23 Degree tilt

Artists in the local collective 23 Degrees create original films—and then throw a big bash every season to celebrate the results

Jason Turner is one-half of “the blitzkrieg that is Varial Films.”

Jason Turner is one-half of “the blitzkrieg that is Varial Films.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

In Sacramento, summer always makes a sudden entrance. We spend a few balmy weeks enjoying the mild breezes of spring, and bam! Suddenly, it’s too hot to sleep with the covers on, and the heat waves radiating off parking-lot tarmacs are enough to knock you down.

Those first scorching afternoons can seem like an ambush, but, in fact, the seeds of summer were sown long before the thermometer topped 100 degrees. Ever since the winter solstice, the Earth’s Northern Hemisphere has tilted steadily toward the sun—raising the temperature and delaying the sunset with each passing evening. Migrating birds left their wetland homes in March as vernal pools slowly evaporated, leaving concentric rings of wildflowers behind. And it was about that time when the members of 23 Degrees: The Sacramento Solstice Equinox Sessions chose the theme of their summer film project.

In addition to being a reliable indicator of seasonal change, 23 Degrees is a loosely organized collective of artists who meet quarterly to share original short films they’ve created about a predetermined subject. The group, named after the 23-degree tilt of the Earth’s axis that creates the planet’s seasons, began in June 2001 when three local artists—Brian Clark, Dutch Falconi and Richard Malmberg—decided to take their movie-watching nights to the next level and create their own movies. They chose a theme, “self-portrait,” and dared themselves and their friends to make short films about it. Then they threw a summer-solstice barbecue and screened the results.

The practice caught on. In the last three years, 23 Degrees consistently has staged a screening party in Sacramento on the Saturday closest to each solstice and equinox. The themes, which have included such topics as “landscape,” “death” and “penetration,” are chosen by group consensus after each party. There are no rules for the content, length or structure of submissions. The only requisite is a willingness to create. Though participation has waxed and waned over the years, there have been up to 30 films per event, plus the added participation of visual artists, puppeteers, poets, fashion designers and dancers. Free, open to the public and announced only through word of mouth (until now), 23 Degrees parties attract anywhere from 50 to 200 attendees.

Clark, whose casual, occasionally paint-spattered clothing and messy hair belie his professional demeanor, is the host and organizer of the quarterly gatherings. The only member in the group’s three-year history to submit a film for every event, Clark appreciates the discipline inherent in the cyclical tradition. “It’s my little trick for myself,” he said. “I do four major pieces a year, because I have a deadline. And it’s me calling out all my friends and saying, ‘You call yourself an artist, but you can’t seem to do anything after work except open a beer and watch TV. Come on! We owe it to ourselves.” For filmmakers like Clark and Falconi, who both make their livings as commercial animation artists, the creative freedom of a 23 Degrees project is a welcome exercise.

In addition to spurring established visual artists to produce, 23 Degrees’ open-door policy toward new participants generates an opportunity for aspiring filmmakers and animators to develop their skills. “You get the whole gamut of styles and abilities,” Clark said of the screenings. “I’m particularly supportive of people who are doing their first one. It’s kind of scary to have a hundred people there looking at your work.”

Filmmaker Brian Clark describes hardworking Levi Moore (above) as “the poster boy for 23 Degrees.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

In March, long before the summer’s sticky heat was close to a reality, the members of 23 Degrees chose the season’s theme, “euphoria,” and a date for the summer-solstice party, June 19. Then, while sandhill cranes traveled north on the Pacific Flyway, each filmmaker embarked on a quest to capture cinematic evidence of euphoria.

Brian Clark suspended a painted dancer from his ceiling. Jason Turner and Levi Moore made a $5 wedding cake and pedaled a rickshaw through the streets of the Fabulous 40s in the middle of the night. Dutch Falconi scribbled a series of black, abstract shapes onto paper with notes in the margin that read, “Blur like snowstorm. Keep it scary!” Like the ever-rising path of the sun across the sky, their efforts were a sure sign that summer was headed toward Sacramento, bringing bright days, outdoor parties and an attendant euphoria.

