An Experimental Decade, the Short Films: A Catalogue of Future Mistakes

The fifty best avant-garde short films of the decade and the self-questioning that comes from making such lists.
Michael Sicinski

Lists are kind of a problem. They can be pernicious ways of taking extremely subjective, even somewhat frivolous judgments and wrapping them in the thick cloak of canonical authority. I don't think anyone necessarily means to do this. But there is this unique personality tic that can make some of us want to take our ineffable encounters with all manner of art objects and catalogue them, rank them, assert some sort of mastery over them, lest they leave us in a strange place where our preexisting categories no longer apply.

My colleague Elena Gorfinkel articulated some of the problems with lists in a brief manifesto, and it caused a bit of a stir. I think in a lot of ways she's right. Lists are not going to accomplish anything grand, and they could very well throw us off the trail of some of the more pressing questions about what role cinema occupies in our lives and in the broader social world.

Having said that, I also think they can be snapshots, intellectual selfies, that explain where we found value at a particular time. I used to have more ambitious aims with listing and ranking and assigning ratings of [1] through [10] to various things. I thought perhaps I was trying to make a statement for the future, about what might matter going forward, what demanded attention in an increasingly saturated field of cultural information.

But I have changed too much, changed my mind too often, and watched myself be changed too dramatically, to believe in any of that stone-tablet nonsense. I spent quite a bit of time this year revisiting many of the decade's experimental films, and I suppose the results were predictable. Many remained just as powerful as when I first saw them. A few had come to seem a bit less exciting and original than I had remembered. And I significant number of films that I did not appreciate or understand when I first encountered them now made perfect sense.

And of course, this led me to think about the current films that I am seeing right now that, in various ways, I am somehow unequipped to understand.

So why should I or anyone else make a list that does little more than document one's own errors of perception? The easiest answer is, it lets you know who you're dealing with. It tells you just how mistaken someone can be at the present moment, and how to calibrate their otherwise sensible statements. Here are some examples.

Several years ago, I found Sara Cwynar's Rose Gold too desultory in its application of theory, Ana Vaz's Occidente rather over-directive in its editing, and Manuela de Laborde's As Without So Within to be somewhat shapeless. Now, I consider all those assessments foolish. Rose Gold is an exquisite example of Deleuzian assemblage; Occidente is actually slyly funny; and As Without So Within has a structure as tight as a drum, something I simply missed.

The fact that I was wrong is forgivable. The fact that I have very wrongheaded reviews of these films on the record is rather embarrassing. The fact that all three of the films that I bungled so badly are by women is what truly concerns me.

So in a way, lists are everything Gorfinkel says they are, and possibly worse. But they may have the value of being self-indicting. They can plainly demonstrate what a given critic fails to grasp, where their blind spots lay, and whether or not they are worth arguing with in the first place. (Not every selfie captures us in our best light.)

At the same time, it's possible that a more positive picture is formed by examining the things we appreciate. As I was rewatching dozens of films in preparing this list, I noticed some things. Part of why I love Mary Helena Clark's Orpheus (Outtakes) so much is because, no matter how many times I see it, I never "understand" it. It strikes me as a complex film-poem, defined in large part by its negative space. It dissolves on the eyes like cotton candy on the tongue, only with the caustic grit of smoke and charcoal.

I love Jodie Mack's films because they offer a profane, dollar-story rendition of Kenneth Anger's worship of light, comic at first, and then gently melancholy. I find that Lewis Klahr's cut-out animations operate like miniature versions of Fritz Lang and Douglas Sirk, the specific who's and where's sifted out to leave behind the anxiety and longing. Kevin Jerome Everson's cinema zeroes in on individual stories and regional specificity, inevitably showing how these local people and events are connected to us all. David Gatten's work with text and image not only activates the relationship between seeing and reading, but asks us to recognize that knowing is predicated on forgetting as well as memory. No one warps space like Blake Williams. I could go on and on.

But I will spare you. And besides, as emphatic as these enthusiasms are, they too are subject to the expansion and contraction that comes with time. So with that in mind, I have assembled 50 of my choices for the best short experimental films of the decade. Sort of. If you go to my list on Letterboxd, you will find that for most of the selections, there are potential substitutions, films that might just as easily have been on the list (and probably were, in a different draft). At the top of the list, these are alternate selections by the filmmakers in question. But by the time we get down to the 40s, it's entirely different films and filmmakers.

