Big Ears has always reserved some space in its lineup for film programming, from the Philip Glass-scored Qatsi films in 2009 to Sufjan Stevens’ The BQE the following year. But with the art-music festival’s recent revival has come a renewed emphasis on cinema, like last year’s retrospective of collagist Bill Morrison and the supreme novelty of watching Criterion Collection classics on Regal Riviera 8’s biggest screen. It even spilled over into the music schedule, with Demdike Stare’s chilling live score to Häxan being one of the weekend’s easy highlights.
The recent announcement of this year’s Big Ears film program, running March 31 through April 3, asserts that 2015 was no fluke. The festival has teamed with Knoxville’s upstart Public Cinema, a series of free screenings organized by filmmaker Paul Harrill and critic Darren Hughes, to present the festival’s most extensive screening lineup yet, featuring more than 15 events over four days.
The partnership began with what will likely be the film program’s centerpiece: a Saturday screening of Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog at the Tennessee Theatre. (The film will be followed by a Q&A with Anderson, who returns to the stage later that afternoon with Philip Glass.) Hughes and Harrill were already clearing space in their spring lineup for the Big Ears alum’s acclaimed film essay—a fanciful portrait of the life and death of her dog Lolabelle—when they found out she’d be returning to this year’s festival. They reached out to Big Ears mastermind Ashley Capps and soon found themselves at the helm of this year’s film programming.
With the exception of a 35mm Friday screening of Sun Ra’s 1972 space-jazz odyssey Space Is the Place, the remaining films fall neatly into two of Public Cinema’s signature categories. The Flicker & Wow avant-garde series sets up shop at the Square Room with a block of short films and dedicated screenings by guests Shambhavi Kaul and Jodie Mack. (Kaul will also be presenting an installation at the University of Tennessee’s Downtown Gallery, which will be open to the public throughout the weekend.) They’ll also be debuting Bill Morrison’s newest work, The Dockworker’s Dream, which features music by Big Ears guests Lambchop and will be followed by a panel on film scoring.
More surprising is the spotlight on boutique film distributor Factory 25, a daytime series at the Riviera that extends into Sunday. Fitting into Public Cinema’s Made in the USA series, which highlights American indies, the retrospective features 10 notable features from Factory 25’s eclectic catalog, including New Jerusalem, starring Big Ears performer Will Oldham as a religious fanatic, and the WFMU documentary Sex and Broadcasting. Public Cinema will also host a Q&A with Factory 25 founder Matt Grady. Harrill says the company fits into the Big Ears lineup because of its curatorial voice, something more often associated with indie record labels than film distributors.
“It’s virtually unheard of in the film world,” Harrill says. “So we wanted to shine a light on that, celebrate it, bring it into the Big Ears conversation.”
Nick Huinker is fortunate to have spent the past 15 years living and covering Knoxville’s near-constant DIY music renaissance. Once a year he does his best to return the cultural favor as producer of the Knoxville Horror Film Fest; most of the rest of the time he’s of limited use.
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