Toronto: Wavelengths Shorts – Lives of Performers

The final shorts program includes Zachary Epcar, Edward Owens, Deborah Stratment, Annie MacDonnel, John Torres, & James N. Kienitz Wilkins.
Michael Sicinski

The dominant theme with this selection of short films seems a bit off the mark since, as I’ve remarked elsewhere, this year’s selection has more narrative and narrative-adjacent works than I’ve noticed in past iterations. But it’s true, Wavelengths 4 does focus on aspects of performance, and this is the first time that overt humor has reared its head, which is something. In previous years I might have used this space to talk about the series as a whole, or make some kind of assessment about where the field looks like it may be going. But as someone who is now attempting (clunkily) to do programming myself, I will only say, it’s a hard job, and as always, Andréa Picard is to be congratulated for pulling it all together. Oh, I have included an extra review, of a Wavelengths short playing elsewhere in the festival. Enjoy.

Billy (Zachary Epcar, U.S.)

Billy is a talkie.

Epcar is one of the most interesting among the current crop of younger filmmakers, in part because his stock in trade seems to be a collection of ineffable moods. He's a bit like Laida Lertxundi and Jennifer Reeder in this respect, although thus far, Epcar has been a bit harder to place. His film Return to Forms was a study of varying textures of manufactured goods, a kind of catalog of prefab shells and skins on display for the voracious consumer. Epcar's next effort, Life After Love, took place in a field of parked cars at dusk (possibly a ferry, but I am still not sure), catching the sun glinting off the vehicles as we observe the melancholy, distracted humanoids inside. Both films are exquisite engines of affect, inducing a palpable sense of the vast unsaid.

Given Epcar's adeptness as managing atmosphere and mise-en-scène, it's not altogether surprising that he has decided to produce a more performance-based, semi-narrative work. Billy could perhaps be considered a suburban trance film, in that it adheres to a certain dream logic in exploring the unconscious longing and dread lurking beneath an otherwise unexceptional middle-class white heterosexual scenario. Billy (Peter Christian) awakens from a nightmare in which masculine encouragement turns into goading; his partner Allison (Kym McDaniel) is sympathetic but doesn't quite know how to reach him. 

Epcar operates in fragments here, never telling us a straightforward story, even though certain motifs—Allison's Amazon packages, a possible intruder in the house, the wildlife in the woods around their home—are all suggestive of domestic space as a membrane that is highly, disturbingly permeable. If I don't Billy quite as satisfying as Epcar's previous films, it's largely because it simultaneously offers too much and too little. The filmmaker's sharp, gestural editing is certainly in place, providing the impression of a story told through the cracks and interstices rather than the primary details.  

But at the same time, some of Epcar's amber-and-cobalt ambiance, when placed within a narrative context, feels a bit self-consciously retro, as though what in earlier films had been moody and diffuse is now somehow arch and ironic. This is probably not intentional, and I'm sure other viewers will have differing reactions. But it seems to me to be a side effect of re-contextualizing something as fragile as poetic film style. When the dreamy becomes the "dreamy," an actual signifier for the presence of our dreams, it can lose a bit of its potency, in much the same way that the thin envelope of the uncanny can rupture when exposed to a simple verbal explanation. 

Remembrance: A Portrait Study (Edward Owens, U.S.)

The films of 60s experimentalist Edward Owens, which were re-discovered and restored not too long ago, provide a voice that had been missing from American avant-garde history for far too long. An African-American filmmaker who studied with Gregory J. Markopoulos, Owens provides a partial correction to the story of experimental film in the 1960s, a story which has been overwhelmingly white. Remembrance is a dark, dense film, with extended passages of absolute darkness. This in itself is telling. It speaks as much to personal style as it does to the limitations of film stocks whose color ranges are calibrated with the assumption of Caucasian flesh tones. 

Although the official title of the film is Remembrance: A Portrait Study, Owens' voice can be heard at the start of the reel referring to the piece as "No More Tomorrows." The main subject of the film is his mother Mildred, who is seen in solo shots and alongside several friends in a bar. The influence of Markopoulos can certainly be seen, as Owens works with multiple superimpositions, but they are not as layered or systematic as in his teacher's work. Rather, single images and still photos blink in and out of the frame like neon signs on a city street. By contrast, Owens' use of contemporary soul music and his languid approach to portraiture call to mind other work that was happening at the time, such as Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol. In other words, it's obvious that this is a filmmaker who was quite plugged in to the scene around him. Which of course makes the question all the more insistent. How in the hell did we miss this guy?