I wanted to show how arbitrary it could be, while still providing a portrait of "my decade," one for which I, and I alone, will be accountable. I am not mathematician enough to calculate how many permutations of the list these alternate entries could create, but my hope is that there are at least enough possible realities to provide partial insurance against my own ignorance.

1. Orpheus (Outtakes) (Mary Helena Clark, U.S., 2012)

2. Ears, Nose and Throat (Kevin Jerome Everson, U.S., 2016)

3. Engram of Returning (Daïchi Saïto, Canada, 2015)

4. Pelourinho, They Don't Really Care About Us (Akosua Adoma Owusu, Ghana / Brazil, 2019)

5. Film for Invisible Ink, case no. 323. Once Upon a Time in the West (David Gatten, U.S., 2010)

6. Strangely Ordinary This Devotion (Dani and Sheilah ReStack, U.S. / Canada, 2017)

7. Colophon (for the Arboretum Cycle) (Nathaniel Dorsky, U.S., 2018)

8. Cityscape (Michael Snow, Canada, 2019)

9. Love is the Message, the Message is Death (Arthur Jafa, U.S., 2016)

10. Something Between Us (Jodie Mack, U.S., 2015)

11. The Occidental Hotel (Lewis Klahr, U.S., 2014)

12. River Rites (Ben Russell, Suriname / U.S., 2011)

13. Red Capriccio (Blake Williams, Canada, 2014)

14. Austrian Pavilion (Philipp Fleischmann, Austria, 2019)

15. Onward Lossless Follows (Michael Robinson, U.S., 2017)

16. As Without So Within (Manuela de Laborde, Mexico, 2016)

17. The Woolworths Choir of 1979 (Elizabeth Price, U.K., 2012)

18. A Minimal Difference (Jean-Paul Kelly, Canada, 2012)

19. Fainting Spells (Sky Hopinka, U.S. / Ho-Chunk Nation, 2018)

20. Return to Forms (Zachary Epcar, U.S., 2016)

21. 025 Sunset Red (Laida Lertxundi, U.S. / Spain, 2016)

22. Her Silent Seaming (Nazlī Dinçel, U.S. / Turkey, 2011)

23. A Return (James Edmonds, U.K., 2018)

24. Old Hat (Zach Iannazzi, U.S., 2016)

25. Fluid Frontiers (Ephraim Asili, U.S. / Canada, 2017)

26. In the Absence of Light, Darkness Prevails (Fern Silva, U.S. / Brazil, 2010)

27. Sound of a Million Insects, Light of a Thousand Stars (Tomonari Nishikawa, Japan, 2015)

28. Listening to the Space in My Room (Robert Beavers, U.S. / Germany / Switzerland, 2013)

29. Walled Unwalled (Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Germany, 2018)

30. Rose Gold (Sara Cwynar, U.S., 2017)

31. Traces / Legacy (Scott Stark, U.S., 2015)

32. 26 Pulse Wrought-(Film for Rewinds) Vol. 1 Windows for Recursive Triangulation (Andrew Busti, U.S., 2014)

33. A Preface to Red (Jonathan Schwartz, U.S., 2011)

34. A Loft (Ken Jacobs, U.S., 2011)

35. Occidente (Ana Vaz, Brazil, 2015)

36. Ricky (Janie Geiser, U.S., 2011)

37. Halimuhfack (Christopher Harris, U.S., 2016)

38. Hacked Circuit (Deborah Stratman, U.S., 2014)

39. Night without Distance (Lois Patiño, Portugal / Spain, 2015)

40. Transport (Ernie Gehr, U.S. / Germany, 2015)

41. Watercolor (Fall Creek) (Vincent Grenier, U.S. / Canada, 2013)

42. Deep Sleep (Basma Alsharif, Malta / France / Greece, 2014)

43. I Am Micro (Shumona Goel and Shai Heredia, India, 2010)

44. Green Ash (Pablo Mazzolo, Argentina, 2019)

45. Configuration in Black and White (Helga Fanderl, Germany, 2017)

46. Sack Barrow (Ben Rivers, U.K., 2011)

47. The Exquisite Corpus (Peter Tscherkassky, Austria, 2015)

48. Bad mama, who cares (Brigid McCaffrey, U.S., 2016)

49. If You Can't See My Mirrors, I Can't See You (Alee Peoples, U.S., 2016)

50. Sounding Glass (Sylvia Schedelbauer, Germany, 2011)

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