TIFF 09: Wavelengths Preview – Part One

Wavelengths Preview – Part One
Michael Sicinski

As I’ve noted many times, there is something remarkable about the very existence of a series like Wavelengths in the context of a business festival like Toronto. And make no mistake: with every passing year, TIFF consolidates its brand and imprimatur as a major business festival and kick-off point for the Oscar race. Last year only solidified the beachhead, with new leadership firmly assuming the reins, Slumdog Millionaire beginning its ascent from straight-to-DVD burnoff to...well, you know. This year, new films by the Coen brothers and Bruno Dumont are world premiering here, which is probably a sign of things to come. TIFF is gaining muscle, and is learning how to flex it.

Wavelengths makes room for experimental film and video, work that has no commercial ambitions or prospects, and typically wants nothing more than to jostle your skull or divert you into unexpected beauty. It’s vital. It persists. Under the stewardship of programmer Andréa Picard, TIFF Wavelengths has developed a unique character, touching not only upon the well-established figures of the North American co-op avant-garde but also introducing audiences to film- and videomakers with roots in the museum and gallery worlds. Her vision is international and eclectic. And although no curatorial approach will ever align perfectly with anyone else’s taste (why should it?), there is never any question that Picard’s selections represent film art worth grappling with.

Below are the films and videos from the first three Wavelengths programs that I consider to be the most vital. Of course, my own tastes and biases are what they are, and so the recommendations in this preview should be taken as a document of a particular navigation of the series, but naturally you may well wish to choose your own adventure.

[NOTE: All Wavelengths screenings will be at Jackman Hall, Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas Street West, Toronto. For information call (416) 968-3456 or go to www.tiff.net.]



010101 (T. Marie, U.S.)


A work of extreme simplicity and mindboggling complexity, 010101’s title mimics the off/on toggle of binary code. But it has a more specific meaning -- Marie's video lasts exactly one minute, one second, and one frame. What we see in this all-too-brief window of time is, in fact, a window of sorts, but a fully digitized one, one that exists as an electronically generated scrim that, as far as we are permitted to ascertain, has no "behind," but can be engaged only as surface. And what a surface! In a 16x9 arrangement, Marie has produced an ever-shifting motion painting comprised of vertical rectangles of permeable edges, overlapping on the surface like thick brushstroked impastos. These bricklike forms are staggered, and each has a relative autonomy with respect to the continual waves of saturated color Marie uses to bring light into, and out of, the "painting." In its pure shape and construction, the piece resembles certain efforts by Jasper Johns or (especially) Robert Ryman, but Marie's palette is what sets 010101 apart. She is pushing the spectrum of digital video in the direction of (and against the limits of) the expected color array of paint on canvas. Her cerulean blues, searing scarlets, and deep pthalo greens are shocking to the video-eye. It could be considered the most visually succulent shower curtain in recorded history, and you may find yourself frustrated (as I was) that Marie's telecanvas was gone in 60 seconds. (Okay, 61 and change.) (Program One: Titans – Friday Sept. 11, 6:30 pm.)



Hotel Roccalba (Josef Dabernig, Austria)


