TIFF 2013. Wavelengths Experimental Films – The Shorts and the Mediums

A discussion of the short and medium-length films (and a few features) screening in the Wavelengths section at TIFF 2013.
Michael Sicinski

NB: Films by Robert Beavers, Peter Hutton, and Luther Price were unavailable for preview. However, I said some very nice things about these men and their work in general over at The Dissolve.

In years past, I have attempted to present this extended article as a preview; my aim has been to send it off into the world either the day before of the day of TIFF's kick-off. That has proven impossible this year, and, dear reader, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee... But the fact that Wavelengths is a beat that is becoming harder and harder for one person to adequately cover is undoubtedly a sign of good health. Since last year, when TIFF enfolded the former Visions section (a space for formally adventurous narrative features) into Wavelengths (TIFF's experimental showcase), not only has interest in the section grown exponentially. The section can now more fully reflect the hybridism that has been enlivening the film and video worlds for quite some time now. Narrative films intersect with landscape study. Installation works employ character and performance. Documentary and fiction have become strategies and effects, more than discrete genres. Ethnography has become more open about the storytelling impulse that has always informed its practice. And on and on.

Wavelengths has expanded because the avant-garde impulse has expanded. Film culture is evolving beyond the need for narrow categorization. In what follows, I am primarily focusing on the short and medium-length works Andréa Picard has programmed for the series. The longer works will mostly be addressed elsewhere. I mention this only because I don't want to seem as though I'm marking an artificial division myself, one that Wavelengths now seems increasingly devoted to challenging. On y va!

EL ADIOS LARGOS (Andrew Lampert, U.S.)

If you’re up on your Español, then you realize that the title of Lampert’s film translates as “The Long Goodbye.” (Several savvy critics have already tweeted about some possible El Adios Largos / Le última película connection.) Using as his basis a beat-up, Spanish-dubbed print of Altman’s masterpiece, Lampert takes the opening few minutes of Long Goodbye (Elliott Gould’s Marlowe discussing dining options with his cat) and subjects them to subtle paintbox techniques designed to heighten our awareness of Altman’s compositional structure. Lampert draws boxes around kitchen cabinets to delineate internal frames. He manipulates color so as to adjust foreground / background relationships. And he also charts the balletic movement of that darn cat through the scene. Lampert runs through a continuous stretch of film and distances us from all but its most fundamental visual parameters. It’s like the graphic equivalent of a live-tweet.

AIRSHIP 1-3 (Kenneth Anger, U.S.)

What is a blimp? As evidenced by Kenneth Anger’s three-part found-footage opus Airship, it is many things. It is a modern mode of travel that history left behind. It is huge and imposing, cutting a sublime figure against the sky. It is also hollow, its (illuminating) gas a given. Even more than an airplane, it’s a massive phallus, drifting through the sky. But of course, it can pop, maybe even explode. Airship has some frankly silly aspects, like the bulbous cloud-font titles. (Latter-day Kenneth Anger entails some lapses in taste. I consider Mouse Heaven and Don’t Smoke That Cigarette! to be virtual throwaways.) But the three segments, while distinct, rhyme and contrast in terms of mood and timbre. A1 is in anaglyph 3D, a compilation film of blimp footage from multiple 1930s and 1940s sources. A2 goes widescreen, and it’s a single-blimp dreamscape of a painterly Hindenberg wafting through blue skies. (The swastika tail logo is prominently featured, connecting back to Scorpio Rising.) And the ultra-brief A3, presented in Academy ratio, brings the very “airship” concept to a fiery end. This is a sardonic film about dreams betrayed by dark desire, and it although it’s hardly a return to Anger’s Luciferian heyday, it’s a welcome extension of the legacy. 

BANN (Nina Könnemann, Germany)

Bann appears at first to be a fairly simple handheld urban study. Könnemann shows us various buildings from street level, mostly from the back-end: alleyways, loading docks, and disused doorways. Gradually her actual subject becomes clear. We see protruding hands and feet of smokers, and eventually their entire shadowy figures. Bann is about the way that anti-smoking ordinances (even outdoors) have forced the nicotine-addicted (or, God forbid, those who just enjoy it) further and further into the margins. (Note: the incredibly silly Bollywood-style poster that Könnemann has sent out as a promotional image has virtually nothing in common with her actual film.) With her framing, and the smokers’ own tendency to crouch into corners of granite edifices of downtown law firms and banks, Könnemann provides a glimpse of a new race of shame-faced gargoyles, brought into being by the insidious reach of the nanny-state. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em!

 BRIMSTONE LINE (Chris Kennedy, Canada)

Chris Kennedy is an undervalued filmmaker in the experimental world, in part because, unlike so many others who stake out a particular plot of ground and till it for all it’s worth, he is a bit of a conceptual vagabond. A lot of his films are quite different from one another in their surface effects, but at their core they share certain basic questions, in particular the relationship between organized vision and the chaos of the sensory world. That is, how do schemas and patterns determine what we are able to see? Kennedy’s newest film, intriguingly enough, is a sequel of sorts to his 2009 film Tamalpais. In the earlier film, Kennedy created landscape “views” by installing a makeshift wooden grid on the side of a hill, filming land and sky through this frame-of-reference prop. In Brimstone Line, he takes three such grid-easels and stands them up amidst the flow of Ontario’s Credit River, forming a rectilinear recession, just slightly off-kilter. This Düreresque maneuver not only slices “scenes” out of the natural environs. It offers counterpoint to the sound of the river’s rush, around which Kennedy quite pointedly can place no such frame. 