Take 1: ocean waves, a flying girl and plenty of black plastic

Brian Clark ran his fingers through his already tousled brown hair. He studied the large sheets of black plastic suspended from the ceiling and covering the floor. He stared at the mountain climber’s harness, suspended from a rafter overhead and hanging in the center of the plastic room-cube. Then he looked at the rope in his hand and sighed. His cat, Dot, who supervised the operation from the room’s perimeter, echoed his exhalation with a meow.

Clark, a three-time Emmy-winning animation/graphics artist, had been working on his euphoria piece in his off hours for nearly two months. First, he’d driven to Shelter Cove to film intersecting lines of sea foam at the ocean’s edge. He’d digitally covered the ocean video with rich, velvety colors—electric blues, vibrant purples—until the original images were obscured, leaving only the waves’ ever-shifting patterns behind. This footage would form the background for his piece—an abstract fusion of color and movement set to ambient electronic music.

A mountain-climbing friend had traveled from Berkeley to bring the harness and to teach him how a dancer could safely float in it. Clark recruited another friend, Doreen Pichotti—a student of dance traditions as diverse as Congolese, swing and modern—to “fly” in the harness while he videotaped her. They’d had a few rehearsals at the Brick House Gallery (where Clark lives, works and hosts the 23 Degrees screenings). A tiny brunette who fondly compares her energy level and physique to that of a hummingbird, Pichotti already had developed a surprising repertoire of movement for the awkward position of hanging in midair by a rope attached to her waist. Clark had spent hours painting a bodysuit for her to wear as she danced—a one-piece spandex leotard layered with multiple coats of paint arranged in bright orbs of sky blue, yellow, green, red and purple.

That morning, Clark constructed the black-plastic room inside the gallery’s main building. The black would have the effect of a blue screen—allowing him to film Pichotti and then add the ocean-inspired background behind her.

Clark, the founder of 23 Degrees.

Photo By Larry Dalton

By erasing all traces of the harness, computer-animating the oil painting on Pichotti’s body and multiplying her image over the colorful background, Clark hoped to achieve his vision of euphoria. As he explained at an interview in April, “I’m trying to make this orb, and inside of it are bodies floating around in a three-dimensional space,” he said. With the use of bright, constantly shifting colors; emotive music; and an interesting visual perspective, Clark hoped to make the viewers feel as if they, too, were floating inside the sphere. “You’re moving around in there,” he said excitedly, “swirling around in a beautiful orb full of brightly colored naked shapes … but they’re not typical runway models; they’re these blobby weird things.” Pichotti’s replicated form would be image-processed out of recognition, replaced with a kaleidoscope of colors in vaguely human shapes.

Now, two weeks before the screening, it was time to film the dance. Pichotti paced in the colorful bodysuit like a walking canvas, pausing every so often to stretch her torso. Spotlights were focused on the harness. The CD player was set to the song that would accompany the finished film, Aphex Twin’s “Gwely Mernans.” The only remaining detail was anchoring the rope so the harness would hold Pichotti safely. The smooth plastic walls offered no solution; neither did Dot.

The gallery owner, Davedave, noticed Clark’s predicament. “Tie it to me!” he joked, studying the situation. “We have to get better rigging,” he concluded, “but it’s not everyday that someone’s flying through the air.” The men decided to knot the rope more tightly around the rafter itself.

“The things you have to do for art,” Davedave commented good-naturedly as he watched Clark climb a ladder and secure the rope. “Especially this guy! Don’t do something easy. Oh no! I’ve got to have someone flying through the air!”

Pichotti climbed the ladder and inserted both legs into the harness, belting it around her midsection. Clark pulled the ladder away, and there she was: the only bright spot in a black room, swinging in midair. “It’s not comfortable,” she said, “but it’s doable, as soon as I stop spinning.”

The rope rotated Pichotti slowly, like a dizzying carnival ride. Unfortunately for her, it was just the effect Clark was after. He gave her a push and grabbed his camera. As the arrhythmic-heartbeat-like tempos of Aphex Twin filled the room, Pichotti curled into a fetal position and closed her eyes. The effect—a small body suspended from a cord attached to its belly, floating in a dark space to the muffled sound of heartbeats—was immediately obvious. Clark had unwittingly orchestrated the ultimate creation metaphor, a room-sized womb.

