TIFF 2014. TF WVLNTS (or TIFF Wavelengths For Those Who Don’t Have the Time)

A highly selective, unavoidably partial guide to the Wavelengths section of the Toronto International Film Festival—and why it's partial.
Michael Sicinski

What follows is a highly selective, unavoidably partial guide to the Wavelengths section of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, which kicks off today. Perhaps it seems that “selective” and “partial” are synonymous enough to produce redundancy when placed within the same sentence, and in most instances I would agree with this objection. In the first case, "selective," I will note that, of the 28 shorts and features that I was able to preview from the Wavelengths section (impeccably curated, as always, by the perspicacious Andréa Picard), I have chosen to highlight the fifteen that I personally found most aesthetically and intellectually bold, invigo(u)rating, troubling, critical-verbiage-thwarting, or otherwise worthy of hearty recommendation. This in no way implies that the other works were somehow lacking, only that I could not see my way through to them at this particular time and place. A different set of viewing circumstances (the ones you’re about to embark upon, for example) could well yield other preferences. The instant assessment of artworks is, as we know, about as reliable as the instant assessment of schoolchildren.

As for the “unavoidably partial” part, this has to do with certain press office snafus, along with a general shift in procedures at TIFF since I began working on these preview essays back in the early 50s. Time was, I would do my best to write something about every single film and video in the section. But three years ago, TIFF decided to enfold the Visions section (experimentally-oriented narrative features from around the world) into Wavelengths. This was a fine idea, since it afforded more programming power to Picard who is without a doubt one of the smartest cinephiles within the festival. But it also meant that Wavelengths, which had been an enclave of artisanal production, has now become another zone plagued by sales agents, distributors, and other intermediaries between the artist-programmer-critic network.

As a result, some of the major features in Wavelengths have not been accessible to me for this preview. In fact, 15 films (a full third of the slate) were not available to out-of-town critics. While I realize this sounds like whining over lost privilege, I can assure you it has more to do with my (and others’) inability to perform work that, for us, is certainly not about (meager) remuneration. It is a kind of mad mission to support the cinema that we love. Some of us feel that by writing critically about filmmakers such as Pedro Costa, Lav Diaz, or the Safdie brothers, we are attempting to add value to that work—not “promoting” it but expanding the discourse around it. That may sound pompous. There’s every chance that I fail at that attempt, but that is the aim.

Some filmmakers don’t want their work to be seen in degraded form. Last year, when I wanted to write about Nathaniel Dorsky’s new films (which he would never release on digital screeners for any reason), I paid the shipping and rental costs and projected them on my wall. And I'd do it again. But when almost every feature film is shot and screened digitally, image degradation doesn’t seem to be the issue. Perhaps it’s more about protecting the “product,” on the assumption that critics are nodes in the great ring of piracy. Or maybe it’s just disorganization and lack of a clear plan. I think that TIFF is a festival that is deep and wide, serves many constituencies, and is still figuring out how to accommodate Wavelengths in its altered form. Some are concerned that the festival may eventually edge out experimental work altogether, but I don’t share that worry. TIFF won’t jettison one of the very things that makes it distinct from other major festivals, including Cannes.

But maybe this new format is something that requires a wholesale change in Wavelengths and how we approach it. When the section expanded to include elements of the former Visions, it personally excited me because it corresponded to my own theoretical view of experimentation in the cinema. Taken purely as work (or, if you prefer, as text), there’s no fundamental difference between Alonso, Dorsky, Kiarostami, Claire Denis, Apichatpong, or Abigail Child. Each of these makers is grappling with the same basic parameters, with light and form, movement and time. However, perhaps we need to face the fact that there are unavoidable differences, and they are financial, structural, and inevitably corporate. The big tent of global film is a place in our minds; actually getting there, it seems, requires a VIP Pass.

Here’s some of what I did see. 

