I’m the Man: The 2018 Crossroads Festival

Considering the role of the critic while looking at the San Francisco Cinematheque's annual festival of artist-made films.
Michael Sicinski

Crossroads 2018 runs June 7 - 10, 2018 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The Falling Sky

I want to begin my assessment of the 2018 Crossroads Festival in San Francisco with a bit of a self-assessment. What are critics for? 

One’s behavior as a critic—the way one assumes that mantle of authority—typically has to do with a certain confidence in one’s own taste. The critic presumes that he or she has good taste, which is to say, informed taste. Taste is notoriously vague and but for the critic is it also ironclad and absolute. Without it, how could we trust that our judgments are better than mere opinion? 

But over time, taste becomes calcified. For the most part, we tend to gravitate to the same things, and this is how critics become irrelevant. Recognizing that time is scarce, the temptation is great, as you might imagine, to argue in favor of the work that I admire, that I truly believe in. And in most cases, that work adheres to values I already understand. Seen in this way, criticism is almost always a conservative enterprise.  

But it’s important to emphasize that one’s values are a moving target. There is a learning curve. I continue to understand more and more, and so there becomes room in my taste for a wider variety of things. One of the things I have historically admired about Crossroads is that its wide-range of programming, and the catholic tastes of director Steve Polta, have continually exposed me to work that I would not have discovered if left to my own devices. 

Fortunately, our tastes expand. We all learn and grow. But where experimental cinema is concerned, there is a certain basic assumption that the pieces in question will challenge the cognitive frames we possess for comprehending how films “work." A critic must be continually open to this challenge. But he or she is also a human being, and we all operate on the basis of guideposts for perception. To live without rules is not anarchy; it’s psychosis. 

There’s a well-known Robert Warshow quotation. “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.” (Or woman, of course. Or a third option.) But more than this, the critic must be honest enough to admit that he or she is, in fact, The Man. Even the most progressive, open-minded critic is inevitably going to butt up against the limitations of his or her own taste, education, or experience. And when that happens, the critic is going to render a negative judgment that, under better circumstances, might have been more open, informed, or contextualized.

In that moment, the critic is assuming a mantle of authority to which he or she is not completely entitled. But that doesn’t matter, because the critic is still speaking with the voice of authority, writing within the rhetoric of informed taste. The critic becomes The Man, the Heavy, the Bad Guy, the Cop.  

I’ve thought about this a lot lately. A filmmaker contacted me to inform me that I not only didn’t understand her films, but that, more damaging, my ill-informed reviews were the first things that came up on a Google search. Eventually, she’d had enough. I also think about a very snide review I wrote about somebody’s one-hour flicker film over a decade ago. It wasn’t good, but there was no reason to be mean. I’m not sure the guy ever made another film.  

There may be no way for a critic to get around being The Man. The best we can do is to apply our judgments fairly and provisionally, and to try our best to get outside the limitations of our own taste. When a film produces a strong negative feeling, that may be the beginning of a shift in our evaluative terms, the stretching of our comfort zones as viewers. When a film fails to make sense, this could be a sign that it is struggling to make a new kind of sense, one to which we need to be particularly attentive. We cannot abdicate our authority or pretend it doesn’t exist. We can only work to apply it in the most sensitive ways possible.


Onward Lossless Follows

I know that for my part, I have had strong preferences for certain kinds of work pretty much since I started looking at experimental cinema. Those preferences have expanded quite a lot, but these different phases of my taste and understanding have helped me to intuit the basic distinctions between stylistic approaches. Liking one thing and not liking another, or liking it later, has helped alert me to the fact that there is a significant difference in how those two films are put together. I want to use this heuristic to consider some of the most intriguing films from this year’s Crossroads festival. 

My first and most deep-seated preference has always been for films whose parts can all be seen working in relation to each other. This may come from my background in painting—a desire to see operations within a bounded frame. Structural films exemplify this preference, but structuralism is certainly not the only way to go about this. A “harmonized” film chooses a particular set of forms, places them within decisive parameters, and explores the possibilities of those forms through a logical set of permutations. Such works represent closed systems, while at the same time remaining capable of alluding to the world beyond their own boundaries. 