CONSTELLATIONS (Helga Fanderl, Germany)

It took me some time to fully recognize how indispensible Helga Fanderl’s films really are. Taken singly, they can seem rather negligible, since they don’t seem to have a great deal at stake. They are seldom about anything “important.” And they are almost always very short, their brevity an apparent formal homologue with their low-gauge provenance. (Fanderl is one of the great Super-8 holdouts, although most of the time her films are screened in 16mm blow-ups.) But there is something gloriously unfashionable about Fanderl’s films, and this is what makes them so purely enjoyable. In an age where we are deeply suspicious of ideas like “talent” or “vision,” there’s one unifying element that makes Fanderl’s hand-held observations from daily life politely ask for (never “demand”) our attention. She has an eye.

This is what separates Fanderl’s miniatures from the diary-film genre, although they are diary-related. She shows them in groups, but they are not thematic, like Jonas Mekas’s long works. Instead, it’s her delicate in-camera editing pulse, her gentle rhythms, that hold the varied elements together. In and of themselves, they really bear no direct relation to one another—blowing autumn leaves, a pacing leopard, rusty scrap metal behind a cyclone fence. It’s the style, and the obvious alertness to life’s small epiphanies, that yokes these disparate bits of experience into a whole film. Fanderl is a series artist, and the series continues everywhere she goes.

UN CONTE DE MICHEL DE MONTAGNE (Jean-Marie Straub, France / Switzerland)

It is crucial here that Straub titles his film Un conte (a story), rather than the expected Un essai, since the text he is working with is not some obscure, uncollected Montaigne fragment but indeed a part of the Essay—in particular, “On Exercise or Practice,” No. 6 from Vol. 2. The performer, Barbara Ulrich, is delivering only a key excerpt, one in which Montaigne describes falling off his horse and suffering grievous injury. As with so much latter-day Straub, much of the meaning of this lovely film resides in the strict separation of elements, those parts of conventional cinema that are usually combined without a second thought. Un conte starts with a part of a Beethoven string quartet, the recording presented against a black screen. After this, Ulrich’s recitation alternates between three primary modes of presentation—a VO against black; a VO over a sun-dappled shot of a bronze statue of Montaigne in a park; and an echt-Straubian overhead shot of Ulrich declaiming the text. (Only near the end do we see Ulrich and the statue together.) This rotating pattern of possible modes vaguely recalls Morgan Fisher’s work, especially Picture and Sound Rushes, although Straub is up to something different. For instance, only when we see Ulrich in frame is her voice clearly recorded in direct sync sound. Given that such simultaneous picture / sound recording is one of the very ethical benchmarks of Straub’s cinema, the fact that it appears as one option among several is highly suggestive. In a sense, it takes us back to the Montaigne text, which is about near-death, the body’s insides protruding outward, and the achievement of self-awareness in the face of one’s vulnerability. For Montaigne, knowing you can die is empowering. For some, this represents the inauguration of the modern subject. (Straub beginning the film with Beethoven is telling in this respect.) So why does Straub place his insisted-upon use of sound in a context where it is one choice among several? Perhaps because being modern means recognizing the vulnerability Montaigne describes, the fact that your project is perennially under assault from other competing visions. We cannot establish the law; we can only fight to survive, and tell our story. 

 THE DISQUIET (Ali Cherry, France / Lebanon)

Part philosophical inquiry, part procession of bold, haptic images, Ali Cherry’s latest video is a major step forward for the artist, but it’s also a text that is divided against itself. The Disquiet takes the specific geological circumstances of Lebanon as its starting point, in particular the fact that the nation is situated between four seismic fault lines. In the first half of the video, Cherry provides factual information about the history of earthquakes in Lebanon, along with the narrator’s increasingly frantic insistence that Lebanon’s problematic national past can be understood by studying these events, as if one were cracking the earthquake code. This first half seems too stiff in its presentation. (I was reminded of Ursula Biemann’s pedagogical videoworks.) But The Disquiet begins with a stunning image—a turbulent red sea with a half-submerged rock formation protruding from the waves—and ends with a Steadicam tracking shot that focuses intently on the varieties of flora on the forest floor. This last shot concludes with an arrangement of avian artifacts that calls Anselm Kiefer to mind. This potent emblem made much of Cherry’s more direct, text-laden material seem too heavy-handed, and certainly not in keeping with the tone he eventually establishes. In any case, there is plenty of fine material in The Disquiet to minimize any lingering frustrations. 

