Toronto: Wavelengths Shorts – WLS19

The first Wavelengths shorts program features films by Philipp Fleischmann, Charlotte Prodger, Mike Gibisser, and Pedro Neves Marques.
Michael Sicinski

Instead of providing one long preview essay as in years past, I have decided to review the Wavelengths shorts programs as they are presented, in sequence, one after the other. These reviews will appear shortly after the programs have wrapped in Toronto, in order to serve as proper reviews of screenings that have actually transpired.

As usual, I have worked to make my reviews as comprehensive as possible. But there have been a couple of films I have been unable to see. I will make a note of this when those films occur in the programs in question. 

Although these reports are somewhat different than the ones I have filed in the past, I hope that you, the reader, still find them useful and informative. The first one appears below. 

Austrian Pavilion (Philipp Fleischmann, Austria)

Unlike so many of the experimental filmmakers who have come out of Austria in recent years, Philipp Fleischmann is not primarily concerned with cinematic perception, the ontological basis for the movies, or problems of signification. Granted, his films tangentially touch on these matters, but Fleischmann is much more of a conceptualist of institutions. He has more in common with artists like Hans Haacke, Daniel Buren, and especially Michael Asher. His films, while not cameraless by the traditional definition, are raw inscriptions of light that are also inscriptions of power structures, particularly those surrounding the cultural sphere.

So thought of simply as a filmmaker, Fleischmann is in league with a small group of individuals who have used celluloid as a material marker for the tangible recording of light events, a kind of scientific registration of certain occurrences that, while "photo-graphic" in the strictest sense, do not yield conventional images. These filmmakers include Saul Levine, Lynn Marie Kirby, David Gatten, and Jennifer West. But in the case of Fleischmann's work, he has built special camera-sculptures that expose his films within particular architectural spaces, in order to inscribe those architectural spaces, over time, directly onto the filmstrip, minimizing as much as possible the intermediary stage of representation as such.

The latest in a series that examines official spaces of Austrian cultural import, Austrian Pavilion is precisely what it says it is—a film exposed in the Austrian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. The building by Josef Hoffmann is organized according to basic symmetries, and an attempt to harmonize the interior and exterior spaces. Fleischmann's film uses a time-based flicker to combine two spaces in one, as what appears to be a pinhole apparatus describes the pavilion in a 360º vertical tilt around the space, ceiling to floor. Through the flicker, trees "penetrate" the architecture, and light and dark exchange places. 

Fleischmann has stated that he sees the film as an unofficial contribution to the pavilion's history. What would experimental film contribute to that history if it had its place among its annals? The answer he provides, at least tentatively, is that experimental film could document its own process of entering the space, of being seen and seeing, and calling attention to the space that confers cultural legitimacy upon those objects that enter its hallowed halls. 

SaF05 (Charlotte Prodger, U.K. / Italy)

SaF05, the latest video work by Turner Prize winner Charlotte Prodger, could perhaps be considered a video essay, although to call it that would imply a level of directness and clarity SaF05 doesn't have. The work is much more like a constellation of tangentially related concepts, a set of suspended metaphors that are concatenated across the running time without achieving an absolute conclusion. In fact, Prodger is using the positivistic language of science to undermine the fundamental assumptions that organize behaviorism. How can we assess constructs such as sex and gender when there is actually no control group?

The title of SaF05 derives from the code name assigned to a lioness in Botswana. We see her in the opening moments of the film, and even in her absence, she serves as a kind of avatar for Prodger, who adopts the identity of "SaF05." This lioness is a particular subject for researchers because she has grown a mane and has started to exhibit male behaviors. As the visual image scans and maps the lion's territory by car and by drone, Prodger can be heard on the soundtrack telling stories about emotional and sexual encounters with various women, all of whom she refers to by code names derived from the one research scientists have assigned to lioness SaF05. (They include GaF93 and DuF96.) She is describing queer interactions, situations when, by societal standards or by her own reckoning, she was "behaving like a man."

As conceptually rich as SaF05 undoubtedly is, there are ways in which it falls short. I tend to think this may pertain to Prodger's translation of the work from an installation—it was Scotland's entry at the Venice Biennale—to a single channel work. There are moments of abstraction—a flaring light bulb, a Paul Sharits-like color flicker—that seem out of place, and the landscape material tends to feel a bit disorganized. Nevertheless, SaF05 is a work of sensitivity and wisdom, a timely butch roar. 

Slow Volumes (Mike Gibisser, U.S.)

Slow Volumes

A bit of domestic abstraction, Slow Volumes employs a 35mm camera at the center axis of both a living room and a particular point in a field outdoors, and spins out a highly relatable horizontal blur regarding those things closest to its maker. Granted, we cannot be certain that the people and things on display are Mike Gibisser's home and family, but there is undoubtedly a rhetoric of familiarity at work that organizes the film. Stripes of velocity rush past the screen like a leaving train, and then slowly resolve into windows, furniture, the patterns on a running child's sweater.

Sound also plays a significant part in Slow Volumes' overall organization. We hear low rumblings, suburban sounds like the beeping of garbage trucks, and the increasingly sharp whistle of a tea kettle. The catalog description compares the film to Michael Snow, and of course, <--> is an obvious influence, but the audio seems to be a nod to Wavelength as well. 

But more than anything, I was reminded of the Super-8 films of John Porter, who made a series of centrifugal films, tying his camera to a string and then spinning it around him. There is a similar sense of ocular wiping and smearing in Slow Volumes, where objects (or "volumes") tend to devolve into bands of color that widen or thin as they go. Gibisser does slow down and speed up the effect to some small extent, allowing coherent shapes and figures to emerge. But there's not really a sense that Slow Volumes provides us with a new perspective on what is an established technique within the arsenal of experimental filmmaking.

The Bite (Pedro Neves Marques, Brazil / Portugal)

Another form of tropical malady has taken hold in São Paolo, and it's up to a group of renegade entomologist-epidemiologists to stop the plague, not by finding a cure to the disease itself, but by releasing a genetically-modified mosquito that will disrupt the transmission of the virus by making its carriers incapable of reproduction. Or is that really their agenda at all?

The Bite is a film that, in truth, might have been better suited to the international section of Short Cuts than Wavelengths. Marques is indeed a talented filmmaker with a languid, atmospheric style that is still under construction. He achieves some complex tonal structures in his sound design, creating more continuity than one might expect between the laboratory space and the mosquito-tented countryside where three lovers share a home environment. And the film is refreshingly nonchalant in its depiction of queer sexuality and trans bodies.

Nevertheless, The Bite feels a bit truncated, like a demonstration of ideas that might operate more satisfactorily at feature length. With its Apichatpong-like approach to spatial relations and an ambiance reminiscent of João Pedro Rodrigues, The Bite clearly shows that its maker is onto something. But what we're seeing are just early symptoms of a syndrome that is still in the process of metastasizing. 

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TIFFTIFF 2019Festival CoveragePhilipp FleischmannCharlotte ProdgerMike GibisserPedro Neves Marques
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