TIFF 2015. Wavelengths, Part One: The Short Films

A look at the films screening in this year's Wavelengths section at the Toronto International Film Festival. Part one: the short films.
Michael Sicinski


There are 48 individual films screening in the Wavelengths section of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The relative importance of this section, amidst the vast array of offerings in this relatively huge festival, depends on your taste in movies, of course, to say nothing of your specific objectives. If you’re coming to Toronto to try to score a hot tip in this year’s Oscar race, well . . . I feel sorry for you on a number of levels. But Wavelengths is unlikely to be your jam.

Originally conceived exclusively as a showcase for experimental and non-narrative films (hence the section’s title, a direct tribute to avant-garde master and Toronto native son Michael Snow), Wavelengths now encompasses the edgier, less commercial side of art cinema. This is the first of two preview essays, and my aim is to cover everything in the section. These are the shorts; the medium-length films and features will be addressed in a second piece coming along in a couple of days.

Programmed almost exclusively by international avant-garde doyenne Andréa Picard, this is one of those corners of TIFF that still exhibits a well-defined sensibility and taste. You may not cotton to each and every one of Picard’s choices, but it’s guaranteed that you’ll understand them as choices—selections made on behalf of a particular aesthetic orientation, not some external exigency or mandate.

The selections this year, particularly in the short film program(me)s, are quite interesting. Aside from restorations of older work by grand masters Paul Sharits and Philippe Garrel, and a pair of works by well-established Austrians, the selections skew much younger than in years past. A group of makers at mid-career, such as Cynthia Madansky, William E. Jones, and Charlotte Pryce, anchor a line-up whose median age is somewhere around 33. This is a notable departure, since Wavelengths has traditionally featured the work of older, more established filmmakers—Robert Beavers, Nathaniel Dorsky, Helga Fanderl, Ken Jacobs, Rose Lowder, Jean-Marie Straub, just to name a few. But then, with the exception of new work by Dorsky, none of these makers are featured in this year’s New York Film Festival either. So perhaps 2015 was an off year for the Masters.

But no matter. As the comments and capsules below should amply indicate, there is more than enough in this year’s Wavelengths selection to pique the interest, dazzle the eye, and engage the mind. In fact, 2015 generously provides a couple of near-masterpieces that should not be missed under any circumstances. So go have fun!

Analysis of Emotions and Vexations (Wojciech Bakowski, Poland)

This is one of the most unique films in the Wavelengths program, so unique in fact that I found myself highly resistant to it at first. A series of animations based on pencil drawings, supported by first-person narration and a muted soundscape, Analysis felt too much like listening to someone describe his dreams, and Bakowski's visual style seemed, for lack of a better word, "underanimated." That's to say, large sections of the visual field remain static while certin points of attention would flicker to life–a train would smoke and vibrate, or the torso of a large man would contain fading faces that would emerge and recede. Bakowski's commentary struck me at first as over-explanatory, as if somehow compensating for the relative primitivism of the drawings.

But I was wrong. There is a subtlety to Bakowski's approach that accumulates over time, and the more his markmaking becomes unmoored from realism, the more seductive it becomes. (A scene in which a train platform in Warsaw hosts the arrival not of a train but of another town is a surreal highlight.) The most obvious comparison to Bakowski's style is that of William Kentridge, but where Kentridge employs the stability of charcoal to affect an almost world-historical disturbance when his eraser chisels it away, Bakowski keeps most of the drawing ground empty and white so that his pencil marks retain a sense of provisionality. There's not much like them in avant-garde animation, which is chiefly about the application of solid forms on shifting grounds (Jordan, Klahr, Geiser) or making the ground the figure (Jodie Mack). This is new, perhaps because he's doing something rather old. Bonus points for Bakowski's superlative use of Anita Baker!

Bunte Kuh (Faraz Anoushahpour, Parastoo Anoushahpour, and Ryan Ferko, Canada / Germany)

Bunte Kuh is a gripping, complex film, in large part because of the fundamental relations we can immediately draw from the editing and organization of the piece. This film toggles rapidly between two discrete image-sets, working not only to forge an implicit dialectical connection, but also to perhaps go even further and blend the pictures in our minds, generating a kind of third image. Now, lots of avant-garde film artists work this way, but not all of them do so in the interest of concrete material relationships. Its three makers are introducing a bracing variation on Godard’s old “here and elsewhere” concept.

The complication here is that everyone is “elsewhere,” off on a different form of travel plan. Bunte Kuh takes as its source material the audiovisual stuff of vacations: home movies, postcards, and photo albums. What we see is a conceptual showdown between exoticism (initially typified by close-ups of circling koi) and the banalities of European tourism (standing in squares, looking up and taking pictures; riding on trains). In the first part of the film, Ferko and the Anoushahpours match the quick edits to a recording of fireworks, implicitly linking the two distinct locales by fake firepower, entertainment’s tame version of ordnance. Later, as a voice reads a postcard about the mundane pleasures of travel, we recall that having nothing significant happen is a rare privilege.

A Distant Episode (Ben Rivers, U.K.)

One of the ideas that has carried through Ben Rivers's cinema almost since the start of his career has been the representation gap between those we might call the keepers of cinema (usually, the Western upper-classes or bourgeoisie) and those on the margins (the poor, the non-West). That's to say, images of people who don't typically control the cinematic means of production are presumed to be natural, even naive images, displaying those subjects as they are. But given the ubiquity of the global image-trade, why shouldn't Others perform their otherness, with a substantial degree of complicity and irony? (This is a major theme of Ben Russell's work as well, which we can see in YOLO and helps explain why "the Bens" have collaborated in the past.)

