It takes a special kind of project to unite a community of friends and strangers, a music venue and one of the most weep-worthy movies of all time under the banner of one ambitious outpouring of creativity.
This project is "Old Yeller Still Dies," a movie mashup event set to screen at Motorco Music Hall this Saturday. The premise: take a beloved film, divide it into scenes, assign those scenes to over thirty groups of people, allow those people to film their own versions of the scenes and recombine the material into a (sort of) cohesive work of movie magic. In a promotion for the event, Motorco assures, “Old Yeller is still going to die at the end but it’ll be much more fun to watch it happen this time around.”
"Old Yeller Still Dies" is the brainchild of Frederica Almond, the self-proclaimed “mad scientist behind the project.” Her Durham Movie Mashup series, which sprung from an annual talent show put on by a group of Almond’s friends, is now in its third year. One year, Almond decided to “redo 'Top Gun'” as her talent—an idea that she said “of course doesn’t make sense.” However, that idea led to the concept of a group movie effort. The first mashup was "Top Gun: Mach One," a re-imagining of Tom Cruise’s famous airplanes and volleyball film, and last year’s mashup was "Karate Kid Kimchee Kiki." This year’s reproduction of "Old Yeller" will feature the same country life and tragic rabidity plot points as the original but promises surprises in the way of puppetry, animation and a slew of dog actors.
Almond described the process of making the films as “three parts ridiculously fun, one part ridiculously stressful.” What started as a small project among friends has grown into a larger community effort, and almost no one has professional video or moviemaking experience. “I didn’t know anything about editing when I first started,” said Almond, but she has learned a lot by making these films. She asks that scenes be turned in to her four weeks before the screening, and during those four weeks she spends “every extra minute” of her free time editing. Almond keeps herself entertained along the way with small in-jokes: “I enjoy putting in little Easter eggs,” she said. “Like I try to find a way to weave in at least one quick scene from 'Arrested Development' for each movie.”
This combination of fun and stress is reiterated by Catherine Petrusz, a participant in all three mashups. She played Maverick in "Top Gun: Mach One" and Mr. Miyagi in "Karate Kid Kimchee Kiki," and this year went behind the camera to film her own dog, Gladys, as Old Yeller. Of "Old Yeller Still Dies," Petrusz said, “Like anything really rewarding, it involves hard work. Learning how to use video-editing software can be time-consuming and tedious. Getting your dog or mother to do what you want while you film them can also be tedious.”
But the process is enjoyable and the payoff is even better. Petrusz commented on the rewards of the final product coming to fruition. She said that “seeing the huge variety and creativity of all the different people who sent in their short clip” is the best part of the project. A close second, maybe, is the fact that a dog movie was chosen this year, which means there should be “a dozen or more ridiculously cute dogs” playing the eponymous character.
Perhaps what is most surprising is the community-building effect of what is, at its core, a goofy art project. Almond studied psychology and, in her “day job,” spends “a lot of time thinking about how resilient communities are created.” From her perspective, the Durham Movie Mashup series is one way to combat social comparison and a poisonous culture of critical scrutiny. Each participant is assigned a different scene and given free rein over its content, with the opportunity to be as silly and creatively daring as he or she chooses. The result is a diverse multiplicity of scenes that are appreciated, rather than judged, by all.
In Almond’s words, “People push themselves creatively, and then they have a shared experience to meet each other without the push for comparison.” Petrusz agreed, saying, “When you give a bunch of different people the same creative task, you come up with just as many totally different creations.” In any case, participants are abundantly enthusiastic about one another’s work, and that enthusiasm translates to the forging of a unique—and uniquely positive—community. Almond put it bluntly, though fondly, with the assessment that “many connections between strangers have been made as we laugh at ourselves looking ridiculous on the screen.”
Almond tries to shy away from sounding pretentious or “ridiculous,” a word that appears often in conjunction with this movie, but in the end she said, “The entire project is built upon what I consider a radical act of resistance to our comparison culture. I try to build an ephemeral community where people can experience the opposite—where we are all there to support each other while we make a**es of ourselves for no obvious immediate gain. I believe resiliency and true community are born in these moments.”
"Old Yeller Still Dies" will play this Sat., September 21, in the Motorco Music Hall Showroom. Doors open at noon and show starts at 1 p.m. Admission is free.