Le beau danger (René Frölke, Germany)

Le beau danger, a highly unconventional documentary portrait of Romanian author Norman Manea, is structured (or perhaps deconstructed) in an apparent effort to convey some sense of who Manea is—a Jewish Romanian who survived both the camps and Ceausescu’s regime, a perpetually displaced, disrupted subject. What’s more, this is the rare documentary about a late modernist artist that does not work overtime to render the art (and artist) more comprehensible and consumable. Instead, Frölke’s approach to Manea disassembles the most basic elements of cinematic meaning. Indeed, large swaths of the film are comprised simply of Manea’s words, typed small across a white screen. But more than this, Frölke takes sound and image apart, providing us with footage of Manea conducting interviews with absolute silence on the soundtrack, or passages of ambient sound that do not correspond directly with what is on screen. This panoply of technical interventions not only emphasizes the themes of exile that define Manea’s body of work. Le beau danger also explores the disjunction between an author’s work and his public image. After confronting Manea’s stark, resonant prose, and its reflections on spaces transformed by loss and regret, it then becomes jarring to see the author doing press, or (in one odd scene) posing with children’s TV character Pocoyo in Torino. But this is the ordinary life of a creator, the business of getting work out into the world. When the image or the sound suddenly drops out, it is a jarring lapse in information-age decorum. But when taken as a broader picture of Manea, we can see these rogue moments as fully appropriate. Neither he nor Le beau danger are plagued by lockstep consistency.

Canopy (Ken Jacobs, U.S.)

If you are attending TIFF, chances are you are planning to see Goodbye to Language, Jean-Luc Godard’s new 3D … film? Blitzkrieg? Gesamtkunstwerk? (Even if you already caught it in Cannes, you’ll most likely take the opportunity to see it again.) Appropriately enough, Wavelengths features the newest work by Ken Jacobs, quite possibly the only living filmmaker whose long-term project of experimentation with the image—with both the physical parameters and the ethical dimensions of seeing—can be compared with Godard’s. Granted, the two men have very different sensibilities, and it would take the equivalent of three book-length studies to adequately tease them out. But to hazard a wholly inadequate bit of pith (because that’s what critics do), we could say that Jacobs’ investigations into time and space tend toward the vertical, Godard’s the horizontal. This is not exclusively true, of course, but where Godard is fascinated with concatenations across the entire history of cinema (and the cinema of history), making dialectical edits that span decades and centuries, Jacobs has been largely preoccupied with the infinity of seconds and minutes, the space between and even inside the frames. As we have seen in so much of Jacobs’ work, it’s also a difference of approach in terms of where and how to investigate meaning and power. For Godard it is typically in world historical events; for Jacobs power (and freedom) can be witnessed in the micro-politics of bodily gesture, inculcated styles of comportment, and the daily fusion of human activity with the built environment. Canopy is one of Jacobs’ finest works in years, a stereoscopic 2D/3D hybrid work that activates a small space within New York City (and a body moving through it). It is a classic confrontation between domination (in the form of yet more gentrification from above) and the elements that no one can control (the wind, the billow of canvas). Rectilinear metal scaffolds play against free rounded forms, producing an aesthetic wonder that, in a small corner of contemporary history, tells a story of us all.

Deep Sleep (Basma Alsharif, Malta / Greece / France / Palestine)

When I last checked in with the very talented Basma Alsharif, she has just made the extremely challenging but ultimately rational experimental essay Farther Than The Eye Can See. Now she’s collaborating with that troublemaker Ben Russell, and sure enough, she’s made a full-on head-trip film, complete with flashing colors, endless lens flares, and churning, vibrating noises that lull the ear into a hypnotic trance. It’s also a work that engages with movement and landscape, particularly as pushed to the bounds of cinematic inscription. That is, in articulating multiple spaces (Gaza, Malta, Greece —all undergoing their own unique forms of crisis) with pure light and sound which overwhelm our ability to make sensory distinctions, Alsharif gets at a frequently untapped but parallel part of our nerve centers, where fear and desire, pleasure and pain, get mixed up into the raw experience of being overpowered. With a tip of the hat to Malcolm Le Grice’s classic Berlin Horse, this film combines and collides the inner and outer worlds, demanding that we adjust our concept of the profilmic event on a moment-by-moment basis (first the sun and sky, then the artificial light of chromatic blitz). If you’re really going to sleep, you’d better sleep furiously. 