A Distant Episode is a companion piece of sorts to Rivers's current feature, The Sky Trembles . . . In addition to seeing scenes from the making-of process, perhaps selected for their good-natured goofiness, we are treated to wide-angle shots of the Moroccan village near the beach where the "spaceman" scenes were shot. The man with the turban holds a spear. He looks serious. He stops, moves back behind the rock, and tries to look "serious" again. As with Neither God Nor Santa Maria, Rivers's hand-processing adds a veneer of artifactual "truth value" to this document of a manufactured process. (Rivers's grinding sounds and solarized, flickering sky tends to give everything a post-nuclear look, a combined sense of a past that has returned to us from the future.) But we know that we are observing a cinematic simulation, a constructed "natural." Later, in silhouette, we see a lonely boom mic operator, walking pensively along the shore. This romantic mood is just as plausible as the Moroccan's menace. Which is to say, not at all.

Engram of Returning (Daïchi Saïto, Canada)

Occasionally there are films whose impact on me is so visceral that, despite my attempts to maintain some form of critical distance, to keep a working vocabulary in order to articulate the precise effects the filmmaker has produced, I spend most of the running time with my eyes twitching and my nerves on high alert, wondering exactly how I reverted to the age of five and why I stuck my mother's bobby pin in that wall socket. I sat down with Engram of Returning well aware that I was probably in for something skillful and provocative. Saïto's 2009 film Trees of Syntax, Leaves of Axis, was one of the finest film-objects I'd seen that year and have seen since. In it, Saïto collaborated with violinist Malcolm Goldstein to produce a jabbing, skittering alternation between darkness, vertical trunks, and the expansive horizontality of billowing leaves, all with colors that hovered between the painterly and the aggressively sun-scratched.

Here, with Engram, Saïto works with experimental saxophonist Jason Sharp to produce a thundering warble, minimal only in its pitch variance. The sound envelops, as if bird and bee sounds became one cacophonous din injected directly into your skull. (Who knew the sax could sound so much like a string instrument? Such breath control! Circular breathing, plus electronics, plus a respirator?) Even more than with Trees of Syntax, Saïto meets this aural challenge with a film that is more darkness than image. His visions flash out of the inky nothingness like punches to the closed eyes—fiery reds, bile yellows, hypothermic blues, swirling together with the controlled order of traffic, but punctuated by the black, as if to prevent any threat of organic harmony. Once any pattern emerges, Saïto and Sharp thwart it, never letting us relax.

Are we looking at seascapes? Pure emulsion, with dyes painted on the filmstrip? Occasionally we see trees in the wind, or shifting coastline, even land moving laterally through a window. Is this tsunami footage, or just leisurely vacation footage run through the wringer of Saïto's staccato editorial punishment? I have no idea. This film is truly terrifying, and exhilarating, not to be missed under any circumstances.

(A propos of nothing: in Scientology, "engrams" are the name given by L. Ron Hubbard to sticky images of the past that prohibit us from moving forward into higher levels of enlightenment. For the rest of us, of course, they are simply memories, the experiences that shape our personalities. The question of whether emgrams are good or bad is ultimately a philosophical one, depending on whether we believe we are supposed to learn from the past, or be perpetually born anew.)

The Exquisite Corpus (Peter Tscherkassky, Austria)

Tscherkassky consistently flirted with danger in his Cinemascope trilogy, using physical manipulations of the filmstrip to subject those individuals onscreen to forms of peril that both redoubled and complicated the violence and horror they’d experienced in the original source material. When you consider this, it’s perhaps a logical progression for him to explore so-called “adult film,” another genre that provides shocks and experiences for its filmic bodies in the hopes that they will transfer vicariously to the viewer. After a deceptively placid, almost Antonioniesque bit of introductory footage showing a nude male / female couple sailing to some ambiguous pleasure zone, The Exquisite Corpus introduces a key recurring motif: a naked woman on a beach who may be dead, along with another woman who ministers to her. At this moment of uncertainty, the celluloid skips, positive and negative reverse, the image dims—in short, cinema asserts itself as a sexual partner with its own fetishes and desires, ones that will not be ignored.

Once Tscherkassky gets going, with multiple exposures, split-screens, mismatched gazes, and alternating, piston-like zooms, The Exquisite Corpus achieves an almost hieratic level of explication. The “male gaze” concept is presented so absolutely, as a cultural fact as essential to the functioning of film as focus or the replication of motion, that Tscherkassky practically raises Laura Mulvey (to say nothing of Freud) to the axiomatic status of Isaac Newton. At the same time, there’s an unavoidable idiosyncrasy to the footage Tscherkassky has selected. The title, of course, refers to the Surrealists’ idea of making a collective work of art by adding elements in sequence, none seen by the other contributors. While this might describe the social element of both sexism and perversion (all private fantasy combines to generate shared ideas about the sexes, and vice versa), the film’s odd mismatches of erotic styles and tendencies (70s Eurotrash, early stag loops, bucolic nudist films, hardcore porn, surprisingly genuine-looking lesbian expression) ultimately comprise some kind of whole. Tscherkassky never employs technique to put pornography at arm’s length. Indeed, in some ways his experimental treatment of the material actually heightens its capacity to titillate. Indeed, the sheer visual excess of bodies on film produces a highly singular new “film body,” a sort of structuralist orgy.