Vever (for Barbara) (Deborah Stratman, U.S. / Guatemala) 

Deborah Stratman's lovely new film is a collaboration with Barbara Hammer, comprised mostly of footage that Hammer shot in Guatemala in 1975 but never fashioned into a completed work. This material is both observational and incredibly well-composed, exhibiting the lyrical quality of a film like Bruce Baillie's Valentin de las Sierras, showing a particular way of looking at an environment without trying to pin it down or capture its truth. This associational mode is supported by Stratman's editing, which provides a sense of place but doesn't render the footage anthropological or explanatory.

Vever is a film about this precise problem, the failure of knowledge to cohere and the complex problem of looking in on a different culture. On the soundtrack, Stratman and Hammer have a phone conversation in which Hammer explains that she never found a personal or an aesthetic connection to the material, and so she couldn't make it into a complete film. Throughout Vever, we also hear Teiji Ito's soundtrack for Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon, and see quotations from Deren's Haiti notebooks. In the quotes, Deren describes being overwhelmed by the task of filming Haitian culture, and discovering that her inability to find a non-appropriative stance towards her subjects led her to abandon the film she was making there.

In a sense, Deren, Hammer, and Stratman are all working together on a document that implicitly argues that an artist often grows more from the work that she does not complete. Completion implies definition, a totalizing gaze, something that these artists finally discovered was antithetical to the encounters themselves.

Book of Hours (Annie MacDonell, Canada)

A brief film composed of gentle, quotidian gestures, Book of Hours is elegant in its subtlety. In the film, McDonell focuses on the domestic sphere, one of a number of possible "spaces" of activity that could have served as her primary stage. (Early in the film, we hear a voice reciting a litany of different phrases with the word "space" in them, an homage to a poem called "Species of Space" by Georges Perec. These words implicate all the locations Book of Hours does not occupy.) As a parent and child go through calendar reproductions of various artworks—some abstract, others religious icons and stained glass windows—we see the pair holding hands, manipulating objects, and eventually engaging in more direct forms of skin-to-skin contact, such as a diaper change and tender caresses.

A literal backdrop to this activity, eventually brought into the center of the field of play, is a monitor displaying clips from two early Yvonne Rainer films, Lives of Performers and Film About a Woman Who... These scenes are ones that emphasize Rainer's unique form of minimalist choreography, which is composed of movements derived from everyday life. Rainer, like others in the minimalist movement, wanted to strip virtuosity from dance, returning to it a concrete connection to ordinary, vernacular gesture. So in this respect, McDonell is using Rainer to move in the opposite direction. Her two performers, adult and child, are engaged in "normal" motions. But her film asks us to consider those movements as artistic interventions, not only at the scene of viewing but on the side of their production as well. Can creativity enliven or reimagine the relationships in our lives? Is the domestic sphere a space of radical movement? Book of Hours offers a breviary for physical and emotional labor, a performative documentation of the maternal art.

We Still Have to Close Our Eyes (John Torres, Philippines)

Among the various directors of the Filipino New Wave, John Torres (Todo todo teros, Lukas the Strange) has always been one of the strangest and most original. This newest work is long on concept but comes up short on delivery, feeling like a sketch for something that Torres might choose to more fully realize at a later date. The visual material is taken from documentary / behind the scenes footage shot on other directors' film sets, including those of Lav Diaz and Erik Matti. You would not necessarily know this, but it explains both the high production values and the fact that nothing we're witnessing feels quite "right."

Cutting this footage together, Torres then using text alone to generate an outlandish, futuristic cyber-narrative about an app that uses real people's bodies as avatars, taking over their will (which it appears that they have relinquished by choice) and forcing them to commit whatever acts the app operator wants. This is amusing up to a point—Torres is really just describing production assistants—but the story goes nowhere, and doesn't have time to develop. Plus, there is no real connection between what we're seeing and what we're reading. So in effect, We Still Have to Close Our Eyes is an experiment that simply didn't work. It happens.

Heavy Metal Detox (Josef Dabernig, Austria) [bonus review]

In recent years, there has been considerable interest in the intersection of experimental cinema and horror. A lot of this was occasioned by work coming out of Austria, birthplace of Freud and the uncanny, and perhaps not coincidentally the locus of some pretty bracing stuff in the avant-garde art world. There's the Viennese Aktionists, of course, with their ritual bloodletting and headlong dive into primitive regression. And, as if to make that irrationalist work even more frightening, you often had highly rigorous filmmakers such as Peter Kubelka, Kurt Kren, and Valie Export, providing a hyper-mathematical shape to animal slaughter and bodily functions. Probably the most famous avant-horror film is Peter Tscherkassky's Outer Space, a found footage nightmare using scenes from The Entity. In Tscherkassky's film, Barbary Hershey is menaced not just by a sexually aggressive ghost, as in the original film, but by the breakdown of the celluloid itself.

