State of the Festival: Virtual Thrills at Crossroads 2020

Liberated from the constraints of more mainstream film festivals, the experimental showcase of Crossroads is freely available to watch.
Jordan Cronk

Above: All My Life

Following the online presentations of the Ann Arbor, Oberhausen, and Images festivals, the San Francisco Cinematheque’s Crossroads festival is the latest experimental film showcase to go virtual in 2020. While the major international festivals take their own tentative steps into the brave new world of digital this month, these modest, more specialized events have already made commendable inroads into the realm of live-streaming and on-demand viewing. What’s at stake in each of these ventures is quite different, and worth outlining: whereas festivals like the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival work to combat piracy and appease the demands of sales companies with vested interest in who sees what movies when by limiting press accreditation and geo-blocking films by region, smaller festivals that focus on artists’ cinema have more ideological issues to consider. In this field, concerns over context and materiality (much of this work is shot on 8mm and 16mm film, and is intended to be projected as such) take precedence over matters of reach and third-party fiscal interests. Among other things, what this means for audiences is that these otherwise regional festivals are now newly accessible, both geographically and monetarily; indeed, many of these events have thus far been free to access. In the case of Crossroads, not only are all 85 films free to view, but, following a late-August opening week of live-stream presentations, the entirety of the program is now archived and available to stream as-desired through the month of September.

Above: Fragment

For festival director Steve Polta, these logistical matters where just one challenge of organizing this year’s online festivities. From a programing perspective, he was faced with the recent deaths of Bruce Baillie and Luther Price, filmmakers with unique ties to San Francisco and two unequivocally major voices in the history of avant-garde cinema. As co-founder of both the San Francisco Cinematheque and the influential artist-run cooperative Canyon Cinema, Baillie is one of the city’s key figures; a six-film program of highlights from his first two decades of work, including the lyrical city symphony Castro Street (1968) and the single-shot landscape reverie All My Life (1966), opened this year’s festival. For those unfamiliar, the program should provide ample evidence of Baillie’s artistry. Price, meanwhile, brought many of his early films through San Francisco as he quietly came to prominence in the 1980s. His June 13 passing left little time for a proper tribute, but one would do well to take a few minutes for his little-seen A Patch of Green (2004-2005), a beautiful meditation on family, found imagery, and the material essence of the celluloid film strip. Other than the Price and Baillie films, only one other older title made its way into this year’s program, but to these eyes it represents a legitimate discovery. Made over a two-year period, Fragment (1986-1988), by the American artist Laura J. Padgett, explores the interior of a single room through a rapid montage of domestic items and abstracted surfaces. Shot on black-and-white 16mm, the film continually returns to a pair of hands (presumably the filmmaker’s) seen alternately washing dishes, leafing through a book, and casting shadows on a nearby wall, as whispered voiceover, bursts of negative imagery, and subtle adjustments to the aperture conjure a tactile sense of an increasingly alien-looking space. With three-plus decades of work to her name and a pair of new, very different films elsewhere in the Crossroads program, Padgett is clearly a subject for further research.

Above: Demoiselle

One of the virtues of regional festivals is the sheer breadth of their programing options. Unbound by premiere statuses and the demand to showcase “new” work  (a wholly arbitrary term considering some of these artists’ prolificacy), these festivals are free to cast a wider net, drawing on recent premieres from the major festivals while also looking back over the preceding years for films that for whatever reason may have fallen through the cracks. Indeed, a number of my favorite films in this year’s Crossroads program fall into one of these two categories. Siegfried A. Fruhauf’s Thorax, recently unveiled internationally in Vienna and Rotterdam, is a study in refracted light that updates Marcel Duchamp’s Anémic Cinéma (1926) for the digital age, situating the viewer within a prismatic field of flickering illuminations that slowly tease out the corporeal dimensions of an otherwise inorganic spectacle. Paradoxically, a pair of 2017 films by Finnish artist Eeva Siivonen stood out for their modesty and lightness of form. In Demoiselle, an unassuming study of Claude Monet’s gardens unexpectedly blossoms into a reflexive essay on filmmaking and femininity, as images of revered male auteurs (Alain Resnais, Andrei Tarkovsky, et cetera) flash above a subtitled conversation between Siivonen and a security guard condescendingly asking her what her business is filming there. Dusty Wave likewise utilizes voiceless narration, only this time to describe the life cycle of a moth. Against an image track that combines footage of a nocturnal trek through the woods, hyper-saturated close-ups of plants, and eerily translucent shots of both a woman’s body and a house engulfed in flames, the film unfolds in a deeply intuitive manner, its rhythms and movements cutting across any subjective sense of space or linearity.