Faux Départ (False Start) (Yto Barrada, Morocco / U.S.)

How is the thirst for the authentic satisfied? And in particular, how can a region manage to manufacture its own layers of physical history, particularly when visitors have a very specific idea of what those remains should look like? Faux Départ is a shrewd and often droll observational piece by renowned Moroccan artist Yto Barrada, examining the fossil and artifact industry in and around the Sahara Desert. Barrada shows us artisanal practice (a craftsman handcrafting phony fossils one at a time), as well as larger factory processes. We see every manner of object for sale or on display, from the humblest nautilus shell to midsized, patently ersatz dinosaur skeletons.

With a style situated between the plainspoken materialism of Harun Farocki and the lyricism of Chick Strand, Barrada both contextualizes the trade in artifacts and pays homage to the ingenuity of the people who make these neocolonial trinkets. We see them mixing materials on site, working to combine "real" stone or plant matter with substances that will provide the necessary patina of prehistory. These folks are artists, performing a kind of spontaneous lab work. Barrada's film would make a lovely double-bill with the recent art forgery documentary Art and Craft. Like the paintings of Mark Landis, these brilliant sculptural creations from Morocco crack open any and every question about truth value, even as they expose the desires of their awaiting consumer base.

A Fire in My Brain That Separates Us (Benjamin Ramirez Pérez, Germany)

This world premiere from a relatively young maker is interesting in that it displays conflicting tendencies, and to my eyes they eventually rip the film apart. This isn't necessarily a bad thing for an experimental artist who is still trying out lots of different strategies, but it should still be noted that not all of them are equally successful. Ramirez provides us with numerous views of a room, complete with furniture, lighting fixtures, and closets filled with women's clothing. Along the bottom of the screen are subtitles, presenting a text that we do not hear on the soundtrack. The collection of phrases produce a fragmented monologue about entering and leaving the room, recognizing it, having memories of diverse experiences, and so forth. In time, thin strings (fishing line, I believe) are pulled from offscreen, manipulating various objects in the room.

Eventually, Ramirez allows female performers to come onto the set to pull the strings in full view of the camera. With extreme lighting effects, along with the women's dramatic costuming and make-up, a semi-narrative, performance-based mise en scène comes to take control of the film, pulling on and heightening the rather purple prose of the text (which, it turns out, Ramirez has appropriated from various films using the "gaslight" theme). While the sculptural aspect of A Fire in My Brain is highly involving, calling to mind Michael Snow's Presents while generating an original, classicist atmosphere all its own—anachronism undercut with elaborate, premeditated puppetry—the posing and color scheme is more in keeping with a mid-80s Duran Duran video. It doesn't work, but better to have too many ideas, I suppose, than not enough.

Fugue (Kerstin Schroedinger, Canada / Germany)

Fugue is a film that appears to be comprised of recognizable ingredients from avant-garde filmmaking. That’s to say, the procedures Schroedinger employs will not be entirely surprising to anyone reasonably versed in the vernacular. Then again, this could be said of most composers of music as well. Only a few adopted the 12-tone row, or just intonation. Overwhelmingly, they took the basic twelve notes as their theatre of operations. Fugue is a black and white film. Its dominant visual characteristic is a set of undulating, gestural white lines. They resemble the traces left when someone opens a camera shutter and moves a flashlight in front of the exposed film. However, as one looks more closely, we can see that the lights of light are not random. They imply, but do not depict, bodies in motion, in the manner of gesture drawings in life-study class.

These shots of abstracted moving bodies interplay with fractured, semi-poetic, semi-instructional text whose legibility is warped by a semi-mobile optical distortion in the approximate center-left of the filmstrip. These texts, which are about the requirements for proper acting and performance, bear the exhortative tone of Constructivism. (“The past has become a habit that shapes every form of present and future new learning;” “she was acting under description.”) The soundtrack is comprised of visual information on the optical sound head, most likely that of the white lines of light. The four sections of Fugue are variations on this principle, and Schroedinger separates them with a darkroom timer clock in the lower left hand corner of the screen, indicating how much time is left in the film.

Fugue is a good film. I will see other films by Schroedinger in the future. The review is over.

Many Thousands Gone (Ephraim Asili, Brazil / U.S.)

The personal and the political are melded very gently in Ephraim Asili's Many Thousands Gone, a film that contains observational moments from two sunny summer afternoons in two locales with related but distinct histories. One, Salvador, Brazil, was according to Asili the last place in the Western hemisphere to outlaw slavery. The other, Harlem, NYC, is in Asili's words "a world center of the African diaspora." Asili, who is a DJ as well as a filmmaker, displays an interest in both playing the two locales off one another, and showing how similar they seem today. In Salvador, we see a breakdance crew. In Harlem, street performers impersonate Michael Jackson for an eager crowd. In both cities, young people hang out, exhibiting no sign of the history embedded in the streets they occupy.

Or for that matter, there is no obvious sign in Harlem that at the time these scenes were being filmed, black New Yorkers had every reason to fear for their lives as the NYPD was running amok. Asili edited the film as a composite and a dialectical relationship between two spaces with distinct positions in the history of slavery. (The title is taken from Ira Berlin's book on the history of North American slavery.) Upon completing the film, Asili turned it over to musician Joe McPhee, who created an improv score to accompany the film. It is muted and subdued, speaking to those unseen energies that connect the present to the past.