Gradually, as the track repeated, Pichotti unfurled her limbs and experimented with bolder movement. She twirled and undulated, rippling her arms and legs as Clark filmed her from every angle. After 30 minutes, she seemed relieved to leave the harness when Clark suggested she move to a table to dance. During the transition from air to land, a group of Clark’s friends dropped in for a visit.

The rear view of our cover models, longtime 23 Degrees participants John Villec, Moore, Turner and Clark.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Curious, they lined up against the perimeter of the room as Pichotti mounted the table. Clark set the song playing once more as Pichotti, finally in her element with her feet on the ground, whirled and swooped to the music. Though her movements were confined by the fixed frame of Clark’s camera, Pichotti used her body to push every edge of the invisible boundary. She reached, twisted and leaned in all directions, never pausing to look at the table ledge she skirted so closely. The colors of her bodysuit were radiant in the spotlights, and her eyes shone with the love of movement. When the song ended, the spectators burst into spontaneous applause.

This spontaneous performance, like the ocean waves at Shelter Cove, would be unrecognizable in the finished film. Once Clark painted over the dance with his electronic palette, only the patterns of euphoria would remain.

Take 2: falling in love and other signs of a breakup

Levi Moore and Jason Turner met while breaking up a van with a sledgehammer on a movie set (to give it that just-fell-off-a-cliff look). When the two discovered they each had a love of filmmaking and half the money for a Canon XLI video camera, they bought one together and formed Varial Films. For two years, in between their studies at California State University, Sacramento, and odd jobs as waiters, cooks and teachers, Moore and Turner have showcased original films at venues like the Sacramento Festival of Cinema’s A Place Called Sacramento screening and at nearly every 23 Degrees gathering.

In April, the two settled at a patio table at the True Love Coffeehouse to brainstorm their take on euphoria for the next 23 Degrees assignment. After consuming a pack of cigarettes and several pages of Levi’s notebook, a plot was born: A man and woman meet while helping mutual friends move in together. They go on a series of romantic dates and fall in love, creating euphoria. By the time their mutual friends get married, the new couple’s relationship has soured. The man and woman break up at the wedding reception. The man goes home and burns all his mementos of the relationship. When his catharsis is complete, he dances around the fire in the throes of an even greater breakup euphoria.

“The challenge becomes holding euphoria while you’re undermining it!” Turner exclaimed, after they’d hashed out the basics. “I’m a cynical bastard. I love that! Fuck love. Fuck the romantic comedy! It can’t work anyway.”

“Dude, you’re coming off way bitter,” Moore warned.

Dutch Falconi transformed his original sketches into sharp computer animation for his short film <i>Dysphoria</i>.

Illustration By Dutch Falconi

“I know!” Turner said, smiling. “And I’m in love right now, too.”

Fast-forward two months. Turner found a real-life couple, aspiring actress Angela Avalon and her fiancé Chris Stark, who were willing to work for free, and he cast them in the leads. With the do-it-yourself resourcefulness necessitated by a starving-student budget, Turner and Moore staged a faux wedding in Moore’s backyard with a borrowed wedding dress, 100 helium-filled black-and-white balloons and a table piled high with empty gift boxes. To make a wedding cake, they scraped the red, white and blue sprinkles off two Memorial Day-themed cakes from Safeway, stacked them together and covered them with whipped cream. Once the bride and groom toppers were added, the effect was surprisingly realistic. As the filmmakers’ friends danced on the patio to simulate a reception, Avalon dumped Stark over and over, leaving him sad-faced and alone in front of the camera. By afternoon’s end, the breakup half of the film had been shot.

The film was on track, but there had been some changes to the plan for Varial Films. Turner had accepted a job in Portland, Ore., to be closer to his aforementioned love interest. He planned to move the week after the 23 Degrees screening. When reminded of his previous cynicism, he just laughed. “Now look at me!” he giggled, waving his hands about. “I’m in love! I’m moving to Oregon! La la la!”

