Flat Is Beautiful: The Strange Case of Pixelvision

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“Picture what your kids can do with the new PXL 2000.” So went the 1987 advertising campaign for Fisher-Price’s latest offering, a lightweight plastic camcorder conceived specifically for children. Invented by James Wickstead, the device allowed for ten minutes of footage recorded directly onto a standard audio cassette. Sales proved disappointing; Pixelvision would soon be abandoned by its parent company, and production on new cameras halted after a year. Yet the story of the PXL 2000 was just beginning. Though it failed as a plaything, Pixelvision was taken up by a range of experimental auteurs drawn to its distinctive—grainy, spectral, colorless—textures, including Michael Almereyda, who made several feature-length projects with the toy; and a teenage Sadie Benning, who got one for Christmas from Benning’s filmmaker father James in 1988, and used it to create intimate studies of burgeoning queer identity. Film Society’s survey looks back on this curious, fertile episode of media history, showcasing efforts by Almereyda and Benning, as well as Peggy Ahwesh, Cecilia Dougherty, Joe Gibbons, and Eric Saks, among others. While the works varied notably in approach, such directors found inspired ways to deploy the format, discovering aesthetic possibility in the very limitations of its design. “Pixelvision,” Saks concluded, “is an aberrant art form, underscored by the fact that since the cameras wear out quickly, and are no longer being manufactured, it holds within itself authorized obsolescence. Each time an artist uses a PXL 2000, the whole form edges closer to extinction.”