May We Sleep Soundly (Denis Côté, Canada)

About the only real problem with Denis Côté’s new film is that there isn’t enough of it. Côté is a restlessly exploratory filmmaker, willing to try new tactics without saddling himself to an obvious signature style. This always gives him leeway, and he certainly plays it smart here, avoiding the usual pitfalls of short narrative filmmaking by emphasizing atmosphere and leaving “story” as mere suggestion. May We Sleep Soundly adopts a 1st person perspective, but since we neither see nor hear the individual whose gaze we adopt, Côté is quite possibly asking us to simply identify with the camera itself, a tool of vague but unmistakable menace. In fact, the film could be likened to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (either one), with all subject positions effectively cancelled. As a result, all overt violence is rendered moot. Since this is a very compelling idea, I would have liked to see Côté take it to feature length. But no doubt he’s already following some other mad notion.

Navigator (Björn Kämmerer, Austria / Germany)

The first thing you should notice is that this “navigator” of Kämmerer’s is a reflector. To be specific, we are dealing with a series of vertical mirrors, defined by beveled edges and a striated curvature that implies both depth and a composition from multiple parts. (The primary image resembles a reflective surface composed of thick bands, not unlike the surface of squid sashimi.) Navigator provokes circles of optical confusion, and a significant degree of delight, because it gives us options. We can watch the structural surface—the mirror components shuttling to and fro—or look into them, observing the placeless, mesmerizing visual noise the looking glasses contain and provoke. The joints curve one way while the light curves another. Prisms collide with other, half-formed and truncated prisms. Lines and grooves reflect an outer structure that we cannot see, that properly speaking occupies our position, occasionally breaking open to reflect a blue-gray triangle of sunlit sky. The passing resemblance to a revolving phonograph record serves to underscore the film’s cold silence. The film begins rather simply, but over the course of its brief running time Kämmerer complicates things, producing a mini-structuralist epic with a rhythmic backbeat, the rotations twisting and pulling like optical taffy. Navigator offers an ironic twist on the “mirror phase,” reflecting our vision back to us in the form of a perpetual motion machine, a scrambled, fragmentary expanse.

Neither God Nor Santa Maria (Samuel M. Delgado and Helena Girón, Spain)

One of the most impressive films in this year's Wavelengths series is this small anthropological deconstruction from Spain, a film that is not nearly as simple as it looks. Granted, there is an elegant simplicity to what Delgado and Girón do with their material, but their procedure has more expansive poetic resonances. Neither God is built from an audio foundation, specifically some recordings made in the mid-1960s by Luis Diego Cuscoy, leading ethnographer of Tenerife. In the recordings, men relate folktales regarding witchcraft, and in particular how witches are capable to instantaneous travel. As one interviewee notes, this was a marvel in the age before airplanes (!).

The filmmakers wed these recordings to contemporary images of women working in Ye on the island of Lazarote (like Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands). We witness elderly ladies picking roots and plants and then grinding them with a huge mortar and pestle, most likely for a traditional herbal medicine. (The picking of leaves takes on particular comedic valence, as Delgado and Girón pair it with a story of a witch who fooled her mortal boyfriend by transforming herself into a cabbage, a deception with somewhat unpleasant results.)

There is a sumptuous texture throughout Neither God, due to the fact that its makers shot it on expired 16mm film and hand-developed it. This results in scratches, developer blotches, and inconsistent color and, given the subject matter, provides a patina of "age," the impression of the film as a kind of excavated record. But this sort of signification of lost-artifact status isn't really what Delgado and Girón are after. (This is easy enough to achieve, and in its way recalls the manufactured nostalgia Yto Barrada examines in Faux Départ.) Actually, Neither God Nor Santa Maria's employment of film's frail tactility adds a different dimension to the discussion. Cinema itself, like other traditional folkways, is an endangered art, to be preserved only by being handed down between artisans. And eventually, its techniques will seem as mysterious as witchcraft.

Night Without Distance (Lois Patiño, Spain / Portugal)

Lois Patiño, who is probably best known for his feature-length landscape film Coast of Death, has reached a new level of artistic achievement with his new film Night Without Distance (Noite Sem Distância), the single best short film in Wavelengths and one of the best films of the year. A quasi-narrative piece about smugglers working along the Galacia / Portugal border, Patiño stages sequences very much in the Lisandro Alonso / Pedro Costa vein, Night abjures naturalism in favor or quiet declamatory speech, performers dispersed through the landscape as compositional elements.

That's to say, the film gives equal if not greater weight to the space that contains events as the events themselves. And the manner in which Night Without Distance accomplishes this is nothing short of mesmerizing. It's simple enough in the telling. Patiño has used color-reversal film and presents the film in negative, generating an eerie, otherworldly visual timbre to the landscape. (Although the color-reversal sets the basis for Patiño's compositions, he has clearly created various deliberate light and color effects in post-production.) In the dark, boulders have an internal glow, foliage is an inexplicable neon purple, and the tactile painterly abstraction of the natural border renders everything, even the location of bodies in the landscape, highly mysterious.