“I’m so sad,” Moore admitted in a separate interview. “What am I going to do?” The two friends had yet to discuss who would get custody of the camera or what would become of their future projects. However, it had become apparent that this piece for 23 Degrees—ironically about separation—would be the last film they’d co-create for some time.

With the summer solstice (and Turner’s move) looming, the duo decided to finish shooting in one night. From the beginning, the night was beset with difficulties. The shoot was delayed more than an hour when Turner accidentally ingested chicken broth, to which he is severely allergic, during dinner. Once he made certain he wasn’t headed for anaphylactic shock, he hurried the actors and his assistant, UC Davis film student Kristi Uribes, through a romantic dinner scene at Cafe Bernardo. Avalon and Stark hastily ate pizzas and gazed lovingly into each other’s eyes while Turner filmed from all angles. Within 20 minutes of his arrival at the cafe, he announced, “The blitzkrieg that is Varial Films is outta here!” Things were back on schedule, until Moore got a flat tire on the way to Turner’s house to shoot the final scene. Uribes left to bring him a jack, and the shoot ground to a halt.

In the remaining scene, the film’s couple concludes the dinner date with a romantic ride in Turner’s bicycle-powered rickshaw. But with Avalon and Stark riding, Turner pedaling, and his girlfriend, Alyssa Bush, holding the lights, there was no one to man the camera without Moore. In a daring feat of guerilla filmmaking acrobatics, Turner managed to pedal the rickshaw backward while holding the camera with both hands to film the couple kissing inside the carriage. This wobbly solution sufficed for a close-up, but they still needed an establishing shot of Turner on the rickshaw.

Though dangerous, Turner decided to pedal the rickshaw while Bush attempted to drive his truck alongside him and film at the same time. Rickshaw and pickup drove neck and neck through the neighborhood as Bush and Turner shouted over the engine, trying to choose a location. Bush suggested the Fabulous 40s, but Turner was reluctant to pedal that far. A car slowed behind the odd parade and then sped off, honking angrily.

Film enthusiasts absorb a scene of abstract euphoria in the backyard of the Brick House Gallery during 23 Degrees’ summer-solstice gathering.

Photo By Andrew J. Epstein

Frustrated, they made a cumbersome U-turn to find Moore standing at the side of the road holding out a cold beer. Turner cheered and grabbed it as he biked past, like a marathon cyclist reaching for water. Moore’s arrival gave everyone a second wind. Turner set off for the Fabulous 40s at a rapid pace, cast and crew following in two cars.

It was 1:17 a.m. when Turner coasted into the intersection of 42nd and J Streets, balancing one foot on the handlebars and one foot on the seat. Avalon and Stark climbed back into the rickshaw, looking extremely tired, and began kissing dutifully. Bush parked the truck in the middle of the quiet street and aimed the headlights on the scene. Moore stood on the curb with the camera, ready to catch the shot.

Suddenly, the neighborhood dogs began barking at the unexpected action outside. First one, then two. Moore cringed as the dogs got louder. Everyone held their breath, waiting to see if tired homeowners would wake and pull the plug on this improvised movie set.

“Here, doggy doggy,” Bush called softly out the window. Miraculously, the dogs quieted down. Moore nodded at Turner, who began to pedal the kissing couple up and down the street in lazy circles. Neither the characters nor the filmmakers betrayed their impending separation. All the chaos of the evening dropped away, leaving only the hard-won euphoria of capturing the perfect shot.

Take 3: Euphoria is in the central processing unit of the beholder

One week before the 23 Degrees screening, Dutch Falconi was uncertain about his grasp on euphoria. A professional animator and graphic artist, Falconi is perhaps best known locally as the leader of the now-disbanded 23-piece swing band Dutch Falconi and His Twisted Orchestra. These days, Falconi is focused on what he terms “less ego-driven” projects, like sculpture and filmmaking.

For the 23 Degrees screening, he first envisioned a triptych of computer-animated abstract pieces set to music: one illustrating natural euphoria, one illustrating mechanical euphoria and one illustrating spiritual euphoria. “I was trying to break [the assignment] down into three things,” he said, “as a way to get a better idea of it.”