Episode of the Sea (Lonnie van Brummelen, Siebren de Haan, and the inhabitants of Urk, The Netherlands)

As a reviewer, my scope is limited. I cannot see everything, and as I tried to address in my introductory paragraphs, there are a number of major films in this year’s Wavelengths section that I was simply couldn’t access. This is to say nothing of the cornucopia of offerings scattered elsewhere throughout TIFF. Having offered this disclaimer, I will now go forward: if there is one film this year that I would implore you not to miss, to rearrange a day’s screenings to accommodate, it is Episode of the Sea, a work of art that is as singular as it is classically inevitable. This documentary featurette about the fishermen of Urk, a former island community in the Netherlands, is not exactly singular. In its close attention to the skilled labor and meticulous communal procedures involved when small independent privateers harvest the sea, Episode will undoubtedly be compared Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s Leviathan from 2012. Where that film was immersive and Brakhagian, Episode is reserved (not to say distant), composed, etched into the screen like a Daguerrotype. Van Brummelen and de Haan (makers of the exquisite View from the Acropolis two years back) even give explanatory crawl-texts to provide richer context for what we are seeing. For those who remain skeptical for the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab’s project (unlike me), Episode will be read as an ideal corrective for Leviathan’s “sins” against documentary. However the real relationship between the two films is a difference of angle, points on a Cubist canvas. Whereas Leviathan is about the vastness of the sea itself—what Freud called that “oceanic feeling”—Episode is about a particular situation, the people of Urk and how their engagement with the land and sea intersects with natural history, shifting bureaucracies, and the struggle to preserve traditions in the face of anti-humanistic modernity. In the film’s greatest coup de théâtre, the fishermen of Urk speak about their lives by assuming the role of (unconventional) performers, cutting nearly timeless figures against the filmmakers’ black and white cinematography as they declaim harsh statements about government regulations and misguided environmentalism. (Libertarians should love this film.) Episode of the Sea is a bit like an imagined collaboration between Robert Bresson and David Gatten, as well as a bulletin from that uniquely European sweet spot where left and right wing politics can occasionally look indistinguishably humanistic. A flat-out masterpiece.

The Innocents (Jean-Paul Kelly, Canada)

Kelly has been making experimental films and videos (along with artworks in other media) for nearly a decade, but those of us south of the border were a little slow on the uptake. Following several highly developed recent films, including A Minimal Difference, Movement In Squares (both of which I wrote about in a recent issue of Cinema Scope), and the outstanding Service of the Goods (a study of proxemics and performative values in the cinema of Fred Wiseman, starring homemade white-sheet ghosts), Kelly has produced another film that operates according to his essential signature while expanding that vocabulary to consider different, unexpected themes. The Innocents borrows text from an interview with Truman Capote, in which his stand-in (a young man in a T-shirt with a drink and a plastic bag over his head) explains his method of reporting as a kind of dialectic between active desire and utter detachment from the subject. As a counterpoint, we see Kelly introduce a series of photographic images onto a piece of plywood. Each has a prominent hole in it, its torn or ripped edge distinguished by a primary color. The images start out as rooms, then shift to become bodies, both dead and alive, engaged in official politics and sexual acts. The holes are disarmingly polyvalent, implying bullet holes, sexual orifices, as well as purely decorative perforations. The Innocents is a bracing work that evokes earlier artists (Sherrie Levine, John Baldessari, William E. Jones), while creating a structure and an ambiance that is truly original. Kelly shows us a sort of zero-degree of queer semiosis, the slight shift by which an image can be turned against itself, magnificently showing its ass. 

Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, Denmark / U.S. / Argentina / Mexico / The Netherlands / Germany / France)

Despite being Alonso’s first film to feature a bona fide movie star, Jauja (pronounced HOW-ha) is a logical extension of the patient, materialist cinema this filmmaker has been producing all along. However, there is a distinctly new openness to movement, a decision to organize the film around roaming and, ultimately, being lost. The journeys that comprise Alonso’s other major films are leisurely and involve delays but are basically movements from point A to point B. Jauja flattens the filmic field, allowing for a new kind of disorientation. This is largely because Alonso is exploring historical and political questions with a new directness. Mortensen plays Capt. Gunnar Dinesen, a Danish engineer who is part of a team of Europeans toiling along the Patagonian coast in order to bring “civilization” to the area. It is the late 19th century, and the so-called civilizing process is primarily about expunging Patagonia of indigenous peoples in what has come to be known as the Conquest of the Desert. Jauja (the title refers to a mythical El Dorado) combines Alonso’s ongoing interest in landscape and bodily activity with the colonial unconscious, the sense that historical atrocity haunts the land upon which modernity is erected. If earlier Lisando subjects like Vargas (of Los muertos) or Misael (La libertad) were avatars of Argentina’s class divisions, the nation’s financial disarray as the penumbra of a deeper post-colonial class division, then Dinesen is an early patrician interloper, a well-intentioned human mistake calling from out of the past.

