Peanut Butter Jelly Time: an interview with Michael Arcos

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 05/18/2017

We couldn’t be more excited to showcase the work of New Orleans-based filmmaker Michael Arcos, whose films have screened at the likes of the New Orleans Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, Sidewalk Film Festival, Cucalorus Film Festival, and Glasgow Short Film Festival. Arcos’ work experiments with film and digital formats, pushing both narrative and format boundaries in distinctive ways. Arcos isn’t afraid to make his audience uncomfortable: his films can be challenging, but they allow room for reflection and identification in their sincerity. His immersive screening settings have established Arcos as a fresh vision on the film festival circuit. In advance of his May 20th screening at the New Orleans Photo Alliance, Michael Arcos sat down with us to discuss his history, inspirations, and the dark world of VHS tape trading.

TB: [Looking at the photo of the girl with the rifle] Who is that? Is that your sister?

MA: My mother’s sister, Lisa, who has passed away – she used to be a carny, and she worked at a taffy stand. One of her friends who worked with her was this lady – Diane [the girl in the photo] was her daughter – and she totally just didn’t take care of her. She was this feral kid that my family adopted for a couple years. She was in and out of the house. I was 8 when I took the photograph, 8 or 9, and I used to babysit her in a sense.

I have no idea where she is. We didn’t really have a relationship with the mother – it was just this carny friend of my aunt Lisa.

My second-to-last ex-girlfriend was a photographer and she was always trying to push me to put something together with this odd-and-end collection of 35-milimeter photographs that I have. I was definitely motivated by her.

TB: Did you have other people that got you going in film stuff? It seems like this is part of a bigger thing. It’s not just making films or collecting – it’s like a personal aesthetic that’s all pointing toward similar things. Do you feel like that’s true?

MA: Not so consciously. I mean, I was lucky to have access to a wide variety of cameras from my father, who not so much did it artistically, but was just documenting his life and his children.

I grew up around it, my whole childhood is documented in 8-milimeter and Hi-8 video. He taught me how to take a photograph on a 35-milimeter camera. So I’ve been making little movies with toys and action figures with my brother ever since I was 9 or 10. I’d be doing it anyway – even if I wasn’t sharing it, I think.

TB: Did you decide to start sharing it at a certain point, or was part of the process of making it always like: “Okay, I did this. Take a look.”

MA: Yeah. I had access in high school to this defunct, ‘80s television production studio that was literally VHS to VHS, manually editing footage on this giant board. And I could get a pass to skip class in order to run through the hallway to make PSAs. I’m actually gonna show a piece of it. I called it a PSA…do you remember the peanut butter-jelly song?

TB: You mean Peanut Butter Jelly Time?

MA: Yeah! It was a phenomenon in my high school, probably when I was in the tenth grade. It was this song, kind of a loop, very reminiscent of a bounce track – just the same thing over and over again, mainly to dance to, a pretty hyper-paced rhythm. And there was a particular movement that I hadn’t really seen anywhere else, and the halls were just wild with kids circling around people listening to it on little boomboxes. So one of my PSAs was called Peanut Butter Jelly Time, and it was featuring different varieties of this dance. It’s absurd now that I look at it, but I’m gonna show it.

MA: I’d bring the PSAs I made over to my friends’ houses, as a form of entertainment to make them laugh. Throughout the years, I learned that there was power within that and started attempting to take film more seriously. After learning how to edit on VHS, I wanted to learn how to shoot on 16mm and how shoot on 8mm. I’ve been working with the medium…over 15 years. But like I was saying earlier, I’ve only really been taking it seriously for maybe three years.

TB: Did you ever get people that didn’t get what you were doing, that thought it was totally ironic? You seem to see it as both serious and hilarious, both in really sincere ways.

MA: It’s definitely not for everybody. That specifically reminds me of the second video I worked on – it’s this 45-minute mess of a film I edited on VHS. The concept was loosely based on making a sequel to a film that I haven’t watched. So I chose this Jennifer Lopez movie Angel Eyes, so I made the sequel to Angel Eyes and it was called Angel Eyes 2: J-Lo’s Innermost Secrets. It has a lot of found footage of her, but it’s also my attempt at recreating the experience of flipping through the channels on cable television at 3:30/4 in the morning, coming down off of an LSD trip or something like that. I was very interested in exploitation film.

I used to make VHS copies of it (Angel Eye 2) and plant them places. I’d go into a Goodwill and put them in the VHS section, or go to a sorority house and slide it through their mailbox slot. And I would also sell them on eBay as a found VHS.