DRY STANDPIPE (Wojciech Bakowski, Poland)

This is a tough little video to crack. An apparently formalist experiment that features a first-person narration helpfully explaining both what’s on screen and what the video is up to, Dry Standpipe finds notable Polish artist Bakowski laying down a black background and drawing a series of semi-geometrical forms, while treating the drawn lines of said forms as if they were thin windows into a diegetic field behind the dominant frame. Bakowski tells us that he is combining two distinct channels of information; the forms are made of compressed or attenuated video images of ordinary activity. For example: “This is a spine. It’s in a container made of bubbles from soft drinks. It’s quite heavy. The spine is made of a video of me opening a window.” This is fairly typical. Not only would the source material be impossible to discern without Bakowski’s help. It’s impossible even after he helps us, and it’s not clear that we glean anything afterward, except that he had some ideas about odd things to do with old stuff he taped.

FARTHER THAN THE EYE CAN SEE (Basma Alsharif, United Arab Emirates)

One of the biggest surprises of this year’s Wavelengths crop, Basma Alsharif’s Farther Than the Eye Can See combines personal and geopolitical history with a startling formal dexterity. In its own odd way, Alsharif’s film recalls such offbeat efforts as Owen Land’s Remedial Reading Comprehension and Michael Snow’s SSHTOORRTY, but refracts those works through an entirely original sensibility. It’s a tale of immigration and strife, in which two narrators (one English, one French) detail a family’s decision to flee Egypt, with some of the family taking up residence in Jerusalem. Alsharif’s primary device is a simultaneous traveling shot—first of a woman biking at night, and then of a car journeying through an urban zone—which flickers between the forward and backward movements. The opposite trajectories become nearly indistinguishable. This not only speaks to the inevitable hybrid-self that exile generates; it also makes the confusion of spaces and movements into a concrete, palpable effect – how constant motion can become a form of “stuckness.” The droning Euro-male voice eventually supersedes the Francophone woman, which tells us something about the assimilation of both forms and standards of identity. This is a major work. 

 FLOWER (Naoko Tasaka, Japan)

This is one of the most deceptively complicated films in the entire Wavelengths series. I say deceptive because, unlike more obviously challenging works—those employing pure silence, or relying on specific historical knowledge—Flower generally pivots between two forms of visual information, and is held together by a voiceover parable about a hungry bear eating acorns. Nevertheless, Tasaka’s film is a kind of intellectual vortex, moving from simplicity to an almost cosmological scope, and not always in the most pleasurable of ways. I will confess to being utterly confounded by Flower on first viewing and not really liking it very much at all; a second go-round revealed quite a lot more, and I’ve come to admire it a great deal. The two main channels of visual data I referred to above are (a) a slow-motion shot of a waterfall, whose stream is solid enough at first that it looks like a stem or some other organic form; and (b) a series of hand-scratched or rotoscoped geometrical objects that zoom toward the viewer, as if they were windows in some invisible tunnel. Eventually these objects are replaced by matrices of rounded squares, which resemble microscopic images of skin cells. When this material alternates, and is placed in counterpoint with the bear story (the bear starves the more he eats; he eventually consumes things he never intended to), one gets the sense that Flower is really a film about the connection, or the collision, between inner and outer space, the tiniest and the grandest levels of known life. (Although Tasaka’s surface approach is very different from Brakhage’s, she seems to share some of his Dog Star Man-era concerns.) In the end, Flower toggles between these layers in a flickering conflagration. Here, the film falters; speeding up the A/B alternation isn’t the most convincing exit strategy. Still, it’s rare to see this degree of ambition in a young filmmaker. 2001: A Space Odyssey crossed my mind more than once, and that’s what we call a compliment. 

 45 7 BROADWAY (Tomonari Nishikawa, U.S.)

The location is Times Square, and you might well begin watching 45 7 Broadway with a reasonable question, both in terms of content and form. What new element could the artist possibly bring to this material? As is so often the case with Nishikawa’s wonderful films, the answer is twofold: absolute craftsmanship and a wry sense of poetry. In its purely denotative elements—that is, the view of Times Square Nishikawa provides, 45 7 Broadway is a well-tempered city suite, recalling the best work of Jim Jennings. We slide between the bustle of pedestrians and the flash of signage, New York as a thriving organism. However, Nishikawa’s formal annotation almost literally electrifies the film (in the Chinese sense of film as “electric shadows,” cinema as free-floating light event). He shot the film on black and white stock, but shot it through red, blue and green filters. This produced light distortions corresponding to the presence of those tones within the profilmic events. Then, he used an optical printer, and the same filters again, to reproduce the film on color stock. The resulting bi- and tri-packed composite images turn each dominant color into a separate image registration (not unlike color lithography, or the old multi-strip Technicolor process), so that scenes flutter into and out of alignment with an appropriately funky, urban nervousness. In spirit, 45 7 Broadway recalls the puckish efforts of Norman McLaren and Len Lye, but it’s somehow looser than their films. Nishikawa works overtime to make the cinema seem lithe and carefree. 

GOWANUS CANAL (Sarah J. Christman, U.S.)

