What’s Good: 2018 Media City Film Festival

Exciting new avant-garde films presented at the Windsor, Ontario festival highlight its radical agenda: showing what's good.
Michael Sicinski

Atomic Garden

“What’s good,” as you probably know, is urban slang. It means “what’s up?” Like a lot of slang, however, it can have very different meanings. One must be aware of the subtleties of context. But in the context of a festival report, it could have an entirely different meaning. It could be a way of asking for recommendations. “Hey, you saw those films? Well, what’s good?” In that respect, the films I discuss below might be taken (erroneously) as my picks for the absolute best films screened at the 2018 Media City Film Festival in Windsor, Ontario. This would imply that I saw all the films screened (I didn’t), or that any film not mentioned below somehow didn’t merit a mention.

This is simply not true. For one thing, several of the best films screened at Media City this year are films I have already written about in other contexts. These include Jodie Mack’s Hoarders without Borders, Stephanie Barber’s 3 peonies, Sky Hopinka’s Fainting Spells, Ben Rivers’ Trees Down Here, Malena Szlam’s Altiplano, Laura Huertas Millán’s jeny303, and more. So their absence from this write-up in no way diminishes their extreme “good”ness. In fact, they have already screened at plenty of other festivals, which could be taken as a sign of consensus that the films are good. You need not take my word for it.

What’s more, there are some highly accomplished films that screened at Media City that I would recommend to anyone with an abiding interest in the avant-garde, even though I had some critical problems with them myself. Despite my aesthetic objections to certain decisions made by the filmmakers in question, I am not so ensconced in my own way of seeing things that I can’t recognize works like Sylvia Schedelbauer’s Wishing Well or Anoushahapour / Ferko / Anoushahpour’s Chooka as good films. There’s certainly something there. To apply a phrase we critics jokingly use amongst ourselves, “your mileage may vary.”

But here’s the real reason why Media City prompts the question “what’s good?” Where many film festivals and avant-garde showcases are focused exclusively on the latest films and worldliest world premieres, Media City screens a mix of new films, films that are making a victory lap around the festival circuit, and some films from the past year or so that may have gotten lost in the shuffle and didn’t get the attention they deserved the first time. Add in some bona fide classics—in this year’s program, older works by the likes of Abigail Child, John Smith, Wojciech Bruszewski, and a number of recently rediscovered formalists from the former Yugoslavia—and you have quite the mix.

In the write-up below, I have chosen to focus on ten newer works, largely because I suspect they will be popping up at festivals in early 2019. But make no mistake: they are but a fragment of what Media City has to offer. This is a festival clearly committed to the most radical agenda of all: showing what’s good.

Amazing Fantasy (Ana Vaz, Portugal / Brazil / Japan)

Both a cine-portrait and a contemporary trick film, Vaz’s miniature is part of her larger in-progress project on Japan but is entirely complete in itself. Amazing Fantasy takes its title from the T-shirt of the schoolgirl who is featured in the film as she displays her facility with an electromagnetic gyroscope. This toy is a spinning top that, once spun, can levitate freely in the air, and the girl waves her hands around it, covers it with a drinking glass, and engages in other magician’s gestures to demonstrate that the force keeping it aloft is a strong one indeed. Vaz’s film recalls the filmic manipulations of Méliès, except rather than relying on stop-motion or superimposition effects, the “trickery” is real. While we might be tempted to see Amazing Fantasy as a cryptic metaphor for cinema and its manipulations of time and space, but above all the film is a record of a young girl having fun with science, taking subtle but obvious pleasure in being seen.

Atomic Garden (Ana Vaz, Portugal / Brazil / Japan)

Vaz’s second film in the program is a stunner, another work from her Japanese sojourn that adapts disparate traditions for an understated ecopolitics. The film was largely shot in the garden of an elderly woman, Aoki Sadako, who lives in Naraha, Fukushima. Despite the fact that her home was part of the quarantine zone following the 2011 nuclear meltdown in the prefecture, Sadako went back daily to tend to her garden. (Apparently many Japanese seniors braved the radiation in order to remain closer to their places of birth.)

Vaz’s film combines close, frontal views of Sadako’s flowers with black leader and shots of exploding fireworks (hana-bi, “fire-flowers” in Japanese), creating a flicker film that owes much to the influence of Rose Lowder. But unlike Lowder’s films, Atomic Garden bears the traces of anxious history and manmade disaster, a discomfiting ambiance accentuated by the soundtrack of electronic pulses and Geiger clicks. When montaged so forcefully against the bursting fireworks, the flowers seem to have an explosive power, as though they are trembling with potential energy and about to dehisce.

Drag (Bea Haut, U.K.)