Every shot demands that our eyes readjust to the very act of seeing. After a moment, we discover oh! There is a person against that rock, there is a stream flowing through this bit of land. Patiño has practically redefined figure / ground relationships, and to say that the experience is exhilarating, "an adventure of perception" as Brakhage once said, seems trite but somehow accurate. Yes, Patiño's method has its diegetic purpose—smuggling and night vision are not unrelated—but if we need to draw some metaphor, thoughts of the border seem more apposite. Night Without Distance is much more about the collapse of divisions, the "smuggling" of narrative and abstraction into one another's sovereign zones, and the shrinking of the distance between pure perception and conceptual categories.

This will be the film against which everything else in the festival will be judged.

Occidente (Ana Vaz, France / Portugal)

Ana Vaz's latest film has screened or will screen at every major showcase for experimental cinema, and it won the grand prize at both Media City and Frontiera. Suffice to say, Occidente is one of the most well-regarded films of the year, and you should see it. All the same, I find myself a bit skeptical toward Vaz's film, even as I acknowledge that it is well-made and says things (colonialism is idiotic; the rich exploit the working classes) with which I am in full agreement. With its sound / image mismatches (clinking glasses / golden chandeliers), use of graphic rhymes (e.g., the dour looking server and the succulent desserts she's serving—two forms of consumption), and comparison edits (crystal on the table / monument towers in the sky), Occidente is pretty much the film you'd get if you tasked someone with remaking Peter Kubelka's Unsere Afrikareise in the present day. (Fortunately, no animals were harmed in the making of this film.)

It's not that Vaz is somehow incorrect in her diagnosis of Western consumption of Iberian (or any "exotic") culture. But she seems content to score somewhat pedestrian points when a more thorough analytical vision would be preferable. Admittedly, Vaz does score these points with substantial formalist flair. Still, while it's probably unfair to compare a 15 minute film to Miguel Gomes's six-hour Arabian Nights (also about the crises that beset modern Portugal at the hands of the Occidente), any 15 minutes of Gomes's film probably has more to say on the topic at hand.

Office Space Modulation (Terrarea, Canada)

The three members of the group Terrarea (Janis Demkiw, Emily Hogg, and Olia Mishchenko) have produced a short video that, in its own hybrid fashion, is really more of a record of a kinetic sculpture, or perhaps the documentation of an installation piece that appears to have been created specifically for the video. (You see how confusing things can get these days?) Using mirrors and other reflective objects, and affording a prominent role to a large potted plant, Terrarea creates a play of shadow and light on the white “office” wall. The impact is rather slight, but in the context of Wavelengths this short piece can serve as an amuse-oeil between the more complex courses.

An Old Dog's Diary (Shumona Goel and Shai Heredia, India)

Goel and Heredia, the pair who produced I am micro, 2011's beautiful tone poem about the forgotten margins of the Indian film industry, have returned with a new film just as jewellike, this time focusing on a titan of Mumbai modernism. An Old Dog's Diary is an experimental portrait of F. N. Souza, founding member of the Progressive Artists' Group and one of the first Indian painters to attract serious attention from the Western modern art intelligentsia. Goel and Heredia use excerpts from Souza's own writings to communicate significant fragments of the artist's own life story. But perhaps following from Souza's own distrust of objective realism, An Old Dog's Diary eschews direct reportage in favor of associative logic.

So, we never hear Souza's voice, but instead read his words in subtitles over allusive imagery, such as hazy, shimmering sunlight off the surface of a lake through a thicket of trees, or young boys gazing in wonder and trepidation as an actor portraying Jesus Christ is scourged by "Romans" during a Passion Play. Although the film passages Goel and Heredia select have no direct narrative connection to the autobiographical details Souza's text elaborates, a broader set of thematic concerns takes shape. As Souza asks, "What is the role of art when there is no bread?" An Old Dog's Diary takes shape around the particular problem of personal expression and aesthetic vision within what in Souza's time was still an underdeveloped nation. By ending the film with a slow zoom on one of Souza's canvases, with an auctioneer's voice on the audio track leading buyers to higher and higher market value, Goel and Heredia once again pinpoint the intersection between creativity and material forces, proving themselves to be artists of rare insight into our neoliberal landscape. If you haven't been following them, you should be.

Paradox of Praxis 5 (Francis Alÿs, Mexico)

This is the most recent addition to Alÿs’s series of urban performance actions; the documentations are not exactly films in the customary sense. Alÿs tends to decide on a physical action that he’ll use to mark his way through space, and so in this respect, context is everything. The meaning of the piece is determined by the social histories of the place where it’s performed. By moving through Ciudad Juárez at night, Alÿs shows us a once thriving city that has been destroyed by the dual terror of the cartels and the endless string of unsolved murders of women. The emblem that Alÿs offers as his way of “performing” Juárez after dark obliquely addresses the root of these problems. The lone man asserting his right over space by endlessly kicking a football, speaks to self-possessed masculinity, and the ball in flames makes sport and sexuality magical, the stuff of divine right. Still, Alÿs’s piece inevitably loses a great deal of its power since its central image (the burning soccer ball) was used before, and to better effect, in Apichatpong’s 2009 short film Phantoms of Nabua. I know, right? What a kick in the . . . well, you know.

Palms (Mary Helena Clark, Canada / U.S.)