Apparently over two years in the making (the artist displayed the script in a gallery exhibition in 2007, with suitably Structural / Conceptual directorial commentary), Hotel Roccalba is a small wonder, the sort of film that somehow manages to astonish with its precision while at the same time allow enough basic human breathing room to permit limitless discovery. The basic set-up: Dabernig had his family act as non-professional performers in a not-quite-ten-minute film in the run-down titular inn in the Italian Alps. Roccalba begins with quick bursts of human industry: an older gentleman (Dabernig, Sr., I believe) chopping wood in the yard next to two middle-aged women in lawn chairs working on some very rapid knitting. Over on the sidewalk by the building, a younger man tinkers with his upturned bike. Inside the rooms of the hotel, there is a haircut, the application of make-up, and a very standoffish bartender / drinker interaction. But what makes Hotel Roccalba so remarkable is Dabernig's unerring sense of composition, editing and blocking. At first, we don't know what we're seeing, so we don't realize that these scenes are staged. When that's the case, Dabernig exhibits a remarkable ability to break a single scene into multiple fragments, all within seconds. (One of the few contemporary filmmakers I can think of who works in this manner is José Luis Guerín.) The film is full of gentle misdirections; Dabernig's formal flourishes become a little trickier as the goings-on move from industry to torpor. But this isn't exactly right. What really defines Hotel Roccalba is a bizarre, thrilling sense of the disorganized, random stuff of life being invisibly, imperceptibly choreographed, a God-like aspect that is gradually revealed, becoming a kind of Cubist hysteria. The final shot is an overhead of an older woman (Dabernig's mom, I think), wandering from person to person, asking what they're doing. The film's parting shot, then: active, almost aggressive non-productivity. (Did I mention this is a comedy?) (Program One: Titans – Friday Sept. 11, 6:30 pm.)



Let Each One Go Where He May (Ben Russell, U.S. / Suriname)


Russell's first feature film, notable for its intricate Steadicam work and complication of the ethnography / art film divide, is one of the major films of year, and is not to be missed. Let Each One is the culmination of Russell’s recent four-film project set among the Saramaccan Maroons in Suriname, and among other things it could be said to represent an exploration of the contest between free will and predestiny. The title itself contains this irony. It is an injunction to follow one's own path. However it refers to the Gods' assistance in freeing of Maroon slaves who escaped from the Dutch, and those escapees followed a very particular path, one that Let Each One's two "stars," Benjen and Monie Pansa, retrace throughout the film. The thirteen unbroken 10-minute shots which comprise the film unfurl these ambivalent spaces as zones of labor. Even in the penultimate shot, when the "tribal authentic" is performed and documented as a recreated act of auto-ethnography, we see that this effort is another form of labor along a journey punctuated by available work. Russell and the Pansa brothers are demonstrating a specific pattern of Saramaccan migration during the tourist season. But the well-trod path they follow is also emblematic of the larger situation of the post-colonial subject under global capitalism. These freed slaves' cinematic strolls and trudges bear greater weight than those found in films by (to take the most obvious examples) Béla Tarr or Gus Van Sant, because this mobility is something the Pansas' forebears simply did not have. And yet, that freedom is circumscribed by a new set of exigencies. These men do not travel so much as they circulate. And in this way, their situation is generalizable, but for materialist reasons, and not humanist ones. (Program Three – Saturday Sept. 12, 9 pm.)


Lumphini 2552 (Tomonari Nishikawa, U.S. / Thailand / Japan)


Nishikawa is one of the more impressive filmmakers to have arrived on the scene in recent years, due in large part to his sensibility, a poetic, off-kilter approach to the assembly of images. Lumphini 2552 is no exception; working off of concepts that call to mind Brakhage's Mothlight or certain frame-based works by Kurt Kren and (especially) Rose Lowder, the film is nevertheless something altogether new, a workout for the optic nerve that somehow manages to be both overwhelming and strangely relaxing at the same time. Nishikawa has produced a slightly widescreen film composed of horizontally-oriented, black-and-white still photographs of a variety of flora, taken in Bangkok's Lumphini Park. The images are generally shot in close-up, although toward the 4/5 mark Nishikawa introduces medium-shots of the tops of trees. As composed, the majority of the photos depict a dense thicket of leaves, stems, or branches, all in extremely high contrast. As arranged in the film, and as they cycle past in rhythmic overdrive, these images tend to provide a sense of an all-over weblike composition, expanding and contracting around the center of the frame. At times, Lumphini 2552 turns its leaves outward, jabbing the outer reaches of the frame, especially in the tree segments. But the dominant sense is one of living, breathing continuity produced through individual, independent segments of life, as though Nishikawa were using his lens(es) to organize a set of microscope slides for the examination of organic processes invisible to the naked eye. And so, like those great artists I cited above, Nishikawa is using the tools of his trade for true animation, to give movement to that which may be fixed in its place but is very much alive. (Program Two: Pro Agri – Saturday Sept. 12, 6:30 pm)



Pro Agri (Nicky Hamlyn, U.K.)