A polluted body of water is a repository for dense pools of chemicals. These chemicals kill most everything in their path. They also form pictures. They leave fluorescent residue on rocks, they coalesce into saturated, swirling fields of crimson and emerald. The pools bleed into one another, thin rivulets straining away based on their differing densities. Even though it is usually the case that no one takes responsibility for the dumping that has caused the environmental catastrophe on display, the chemicals draw their own evidentiary images, paint their own terrible art. Cinema is also formed by pools of chemicals. Sarah Christman’s series of films documenting the material images of polluted water represent the meeting of two similar media (both formed of chemistry and light), mutually drawing (on) each other. We hear the lapping waves, the gurgle of frogs, and contemplate the poisonous modernism that each of us has paid for.

GROSSE FATIGUE (Camille Henrot, France)

Not a Wavelengths presentation per se (actually programmed by Andréa Picard for the Future Projections series), Camille Henrot’s video work nevertheless operates in the spirit of much of the work in the WL section proper. This isn’t to say that it does with complete success. Grosse Fatigue is a work that is very much in keeping with a current trend in experimental video (cf. Jesse McLean, and especially Ryan Trecartin) toward information bombardment and the invocation of frazzled affect, but it never manages to make a clear case for itself as having more to offer beyond conceptual stuntsmanship. Using a literal computer desktop as its primary ground, the video opens window after window in an effort to convey “world history” (as per a labeled folder) as a series of radical equivalences, from cataclysms to minimalist objects and viral videos. A speed-talking narrator takes us from the primordial ooze to contemporary times and beyond, implicitly connecting accelerated universal time with global data access. But Henrot offers little in the way of actual history, a sense of why her million-year chant is a compelling or truthful narrative. As per the title, it conveys great exhaustion, but it also seems to take excitement in the fact that we are not long for this world. Why, exactly? 

INSTANTS (Hannes Schüpbach, Switzerland)

The films of Hannes Schüpbach display a sylvan classicism that has very few points of comparison in contemporary filmmaking. The fact that Instants repeatedly called to mind the films of Dorsky and Beavers should indicate that this filmmaker should command your attention. At the same time, in Instants Schüpbach is working in a mode that is positioned somewhere between precision and sketchbook-assemblage, and it is not always clear what we are intended to take from his editorial decisions. True to its title, Instants takes small fragments of time as its dominant aesthetic, and this includes both still images and brief shots, taken within the same wooded environment (near Avignon) seemingly at approximately the same time. This allows us to see the subtle difference between film and photography in terms of texture and light. Schüpbach keeps his camera low; we are looking at light through brambles and the mid- to bottom-section of trees and grasses. In time, Instants introduces other material—a man writing in a notebook on the grass; a young girl jumping in the sun—at rhythmic intervals. Some of the motifs (girl, trees, water) also recur under a blue filter. However, the overall drift of Instants is difficult to read. Schüpbach generally increases the human content at the end of the film, and his editing pattern sacrifices the singularity of images (separated by black leader) in favor of direct cuts and fast pacing. By the end, it’s a bit unclear why all of the footage exists in the same film. Still, even if the ‘instants’ don’t entirely cohere, they are radiant in their own right. 

 THE KING'S BODY (João Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal)

A rare misfire from one of the best contemporary filmmakers working today, The King’s Body is an austere conceptual work that adds up to quite a bit less than the sum of its parts. Rodrigues is trying to go to the very root of the Portuguese “body politic” by considering the physical form of Portugal’s first king, Alfonso Henriques. A warrior renowned for his strength, and someone invoked as a mythological touchstone by royals and politicians (including the Salazar dictatorship) ever since, King Alfonso is the sovereign body that rules the Portuguese imaginary by serving as a present absence. For his part, Rodrigues holds a comically vulgar casting call in order to make the mythic body flesh. A host of preposterously hunky guys (some of them exotic dancers) are auditioned in front of a green screen while Rodrigues’ offscreen voice instructs them to strip. Yes, the part of Portuguese History will be played by Gay Pornography. The participants read from a text about Alfonso while the green screen puts them in various fake backgrounds. While there is an impressive serialism to Rodrigues’ presentation of these men and their performances—this is not a narrative work in any respect—one gets the sense that once The King’s Body was conceived, its realization was something of an afterthought. While individual men are unique in their presentation of self, and their rippled bodies are something to behold, this is a piece that doesn’t really offer a great deal of cinematic pleasure. And that’s something I never expected to write about a João Pedro Rodrigues film. 

 LETTER TO A REFUSING PILOT (Akram Zaatari, Lebanon)

Akram Zaatari’s film, commissioned for the Lebanese Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, is a stark, austere meditation on architecture, human responsibility, and the disparity between fact and legend. Based on a story Zaatari heard as a boy which turned out to be true, about an Israeli fighter pilot who recognized a designated Lebanese target as a school and refused to bomb it, Letter to a Refusing Pilot is most surprising because, for the majority of its running time, it is hardly a “letter” in any conventional sense. Starting out in silence as an unseen man draws spare images of buildings on drafting paper, the film maintains a conceit throughout of gloved hands sifting through an archive of images and materials on a light table. That is, we are sorting the past, in relative silence, along with the film. Together with this approach, Zaatari introduces relatively quotidian footage of school grounds, shot with an unnerving formal precision. A central sequence, during which an unassuming abstract sculpture in the courtyard is circled slowly by Zaatari’s accusatory camera, recalls Apichatpong’s Syndromes and a Century. In both cases, normal environments are depicted as if they are radiating historical vibrations of prior misdeeds. Eventually, Letter finds numerous schoolchildren folding their test papers into airplanes and sending them off the roof, as if trying in vain to send some missive across decades of conflict. 