Doreen Pichotti curls like a fetus to combat dizziness as she spins slowly from the ceiling of the Brick House Gallery.

Photo By Brian Clark

Falconi had no problem illustrating the first two concepts. To demonstrate, he turned to his computer, moved aside the supermarket logo he’d been drawing for a client and called up the nature-themed piece, simply titled Euphoria. From the middle of a black screen emerged a shining gold pattern like the motion of light on the bottom of a swimming pool. The gold was gently replaced by rich blues and reds. Each flowed into the next in synchronicity with the orchestral music accompanying it, a composition by turn-of-the-century German composer Anton Webern. The effect was utterly mesmerizing. “I think euphoria, in the natural sense, is a welcoming, warming chaos,” he explained.

Then Falconi summoned his second piece, Dysphoria—his rendition of mechanical euphoria—to the screen. Black-and-white abstract shapes vaguely resembling claws, machine parts and insect legs marched across the screen with assembly-line precision, crossing over one another from all directions in a chaotic parade. Those shapes that seemed to suggest familiar objects tempted the mind to construct a logical interpretation of the scene. But, with the hurried pace and occasional deliberate blurring of the images, this simply wasn’t possible. The accompanying music was dissonant, jarring the listener with sudden horn blasts, as frantic white lines struck the black screen.

“I think the euphoria of machines is the euphoria of order,” Falconi continued. “I imagine that machines have a certain sense of euphoria in that they’re ordered and rigid, and black and white, and things are either one or zero, or on or off. So that’s how I came to the idea of the black-and-white things moving at the same rates.”

Though each piece represents a different side of euphoria, Falconi chose to label this piece Dysphoria. “It’s dysphoric in the sense of organic euphoria. I started doing it and realized they were sort of opposite. I guess which one is euphoric depends on if you’re looking at it from the machine’s point of view. Does that make any sense?”

Falconi frequently asks if his words make sense.

When the time came to create the third piece, on spiritual euphoria, Falconi was at a loss. “My idea of spiritual euphoria is not out of having experienced it,” he admitted. “Probably only those people who got really heavy into drugs even know what it is.”

Surrendering to his uncertainty, Falconi decided Euphoria and Dysphoria would suffice as his submission. “I don’t want to call the first piece Euphoria, but I can’t figure out what else to call it,” he said, shrugging. “It’s more like, ‘Here’s a possible euphoria, and here’s its polar opposite.’ The assignment wasn’t to illustrate a conflict; it was to illustrate the thing. But I feel that if you can illustrate the opposing forces of something, you’re maybe closer to suggesting what it really is. Does that make any sense?”

In Clark’s film E:Motion, Pichotti’s form is almost entirely obscured by fluidly shifting, luminescent colors.

Photo By Brian Clark

In the days before the screening, Falconi would continue to approach the elusive concept of euphoria from both sides by refining his two 90-second films after work and during downtime at the office. “In the case of a narrative,” he said, “you obviously know when you can’t mess with it any further, but when it’s abstract, you can just keep painting over it.” But just then, Falconi’s professional duties required his contemplation of euphoria to take a back seat to supermarket branding, if that makes any sense.

Take 4: a starlit movie premiere

Despite months of preparation for the summer-solstice screening, the guest of honor neglected to show up. Summer must have had a prior engagement on June 19, because many of the 23 Degrees partygoers huddled beneath blankets and jackets to stave off the chilly air as they awaited the evening’s entertainment. Speakers were mounted in every corner of the yard, and a large movie screen reflected 23 Degrees films from previous parties. Clark manned the projector from a table behind the screen, where only the silhouette of his perpetually disarrayed hair and the tip of his cigarette were visible in the increasing darkness.

The temperature notwithstanding, most of the folding chairs in the backyard of the Brick House Gallery were occupied by 9 p.m. Avalon and Stark, the star couple of the Varial Films piece, cuddled in the front row while they awaited their premiere. Counting those who stood in groups, drinking beer and ignoring the screen entirely, there were about 70 people at the event.