A perfectly simple film but no less elegant for that, Hamlyn's Pro Agri is just a fixed-frame timelapse image of a collection of silos, from the relatively invisible activity of its daylight hours, through its eventual enshroudment in twilight and finally, near-total darkness. By film's end, only the structure's green neon sign -- PRO AGRI -- and a parking lamp on the lower left, can be seen at all. While one could examine the film for possible sociopolitical meaning, Hamlyn implicitly discourages this. I don't want to say that Pro Agri cannot or should not be read as, for example, a brief cine-tract on collective farming. Nor should we refrain from ascertaining exactly what we're looking at -- an agricultural co-op, a storage unit in a factor farm, etc. But Hamlyn's film, with its structuralist tone-poem approach, chooses a procedure which accelerates the hours while showing us, not the earth moving, but the sun and sky moving around a stationary object. So in a way, Pro Agri is "about" problematizing the distinction between that which is lasting and that which is transitory (including daily cycles), and this challenges most conceptions of the political as such, without by any means disqualifying them. Not to get too Heideggerian about it, but Hamlyn uses cinema's unique capabilities to let us see heaven and earth caressing human endeavor. (Program Two: Pro Agri – Saturday Sept. 12, 6:30 pm)




Puccini Conservato (Michael Snow, Italy / Canada)


In a long and storied career, which has included the creation of some of film history's most singular and groundbreaking works, Michael Snow may have produced his strangest moving-image work to date. Commissioned to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Giacomo Puccini's birth, Puccini Conservato ("conservato" meaning "conserved" or "preserved" in Italian) uses its strangely awkward images to direct our attention toward other meanings. As the soundtrack plays an excerpt from La Bohème, Snow uses the visual field to draw our attention to the opera's status as a recorded artifact. Snow, ever the materialist, has chosen to commemorate Puccini by reminding us of precisely how his legacy is preserved and conveyed to most listeners -- through recording technology. So, the first image in Conservato is a shiny beige weave pattern, which the camera pans over in small increments, in a very herky-jerky fashion. As Snow pulls back a bit with the zoom and moves a tad to the right, the Panasonic logo enters the screen. Snow is showing us speakers. Soon the image will be filled with close-ups of the volume button, the cassette deck, the equalizer, an MP3 jack, and other parts of the stereo equipment playing the Puccini recording. But in these images, Snow uses harsh lighting and very primitive tripod work, as if it were his intention to bring out video's worst qualities. So again, it appears that we are supposed to reflect on the music, and all the barriers (some of them aesthetically neutral or below) between the music and our ears. Snow's view of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction may well be that, if the art is powerful enough, it can reach across the distance and move us, regardless of what stands in its way. (Program One: Titans – Friday Sept. 11, 6:30 pm.)


Tamalpais (Chris Kennedy, U.S. / Canada)


Kennedy’s film records the landscape as visible from atop the titular peak in Marin County through a standing 5x7 grid, forcing the focus through each of the sliced-out frames of reference, before stepping back to present the entire view of the landscape, including the standing wood-and-wire grid (with sandbag support to compensate for the Bay's wind factor). Kennedy's editing, then, presents these modules of space, one after another, in the grid pattern, which always moves us top to bottom and left to right. The resulting close-ups yield sequences that start with patches of sky and end with individual blades of grass in the extreme foreground. In between, rolling but supremely flattened grass-covered hills. Now, this description of what Kennedy has done, however, fails to capture the genuine strangeness of experiencing Tamalpais.. If you're trying to put the grid back together in the viewing, you're missing the earthly information Kennedy's camera has actually registered. You're failing to respond to what's actually on the screen. Meanwhile, if you simply examine Tamalpais as a set of landscape views or natural forms, you'll soon discover that Kennedy's use of the grid technique (in particular its play with distance and focus) has flattened out the filmed material in ways that imply but withhold a Cézanne-like painterly engagement. So, on the phenomenological and the intellectual level, in terms of both cinema's confrontation with time and space, Chris Kennedy has created a film that practically destroys its object of inquiry. And yet, Tamalpais is in no way a mere plaint against "formalism" in favor of some Romantic immediacy. The film, really, looks so sunny and placid on the surface, but it's actually a sort of plunge into structuralism's heart of darkness. (Program Two: Pro Agri – Saturday Sept. 12, 6:30 pm)


