Reconsider Your Options Films" or "We Are So Sorry Productions" or "Creepy Lonely Films" -- encourage viewers to identify the filmmaker with his on-screen persona.
"One thing that's happened is I think people think I'm a stalker, that I'm an obsessive person who's really creepy," Siler says about the way he depicts himself. "I think that I have aspects of that personality, but I certainly don't follow people around and look in their windows. But I like that. I think the films are good if that [distinction] isn't clear."
Other Siler films are more directly comic, more playful. Cats is a remorselessly funny, imagined conversation between the Siler family's two pet felines. And The Greatest Movie Ever Made, a personal filmmaker favorite, is a comical doodle set at a stand-alone phone booth, where two college students meet for a "cram-in."
"A cram-in is just a social convention that enables people to meet and to date and mate," Siler says, then corrects himself. "Well, it isn't really anymore. It's passé. It's absurd."
These no-budget films shot on a home-video-quality camera are short on technique but rich with ideas, emotions, humor, and incident. But, much to Siler's regret, he finds himself flinching at the rawness of them.
"When I look at the first films, I see the amateurishness of them, but I don't think that's a good place to come from," Siler says.
This sense of self-doubt comes through constantly when Siler talks about his work. He wonders about the validity of comparing the Depression to present-day Memphis poverty in his recent Depression Porn, or about the validity of himself, someone who hasn't experienced poverty, making those connections. He worries about his decision in another recent film to replace one actress with another who happened to be more physically attractive. But these doubts also reflect what's best about Siler's work -- a willingness to question himself, an almost noble lack of certainty. In Classified Ad, Siler's sad-sack protagonist is depicted with a series of comically depressing descriptions: "Writes turgid little philosophies on Post-It notes. Envies cat." But these woe-is-me-isms are punctured by another: "Lives better than a king would have centuries ago." n
Ben Siler's shorts will be shown at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, May 26th, as part of the MeDiA Co-op's ongoing "FILMFESTmini.1" festival. See Mediaco-op.org for more information.