 MAIN HALL (Philipp Fleischmann, Austria)

Fleischmann, who was featured in Wavelengths three years ago with his cyclotronic whirligig Cinematographie, is at it again. His latest, Main Hall, is a spatial examination of the Main Hall of Vienna’s Secession Building (Joseph Maria Olbrich, 1897), one of modernism’s original “white cube” exhibition spaces. As such, its hall-mark (ahem) is neutrality and austerity. Fleischmann developed special cameras designed to maneuver throughout the space, allowing its architectural facticity to imprint itself, with similar neutrality, onto the filmstrip. The result (aside from inevitable light-leaks, scratches and frameline pulses—film impressing itself on the process) is as close as possible to a record of space as its own imperative, apart from any human designs to occupy it. Calling to mind such materialist experiments as David Gatten’s What the Water Said series and Saul Levine’s Light Licks, Main Hall meets Viennese modernist with modular inscription and the poetry of the impersonal. And, as always, the result is paradoxically alive with artifact, incident, and the human touch. No ornament, no crime. 

 MAN IN MOTION, 2012 (Christophe M. Saber, Ruben Glauser and Max Idje, Switzerland)

This is a film that is much more interesting in conception, and even in execution, than in the actual final product. The three makers (I suspect this was a student project, although I do not know) have filmed a live performance of a Muybridge-like repetitive motion, in this case a naked man walking up a set of steps and then around them again. In front of the man, on the stage, we see a robot-like remote control camera, tracking back and forth to document the motion. There is a screen behind the man, and his action is projected onto the screen with a live video delay, resulting in a looped, staggered mise en abyme. However, the clarity of the redoubled image suffers. There is little in terms of composition or formal interaction between the multiple images, or the images and the live performer. Man in Motion, 2012 harks back to the classics of 1970s video art (Dan Graham, Joan Jonas, Bruce the Vasulkas), but it lacks the rigor that made those early experiments enriching for audience and performer alike.

MOUNT SONG (Shambhavi Kaul, U.S. / India)

A major departure from Kaul’s two previous works, Mount Song is a wide dive into the exotic imaginary, situated somewhere between inquiry and Symbolist poem. Kaul’s camera (and I say “camera” advisedly—this could be entirely made of found footage, but I honestly cannot tell) prowls a series of empty, twilight-time movie sets, some on the verge of collapse. Inasmuch as the first half has a protagonist, it is a rolling fog bank (very much a smoke-machine job) that occasionally works itself up into a legitimate smoke-plume. In the second half, it is replaced in the cast by a hyperreal parrot that eventually becomes a neon energy-form, radiating red and green as it pierces the set-painted “sky.”

Mount Song is a bizarre experience, and a bracing one, largely because it eschews expectation. Kaul clearly places no faith in this array of Orientalism and tacky Chinoiserie. But neither is she indicting it, in the manner of, say, Leslie Thornton. Rather there is a sadness to all the half-lit, patently false movie components, set dressing, cheap special effects, and wrongheaded fantasies. They don’t cohere, because they never do: 70s Bollywood, Chinese restaurant, Ray Harryhausen mythology, Shaw Brothers chopsocky, Disneyland, foam boulders, balsawood shutters and plastic fauna. Mount Song draws on some key sources: the plangent glamor of Jack Smith, the haunted meta-popscapes of Michael Robinson, even the acid-damaged pixel-burn of Damon Packard. But Shambhavi has fashioned a field of half-dissolved memories that demands and rewards revisiting. Mount Song is a breakthrough work for a artist who just keeps getting more interesting with every film.

NATPWE, THE FEAST OF THE SPIRITS (Tiane Doan na Champassak and Jean Dubrel, France/ Burma)

Periodically, the Wavelengths shorts programs include a true-blue work of ethnography, one whose connection to the broader aims of the series kind of eludes me. This year it’s Natpwe, a film that dives headlong into a Burmese festival whose partial cultural meaning, it seems, is the unmooring of traditional gender roles (at least for men). The film is beautifully rendered, with crystalline black-and-white photography and a propulsive cadence that is by no means beholden to conventional long-take truth codes. (Not only are jump cuts the order of the day; Champassak and Dubrel make liberal use of slow and fast motion.) Without voiceover, we are left to intuit any larger meaning in individual activities, as well as the festival period as a whole. This gamble, as you might imagine, yields as many problems as rewards, since all we have is a gaze that, by dint of its distance from the spectacle, has to accept partial knowledge and do with it what we will.