An example of this kind of film is Marking Time by Robert Todd. It is a lovely, masterful film that explores the movement of water within the context of an urban fountain structure of viaducts, pivoting between the free abstraction of liquid imagery and the architectonics of the water’s container, and that container’s relationship to natural space. In luscious black and white, Marking Time exhibits a set of relationships within a landscape, and the manner in which careful framing and duration can alter and extend those relationships. 

In a very different register is The Falling Sky, the latest from avant-garde master Peggy Ahwesh. Working with found footage of computer-generated actors and environments (taken mostly from Taiwanese animated news), Ahwesh compiles a kind of abbreviated, near-future disaster film. We are harmed by the depletion of the ozone layer, polar icecaps melt, and we are all implanted with microchips that turn our every moment into a data-gathering bonanza for Amazon and Facebook. By the end of Ahwesh’s film, the earth is uninhabitable and what’s left of the human race is floating in a space pod in suspended animation. Like a version of Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99 for our techno-horror moment, Ahwesh combines every worrisome prognostication into one grand doomsday scenario enacted by a collection of hapless avatars. We have met the Sims, and they are us.

Perhaps the best example of this closed-text style I’m speaking of is 3 peonies by Stephanie Barber. Always prone to employ a bit of dry wit, Barber here has created a kind of real-time performance gesture whose temporal parameters and formal structure make it cinematically satisfying nonetheless. Against a red painted wall, Barber (or another set of woman’s hands) attached peonies with blue painter’s tape. The camera’s distance from the wall means that the flowers take up almost the entire height of the frame. On the soundtrack, we hear an excerpt from the “Art Bell Show,” the radio program that dealt with the strange and supernatural. Once all the flowers are taped to the wall, the hands start over-taping them, covering them to the degree that the buckled tape, and not the flowers, becomes the object of sculptural interest. At just over three minutes, Barber’s film offers both a comment on the idea of aesthetics—the manmade achieving dominance over the natural—and on the supernatural, in the sense of the flowers exemplifying the world there is and the tape representing the world we can actually know. 3 peonies is both a Kantian lesson and a comedic goof.

But there are other ways to make a great film. In recent years, a number of wonderful, astute filmmakers have embraced a kind of textual magpie’s vision of creation, operating in a mode I’d liken to Gilles Deleuze’s theory of assemblage. Rather than being composed of elements that all refer back to a center, these films are dispersive, outward-looking, and frequently feel as though they could conceivably be opened up to accommodate more information, if their makers were inclined to do so.

This is not to say that the works I am speaking of are made carelessly or randomly; far from it. In fact, these filmmakers have a much more difficult job because there is no obvious “fit” between the components in their film-texts. Rather, the connections are largely intuitive, standing or falling on rhythm, submerged patterns, unconscious associations, or half-remembered cultural codes. This is work that tends to elude even the most well-versed viewer of experimental cinema, at least for some time, until he or she has an unexpected “aha!” moment (usually after several viewings), when these assembled elements suddenly click into place. 

To my mind, no filmmaker exemplifies this style more than Michael Robinson. His latest film Onward Lossless Follows is a prime example of this mode of assemblage. Inasmuch as we can discern a theme from the film, it is about the Internet, something that the middle word in the title seems to confirm. The repeated images of women on laptops raising their arms in triumph, and the sub-narrative about an adult bus driver and a teenage girl meeting online to plan a romantic tryst, all fall in line with this dominant idea. But I think anyone who has seen Robinson’s film would agree that parsing it in this manner does it a grave disservice.  

First of all, it ignores the most evocative aspect of the film, the voiceover by the preacher who speaks about the discovery of water on Venus, and the hopelessness of seeking guidance from the stars. Any attempt to connect this aspect to the film to the Internet results in strained metaphors that really aren’t worth it. Instead, the power of Onward Lossless Follows resides in its floating hierarchy of melancholia, a set of irreconcilable forms of longing, ones that promise success, affection, even prescience. Robinson is setting terms into a relationship that are neither complementary nor opposed. Instead, they remain suspended in the mind. This is a film that instills doubt, rather than squaring its accounts.

Another filmmaker consistently working in this mode is Jonathan Schwartz. I should say, he is an artist who does not get nearly enough attention for his work (including from me), partly, I think, because his films are both confounding and evanescent. They feel as though they emerge fully formed, stake out a gripping but non-aggressive presence, and then linger in the mind as a set of half-recalled impressions that we lack the fortitude to solidify. In other words, we tend to fail Schwartz’s films because they are demanding and yet they ask so little. 

