Jen Ashlock greets her interlocutor in a retro bowling shirt with a name stitched on the pocket identifying her as "Betty." We're in her basement apartment in Chapel Hill, where the 28-year-old has created something of a shrine to kitsch Americana. Plastic hot dogs and bologna packages line the wall. A vintage pink AM-band radio claims the red Formica table. An autographed picture of El Vez, the Mexican Elvis knock-off, dominates one wall, despite its small size. Another wall displays a publicity photo of Sherilyn Fenn in her Twin Peaks role, and with less Lynchian camp, a different wall sports a huge Vertigo poster.
As a fairly dedicated collector of inexpensive period kitsch, Ashlock has been able to apply this instinct to guerilla filmmaking by locating cheap, obsolete, but perfectly functional camera equipment. (She's even offered eBay shopping tips to neophyte filmmakers.) Ashlock's appreciation of silliness, economy and archaic technology (the pink radio has tubes, she cheerfully announces) suggests that she's more than ready to curate the good, the bad and the simply bizarre films that land in her post office box every week in her new role as director of Carrboro's long-running Flicker film program.
After eight years, Flicker has become a durable and popular institution, providing a forum for no-budget film experiments, one-off jokes and the occasional sublime revelation. Its stewardship, however, has always been in the hands of male film jocks. Until now, that is.
Starting this Monday, a new era will begin for Flicker, when the decidedly female grad student and filmmaker takes over the reins of the film series that has been led by such luminaries as Norwood Cheek (its founder, who now resides in L.A.), Roger Beebe (now a Floridian) and, most recently, Durham's Jim Haverkamp.
As a sociology Ph.D candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill currently knocking out a dissertation on job satisfaction, Ashlock might not seem to be an obvious choice for the job of Flicker boss, a duty that demands equal measures of organizing energy, love of low-rent cinema and a fervent devotion to irony and whimsy. But Ashlock seems to be more than up to the task.
There's probably no better endorsement of Ashlock's capabilities than the fact that she was handpicked by Haverkamp, who approached Ashlock last winter about taking over the festival. "I was looking for somebody who really knew what Flicker was all about. She'd been coming to Flicker for years," Haverkamp said in a recent telephone interview. "I floated the idea to her, and luckily for us, she said yes."
Ashlock admits that, as a filmmaker, she is not the equal of Haverkamp, who is retiring from Flicker to devote time to his long-gestating documentary Monster Road. Though a longtime cinephile and Flicker devotee, she didn't make her first film until two years ago, when she was the winner of a "hat trick" at a Flicker screening. The prize was a roll of film, the use of a camera, and an assignment to make a film about cats. To complete the assignment, she drove out to a friend's place in the country and made a short film about the woman's 13 cats, showed it at the next Flicker, and an avocation was born.
"I never thought I'd do a film. It was too foreign, too scary. I thought you had to go to film school," Ashlock says. After shooting a second film with a borrowed camera, Ashlock hit the bazaars of eBay and scored a 1960s vintage Canon Super-8 camera, with which she made her third film. Her own filmmaking aspirations remain modest at the moment, but she does acknowledge a desire to use the medium in her scholarly work, as a sort of cinematic Studs Terkel. "I'd like to get interviews on tape," she says. "I want to use films to get points across ... and put audiences in touch with other people's stories."
Although Ashlock was thoroughly bitten by the film bug by last fall, she didn't begin to think about assuming a leadership role in the Triangle's film culture until she attended the inaugural Ms. Films festival, held in Carrboro. This confab, largely organized by Haverkamp, featured an appearance by Andrea Richards, author of a how-to book called Girl Director and a passionate advocate of women's filmmaking. "The turnout for Ms. Films was huge, and it was chock full of women doing the same thing," Ashlock says. For Ashlock, Ms. Films made official what seems to be a growing trend of increased female involvement in filmmaking. "When I look at the recent Flicker programs, I see more and more women contributing. It's really exciting, and a lot of that is due to Jim and Norwood and Roger."
By way of a preview, Ashlock screens three of the dozen or so films she's planning for this Sunday, and it becomes apparent why such a curious and open-minded personality is needed for the job. One film, a local production called Still Breathing, makes effective use of some shock inserts, in which a man gets hit by a piano, another guy gets clobbered by a car, and still another gets mowed down by a plane. It's a three-beer movie, one best appreciated in the cheerful, low-expectations realm of the Cat's Cradle, Flicker's longtime home.
Another film, from an Arizona filmmaker, begins promisingly as a pair of actors in bunny suits tramps through the desert looking for humans to shoot, accompanied by some bongo-drumming on the soundtrack. Unfortunately, the filmmakers keep us waiting for a payoff that never comes.
But the reason to be in the front lines of the microcinema scene is that chance of finding something strikingly unique and beautiful, and getting to be the first to screen it. Such is the case with a black and white short called Dd, produced by UNC-Chapel Hill students Tess Ernst and Caroline Reid. The film is a study of a young woman reclining on a couch. Wearing a robe, heavy eye makeup and some bracelets, the woman seems to be either a turn-of-the-century Southern belle shaking off a mid-afternoon torpor (no doubt exacerbated by a couple of old-fashioneds), or a goth chick zonked out on something entirely different. She looks around, blinking with insolence here, sexiness there, stupefaction everywhere else, while across the room, a photographer takes pictures. This seductive film belongs to a certain tradition of photographic tawdriness, from E.J. Bellocq's New Orleans prostitutes to Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills. (The score is quite something, too, a defamiliarizing composition of video game joystick noises.) Apparently, Ernst and Reid made this film for a class, but thanks to Flicker, it will find a wider audience.
And they will certainly be able to count on Ashlock to spread the word. The new Flicker boss confesses to a serious knack for promotion. "I'm asking everyone, 'Have you made a film? Do your parents have a camera? Have you been to Flicker?'" With such a fervent proselytizer leading Flicker into the future, the odds are that more and more people will be responding to Ashlock's queries in the affirmative.
The eighth season of Flicker will kick off on Monday, Aug. 26 at the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro. The doors open at 8 p.m., and tickets are $3. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.flickerfestival.com.