Above: We Carry With Us Our Mother

Both landscapes films of a sort, Demoiselle and Dusty Wave are just two variations on that uniquely malleable form to be found in the festival. Perhaps the most surprising comes from the team of Phillip Andrew Lewis and Michael Robinson, whose co-directed film //\///\////\ finds the latter breaking with his signature postmodern pop-archival sensibility in favor of the former’s interests in (according to his website) “duration, perceptual limits, and attentive observation.” Taking as its focal point the same-day deaths of Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis, and John F. Kennedy (all of which occurred on November 23, 1963), the film constructs a phenomenological portrait of compounded consciousness through the voices of each man’s widow. Across these discrete episodes, Robinson and Lewis combine these words with eerily unpopulated images of a desert commune, the ruins of a fascist compound, and a towering glass-paneled cathedral, summoning in their shared ambition and imagination an uncomfortable sense of simultaneity and psychological entrenchment. In a similar, if decidedly more personal fashion, Olivia Ciummo’s We Carry with Us Our Mother situates itself between shared states of being, in this case the filmmaker’s own consciousness and that of her surrounding environment (and, if we’re to take the title literally, also perhaps that of her mother, though the film is so coded it’s difficult to track many clear maternal correspondences). Shot in the outskirts of Los Angeles, with sound recorded between the Catskills and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the film draws connections between images of verdant landscapes and celestial expanses—variously masked, manipulated, or overlaid with filters or transparencies—and psychosomatic disruptions to the human body. “Undefined…it’s all undifferentiated,” reads a few fleeting subtitles as the imagery bleeds from a blood red tint to a tinge of deep violet, evoking with each pass an ever-shifting mental state through a subtly unfolding panorama of cosmic and earthbound wonders.

Above: Apertures (a brighter darkness)

Karissa Hahn has been making small gauge film and video work for a decade now, but has only recently begun to garner accolades worthy of her considerable talents. Her two Crossroads selections, Eviction, Demolition and Apertures (a brighter darkness), are among the festival’s very best, and together only further confirm her as one of the most exciting young filmmakers currently working. Like a lot of her recent work, both of these films are shot on black-and-white Super 8 within the confines of a single room or home. (If any filmmaker seems poised to creatively thrive during COVID, it’s Hahn.) But within these spaces Hahn is able to conjure a world of cinematic possibilities through deceptively elemental formal strategies built around notions of montage and subjectivity. In Eviction, Demolition, perspective forms the very backbone of the viewing experience, as Hahn’s camera tours a vacant home as the sounds of a soft piano etude (played by a lone figure seated near a fireplace) are periodically drowned out by distorted audio recordings of a young girl speaking about the house. Operating in the lyrical tradition, the film conjures the intimacy of ritual experience, grounding the unstable materiality of the Super 8 images with an undertow of longing and quiet resolve. Apertures (a brighter darkness), by contrast, works in a quasi-structuralist mode familiar from Hahn’s earlier Please step out of the frame. (2018), working through its programmatic methods via a carefully conceived spatiotemporal framework. Cutting rapidly across a series of images of a backlit window, Hahn systematically collapses the space between the camera and its object of inquiry, creating an array of organic superimpositions as the frame-within-a-frame configuration restlessly advances and recedes along a fixed axis. Occasionally, Hahn herself will enter the shot to adjust the curtains—in one instance even raising her arm to the glass in a subtle echo of Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)—before disappearing into the literal and figurative fabric of the composition as she cuts around her silhouetted figure. Not unlike Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity (1970), the film executes a visual sleight of hand that’s all the more uncanny for its relative simplicity. In just three minutes, it offers more thrills than any other Crossroads title.

Crossroads 2020 is streaming for free online from August 21 - September 30, 2020 at the San Francisco Cinemathque.

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Festival CoverageCrossroadsCrossroads 2020Bruce BaillieLuther PriceLaura J. PadgettSiegfried A. FruhaufEeva SiivonenPhillip Andrew LewisMichael RobinsonOlivia CiummoKarissa HahnState of the Festival
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