Clark's films are frequently constructed according to what seems like a principle of propinquity. Once during a Q&A, Michael Snow was asked what the relationship was between two parts of his film and he answered "a splice," and I often think of this elegant logic when confronted with Clark's work. The parts don't offer themselves up to clear dialectics; they don't mutually inform or correct each other. Nor do they obviously bubble up like unconscious emanations, telling us with their apparent disjunctive signals that the films are wild, open texts. Clark is tilling a very suggestive but somewhat lonely ideational field—that space where things are on the verge of coming together but remain just out of reach.

Palms begins with a pair of hands. Their motion is sped up and fidgety, and we hear the audio of an unseen tennis broadcast on the soundtrack. Next we see hot white headlines emerging from pitch black darkness. After some crystalline points of light, we see the tennis court, empty but engaged somehow in play as the camera pongs back and forth to a metronome click. Finally, we see a white field with a dark circle waving, apparently part of a banner that isn't completely visible (most likely the Japanese flag). Intermittently, we hear a man singing tenor, phrases about regret and "getting out of your own way."

What can we say about these elements in relation to one another? There is a movement of rounded forms, an implication that hands are doing the moving (driving, playing tennis, perhaps waving the flag), but all this seems far too literal. What Clark really gives us is a series of open fields (white, black, and green) where our narrow attention to specific actions and objects closes down our experience of the breadth of the space before us. That's to say, the situations depicted, and the manner in which Clark depicts them, serve to narrow our perception of areas that could conceivably engulf us. So it's human attention that gets in our way of more vast experiences, even as Clark's manipulations make it virtually impossible to "get out of our own way."

Prima Materia (Charlotte Pryce, U.S.)

Pryce’s new film begins with its title in a curling, calligraphic font, the sort you might see on a wedding invitation. This title image prepares us for a kind of delicacy, and what we get is a subtle field of operations in which microtonal shifts in light and grain unfold against an overall ground of minor fluctuation. Against these slight refinements of all-over texture,  Prima Materia delves into the dense properties of emulsion, its pulsing liquidity and graininess. However, Pryce anchors the folding layers of light and dark with solid white tendrils that resemble long plant roots or stems, twisted into unnaturally decorative spirals. We also see a rounded, globular form with thin wisps coming off it, waving as if in a pool of fluid. It’s easy to see that Prima Materia is in dialogue with films from the tradition, such as Brakhage’s Mothlight or various cameraless films that simply depict light and chemistry at work. However, Pryce’s gentle manipulation of forms, within a mix of bright sepia, bilious yellows and pungent reds, invokes the sticky realities of the human body. “Prima materia,” in this case, speaks perhaps to the basis of a double foundation, of the organism and the life of the image. By the end, Pryce is working with rack focus, irising-in like a Petri dish and allowing swirling grain to swim past us like cells on the move. And yet, nothing we see is metaphorical. Prima Materia remains strictly on the level of the concrete, allowing light and movement to make their own argument about who we are. This is a film that crests and then dissipates, like a wave.

Psychic Driving (William E. Jones, U.S.)

The prolific Jones is an always-compelling maker. As he is another media artist who operates in the increasingly vital space between the cinema and the gallery, often his best pieces are not exactly suited for festival screenings. (Some of them are loops of jarring brevity.) And yet it would not exactly be correct to say that the arrival of a relatively long, single-channel work by Jones is “cause for celebration.” As with certain other makers, such as Luther Price or Bruce McClure, “cause for alarm” is probably the appropriate phrase. This isn’t because their work isn’t brilliant—it unfailingly is—but because they are technicians of the visceral, engaged in a nerve-jangling bio-politics.

Psychic Driving is an animation of sorts, a warped VHS tape from the rapidly disintegrating archives of commercial television. Jones has taken the essential degradation of the tape and exaggerated or enhanced it, turning its relative unwatchability (“does not meet broadcast standards”) into an aggressive aesthetic stance. This indirectly mirrors the content of the original material—an ABC News special report about CIA-sponsored brainwashing techniques, including testimony from the wife of a member of Canadian Parliament. The practices as described are disturbing enough. But Jones’s excavation of this tape, which seems to be disintegrating into hiss and raster noise right before us, heightens the eerie sense that he has intercepted a transmission from elsewhere, a momentary glitch in the power-field that keeps hegemony whole. We’re left with a feeling that we weren’t supposed to see this, or worse, that this is merely cover story for something chilling and unimaginable.

The Reminder and Untitled (Behrouz Rae, U.S.)

These two brief films represent my first encounter with Rae's work. Both are under a minute and a half, and I commend Andréa Picard for programming two of Rae's shorts. (Rae is the only filmmaker to receive such treatment.) This is wise because, like certain other makers (Luther Price, Jonathan Schwartz, and Karissa Hahn come to mind, as well as Friedl vom Gröller, discussed below), the real work of the work—that's to say, the intellectual labor they perform on the viewers' behalf—doesn't happen so much within a given film as it does between or among works. These are films that operate, consciously or not, in series, because their aesthetic program is sufficiently modest as to require multiple iterations in order to make its argument.

The Reminder is something of a double love letter, both from the speaker to the woman whose image he studies on the wall, and from the speaker to the young boy he once was. The scenario is plainspoken, as a boy stares as a woman's photo, the only object left in an empty house. He them projects his (adult) image over the woman's, both condensation and displacement. In Untitled, Rae employs ripped letters and images as if he were shuffling a deck of cards. Using a map and a set of stock photos as diagrams for his gut-punch one-liner, he explains how his move to America represented an education in the color line, one his "Green Card" had not prepared him for. As evidenced from these two cine-koans, Behrouz Rae is a master of the micro-gesture, a major practitioner of "minor cinema."