A literal example of “couchsurfing,” Bea Haut’s Drag is a clever and exceptionally well-executed performance film that offers a welcome touch of conceptual humor. Finding an abandoned couch on the side of the road, Haut and her helpers decide to tie it to the back of a truck and drag it down the street while Haut films herself riding it. Clearly there are numerous mishaps, false starts, and bad connections, as pieces fly off the decrepit thing and the truck and the camera leave Haut and the couch far behind. In an inspired bit of cinematic play, the film is silent, but when the couch is in motion, Haut scratched the celluloid on the audio head side, creating a grinding noise to accompany the drag. Reminiscent of the puckish 1980s films of Scott Stark and Greta Snider, Drag is a joy.

Goddess (Kevin Jerome Everson, U.S.)

Everson is one of the best film-portraitists working right now. His films manage to convey the strength and personality of their “sitters” in relatively brief running times, by focusing on small gestures and ordinary actions, the kind that tend to obviate self-consciousness. His newest film Goddess is no exception. Whether the title is the subject’s name or Everson’s evaluation of her worth doesn’t matter. We see her in two adjacent frames, a close-up and a medium shot, both of which are poetically superimposed on each other. The Goddess is wearing only a bathrobe and a hair towel, and is making a call on an old-style rotary phone, giving the film a hint of period flavor. (The rack full of CDs in the background also helps.) As the film’s two shots alternate perspectives, we eventually get a double-cameo, her face imposed against itself. Like the film, she is lovely and ordinary.

A Leaf is the Sea is a Theater (Jonathan Schwartz, U.S.)

The last film Jonathan Schwartz completed before his death in October at the age of 45, A Leaf is the Sea is a Theater is, like so many of Jonathan’s films, about potentially seeing entire worlds in the smallest of objects and gestures, asking us to be attentive to the seemingly inconsequential margins of life where, if we simply look, great beauty resides. This film begins with a series of shots of maple leaves twisting and falling from trees, their spinning forms silhouetted against the blue sky. Each successive leaf takes its own unique journey, of course, but they will all ultimately land in the same place, the great “sea” of the forest floor.

After this, Schwartz introduces a frame-by-frame section composed of close-ups of autumn leaves, mostly red, some gold. We hear a child’s voice, then a man’s, speak the same lines: “The sea is a theater. Once you could cover my hand completely with your palm.” The narrator tells of a sailor struggling to return home, while the leaves onscreen become green, then spotted and black. From this point, Schwartz returns us to the forest itself, but with images of a Muybridge motion study—a woman dancing—flickering in superimposition. There is a primary formal theme throughout A Leaf, which is the interface between the natural and the human world. One seems to be static, the other mobile, but Schwartz does not leave the dichotomy quite so neat. The branches rustle in the wind, and the dancer is comprised of still images. We see a similar relationship between the vibration of film in the gate and the images of lions, which are also an assemblage of still photographs.

In the final third of the film, we see a lake, trees, and hills in trembling double-exposure, again providing the sense that the otherwise inert landscape is an active, energetic agent. Then, we see frames filled with the ocean, with waterfalls, with water as a massive expanse. The narration provides a first-person account of a violent encounter, along with an interaction with a mouse in the clutches of a hawk, and a curious bee. “Oh, it said. I thought you were a tulip.” Shortly thereafter, we are shown numerous drawings of tulips and other flowers from old books, illuminated by varying curtain-blockages of sunlight.

The film ends with dark shots of a shade-covered house, superimposed with excerpts from the letters of Emily Dickinson. The final image—Schwartz’s final image—is of a stone bench in a wooded clearing. There is a sense in which A Leaf contains a bit too much, as though the filmmaker were trying to cram as much information as he could into a single work, given the time he had left to do so. Unlike many of Schwartz’s other films, which are small and humble to a fault, this one is structured like a poem, with stanzas that sit alongside each other uneasily, demandingly. Jonathan has left us something rich and rare that we are only just beginning to parse.

Light Lick: Love Stain (Saul Levine, U.S.)

Saul Levine’s Light Licks series is a dazzling set of films made with available light exposed directly onto the film. The word “lick” in the title can be understood as a gentle lapping, the light licking the surface of the celluloid, or like a guitar riff, the light playing a lick on the perforated fretboard of the film. Every film, of course, is an unrepeatable experiment in controlled chaos. Love Stain is characterized by a set of repeated riffs, notably a black field disrupted from above and below by a penumbra of flaring light, alternating with a dense liquid gold—possibly the “love stain” of the title.

The upward facing parabolas are red and yellow like a sunrise; the downward ones are thin and green like the bottom of the moon. As the film speeds up, the two forms begin to meet in the eye, creating a tentative circle, just as Levine introduces unexpected photographic imagery—a family of ducks in a pond, and a few sunbathers enjoying the day. Love Stain is a beautiful film, but a warning: once it sets in your brain, it can be hard to get out.