This is perhaps the best context in which to understand Josef Dabernig's latest film Heavy Metal Detox. In certain respects, it is a brief documentary about Dabernig's trip to the dentist. But in its fragmentation, pacing, and editing, and its skillful orchestration of the seen and the unseen, Heavy Metal Detox is an experience to quite literally set your own teeth on edge. As profound an example of body-horror as anything Cronenberg could cook up, but more disturbing because of its palpable excavation into real-world flesh and bone, Heavy Metal Detox explores not just the discomfort of an elaborate procedure (the removal of metal fillings and their replacement with durable plastics), but the viewer's fear of being in the chair. The film ramps up anxiety rather than soothing it.

We know intellectually that Dabernig is receiving good care. But Heavy Metal Detox emphasizes his helplessness at the hands of unseen technicians who invade the body with tools and devices. The soundtrack alternates between ominous tones and the harsh sound of the drill. And the contrast the film sets up between the cold, white, antiseptic spaces of the dentists' office and its equipment, on the one hand, and the moist, dark expanse of Dabernig's mouth, on the other, is deeply unnerving. In a way, it reminds us of a paradox at the heart of this medical phobia. Like those earlier Austrian experimentalists, Dabernig is setting up a dialectic between the dirty and the clean, and our bodies are the dirty. The "horror" lives inside of us.

This Action Lies (James N. Kienitz Wilkins, U.S. / Switzerland)

This Action Lies

Commissioned last year by a Swiss gallery but world premiering only now, Kienitz Wilkins' latest featurette nevertheless arrives piping hot. In fact, it should probably come with a warning. In a field that generally prizes image composition above all else, with sound design coming in a distant second, Kienitz Wilkins is a true rarity: an avant-garde filmmaker for whom the written word is his primary vehicle of expression. (In fact one recent work, The Republic, had no images at all, and was essentially a radio play delivered by other means.) 

In his unique interest in textual concerns, Kienitz Wilkins and his work prompt certain inevitable comparisons to Hollis Frampton, and This Action Lies functions a bit like a hybrid of (nostalgia) and Lemon, which sounds utterly paradoxical but works quite beautifully. Kienitz Wilkins delivers a thirty-minute monologue that hovers around autobiography, although there are enough discursive reversals and curlicues to complicate any simple acceptance of that authorial act of faith. A speaker calling himself "James N. Kienitz Wilkins" describes the process of making the piece, and spins off from there into a number of factual and historical digressions.

Throughout the film, we are shown a single Styrofoam cup of coffee (or so the editing would have us believe) on a Doric column, lighted from one of three possible angles. Kienitz Wilkins tells us about the company that manufactured the cup, delivers a brief history of Dunkin' Donuts, and explains how brands that come to typify their product in the marketplace (Xerox, Kleenex, Styrofoam) are at risk of losing their trademark. He also couples these observations with the struggles of being a new father, which represents a different kind of potential identity loss.

This Action Lies never overtly explains its title. (He uses it toward the end of the film in an almost too-general way, to refer to fundamental epistemological doubt.) Early in the film, the narrator claims to be making an "apology." But it seems somehow evident that in both cases, Kienitz Wilkins is referring to the process of making a film like this one. It purports to expose its own procedures, but of course it can never really do so. But more than this, the film has two tracks of information that run almost entirely separately. The filmmaker's monologue is intended to sound somewhat extemporaneous ("hot"), although we know it is well-rehearsed ("cold"). Likewise, the image of the coffee suggests that the film somehow contains thermal energy, a picture of heat. But the beverage was cold long before Kienitz Wilkins even finished filming. We impute heat to the coffee, just as we imbue the "dead" actors onscreen with life. 

So with the title of his film, Kienitz Wilkins is revealing a basic truth of the medium. We imbue the information onscreen not only with life, but with a truth value that it in no way earns. Cinema is essentially a confidence game. But then, if we want to lie to ourselves, hey. Fuckin' gonuts.

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TIFFTIFF 2019Festival CoverageZachary EpcarEdward OwensDeborah StratmanJohn TorresJosef DabernigJames N. Kienitz WilkinsAnnie MacDonell
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