Solo For Rich Man (Beatrice Gibson, U.K.)

More interesting in concept than in execution, this collaboration between video artist Gibson and British experimental composer Anton Lukoszevieze is a brief performance anthology, combining two of his works (one old and one new) with three classic music-theatre-actions by the Fluxus group (two by George Maciunas and one by Mieko Shimoi). Lukoszevieze stages several of the works with kids on a playground, which adds a degree of frisson to the proceedings. One part of Gibson’s tape, which combines the coin-jangling soundtrack from Maciunas’s “Solo For Rich Man” with footage of the kids swinging from ropes on the play equipment, recalls Damnation of Faust by Dara Birnbaum. But Gibson makes the ill-advised decision to insert ironic phrases within and between pieces, all appearing in a font derived from old Wild West “wanted” posters. Ultimately, something about this piece doesn’t quite gel, leading me to question whether it once existed as part of a larger gallery project.

Something Horizontal (Blake Williams, Canada / U.S.)

The title of Williams’s latest film refers to an essay by Maya Deren in which she describes poetic or image-based relations in cinema as “vertical,” and narrative relationships in film as “horizontal.” (This is because narrative events typically form a causal chain, which requires that they be concatenated rather than compounded or compressed.) There’s a sly humor at work here, since Williams has made another anaglyph 3D piece. Therefore, on a compositional level alone, things in the image are going to be layered atop other things. But more than this, the majority of Something Horizontal consists of rapid pulses of (relatively vertical) non-narrative imagery. The light and shadow impressions of doors, windows, and walls, shot from multiple angels, create a rhythmic geometry, but they tell no particular story. It’s only when Williams introduces intertitles with ironic time cues—“Later,” “earlier,” etc.—that the film asks us, however implausibly, to consider a temporality other than its own compact now. In this case, do the brief moments of found footage (a police action, a woman climbing the stairs of Nosferatu’s castle) link the abstraction (the room forms, the traveling blur through the window of a moving car)? Williams invites us to make a story from these fragments, but we know it’s a fool’s errand. The flashback / flash-forward phrases, after all, are a maneuver cribbed from Un chien andalou, and while Williams may not be cutting up eyeballs, he’s using anaglyph to pull them apart. Perhaps that horizontality he promised is actually a slight throbbing just above the bridge of the nose.

Tarlabaşi (Cynthia Madansky, Turkey)

This film, Madansky’s collaboration with dancer Idil Kemer and musician Cenk Ergün, is a collection of small gestures that represent a face-off between tradition and modernization in contemporary Istanbul. But as Madansky shows, the dichotomy between tradition and modernization is a false one, determined by those with the power to define those terms. Kemer’s movements are those of daily life, and their abstraction is largely contextual. She performs them amidst rubble, the crumbling ruins of a portion of downtown Istanbul inhabited by the city’s disenfranchised citizens and now slated for “urban renewal.” Kemer’s choreography, not unlike that of Yvonne Rainer, is banal and task oriented, but where Rainer’s vernacular gestures became aesthetic due to their isolation onstage, Kemer’s are notable for redundancy. They invoke life where it can no longer be lived. Similarly, Ergün’s score starts out like Turkish folk music and becomes progressively abstract, even warped, playing to a group of people who simply aren’t there. Tarlabaşi could be longer; sometimes its shots feel truncated, Madansky’s editing rushed. This is perhaps a project worth revisiting in expanded form since, in both approach and political relevance, it echoes other significant endeavors in recent cinema, such as Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas films and Jia Zhangke’s examinations of the changing face of modern China.

Terrestrial (Calum Walter, U.S.)

Beginning with a blue-tinted “flyover” of a gaming-graphic city that, oddly enough, pivots upward in a manner approximating tilt-shift (remember Olivo Barbieri?), Calum Walter’s Terrestrial is mostly comprised of seemingly handheld images of transit (subway tunnels, airplane windows, people-movers). All exhibit the clean but flat precision of iPhone recording, and in the people-mover shots we see what I think is Walter’s iPhone in the ceiling mirror, affixed to the rubber handrail. Taken as a suite of individual sequences, they don’t have a lot to do with one another formally, aside from the specific qualities inherent to the medium Walter used to shoot them. The subway material, for example, finds Walter using the phone’s inconspicuousness to record audio of two women having an argument about whether random preaching on the train is an invasion of privacy. (Not sure, but recording strangers certainly is!) Nothing else in Terrestrial uses sound this way, just as the semi-static shots of clouds (out the plane window, presumably?) don’t really fall in line with the rest of the film’s procedures. With its loosely amalgamated categories of footage, Terrestrial feels like a work in need of one more editorial pass.

