Student Curtis Tamm's Films Test Comfort Zones

Photo: Body shock. UC Berkeley senior Curtis Tamm is out to fully engage audiences with his experimental films. He doesn't aim to provoke, but his aggressive style leaves lasting marks.
Travis Wyche/Courtesy
Body shock. UC Berkeley senior Curtis Tamm is out to fully engage audiences with his experimental films. He doesn't aim to provoke, but his aggressive style leaves lasting marks.

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Correction Appended

Experimental filmmaker and UC Berkeley senior Curtis Tamm is trying to change the way we look at films. He spurns narrative movies because they emphasize only one way of approaching film; as he puts it, "They're too easy." For the uninitiated, Tamm's work is anything but easy to digest.

Take "hour) or a fis..." (pronounced "our orifice") which re-edits instructional videos of doctors probing every conceivable orifice on patients' bodies. At first, the subject matter feels too taboo, but "hour) or a fis..." is supposed to challenge our presumptions about decency: Why do we feel uncomfortable when we see the human body exposed? With a flurry of edits, Tamm has images of tongues, vaginas, penises and anuses flying by so fast that they appear superimposed. This aggressive editing technique, a recurring feature in Tamm's films, disturbs viewers, but it also demystifies the human body. After this powerful experience, we're left to wonder, Is this all our bodies are really about?

Tamm has a kind, low-key demeanor that belies his films' intensity. "I'm being aggressive," he says, "but I'm not trying to provoke people." When Tamm pulled out a cigarette, he asked me if it was okay if he smoked, then turned to a woman sitting nearby and asked her if it was okay with her, too. His films also attempt to draw people in, so viewers can connect with films that go outside their comfort zones.

Tamm grew up in Corona, a suburb in Riverside County, which he describes as a close-knit, Christian community that encourages a conformist mindset. "I began to question that one way of thinking," he says. At age 12 he began making films, and continues to create works whose qualities can be summed up with this self-imposed challenge: "How much can we get out of these 24 frames a second?"

When Tamm talks about film, he invokes terminology that lends the medium an almost magical aura. "We're getting information through our eyes and ears," he says, " but we're also being completely immersed in electromagnetic waves." These "electromagnetic waves" can elicit as much of a physical reaction from viewers as it can an emotional or intellectual one. Tamm notes that film is a young art form, and that we don't know how it really affects us. "But if films can already make people feel disturbed or ill," he says, "imagine how much further we could push the medium."

While Tamm is pushing film's boundaries, he is also opening audiences to new forms of perception. "Theaters feel so sterile," Tamm says. "So much of that space is being wasted." He opts for a more visceral viewing experience that engages audiences on a variety of levels; a recent installation displayed three simultaneous projections of his work while a dancer performed in the foreground.

Tamm's films have a remarkably tactile quality that show the mark of an artist in tune with human rhythms and limitations. "epithelial membrane moment," a 15-minute film that screened at PFA last spring, focuses on the interplay between filmic space and subject, with an inadequately dressed man wandering through an icy wasteland. "It's probably one of my more narrative films," Tamm admits. Nevertheless, even basic motions-like the man rubbing his frostbitten hands together for warmth-look like a struggle in Tamm's vision. Humans may have the capacity for creative genius, but, as Tamm says, we really are just animals. The film, like much of the filmmaker's other work, is oddly humbling in this way.

Correction: Friday, February 5, 2010
An earlier version of this article misspelled writer Max Siegel's name.

The Daily Californian regrets the error.

Ask Max if it's OK for you to smoke at [email protected]

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