Toy Story: Daddy, I just made a movie

It started as an unwanted present, then 15-year-old Sadie Benning from Milwaukee turned her toy camcorder on herself. Now her films are shown all over the world

When Fisher Price, the American toy manufacturer, launched a cheap plastic camcorder in 1987, which recorded both sound and black-and-white pictures on audio cassettes, clued-up kids delivered a resounding verdict: "It sucks."

But 15-year-old Sadie Benning shut herself in her bedroom in Milwaukee, and used the fixed-focus, low-resolution PXL 2000 to make movies about her emerging lesbianism. She has since become an art-cinema celebrity - and grown-up movie-makers have taken to the tacky "Pixelvision", earning it international acclaim as electronic folk art.

Pixelvision videos now feature at the New York Video Festival at the Lincoln Center and at international festivals - Hong Kong, Rotterdam, Sydney, London. Benning was the youngest-ever contributor to the prestigious biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. New York's Museum of Modern Art has shown a retrospective of her work and she has featured at Robert Redford's Sundance festival.

Originally advertised as providing "unlimited possibilities for kid creativity, enormous play value", the PXL 2000 was discontinued after two years, in 1989, when the rising value of the yen made its manufacture by Sony in Japan uneconomic. They last sold at a clearance rate of $99 each. Now, with plastic gears worn and squeaking, they change hands among avant-garde film-makers for up to $2,000.

Although adult movie-makers have made their names as Pixelators, Benning's early work, available on video, remains the most authentic, and probably unsurpassable, expression of the medium. Her face-to-camera monologues, in the manner of Tracey Emin, are half-innocent, half-adult. The fragility of her childlike confessions is juxtaposed with bitter complaints against her crime-ridden neighbourhood.

As a medium, Pixelvision has the same contrasting qualities. It is childlike: the low resolution, the result of having only 10,800 pixels (light-sensitive squares) gives a shimmering, fairyland effect, while the plastic lens's fixed focus can show eyelashes trembling in low-res, or wet lips blowing bubble-gum. There is a peep-show voyeurism about it.

But, as Benning's candy-sweetness hardens into confrontation, the same grainy picture seems to acquire a harshness that is compounded by the system's point-and-shoot immediacy, its unrelenting monochrome and the crude black frame which is unique to Pixelvision.

Laced with adult irony, Benning's narratives are sometimes spoken, sometimes seen in the form of manuscript diary notes, thrust in front of the camera - as in Living Inside, If Every Girl Had A Diary and Jollies - in which Barbie dolls enact sex scenes. She tells the camera, confidingly: "My neighbour is selling crack as my neighbourhood dies." And: "I was born here. I'm not kidding you. Don't look at me like that. You always think it's so funny. Like it's a big joke or something. But I'm not kidding you."

In fact, you never know whether she is kidding or not - whether this is the cinema verite of bruised innocence or a smart kid taunting the prurience of adults. "Somehow," she confesses, describing her first experiences of lesbianism, "we knew enough not to kiss in front of anyone, so we went into the woods and kissed until it was time to go home."

It's a twilight, adolescent world, on a twilight, flickering screen: "When I was 13, I called a boy and told him to meet me a block from my house. I had a bet with a friend that I could touch his dick. We made out and I reached down his pants. He told me his d ick was small and I said I didn't care. I touched it and then ran across the square to where my friend was waiting. A week later, we had a fist fight on the school bus. Now he works in a sushi bar."

Benning's PXL 2000 camera was a Christmas present from her father, James Benning, an accomplished but underrated film-maker. Sadie says the gift disappointed her. "I thought, 'This is a piece of shit. It's black-and-white. It's for kids.'"

Days later, on New Year's Eve, she saw a friend injured by a drunk driver and heard gunshots as she passed a bar. She ran home and presented to the camera, in shakily handwritten notes with voice-over, an account of what had happened. "The camera didn't judge me. It just listened. I used it to get out things that I couldn't tell anybody yet." It helped her, she says, to come out.

Her father, a teacher at the California Art School, showed her first three short videos to his class - before he had seen them. He himself has now adopted Pixelvision. The best-known adult Pixelator is the American independent film-maker, Michael Almereyda. His latest Pixel, the 23-minute The Rocking Horse Winner, adapted from a DH Lawrence short story about a boy who can predict winning horses, was shown at this year's Sundance festival. "The story has an element of the supernatural," he says, "which suits Pixelvision because everything it records looks magical," he says. His forthcoming film version of Hamlet, starring Ethan Hawke, will use Pixelvision for a film-within- the-film of the play.

The PXL 2000 camera was never sold in Britain. Mark Harris, a London artist, has one of only a handful in this country. He paid only $20 for it, in a bargain store in Columbus, Ohio. But he had to pay pounds 600 for an American-standard VCR and television to play his PXL tapes. And his camera is so noisy - each one seems to have an idiosyncrasy - that the built- in microphone records more camera-whirr than sound track. He uses the camera to record people in the street - unusual because, unplugged, it uses up batteries quickly. He likens the artistic effect to watercolour.

Gerry Fialka, a 45-year-old freelance media ecologist and director of the Pixel shorts Can I Film Your Butt? and Muther Mumesons, runs a twice- yearly Pixelfest in Los Angeles with an audience of 200 called "PXL THIS!". "Pixelvision is the electronic equivalent of pencil and paper," he says. "Year after year, it amazes me that people are still using it. Basically, it's a failed toy. My dad thought what I was doing was so great that he wrote to Fisher Price. But they didn't want to know."

What future for Pixelvision? Its inventor, James Wickstead, 55-year-old founder of James Wickstead Design Associates, a design and development company in New Jersey, is seeking a licensee to manufacture and distribute his newly designed successor to PXL 2000, a colour version that could retail at an estimated $129.

Its resolution, though doubled, is still low, and the lens and frame rate are unchanged. "While the present lot of camcorders are technical marvels, they require a sophisticated user to create artistic and useful films. PXL is very easy to use and PXL films have a simple and artistic quality, a graphic uniqueness. Perhaps this simplicity is the reason why both children and professional film-makers gravitate towards it. They have the same child-like ability to cut through peripheral events, to see clear, graphic truth. I was determined to retain that childlike, artistic quality"

Watch out for PXL shorts at London Electronic Arts' Pandaemonium Festival, 16-25 October at the Lux Centre, 2-4 Hoxton Square, London N1 (information 0171-684 0200). PXL films can be bought or hired from London Electronic Arts, and from Screen Edge, PO Box 30, Lytham St Annes, Lancashire FY8 1RF (01253- 712453)

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