Théodolitique (David K. Ross, Canada)

It’s an idea so elegant it can hardly miss. Ross, recognizing the fundamental connections between experimental cinema and land surveying, has organized a film around an exam taken by university surveying students at the École des Métiers du Sud-Ouest-de-Montréal. Not only does Théodolitique watch as the students use optical tools to measure and demarcate the small parcel of landscape before his camera. (Of note: the surveyors use tools made by Leica, with Bluetooth capability—old photography meets digital interface.) Ross adapts his own camera with crosshairs adapted from the survey tools themselves. So as we watch the students set up stakes, peer through their viewfinders and take their measurements, Ross’s film permits us to survey the surveyors. Seeing them at work within a still frame, moving according to designated patterns and working the landscape, it’s as though the surveyors were making their own structuralist landscape film within Ross’s cine-inquiry. Théodolitique works on multiple levels, partly as an experimental documentary (note the introductory images of the survey tools), part reflexive landscape film and part motion study. In his approach, Ross seems to draw on the gallery-oriented inquiry films of artists like Sharon Lockhart and Tacita Dean, as well as the playful neo-formalism of Chris Kennedy and Scott Stark. But despite these similarities, Ross has more than staked a claim for himself.

Time for Outrage! (Friedl vom Gröller, Austria)

Vom Gröller's films are often glimpses of small sections of the maker's life, very frequently intensive portraits of her women colleagues and friends. In terms of her technique and sensibility, vom Gröller's work is tender and deeply focused, providing her subjects with a radiant but unadorned screen presence. Although she works in 16mm, her films often have the intimacy we tend to associate with 8. The closeness these films offer to their audience almost invites us to call their maker "Friedl," even though we know this would be highly presumptuous (and perhaps a bit sexist).

Vom Gröller's films do not restrict themselves to life's positive aspects. One of her best films, Ich auch, auch, ich auch ("Me too, too, me too"), from 2012, is a harrowing portrait of the filmmaker's mother, her childlike cries of fear expressing the terror of dementia. And her latest, Time For Outrage!, is the first that I'm aware of that perhaps merits a trigger warning. [ANIMAL VIOLENCE] We are offered, in the plainest possible terms, the law of the jungle, as a brutal metaphor for late capital. We're all being swallowed by a boa constrictor. And vom Gröller doesn't like it one bit.

UNcirCling (John Creson and Adam Rosen, Canada)

In the midst of a black field, we have two essentially spherical objects, one a sharp orange and one a light mossy green. Below are vertical forms of red, like inverted triangles, creating the sense that the rounded forms are balancing on a kind of negative-fire. In the upper left hand corner (not pictured in the still above), an unbroken round form pops in and out, different colors at different times. It may be a compositional form, or a recurring developer bubble, for all its inconstancy.

Ted Phillips's electronic score moves through different tonal ideas—some chirping, some insistently low and buzzerlike, others more like traditional notes. But they all possess a more gestural quality than anything we'd typically call notes. This is waveform-based electronic composition in the Cologne / Columbia-Princeton idiom, although it may have improvisational roots. I am not qualified to determine this simply in the hearing.

The key here is, Creson and Rosen (also musicians) have produced a film that takes its visual cues from the gestural material in Phillips's piece. The three primary forms all shake, judder, merge, but ultimately disarticulate themselves. They do this in a manner which maintains their integrity as semi-Constructivist, "abstract" forms, but as time progresses, we see that they are indeed abstractions of a real-world, photographic phenomenon. That is, Creson and Rosen have used the tools of cinema to see the world in a not-natural way.

This, by extension, leads one to wonder whether Phillips's piece is comprised of purely computer-generated tones, or recorded sounds that have been processed, similarly de-natured. But of course, that remains a compelling mystery.

YOLO (Ben Russell, U.S. / South Africa)

Much like Bruce Baillie’s films back in the 1960s and 70s, there’s greatness in what Ben Russell’s work accomplishes that is all too easy to miss. That’s because he makes it look easy, and because his films provide a valuable human commodity that is not only in short supply, but whose value is too often misunderstood. Russell is a cosmopolitan filmmaker who moves freely throughout the world without a hint or pretension, without an iota of vanity or privilege. He just has a boundless, honest curiosity about other people and they way they live, and his films consistently exhibit this since of openness and collaboration. Russell has certain technical means and shares them, and as a result gets to partner up with folks all over the world who are eager to have fun and introduce their own unique visions to all interested viewers, anywhere. Russell’s cinema has nothing to do with “anthropology.” These films are documents of people learning, playing, screwing around, and the fun is infectious.

We sometimes don’t understand how important fun can be in art, and how people are more likely to show us who they really are when they are relaxed and happy, than when they are struggling to prove some point. And, interestingly enough, points are often made in the interstices of the pleasures of the foreground. YOLO is a silly title. It’s taken right off the silly hat of one of the participants (members of the Eat My Dust youth collective in Soweto, South Africa), who are performing for and with the camera. Together with Russell, they stand atop the former location of the Sans Souci Cinema, which was destroyed by fire in 1995. (The cinema, in Soweto’s Kliptown district, is a historic site for the Apartheid resistance movement.) Using mirror fragments and hand tools, Russell and friends produce a sort of Michael Snow homage, inverting land and sky, making revolutions with whatever they grab from the rubble. Staking out their claim on history, these young people declare this to be the Central Region, smash it up, and start again. No time for rules: you only live once.

Unavailable for preview: the two restorations, 3D Movie (Paul Sharits) and Actua 1 (Philippe Garrel)

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TIFFTIFF 2015WavelengthsFaraz AnoushahpourParastoo AnoushahpourRyan FerkoPeter TscherkasskyKerstin SchroedingerDenis CôtéBjörn KämmererTerrareaCynthia MadanskyCalum WalterDavid K. RossBen RussellShumona GoelspotlightFestival Coverage
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