CHICAGO — On Tuesday night, at the Music Box Theatre in Lakeview, a most alarming affair unfolded in front of a near-full house of movie lovers: Local filmmakers, Chicago directors, each of some distinction, discussed the films they just completed, then, one by one, they destroyed those films. They showed the works first. They’re not nuts. But if you were not in that audience on Tuesday night to see those works, unless someone was shooting the big screen with a phone — a fair possibility — you are fresh out of luck.
Or rather, swoosh, sizzle, crackle, poof. Gone forever. The method of destruction was blowtorch. “Destroy Your Art,” the title given this extreme annual celebration of the impermanence of art and the fickleness of audience memory, was created in 2017 by Rebecca Fons, director of programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and Jack Newell, her husband, a filmmaker himself. That first year, the films — shot on SD memory cards, and not pricier, combustive celluloid — were ground up inside a shredder, but for an audience, it proved anticlimactic. They switched to crushing films in a vise, except not every director is strong enough for that. They considered acid and liquid nitrogen. But they wanted to make sure when a film was destroyed, it was gone.
As the audience filed in, filmmaker Blair St. George Wright, a Chicago artist and projectionist (who uses “they” pronouns), sat in their seat, wearing a pink bucket hat, looking at peace with what was about to happen. A friend tapped their left shoulder: “How you feeling?” Wright nodded. A few seats behind them a couple of women settled into their seats and noted several blowtorches and a black welding helmet waiting on a table in front of the stage. One of the women said she was surprised to see it, and also kind of relieved: “I was wondering, what are they going to do? Screen the film, then drag and drop a file, erase — that’s it?”
Oh, no, no.
Fons climbed on stage and noted that the first couple rows of seats were strangely empty: “If anyone wants to come up front here ... All the better to witness the burning ...” She called on the first director, Ariella Khan, a recent Northwestern University film graduate whose work often deals with her Pakistani American roots. She explained she is a “coming-of-age, dramedy kind of person,” and this was a switch, a horror short. “I am excited to see it, and I am excited to burn it,” she said. And it was impressive, patient, controlled, vaguely John Carpenter-esque, more mood than narrative, shot late at night at a Libertyville gas station, with actors, a crew of a half-dozen, even a few special effects.
It was a slow burn — “Don’t destroy it,” someone shouted after — then a real burn.
Khan worked the blowtorch around the memory card as if it were a marshmallow. And the card, dangling down from a long metal arm, burst into bright orange streaks and the audience whooped. “OK, whenever you want to stop ...” Newell said jokingly from the wings.
Khan clicked off the torch.
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