Cinema of future past

Burke Roberts calls his heavy metal sculpture-cum-movie screen the Beast, the Thing, or, formally speaking, the Engine. Resembling a catapult straight out of "Mad Max," the 1-ton contraption routinely prompts befuddled reactions at galleries, rock festivals and art shows. "People are kind of confused by the Engine but at the same time moved by this thing," says the experimental filmmaker.

The Engine was built two summers ago in a sweltering Sun Valley compound, where Roberts, with collaborators Jason "Hawke" Hamilton, Sid Nicholson and Chris Draheim, encrusted the 16-foot screen with Art Nouveau-inspired light fixtures, rusted iron, rock-like blobs molded from Bondo auto repair filler paste and crystallized lime.

"We wanted it to look like an archaeological discovery from 2,000 years in the future," Roberts says. "Hawke and I basically burned our hands off reinventing ways to work with patina acids to get the steel to react in that kind of aquatic way, as if it had been soaking in an acid sea from some kind of future destroyed planet."

Roberts envisions the Engine as an antidote to the digital age of ever-shrinking screens routinely viewed in isolation via laptops or cellphones. "I call our Engine the anti-YouTube," he says. "Instead of getting smaller and more pixilated, I want to make the viewing experience grander and more elegant."

Roberts and company brought whimsical touches to the piece -- look closely and you'll see a feather transplanted from King Arthur's reputed stomping grounds in St. Albans forest -- but they also obsessed over practical concerns. Roberts notes, "Two guys with a socket wrench can break the Engine down, fit it through a 32-inch door and move it anywhere."

This traveling movie picture show has turned up at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival, Burning Man and the Downtown Film Festival-Los Angeles. Plans are afoot to tour the Engine in Europe next spring, and Roberts hopes to construct two more variations on the Engine theme using glass and oak as materials. He reasons, "There are a lot of acts all over the world that are interacting with screens behind them -- musical acts, performance artists, DJs -- so why not have a cool screen?"

The Engine makes an appearance 8 p.m. to midnight Sept. 12 on the rooftop of LACMA, where short films will be screened at a party for the museum's "Your Bright Future: 12 Contemporary Artists From Korea" exhibition.


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