The Crack-Up

His latest film is called The Crack-Up, and takes its title from a 1936 work by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In it, two images are on the screen most of the time, superimposed upon one another. The base image is comprised of snowy mountain landscapes, frequently filmed in pans or upward tilting shots. In one shot, on screen for a good while, the horizon line of a distant mountain is diagonal to the screen. The other set of images are of plant life, the leaves of trees, or flowers in bloom, seemingly implying that we are looking at the possible life of spring or summer in contrast with the wintery tundra of the opposite image. 

After a fragmented, partially diaristic voiceover, Schwartz shows us quick, handheld and mobile shots of the frozen landscape, in rapid succession, with the whooshing sound of an avalanche on the soundtrack. He intersperses these shots with light flares from the setting sun, which alert the viewer to the dusky hue of the other landscape shots in the sequence. Then, we see bright, almost electric yellows and reds, with forms that resemble close-ups of snowy fields or striated skies but are hazy and indistinct. Schwartz may be shooting through a filter, or augmenting his lens with some thick colored glass. A German-accented voice reads and extended passage from the Fitzgerald text, concluding with the line, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.” After a brief shot of his mother’s grave, Schwartz repeats the procedure from the first part of the film, only this time, instead of snowy mountains, he trains his camera on the sea.

In the rest of The Crack-Up, Schwartz alternates between water on rocks, snow on mountaintops, moving and still images, voiceover with a low rumbling sound. While there is a general rhythm and thrumming energy that holds the film together, there is no clear thematic path through The Crack-Up. It is quite obviously a dialectical film, about experiencing two places at once. Schwartz hints at ecological concerns or, with the presence of his mother’s resting place, the history of the earth, the conflict between human and geological time. But none of these concepts exhausts the film or its tactile mysteries. 

But here is where things get interesting. Another film in the festival very much falls in line with this assemblage mode, and although I had trouble responding to it, I can certainly see that there is something happening in terms of its component parts. Karen Yasinsky is a consistently adventurous filmmaker whose work continues to elude me. I have not yet had that breakthrough moment. Aesthetically speaking, she is a true bricoleur, frequently combining processed video imagery (complete with raster effects and hot-spots) with lo-fi, hand-drawn or puppet animation. It is a mismatch that helps create a subtle undertone of menace, one that I personally find effective if off-putting.


Vera is Yasinsky’s newest film, and in it she explores many of these elements in a manner resulting in a most curious assemblage. The first part of the film consists of footage from an old cooking show with an African-American host (Vera, presumably) discussing various cuts of meat. Her voice is drowned out by Dixieland jazz, and the screen is covered by an animated spider web that is slowly disintegrating. But in the second half, things get really wild. “Vera” is replaced by a marker-colored animation. A young boy comes up to her, and she lovingly rips his head off. The film is briefly interrupted by a Russian worker names Maxim. Flashes of a large spider alternate with a multicolored scallop design. Near the end, a young girl’s picture appears onscreen, topped by the same drawn-in spider web. And finally, we see an image of someone wearing a cat head, looking offscreen and then running away.

There are aspects of Vera that recall the work of the late Owen Land: the use of repetitive synth music, the layering of found footage and other elements, and the negative-reversal of the cat girl. But unlike Land’s films, which were cryptic and hermeneutical but ultimately solvable, there is no clear sense that the components of Vera, once parsed, would yield a linear explanation. Instead, they generate an affect, one of unexplored corners of the Old South or the collision of new media with disorganized, private psychological archives. Yasinsky leaves the viewer quite literally suspended in a web, with some bits of textual meaning simply out of reach.

In recent years, I have come to grips with a third mode of filmmaking, one to which I initially had an extremely adverse reaction. It is related to the assemblage mode, but in some respects it goes even further in that direction. If we expect that films have certain compositional boundaries, this third mode flies directly in the face of that expectation. For lack of a better term, we could call this the perpetual mode. Drawing certain strategies from gallery installations and looping media, this perpetual mode is nevertheless designed to be viewed in a single sitting. Its primary characteristic is an almost Jackson Pollock-like, all-over sense of composition, an endless iteration of a few basic terms and moves.  

