By Michael Aushenker
In the mid-2000s, Lafayette, La. native Jon Clark came to Los Angeles in search of a film career and ended up with a fine arts career instead. And he’s fine with that.
After all, Clark’s sensibility, even when poking fun at tropes from 1980s and 1990s Hollywood films with short films such as 2006’s “Baggz,” seemed to be more commentary than camp and too abstract for dead-on parody.
His latest film work, an odyssey of a half-hour movie called “Spectrum Hunter,” will screen at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd. in Venice at 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22.
“It’s kind of dark but it’s not a horror movie,” Clark said. “It’s eerie and bizarre and kind of uncanny in the way nostalgia can be uncanny.”
Just like most of the 30-year-old Clark’s body of work, which includes underground comics, ‘zines, collages, and sticker and flyer art for a clutch of bands he played in, “Spectrum Hunter” derives its surrealness from the world of 8-bit video games (as in Atari 2600 consoles and 1980s-era arcades), in which life, story, history and mythology are reduced, simplified and abstracted to the point of weirdness.
No doubt augmenting that odd vibe is the Japanese prism through which many of these games originated. Clark said he has picked up on that sense of randomness – not just in video games but in the 1980s- and -90s-era TV and music he grew up on.
“It’s kind of a comment on a drug culture and the subculture in general,” Clark said of his film, which he debuted at Synchronicity Space in Hollywood last year with a complementing installation recreating the Night School Store from his film.
The loose narrative of “Spectrum Hunter” follows Rotten Robbie (Nathaniel Nunez) as he stumbles into an “Alice in Wonderland”-esque odyssey that essentially propels him into a living video game.
He and other characters fall under the auspices of a cult built around the Spectrum Hunter (Tom Cooney). They get together and they eat Pogs (disk pieces from the 1990s novelty game). Depending on the symbol (on the Pog) that they eat, they gain these powers.
At one point, Robbie is locked in a puzzle room and must complete the puzzle to unlock the door and get to the next level – just like in a video game. He also faces off against animal-masked goons not unlike the lion-headed King from “Tekken.”
The bizarre characters, awkward dialogue and theatrical acting is all “extremely intentional,” Clark said. “It feels very ‘90s, almost like a ‘90s period piece. It also has a timeless feel. There are scenes that are light-hearted – a soap-opera, after-school special, Power Rangers vibe.”
Clark shot his film piecemeal at a North Hollywood studio, a graveyard in Oakland, a forest in Olympia, and his bedroom in Echo Park.
The avatars and idioms of those old Atari games “abstracted to a degree that I had no idea what the historical content was,” he said.
“Growing up I really would search out the obscure media and strange worlds, strange video games, strange moments,” he said of the random, ephemeral experiences he tries to capture with his art, be it via film or collage (the medium of his upcoming project). He can remember back in Louisiana growing up going to video stores and seeing the covers of video cassettes of B-movies he had never heard of with imagery and titles so removed from context as to be rendered surreal and abstract.
While attending Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., Clark DJ’d at raves and parties and also belonged to what he called “Nintendo punk bands,” playing drums and synthesizers for groups playing 8-bit electronic music (the kind heard on early video games). While playing and touring with one of his musical acts, a duo with friend “Sir Stephen” Breaux dubbed Maniac Mansion, Clark, as “the visual spark plug of the band,” created a maelstrom of comics and fliers building on the mythology created around their act. He was also cartooning, creating what he calls an epic “Cold War-era arcade soap opera” called “Hollywood Zap,” inspired by an obscure movie distributed by Troma Entertainment.
That proved fortuitous as it was Troma that “zapped” Clark to Hollywood in 2005, when he relocated to serve as a production assistant on the film “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead.” While working on the 2006 zombie chicken film, Clark said he learned a lot hanging around the special effects department, working in traditional special effects, and working alongside Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman.
“Lloyd is the single greatest punster I’ve ever met,” Clark said. “He can turn everything you say into a pun.”
“On camera, he’s a very wacky, caricature of a B-movie guru but he’s also a very smart businessman. A ruthless director but a genuine and goofy guy.”
Attracted to the DIY (do-it-yourself) aspect of creating ‘zines, Clark came up with a succession of zany booklets molding drawings, comics and essays together: “The Newer Testament of the Bible Featuring Tom and Tom,” “Middle School Hot,” about his school years, and its sequel, “Devastated College Guy.” He created a comic based on the wacky events on the set of “Poultrygeist” that he titled “Holy [expletive] Comics” and handed out to his Troma co-workers.
All the while, Clark pursued a career as a director. Thanks to a video he shot for Maniac Manson, he was not intimidated to pick up a camera and direct. He had followed up a succession of short films with “Baggz,” a late-1980s teen comedy-flavored outing starring his Louisiana pals Jeff Farshad and brothers Beau and Ben McGeehee that was well received in local film circles.
Then he got into Hollywood, which he said became increasingly soul-crushing.
He said he had a blast working as a production assistant on “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!,” a cult favorite live action show on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, and being in the proximity of stars Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim and their fellow writers.
“They’re the funniest people I ever met,” he said. “It was really inspiring to see the work they churned out that was of that high quality.” Conversely, he realized, “I am not really funny enough (at least in the traditional Hollywood way).”
Things only worsened when he did similar work on “Launch My Line,” what Clark referred to as a failed “Project Runway.” Despite learning “a lot of techniques and practical knowledge, even about casting,” he was not a happy camper.
“I was reacting against it,” Clark recalled. “I would go to work and work on my script and my weird poems and rebel against this world. I don’t want to be a part of this, my work is opposite of this.”
The script he came up with was “Spectrum Hunter,” co-written by its star, Cooney. In effect, Clark rebelled against reality shows by “recontextualizing obscure elements from the past” and making surreality shows.
“Spectrum Hunter” got its moniker “magnetic poetry”-style: Clark shuffled a bunch of “cosmic” words that he found in the pages of Marvel Comics until his title and basis for his central concept was born.
While many of his friends are artists, Clark sees the fine arts community as more of “a framework to do work.” And with each passing year, he says he feels less and less connected with Hollywood as a home for his craft.
“I have no interest in these tropes of modern film at all,” said Clark, who, by day, works as a customer service rep at Hulu in Santa Monica. “I’m not trying to reach a broad audience. I can still talk about film tropes and bizarre (corners) of the pop culture.”
Clark is also not interested in making films that are “ironic or making fun of an era.” In other words, he doesn’t like forced humor.
“I want to be the creative force behind whatever I engage with,” he said.