Two Projects by Frederick Kiesler (Heinz Emigholz, Austria / Germany)

Heinz Emigholz uses cinema (digital video in this case) to expand the notion of architectural documentation, exploring buildings and the built environment not as static facts, objects d'art plopped down in the landscape, but as living entities that interface with nature and human inhabitants. This ongoing "life" in the land provides them with a unique phenomenology that requires the fourth dimension -- the time element -- in order to approximate full documentation of the work of an architect. Two Projects by Frederick Kiesler marks a departure from Emigholz's usual m.o. This short film, examining the Ukrainian-born Austrian avant-gardist, is broken into two segments. The first is an extended perusal of Kiesler's model for "Endless House," a 1959 proposal for a hypothetical living space that would provide total continuity between inhabitants and surrounding nature, and appears to have as its goal the dissolution of boundaries between rooms, or between walls and floors. Emigholz films the model on a pedestal with a close, swooping camera, hugging the structure's curves and voids. In the longer second part, we see one of Kiesler's two realized projects (and the only one currently in use), Jerusalem's Shrine of the Book. We observe the structure's sharp play of monolithic edges against its central form, a white pointed dome that serves as a glistening fountain. Emigholz shows us how the dark interiors and blank, steely modernist walls are continually juxtaposed with craggy beige brick. Emigholz emphasizes how the final structure combines De Stijl and older, Holy Land elements, compromises of the sort that have defined religious commissions through recorded history. However the final form of the building, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls among other priceless artifacts, also represents The War of the Sons of the Light Against the Sons of the Darkness. By showing us the Shrine of the Book after a close examination of the Endless House, Emigholz implies that a clear-cut division between these opposing forces was probably anathema to this complex thinker in stone.  (Program One: Titans – Friday Sept. 11, 6:30 pm.)


Waterfront Follies (Ernie Gehr, U.S.)


This is a piece I have not yet seen. However, I have it on good authority that it is, hands down, the finest video work yet from Gehr, one of the uncontested masters of American experimental cinema. As is the case with some of Gehr’s most well-known films, Waterfront Follies is extremely basic in the set-up, or in what one could describe it as being “about.” It is an unbroken gaze into the sunset over the water. But as it often does, human foibles intercede, making things considerably messier and, naturally, more interesting. I asked Gehr to provide his own description of the piece, and I can scarcely improve upon what he said: “A work that operates outside the aesthetics of the cut, and thrives upon the possibilities of chance.  Its leisurely pace sets the stage for a contemplation of human impulses and the larger forces of nature.  The work also allows for a quiet consideration of the picture plane, the painterly quality of the images as well as matters pertaining to scale and time, light and color.  Nothing was staged for either sound or image, yet even the most insignificant occurrences seem to inform, have a sense of gravity and mystery (as time and life usually does) as well as a momentary place under the sun in this manufactured 'universe'.” (Program One: Titans – Friday Sept. 11, 6:30 pm.)

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TIFF 2009Ernie GehrFrederick KieslerChris KennedyMichael SnowNicky HamlynTomonari NishikawaKen RussellJosef DabernigT. MarieWavelengthsTIFFFestival CoverageLong Reads
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