This is not to say that these works lack progression or internal difference. But much like an invertebrate, you could segment them at any point, and even rearrange them, and you will have several microcosms of the same essential object configuration. Sometimes they are modular, but other times the forms are simply homologous enough to stand in for one another by analogy. Michele Smith’s long works are an example of the former, and Ryan Trecartin’s videos represent the latter tendency. It took me awhile to recognize that this approach is more than mere redundancy. It speaks directly to the hot-and-cold media culture we all occupy, and gives it a deliberate rather than an amorphous, Internet-derived shape. 

Sun Quartet

Some of the most exciting and original films screening in Crossroads 2018 participate in this perpetual mode. But what is truly unique is that they infuse it with a new kind of political militancy. The four parts of the Sun Quartet by the Colectivo Los ingravídos are urgent, propulsive, and gesture towards a new kind of engaged cinema, one based on pulsions and affects rather than the straightforward spouting of doctrine. 

All four works pertain to one particular event in recent Mexican political history, the 2014 mass kidnapping of 43 male university students in Iguala. On September 24, the students from the Ayozinapa Rural Teachers’ College were headed to Mexico City for the protest when their bus was hijacked and handed over to Guerreros Unidos crime syndicate. Many believe that the Mexican Army was involved in the handover, therefore responsible for the deaths of the 43 students. Despite nationwide protests, numerous resignations and arrests, and the identification of the remains of at least two of the students, families of the missing are no closer to understanding what exactly happened to their sons. 

The films of The Sun Quartet combine jagged, high-speed footage of various protests, edited in-camera, with other forms of footage to create a complex, overwhelming monument to the fallen and their loved ones. The first part, Sun Stone, is almost entirely abstract, with no direct connection to the protests at all. Instead, it is a psychedelic landscape film, with zooms-in on painted flowers, whip-pans, craggy mesas, cacti, slicing of watermelon, and numerous hot yellow flares. All these images collide and combine in a push and pull of competing imagery while moans and chants fill the soundtrack.

The second part, San Juan River, introduces the protest, with a roll call of all the missing students. That imagery is mixed with a purple sky, yellow flares, and wavering hand-held desert shots. Trees and flowers become aggressive actors, jabbing into the frame and out at the viewer, then retracting, all while banners wave and testimonies are spoken across the loudspeaker. Part three, Conflagration, juxtaposes landscape and nature imagery with cityscape shot from a moving vehicle. A poem appears onscreen, read aloud. Then the sights and sounds of the protest reemerge, superimposed with purple and red flora and a flickering flame. In the final section, November 2 / Far From Ayotzinapa, a town marketplace is overlapped with the Spanish text of a poem which is read in a dozen different languages. Buildings, churches, and streets all blend with a flame that dances on the surface of the image.

The Sun Quartet does not build to a crescendo, nor does it tell a clear story about the tragedy in Iguala. Rather, it generates a sense of anxiety and impatience, a desire to see more (and less), and to know what we are looking at. It turns information into an overload that simultaneously thrills and overwhelms. The people charged with rage and power, and the land is saturated with this energy. But The Sun Quartet is fundamentally about an energy that spins and fails to reach its target. It is about affective expenditure, the drive to remember amidst confusion and lack of clarity, and feelings that can never be entirely sorted out. This is a political cinema that adopts the perpetual mode because it speaks from the thicket of the unresolved. 

There are of course those who desperately want to keep political content out of Art. One would think such matters had been resolved, but a new crop of ideologues is busily condemning the so-called propaganda in their midst. But I think it’s worth considering that only those who have a vested interest in keeping the world pretty much the way it is are likely to make such a reductive argument. Part of being The Man is recognizing the limitations of your own viewpoint, and struggling to understand where other people are coming from.

Instead of decreeing that art plus politics equals tyranny, perhaps we could consider what a non-tyrannical political art might look like. I would submit that it might look a lot like the Colectivo los ingravídos—passionate, partisan, and yet unsure and provisional. It participates in a radical aesthetic language that it took me some time to learn to understand. In that respect, it reminded me that sometimes, I’m not The Man after all—not by a long shot.

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Festival CoverageCrossroadsCrossroads 2018Robert ToddPeggy AhweshStephanie BarberMichael RobinsonJonathan SchwartzKaren YasinskyColectivo Los ingravídosLong Reads
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