The ad would read,  “I found this mysterious VHS, I don’t want it in my life any longer, it’s super fucked up, but if anybody’s interested…” and I would have a P.O. box address at the end, just in case anybody would want to write. There was a lot of eye imagery in the film, because that was my only reference to the original film, Angel Eyes, so I had a lot of close-up shots of children’s eyes.

I guess to answer the question in short, one time I was in Publix, which is a chain supermarket in south Florida, and a friend of mine at the time’s younger brother came up to me with a strange expression on his face. He was like, “Did you make that Angel Eyes movie?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Don’t ever make movies again. You shouldn’t be making movies.” Genuinely! And I was like, “I appreciate it…thanks.”

But that was an example of somebody who – I mean, the work at that time, I’m gonna show a little bit from that VHS, but it’s an absurdist, exploitational, challenging film for sure. And I’m conscious of that. I think my work is more accessible now – it’s been growing to this point. But it’s not for everybody. It’s more a…limited audience.

AC: Talk more about exploitation films.

MA: Yeah! Exploitation films were super exciting for me. It was the height of my teen angst, and it was also the decline of VHS as a medium and the coming up of DVD, so there were a lot of cheap videos I’d find at thrift stores and at the same time…I used to bootleg obscure horror movies on eBay, and that opened up my eyes to this underbelly realm of people trading VHS and bootlegging. And I really went to some dark places with trading, buying VHS and mail orders – everything from straight-up pornography to early Blaxploitation stuff. At the time when I made this Angel Eyes 2movie, I was into seeing the most extreme stuff. I watched films like Cannibal Holocaust, Mondo Cane and Faces of Death. It got into super dark territory, and at one point, I got an offer to see a genuine snuff film.

TB: Do you find it weird that you can see dark stuff like that on YouTube now? Are you interested in that stuff in a cultural or aesthetic way?

MA: I think it’s an inevitable progression of having accessibility. I don’t think it’s a negative or positive thing – I think we’ll progress as humans and find out if it does benefit us or harm us. I was having this conversation with a friend the other day about the accessibility of pornography now, and what that does to someone’s sexual appetite or what they’re into.

At a time when I was hungry for seeing really obscure Italian horror films…now it’s all on YouTube. I would think that it makes people want to see something more inaccessible. I know that’s what I was interested in, so I can’t imagine, with the accessibility of this kind of media now, what I would be into growing up and battling teen-angsty stuff.

AC: Most of what you mention is not digitized. I have a lot of Italian cannibal films on DVD, and I went to a horror-memorabilia shop that was around the corner from my house, and I was clearly the only woman who went in there. They would get me bootlegs – I have a Thai version of High Tension, and In My Skin. Things are more accessible, but unless you know how to find them, it’s still just as obscure.

TB: It might be there, but you don’t know how to look for it. You don’t know what you’re looking for.

AC: Yeah. I think it’s more limiting now, because I could go to a store and talk to people about it. If you just go on the Internet…how do I know I’ll like this unless I talk to someone who says, I think you’ll like this? It’s hard to imagine that when you’re having very impersonal interactions with people online.

MA: Yeah. I used to trade tapes through mail order, reading little synopses. I also had access to the only video store in Miami that was specific to horror, exploitation, and pornography – this place called Oh The Horror. That’s how I was exposed to a lot of it. It was a rental store. I understood what I was into, and then I’d get recommendations.

AC: How would you describe your work to other people? We talked in the past about what makes something experimental. Where do you think you fit?

MA: Before that conversation, I considered myself an experimental filmmaker…if my work as a whole had to fit under some umbrella. Now, it’s definitely fictional narrative. [pause] I definitely am interested in exploring, and challenging myself as a maker of these things. Subjecting the audience this Saturday to this hour-long program…it’s not only one area that I’m exploring. That’s why I have a softcore section at the end, because a lot of the work that I’m gonna be showing is pretty abrasive, and I’m conscious of challenging the viewer. But I’m also into making…children’s movies. That’s more so where I was going with the new piece, Miedo de Monos.  I’d like to think of it as accessible, but challenging at the same time. I need a willing audience to take it on.

Full Aperture: Tiny Crimes and Red Wine with Michael Arcos screens on Saturday, May 20 at 8:00PM at the New Orleans Photo Alliance. 

Full Aperture: Tiny Crimes and Red Wine with Michael Arcos

Upcoming Screenings

Jul
20
No Home Movie (2016)
dir. Chantal Akerman
Sep
21
Food to Mouth: Two Films from Les Blank 
dir. Les Blank