Three Days in May: San Francisco's Crossroads Festival 2017

This May festival of experimental films is uniquely positioned to simultaneously look forward and back at cinema.
Michael Sicinski

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

May is an interesting time for a film festival. In a sense, the calendar year for cinema is starting over in May, since that’s when two major international festivals occur—Cannes and Oberhausen. Where Cannes showcases the latest work from global arthouse auteurs—your Almodóvars and von Triers and Hanekes and the like—Oberhausen specifically focuses on short films, some of them by the world’s most prominent avant-garde filmmakers. A significant portion of what screens at both Cannes and Oberhausen will set the agenda for other film festivals in the coming year, in terms of which films and filmmakers ought to be shown.

San Francisco’s Crossroads happens during May as well, and this puts it in a unique position with respect to other, larger festivals. Artistic director Steve Polta is able to assemble an experimental film festival comprised of older, road-tested films that have played the circuit but have not yet screened in San Francisco; brand new films having their world premieres; and one-of-a-kind performance-based works that take full advantage of non-repeatable elements like space and location. In this regard, Crossroads is actually positioned at a true juncture on the unofficial calendar of film culture, simultaneously looking forward and back.

Or one could put it more simply: Polta shows the films he thinks are the most intriguing, and although one might quibble with his taste on this or that individual inclusion, one can only be impressed by the overall breadth of vision. Crossroads continues to discover new and under-seen artists and nurture mid-career talent, all while avoiding the institutional stuffiness that can sometimes get in between audiences and the screen. Polta has maintained a festival that is professional in every respect and yet remains as fleet and limber as its forebears, when Bruce Baillie and Chick Strand were first showing films in the backyard.


As suggested above, several of the best films in the festival are well travelled, making a late stop at Crossroads. Not much else needs to be said about films like Laida Lertxundi’s 025 Sunset Red, Monica Savirón’s Answer Print, or Zachary Epcar’s Return to Forms, except that they are three of the best experimental films released last year, and subsequently among the finest works screened in this festival. Meanwhile, two of the richest, most compelling works screened this year were from veteran filmmakers who have been part of the experimental film community for decades yet have never followed fashion, preferring to generate their own, very different aesthetic bailiwicks.  

San Francisco Bay Area filmmaker Greta Snider, whose film work was a direct outgrowth of her involvement with the punk scene of the 1980s, has returned with Rendition, a film that treats the blocking of exposure as a kind of political hide-and-seek. The baseline image is a forest in winter, presented in negative. A blotted-out blind spot, seemingly created by hand, shifts around the scene while Snider step-prints the image. We seem to catch glimpses of a closed eye, and in time, new images are interpolated into the film—shots of ocean waves as well as dental x-rays. By the end of the film, we are under the sea, sidling up to aquatic mammals. But there is a constant refrain of an airplane that bisects the frame. While Snider seems to be playing with the idea of multiple renditions of the image—how the dark spots and the plane play against different base images—the main idea is clearly “rendition” in the sense of a government spiriting a citizen away to an unseen location. The dark spots speak to the obfuscation of a cover-up, or the fact that when considering the nation, there is no safe, solid ground.  


Massachusetts film artist Robert Todd has worked in many different styles, all of them united by his impeccable craftsmanship. But he is probably best known for his nature studies, which consistently render the New England landscape with vibrancy and care. His latest film, Restless, is a world premiere for the festival and one of his very best films. Compared with earlier films, Restless is notable for the way in which Todd articulates natural phenomena with elements of the environment constructed by human beings. The film is a study of the wind, but we also hear the sound of a distant highway, creating a sense of ambiguity. What is making things move? We see roadside reeds swaying, followed by the grating on a storm drain. From that point forward, Todd combines the natural and the manmade, the organic and the rectilinear, to produce a spatial counterpoint. Subtle in approach but solid as a rock, Restless is a breakthrough for Todd. 

Several key members of the avant-garde’s new guard were also very well represented at Crossroads this year. These are makers who have come to prominence in the last decade or so, having changed many of the terms of experimentalism that history has handed down. What does this mean? In short, less rigidity, more direct engagement with popular imagery and the broader social world, but exercised through a critical, deconstructive lens. The films are poetic and evocative, characterized by shapes and themes that open onto manifold meanings. 