 NEFANDUS (Carlos Motta, U.S. / Spain)

Carlos Motta’s video is a work of such economy and such theoretical exactitude that it hardly bears criticism. It virtually explicates itself, which is not to say that it is lacking in sensual pleasures or emotional valence. (Far from it.) Consisting almost entirely of a boat trip down the Don Diego River in Colombia, Nefandus is an inquiry into homosexual practices that were common to the peoples indigenous to the area, prior to the arrival of Hispanic colonists who, armed with Leviticus, branded such behaviors “abomination,” and those who engaged in the “sodomites.” More than this, Motta and his collaborator Arregoces Coronado (speaking the local language of Kogi) discuss how the settlers Biblical law instantiated a wholesale remapping of the male body, in which “the anus became the locus of male vulnerability.” The river is the only remaining witness to a centuries-old attempt to erase outlaw desires, but as Motta makes clear, the nefandus (nefarious, anathema) was a force that could never be extinguished. A deeply intelligent, truly righteous film. 

 PAYS BARBARE (Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, France / Italy)

Although I can’t claim to be especially well versed in the work of Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi,  I have been somewhat ambivalent toward the work of theirs that I do know—1986’s From the Pole to the Equator and 2004’s Oh, Uomo. These films represent an impressive array of rare documentary footage, assembled argumentatively to display the manner in which cinema has been a tool in the hands of the powerful. Ricci Lucchi and Gianikian successfully reveal film’s secret and sometimes not-so-secret history as a Foucaultian technology of control. In this regard, their project relates to that of Harun Farocki and Ken Jacobs. But I do have significant problems with the way the pair aestheticize the material included within their own films. Their latest effort, Pays Barbare, moves even further in this direction. It’s a study of Mussolini’s campaign to subjugate Ethiopia, and the film begins with an extended sequence of the mob that killed Il Duce, presented in dead silence. Then, we are given step-printed, luminously colored footage shot by the fascists to demonstrate that Ethiopia was in fact a “barbaric land,” in need of colonial domination. Occasional voiceover, combined with poetic repetition and plangent Sprechstimme, drive the point home, but they also beautify Pays Barbare to such an extent that the actual content of the Italian footage—what is being done to whom, and how power is being administered—is frequently invisible.

PEPPER'S GHOST (Stephen Broomer, Canada)

Shall I compare thee to Michael Snow?

(The series is “Wavelengths,” don’tcha know…)

Your film has an axis of recessed space

but no waves. Just the camera in their place.

And since you hail from the Great White North,

is it gauche or cliché to cite <-->?

The classroom transparencies, bodies of friends,

fragment the picture plane, play to the lens.

The filtering plastic forms internal frames

that transform the scene to a Diebenkorn plane.

Reflections refract and refractions reflect;

above all it’s whimsy that I can detect.

Roll out magenta! Pull down the shades!

It signifies rigour, remaining handmade.

A stained glass concerto with a keen sense of humour.

I like Pepper’s Ghost. Bravo, Mr. Broomer.

RP31 (Lucy Raven, U.S.)

Originally conceived as an installation, Raven’s RP31 is a brief but remarkable optical journey through what might be called the “optical unconscious” of 35mm film. (The fact that it’s screening before Martín and Peranson’s La última película is not coincidental; these are two of only three 35mm films in the entire festival! DCP über alles…) RP31 is also, in some respects, a tech-nerd cousin to Owen Land’s classic Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. Where Land’s film created a loop out of color-balance leader starring the infamous “China girl,” Raven shows us a set of image-standard charts used to test the quality of 35mm projection: focus, framing, masking, and aperture. (The “RP” of the title stands for “recommended practices.”) No mere conceptual effort, RP31 shows Raven’s facility as an abstract animator. The piece makes the most of differential pacing and shock-cut contrasts in color and shape.

These cards are not part of the film, but they are part of “film,” understood as a broader complex. More to the point, they are visual information typically kept off the scene of standard projection; the average patron is not intended to ever see these reference charts. As Linda Williams has pointed out with respect to pornography (I know… hang with me for a minute!), the “obscene” is that which is kept “off scene,” accessible only to the privileged few. And now, as 35mm sadly goes the way of the Great Auk, this material (and the specialists to whom it speaks) will only become more and more “obscene,” more of a bother to an industry anxious to condition us to its own imperatives. Raven has given us a gorgeous film-object, one that is also right on time.

THE REALIST (Scott Stark, U.S.)

I’ve already written at some length about The Realist, which I consider to be one of the year’s very best films. However I think it’s worth noting that this piece has a fairly direct formal relationship to some key works from earlier in Stark’s career. In particular, a film such as 2001’s Angel Beach employed stereoscopic images of people on the beach, rapidly cutting between the two parallax views so as to create a vibrating, twisting approximation of 3D movement. Similarly, Stark’s more recent Speechless (2008) applied the dual-view animation method to a series of close-up photographs of vaginas, taken from a clinical study on the clitoris. What we can see in the progression of Stark’s application of this formal method, which he finally brings to bear on mannequins in The Realist, is an increasing tendency to animate inert material through the power of editing. In particular, Stark uses the minute difference between frames—a slight alteration of position—to simulate movement. This is “cinema” at its most average, and yet it looks so strange.

