A secondary market for Pixelvision -- Fisher-Price's failed "kiddie camcorder" from the late '80s -- is the last thing anyone would have predicted. But artists and filmmakers in surprising numbers have responded to this disarmingly simple machine for its ease of use (it takes ordinary audiocassettes) and the strange, fragmented appearance it gives things -- imagine an impressionist painting in black-and-white.
Sadie Benning got a Pixelvision in 1988 when she was 15 and has made exceptional use of it ever since. Her first films were quirky visual diaries of growing up in a consumer culture, minimelodramas that employed an arsenal of teenage-girl tricks -- Barbie dolls, masks, and of course Benning herself -- shot in the most intimate venue possible: her bedroom. She dropped out of school at 16, came out as a lesbian at 17, and won a Rockefeller grant for her films a mere two years later.
She came out in another sense in 1998, moving from museum screenings to MTV with The Judy Spots, 15 hilariously dark minutes with a hapless puppet named Judy, a grim-faced papier-máche doll who carries the weight of a schizoid culture on her frail paper shoulders. And Benning's latest film, the 56-minute feature Flat Is Beautiful, is her strongest to date, mixing a scathing social critique with a look at the inner life of a 12-year-old girl. Shot partly in Pixelvision (interiors) and partly in Super 8 (exteriors), the film takes the risky strategy of having real actors wear masks throughout. But Benning, now 25, has the chops to pull it off, conjuring enormous sympathy for characters struggling desperately for the human connections the masks won't allow. Benning appears in person for "Two Evenings With Sadie Benning" Sunday and Monday at 7:30 p.m. at the San Francisco Art Institute, 800 Chestnut (at Jones), S.F. Admission is $3.50-7; call 558-8129.
-- Gary Morris