TIFF 2013. Correspondences #5

More from TIFF: Albert Serra's Casanova meets Dracula picture, and experimental shorts in the Wavelengths program.
Daniel Kasman

Above: a publicity image from Albert Serra's Story of My Death.

My friend,

I don't know if you heard, Fern, but apparently there are only two feature films at TIFF this year projected on 35mm—Raya Martin and Mark Peranson's La última película (which, incidentally, in its story claims to have bought up all the remaining film stock in the world to use on the picture) and, unexpectedly, Joseph H. Lewis's Gun Crazy (last year the similarly restrained TIFF Cinematheque retrospective program also only featured one movie shown on film). I keep seeing, before the movies start, prerolls for Christie digital projection systems; even a blasé audience member couldn't help but notice these booming, grandiose bumpers proclaiming the projectors' cutting edge technology. I wonder if things would be any different if over the last 100 years all movies shown on film were preceded with a trailer proclaiming the wonders of the 35mm projectors about to unfurl new wonders before our eyes? Another disheartening battle lost to film, as even normal theaters (leaving aside 3D and IMAX prestige venues) are conditioning us to think of their experiences as part of the teleological climb ever-upwards of technology one needs to continuously upgrade to, pay more for...

Those may be the only two features shown on film, but of course—of course—there is plenty of projected film in evidence at Andréa Picard's shorts programs in her Wavelengths section. It is the section which for me is the most pleasurable, the most rewarding at TIFF; and also the most personal, as all the other sections lack the tangible sensibility found in Wavelengths, the sense of choices being made by curators, not just overcrowding of films into arbitrary categories.

The whole Wavelengths section began with an old-new film and a new-old film, two wry studies in repetition and variation. First was the restoration of David Rimmer's stunning 1970 Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper, an ingenious warbling and warping of a still frame through the dynamic movement of found footage flotsam featuring a young woman waving cellophane at the camera. Rimmer gradually complicates if not desecrates his first-stage cellophane-as-celluloid playfulness by pushing color and printing experiments with the source until its representations are nearly obliterated and what's left is the tremulous abstract movement of the wrapper's waves. New-old was Luther Price's sly resurrection of some discarded piece of ad-trash, Pop Takes, a gold-hued garbage bin version of Kubelka's Poetry and Truth, a gaudy, bauble-like series of outtakes of some 70s-era faux-glam catwalk fashion spot.

Kenneth Anger turned away from film to show his Airships triptych—pulling archival images and models from: (1) 30s newsreel footage shown in 3D, (2) Robert Wise's cinemascope, color 1975 Hindenburg, and (3) documentary footage ("presented by Thelma Schoonmaker") of the Hindenburg's demise. Stupid silly, but a gloriously irreverent ode to bulbous flying phalluses and their suggestions of relaxed, effortless futurism and calming sexual interludes...until, that is, swastikas are revealed on dorsal fins, and, of course, the blimp to end all blimps erupts in flaming spurts.

The other impressive digital work in the shorts program so far was Stephen Broomer's Pepper's Ghost, in which the director and two cohorts seem to have stumbled across a two-way mirror and attempt to open holes through space if not time by persistently experimenting with raising and lowering curtains, turning on and off lights, and layering colored papers and screens across the mirrors. The result is twofold. One, a humble picture of friends collaborating, trying things out, working at imagemaking, with reflections as records of individuals as well as the group peering into the camera and reacting to the results of their enterprise. This is not a sealed off, perfect play of form as it could have been, but rather a document of a working experiment amongst friends, the trials and errors of attempting space travel (Primer comes briefly to mind). Second, in constructing an image, panel-colored like a frame from Ruiz's The Blind Owl and smashed into digital's characteristic flatness, yet endlessly layered by trick imagery of reflections on refractions on colors behind screens and shadows, Broomer & co. attempt to open portals to new worlds. But not another world; rather, they burrow and burrow through this world, the specific mysticism of the glossy-flat digital image and what may lay deep, deep in those high-res pixels.

I've been waiting some considerable time for the next film from the strange creature known as Albert Serra, and have been rewarded in my patience with the dreamy Story of My Death, generously continuing the tragicomic melancholia and oblique spiritual questioning characteristic of Honor de cavallería (2005) and Birdsong (2008). Serra's vivid minimalist approach to period films and one-of-a-kind digi-painterly light coat this bizarro imagined collision of Casanova and Dracula in textures of glowing, slant rhyme-like historical evocation.

Inside these very small, sliver-like fragments of what feels the real Old World is a near-Doillon sense of the consideration of Serra's people, of a frame not populated by actors but by characters feeling and thinking. In the cinema of Doillon, it is a pointed thought, a prickly touching of the immediate drama by someone's mind. In Story of My Death, Casanova, his hefty servant, Dracula's victims, a passing poet, all have an abstracted air, as if their thoughts are caught in limbo while their bodies—tactile, voluminous, earthy, truly wearing their clothing—linger, rest, or hold in repose. These thoughts, as such, dart in and out of an immediate engagement with the surroundings, with others, with the drama. They are people living in conjured dreams of the past rather than as recreations of the quotidian between-moments of life. Meanwhile, a sadness and a delight fills the world, whose liveliness seems to be transitioning from the era of the sexual-intellectual libertine (Casanova) to that of the violent-mythic romantic (Dracula).

It is a crepuscular movement from fruit-and-crystal filled interiors of aristocratic opulence to night-cloaked peasant spaces of river crossings, farm houses and a rural landscape that sees the gradual eclipse of the hilarious, snorting-pomp and proselytizing of the Italian's cultured lifestyle and a waxing thickness of superstitious silences, uneasy sexuality, and ritual slaughters of the later Carpathian countryside. All unfolds, as now seems the welcome norm for Serra, with the same languor and dramatic imprecision which easily fights off any sense of pretension or intellectual game playing despite the long takes and wandering sense of narrative. This is as direct and honest a film as one can imagine, but luminous (in what Casanova dubs the half-light of undergarments) in its muffled, sad-bawdy sensibility. It expresses not just a beautiful historical idea but, in its wispy, pensive thoughtfulness and corporeal presence, a true tone history's uncanny strangeness.

I hope your viewings have been as rewarding!

My best,

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TIFFTIFF 2013CorrespondencesAlbert SerraDavid RimmerLuther PriceKenneth AngerStephen BroomerFestival Coverage
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