Jesse McLean’s See a Dog, Hear a Dog takes its title from a principle of sound design, the “what you see is what you get” assumption of sync sound in cinema. Within the film, McLean takes the idea and stretches it to the breaking point in the most playful manner possible. What does it mean to “see” or “hear” a dog? Is a still image of a dog the same as video footage? Does one have to hear a dog bark in order to have heard the dog, or could it be doing something else? Throughout the film, McLean also engages with the question of artificial intelligence and the famous “Turing test,” as if to raise the question from the other end. Who or what has to do the seeing or hearing in order to satisfy the requirement? How better to envision a post-human reality than by orchestrating a hypothetical canine / AI encounter.

Canada’s Brett Kashmere has made a number of films dealing with the sociology and psychology of sport, including Valery’s Ankle (about violence in hockey) and From Deep (about basketball and cultural identity). His latest, Formations, is a mostly abstract work that plays on the idea of football as a transmission of meaning, in more ways than one. Based around text by Don DeLillo, Kashmere alternates a series of complex test patterns and color charts with obscure phrases from football playbooks. These words read like gibberish—“twin deck left, ride series, white divide;” “bone country special, double-D to right”—but each refers to an arrangement of men on a field, organized for a specific purpose.  Like the test patterns, it’s an internal code deployed by experts for our entertainment.

A Net to Catch the Light

Erin Espelie’s A Net to Catch the Light is a complicated and beautiful film, one that falters only in its anxiousness to explain itself. The film takes its title from the literal Chinese translation of “retina,” and it is specifically about Apple’s retina screens and their relationship to human vision. But the film is much more compelling due to its striking visual metaphors. Espelie begins with a blue color field, which then develops a small hole in the center. It becomes clear that we are looking at the inside of an eye, with a small silver nub in the middle. It appears that we are looking at medical footage of eye surgery. Then the image cuts to a close-up of a large spider crawling across its web. The image is mostly shown in negative, giving this very imposing arachnid a harsh, even radioactive glow. Soon, Espelie is cutting back and forth between the eye and the spider, sometimes graphically matching them in the frame, or even toggling between them so quickly that they appear momentarily superimposed. This pairing provokes unnerving questions about the gaze—is it deadly? Does it bite, and if so, does it poison its object or the viewers themselves?

Displacements, by Russian-American multimedia artist Anton Ginzburg, is yet another film whose fascination lay with its ambiguity. For the most part it is a comparative work, juxtaposing an interior with an exterior. However, it is by no means that simple. The interior is a degraded video image of a video camera, trained directly on the camera that is recording the images that comprise these parts of Displacements. Or, perhaps we are watching a feedback loop, which might explain the flares of yellow, cyan, and magenta that keep disrupting the studio space. Meanwhile, the exterior shots consist of footage shot around Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Ginzburg seems to be drawing connections between earthworks, early video art, and structural film. (Displacements has direct references to Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, and Ernie Gehr.) But beyond this, Ginzburg seems to be working with a principle of duality. Everything is linked to another historical moment or movement, but each work in turn is abjuring reference in order to draw attention to its own formal production. As they meet within this film, all of these formalist discourses become “content” again, historically and aesthetically displaced.

Up to now I have not mentioned any performance works, but the most exciting work included in Crossroads is a film-performance work by radical documentarian Travis Wilkerson (An Injury to One, Los Angeles Red Squad). His newest project is partly autobiographical, as it explores a piece of his own family history. Entitled Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, it’s about a murder that his great grandfather committed in 1946. While running a general store in Dothan, AL, Wilkerson’s elder relative shot and killed a black man named Bill Spann, and subsequently went unpunished. In his trademark role as narrator and film noir detective, Wilkerson describes how he learned the details of this family secret, and how it resonates with the ongoing contemporary outrage that is white privilege. (Wilkerson explains that Did You Wonder was partly inspired by the Trayvon Martin killing.) Part racial history, part personal confession, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? lay at the intersection of multiple forms and discourses. And it’s the best film in this year’s Crossroads by some distance.

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CrossroadsCrossroads 2017Festival CoverageGreta SniderRobert ToddJesse McLeanBrett KashmereErin EspelieAnton GinzburgTravis Wilkerson
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