REDEMPTION (Miguel Gomes, Portugal / Italy / France / Germany)

Well, damn it. After making Tabu, one of the most singular fiction features of our young decade, Miguel Gomes has demonstrated his skill in a virtually unrelated area of endeavor, producing a found-footage film that absolutely holds its own within the rarefied realm of the avant-garde. How did he do it? Well, partly one can see this sensibility at work in parts of Tabu and the earlier Our Beloved Month of August, a pastiche and assemblage mentality that regards cinema with a musical and essayistic attitude. Sound and image retain their relative independence, but maintain total coherence, lighting upon one another through poetic combination and vertical affiliation. In Redemption, Gomes flexes this muscle, gives it free reign. Home movies, ethnography, news footage, scientific and industrial material, and purloined commercial films serve as counterpoint to four first-person narratives. They are speculative fictions, reminiscences from the pasts of individuals whose present incarnations impact all of us. (I won’t give anything away, but I will say Redemption is a distant cousin to Jay Rosenblatt’s best film, Human Remains.) This is a film that you will almost instantly want to see a second time. 

SONG and SPRING (Nathaniel Dorsky, U.S.)

Nathaniel Dorsky’s two latest films exist as independent entities. However, as per the artist’s preference, they are being presented as a diptych, both in Toronto (where they are screening with Peter Hutton’s Three Landscapes) and soon after in New York (where they’ll play alongside Misplacement, the new Jerome Hiler film). This is wise, because the two films both represent new twists in Dorsky’s highly refined filmmaking style, and they speak to one another in ways I find quite suggestive. Song is the subtler of the two films, in some respects operating more in line with Dorsky’s previous efforts. But if there are certain light and refraction effects that seem familiar (Dorsky won’t stop being Dorsky), he is arriving at them in unique ways. The first shot of Song shows a door swinging open to reveal a transmitted reflection of bare winter trees. The image is familiar, but the movement is not; this kind of manipulation of planes is far more straightforward than usual, since in the past Dorsky has preferred to observe objects in glass moving against one another contrapuntally.

Song is a film that incorporates more camera movement and more rack focus than we’ve seen in Dorsky’s films, and again, counterpoint seems to be the key idea here. A frequent tack is the depiction of a thicket of flora, the foreground out of focus, the midrange coming in sharp. What does this do? For one thing, it often creates what I would call “vortex shadows,” a deep skein of tangible figure that practically generates its own ground. But it also produces harmony in the evolution of the shot, the focused elements moving with and against the heavier, softer-edged emanations. This, combined with the emphasis on diagonal anchor-forms that put a stake down in an otherwise dissipating image, produce an inevitable musicality that runs throughout Song. (Watch for a stunning gold-glitter skull in shot #10!)

Spring, on the other hand, is easily one of the most kinetic films Dorsky has produced, a strange amalgam of stolen moments of beauty from the human world (city scenes, fragments of portraiture) and a nature study whose visual assertiveness occasionally seems to stop just this side of Rose Lowder. Dorsky is exploring the potentials of mobile camera—one shot that appears to be taken from a boat ride is astonishing, wherein jabbing drops of rain form white diagonal lines in the frame, as if Dorsky had taken a stippling tool and gone Len Lye on his answer print. But even in fields of wildflowers, where before Dorsky might have held still and allowed the sun and wind to orchestrate the shot, the camera becomes an agent of change, gently charging through the stems and bending them down.

Dorsky’s cinema has been transcendently optical, but Spring finds him dabbling in the dark arts of the haptic, bringing a sensuality that was always present in his work right to the fore. When we see charcoal-dark shots that slowly allow images of faces to emerge, or a single shot late in the film in which a cheek seems to be pulling away from the lens, Dorsky is assimilating bodies into the overall “spring” of the plant life, which is the dominant force throughout this film. Whether it’s the slow opening of the aperture, which lets light “bloom” onto the scene at hand and into our eyes, or the very frequent penetration of the Z-axis (by stems, branches, an extremely naughty selection of glowing red flowers), Spring is a film that reaches out to us, that asks us to imbibe the flesh of the world.

As for the final shot—first one, and then another pair of men’s feet entering a vestibule, its carpeted pathway glowing red-hot in the midday sun—well, how better to celebrate this symphony of dehiscence? Dorsky has already titled a film Triste; perhaps now it’s time for Tryst.