Naissance des Étoiles (#2) (John Price, Canada)

John Price is a filmmaker of contrasts. His work consists primarily of private diary footage, and so reflects an intimacy seldom matched in the contemporary avant-garde. At the same time, he has been working in 35mm widescreen in recent years, lending an expansiveness to his highly personal cinematic content. His latest film, naissance des étoiles (#2), is a compendium of footage of the first five or so years in the life of Price’s daughter Stella. The film opens with a high-contrast shot of her newborn belly, her navel protruding from center screen. The camera pulls back to give us a wider, but not complete, look at the child before examining her red, veiny placenta against a lush green lawn.

From this absolute beginning, Price takes us through various phases of portraiture, with Stella running, climbing on the monkey bars, or simply staring at the camera, getting older before our eyes. This relatively short film condenses time in a manner that most parents will immediately understand, since the years always seem to race by all too quickly. And in the midst of this, Price provides direct exposure, lens flares, and various filmic textures and surfaces, flashing before us like momentary ideas too fleeting to fully express. Naissance ends with a close-up of Stella’s first lost tooth, which is then enveloped in a teal curtain of light. Price has documented a passage, the separation from the mother right up to the body separating from itself. End of chapter one.

Shrine (Robert Todd, U.S.)

Among the final works by the late Robert Todd is this 2017 film that is part nature study, part record of communal grief. Made in memory of the filmmaker’s nephew, Lucas Todd Wheeler, who died suddenly in his sleep at the age of 18, Shrine documents the act of building a memorial in a forest clearing, with mourners bringing large wreaths, plants, and flora to attach to a wide trellis across the trees. Todd’s camera alternates between singling out individual flowers and taking in the broader scene in medium shots, never losing sight of the collectivity of the moment. The film’s shot arrangement in showing the building of the shrine, part upon part, emphasizes the physical work of mourning. The pinnacle of Shrine arrives at the five-minute mark, when the boy’s mother leads a group singing of Ben Folds’ “Still Fighting It,” indelibly changed in this new context, as is the film, now that Robert Todd himself is also gone.

Sketches and Portraits for Jean-Michel (Ephraim Asili, U.S.)

Sketches and Portraits for Jean-Michel

Ephraim Asili’s latest film is a brilliant example of how some of the classical elements of the avant-garde can be reconfigured for radical new meanings. This short poetic tribute to the late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat bears traces of the urban symphonies of an earlier generation—works by the likes of Ken Jacobs, Jim Jennings, and especially Warren Sonbert—while at the same time being deeply inflected with the particularities of black life. In addition to shots of Rev. Al Sharpton on the New York streets, or walls and mailboxes with hip hop graffiti tags, we see direct references to Basquiat and his own graffiti altar-ego SAMO.

But more than this, Asili uses the absolute silence associated with a more formalist tradition to emphasize not so much the absolute primacy of the image but the absence of sound, and by extension Basquiat’s absence. We see scenes that cry out for audio—dancers in the park, bursting fireworks, kids playing ball, and above all a jazz ensemble shredding it in a club. Near the start and end of the film, Asili shows us the words of Ralph Ellison carved into a monument, their stony silence conveying a permanence that bookends the kinetic, transitory nature of so much else in the film. Concluding with Basquiat’s own tombstone, Sketches and Portraits is a dialectical meditation on the all-too-fleeting beauty of things.

Song X (Pathompon Mont Tesprateep, Thailand)

Song X

Some films are less intriguing in themselves than for the promise they suggest, and such is the case with Song X, a flawed but provocative trance film by Thai newcomer Mont Tesprateep. Featuring an elliptical narrative that is at once difficult to parse and not altogether necessary for the film’s appreciation, Song X is about a military deserter who, after bathing in a lake in the forest, discovers his own lifeless body in the grass. He then carries his corpse into a clearing where a group of teens prepare a funeral pyre for him., after which they all dance by the water.

Characterized by rough-hewn black and white cinematography, complete with deep scratches and even paint stains, Song X nods in the direction of avant-garde cinema while maintaining a relatively coherent diegetic universe. The influence of Apichatpong Weerasethakul is perhaps to be expected (particularly in the permeability of the worlds of the living and the dead), but another less obvious source seemed to be the ritualism of the Japanese avant-garde, especially Toshio Matsumoto. The film is a bit rambling, but Mont Tesprateep has a great eye and has already completed a new, stronger film, the music documentary Confusion is Next. This fellow is clearly one to watch.

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Festival CoverageMedia City Film FestivalMedia City Film Festival 2018Ana VazBea HautKevin Jerome EversonJonathan SchwartzSaul LevineJohn PriceRobert ToddEphraim AsiliPathompon Mont Tesprateep
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