Partygoers continually emerged from the gallery itself, which hosted a companion art show of paintings and sculpture, also titled Euphoria. Dot circled the gallery floor, collecting as many strokes as possible. Pichotti walked gracefully through the crowd with a dancer’s poise. Newly arriving filmmakers trekked back to Clark’s table to hand off their submissions. As longtime 23 Degrees participant John Villec informed a curious attendee, this was the only prerequisite for participation. “You only have to show up with a DVD and give it to Brian, and you’re in,” he said.

Clark kept up a trek of his own, pacing back and forth from the projector to his office inside the gallery. “Any minute now, guys,” he said to the anxious audience, as he passed for the umpteenth time. It was Turner who explained that Clark’s piece was actually still being rendered and encoded on his computer, a requisite process before it could be burned to a DVD and viewed. “Levi and I were up all night doing our piece,” Turner related. “So, we called Brian at 2 a.m., and he was like, ‘I just started my 19-hour render! It ought to be done just in time!’”

Turner himself had arrived, DVD in hand, with only five minutes to spare. After his marathon editing session, he was reluctant to talk about the results. “I need some distance from it,” he groaned. “I’ve been looking at it too long. If I hear [the soundtrack] song one more fucking time, I think I’ll puke.” Just then, Clark walked by again and confirmed that as soon as his piece was ready to be burned to DVD, he’d start the show. He asked Turner to make an announcement to appease the crowd.

Jason Turner captures a scene from a makeshift wedding, as Levi Moore and Monique Turner cut the hastily assembled cake.

Photo By Jan Wiemann

“What do you want me to say?” Turner asked.

“I don’t know,” Clark answered, before heading back to the projector. Between the shivering attendees and the stressed filmmakers, conditions hardly seemed euphoric.

But once the movies started, the theme became clear. There were 13 original submissions that night. Though they shared a common theme, each was startlingly different. The visions of euphoria were as various as a baby breast-feeding, cave people eating psychedelic mushrooms, a montage of fluffy clouds and peace signs, abstract renditions of Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor kissing, teenagers talking about taking drugs and violence, and a love story about a man who was allergic to happiness. Many, like Falconi’s, were entirely abstract. Others featured unscripted documentary-style interviews or winning performances by recognizable local talent, including Equity actors David Pierini and Elisabeth Nunziato. All received vigorous applause.

Turner and Moore’s piece was set to a melancholy cover of U2’s “One” by Johnny Cash. The scenes in the cafe and the rickshaw, which required more than four hours of shooting, represented less than 30 seconds of screen time. A few bites of pizza, a flirty glance, a lingering kiss in the rickshaw, and the couple was already breaking up at the wedding. Stark’s victory dance around the fire trailed off abruptly into a cryptic blackness while the music continued, suggesting further action that never arrived. The abrupt finish betrayed the filmmakers’ fatigue during the last-minute marathon editing process. Nonetheless, the crowd cheered, while Stark and Avalon hugged with excitement at their accomplishment.

Clark’s piece, titled E:motion, was the final piece of the show. The familiar heartbeat rhythms of Aphex Twin spilled into the yard as the treated ocean waves filled the screen. Rather than creating many bodies inside an orb, Clark had chosen instead to transform Pichotti’s dancing body into a single shimmering, translucent being. Her form stretched, and spun with the changes in the music, unfolding over the saturated colors of the screen. The film’s meditative beauty was lost on no one, but it was doubtful that anyone in the audience could discern the effort behind the image—the months of filming, traveling, painting and harness dancing required to make the five-minute piece.

Multiply that level of effort by 13 pieces, and it’s obvious that the amount of labor that went into the evening’s 90 minutes of free entertainment is staggering. Now multiply that night by four events a year for three years, to encompass the whole history of 23 Degrees. These gatherings are an unsung tradition built on unique ideas, countless hours of videotape, all-night editing sessions, the kindness of volunteers and the hard work of artists who receive nothing for their efforts but the satisfaction of continuing to create. Somehow, when it all comes together on every solstice and equinox, it looks effortless.

As the last piece ended, Clark wandered out from behind the screen and modestly said, “Well, that was it.”

That was it, of course, until September 18, when 23 Degrees will meet for the autumnal-equinox screening. Summer had barely arrived, but the seeds of fall were already sown.