A SPELL TO WARD OFF THE DARKNESS (Ben Rivers and Ben Russell, France / Germany / Estonia / Finland / Norway)

Rivers and Russell are two of the most adventurous filmmakers currently working on the avant-garde scene, in part because they regard the ethnographic encounter as an essentially experimental situation, rather than the accumulation of positivist knowledge. So taking cameras out into the world and meeting people is an act that dictates form, but does so from within the contact zone. This means that their films exhibit a deep structural rigor, but without that overall shape having been imposed from without. One can see this in their most recent individual features, Rivers’ Two Years at Sea and Russell’s Let Each One Go Where He May. And while their joint project is quite an accomplishment in its own right, A Spell is initially off-putting because its tripartite organization feels a bit stiff and over-determined. Nevertheless, the film becomes looser as it unfolds. Following one man (Robert A.A. Lowe) from an Estonian commune, through isolation in the Finnish wilderness, to a stint fronting a Black Metal band, A Spell necessarily moves along its own trajectory, from sociality to solitude and back again, and from near-chaotic conditions to a kind of streamlining of sensory information. (Sonic cues are particularly well organized; the Bens outdid themselves on the sound mix.) At times, though, the film can feel a bit disconnected, as though the three parts could have been comprised of so many other elements and a similar basic philosophical point might have been successfully made. This doesn’t take away from A Spell as an experience through which to wander—it’s never less than beautifully wrought. But the collaboration between Russell and Rivers somehow seems to showcase their respective strengths without necessarily amplifying them.

 TRISSKÁDIA 3 (Nick Collins, U.K.)

This series of still shots begins as an alternation of stone ruins and rusty metal scaffolding, and it vaguely resembles a quarry. As Collins’ camera deepens its investigation, we start to see the faded but surprisingly intact remains of Byzantine frescoes. We are actually looking at the excavated fragments of a 13th century Greek church, and as Trissákia 3 progresses, Collins focuses on two primary elements—details of the paintings peering through the stone walls attempting to reclaim them; and the views from within cave-like interiors, cutting the daytime sky into rounded shapes. Collins’ decision to shoot in silence, and his flattened concatenation of images, makes it difficult to parse the film without contextual information. It reads like a fairly direct record of its maker’s own movement through and discovery of a new space, but that articulation does not come across quite so easily to the curious viewer struggling to find his or her footing. 

 LA ÚLTIMA PELÍCULA (Raya Martín and Mark Peranson, Canada / Denmark / Mexico / The Philippines)

Full disclosure: I am friends with both directors of this film, and I have done writing for hire for Mr. Peranson. I will leave it up to the reader as to whether this should disqualify my opinion on the film they have made. Having said that, La última película is by no means a perfect film. I would argue, however, that this is its strength. In terms of sensibility, Martín, who is known for experimental works that have excavated various aspects of Filipino history and of film history (seeing the two as coextensive), is a fascinating match for Peranson, whose sardonic (some might say scathing at times) editorship of Cinema Scope magazine is, in part, an evangelical mission, an almost fanatical segregation of le monde du cinéma into holy sheep and dastardly goats.

What they came up with, and what makes LUP such a maddening and delightful UFO, is an update and literalization of Godard’s Week End throwdown. What if the end of film potentially coincided with the end of the world (in this case, the end of the Mayan calendar, a rumored apocalypse)? In a stroke of hideous genius, Mark and Raya cast (another friend of mine…) Alex Ross Perry (The Color Wheel) as the filmmaker who has taken it upon himself to make The Last Film. (He is also, I think, playing an amped-up caricature of Peranson.) The dialectical gambit, the premise on which LUP both stands and falls, is that the Perry character’s pronouncements about cinema’s demise are all legit. At the same time, they are obnoxious and self-aggrandizing. (Perry’s nasal whine adds to the timbre of white-boy plaint.) “Is Cinema Dead?” “Is Cinephilia Dead?” “Is Film Criticism Dead?” LUP forces us to face the needle-scratch. We cannot not care; as Ke$ha Seibert reminds us, we R who we R. But it’s a death taking place on a disheveled altar of confusion and navel lint. Gabino Rodriguez (Nicolás Pereda’s right-hand man) is on hand as a kind of straight man, reminding The Director that a Mexican rock wall is not a ruin, that celluloid is not stone, and that two men admitting failure by a warm campfire is not a bad place to be. This is the story of a medium that left its will on two men, and they screwed around with it, in utter sincerity.


It’s rather appropriate to end this wrap-up with a return to a classic. Wavelengths is kicking off its first avant-garde screening this year with a restored print of this 1970 structuralist film by Rimmer, a key figure in Canadian experimental film history whose work is well-known in his homeland and throughout Europe. For reasons mostly having to do with geography (he was based in Vancouver, apart from the semi-official New York / Toronto formalist nexus), U.S. critics tended to miss out on Rimmer and many of us are still playing catch-up. Variations of a Cellophane Wrapper is a film that does certain things that films of that period are supposed to do—manipulating found footage, introducing looping and stuttering effects—in order to foreground both the materiality of the image and the filmstrip’s character as a physical object. But the, Rimmer begins behaving badly. He takes the image (a factory worker pulling out a sheet of cellophane on an assembly line, introducing a translucent field at a 45° angle to the camera) and starts breaking it apart in terms of positive and negative, color and temperature. Rimmer turns the motion study into an examination of the possibilities of hue and tint, the very particularity of color-reversal film in action. Together with a soundtrack that combines a semi-diegetic machine drone with an internal rumble, something the filmstrip itself might generate against the projector head, Variations explores multiple points of contact with cinema’s brute physicality. Rimmer made a film that expands, and he made it at a time when most others were hell-bent on reduction.

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