Journey to the West (Tsai Ming-liang, France / Taiwan)

Ever since his alleged retirement from feature filmmaking (with the magnificent Stray Dogs) the great Malay-Taiwanese avant-gardist Tsai has devoted himself to a strange and marvelous set of experimental shorts and, finally, this latest featurette, collectively known as “Walker.” They have been aesthetically defined by a performance-based sensibility, in particular the laser-point focus on a particular kind of intensive body-action by Tsai’s onscreen avatar Lee Kang-sheng. Playing a saffron-robed monk, Lee moves in ultra-controlled slow motion as Tsai films him moving through different locales, a kind of master-shot street theatre that reconfigures both artists’ relationship to cinematic time. The monk, it soon becomes clear, is an emissary of sorts from another temporal life-world, existing in a spiritual suspension or a meditative semi-abnegation that hovers around our world but doesn’t quite alight upon it. Their latest “Walker” film, Journey to the West, is their most openly cinematic, and not just because Tsai is closing in on feature length. Lee has a foil in athletic French performer Denis Lavant, and Journey opens with a long take of Lavant in close-up, on his side, breathing. What will his time-space be? If he chooses to follow the Way of the Monk, can he attain the discipline to exit, or at least mitigate, quotidian time? Taking its title from the 16th century work of Chinese classical literature, Journey to the West is Tsai’s metaphorical tale of Buddhism moving out into the larger world. But why be literal? Within this new dialectic, Lavant may well be Lee’s Monkey King.

Maidan (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine / The Netherlands)

Lest we forget, Loznitsa was a peerless experimental documentarian before trying his hand at feature filmmaking a few years back. Those who may have discovered his work with My Joy or In The Fog may have reason to be utterly shocked by what the man has achieved here, and even those familiar with earlier Loznitsa docs such as Factory or Blockade will be a bit unprepared for the truly epic quality of his latest. In the simplest terms, Maidan is a document and tribute to the massive protests in Kiev beginning in November 2013, assemblies that withstood totalitarian violence and eventually brought down the Yanukovych government. But the formal audacity of Maidan lay in both its stark refusal to pull individuals from the crowd (aside from the occasional unidentified walk-up speaker) and its glistening, light-saturated beauty. Loznitsa is working to provide nothing less than a portrait of collective democratic action.

Night Noon (Shambhavi Kaul, U.S. / Mexico)

On a rocky shore (which isn’t a shore at all), undulating forms sculpted by time and wind seem to collectively comprise not so much an alien landscape as a unified being, a set of immobilized heads and limbs anchored by a single body-base. Although this amorphous, igneous entity looks like the fossilized remains of something long dead, there is still the change that it could rear up and return our touch, shocking us with an decentralized sentience. Moving through this space, and occasionally moving out into the adjacent ocean (which isn’t adjacent at all), is our subject. We see this creature first in shadow, as if he or she were merely the companion to a human consciousness. But no, the dog is our point of identification, possibly “us.” In seeing this altered space and imaginary geography from down on all fours, we are asked to regard it as a field of movement and negotiation, and to try not to master it with known concepts. Kaul is behind the camera, so we never abandon human vision altogether. But she does provide the dog (and us) with a different kind of interlocutor, one whose insensitive Otherness mocks us like a tape recorder. Don’t bark at us! You don’t know what we’ve been through… 

Red Capriccio (Blake Williams, Canada)

The avant-garde is a small world, and so disclaimers always seem a bit superfluous, but it’s better to err on the side of transparency: Williams is a friend of mine. By the same token, while I’ve admired several of his films in the past, Red Capriccio is the first one that has really opened a new avenue of thinking for me. That’s to say, earlier Williams films, while interesting and sometimes quite strong, have struck me as being works that I could index within certain available categories, whereas this new work may be a touchstone for how I see and hear subsequent films—no mean feat. For a while now, Blake has been intrigued with the potentials of anaglyph 3D (yes, that old red / blue magic), and has applied it to shrewd effect in his works Many a Swan and Baby Blue. However, the new film exploits anaglyph for a subject matter so ideal, it’s amazing no one ever thought of it until now. For the most part, Red Capriccio is organized around footage of stationary police cruisers with their red and blue lights on. Not only do the swooping camera movements combine with the dominant reds and blues in the imagery to generate a strange battle between depth and flatness. (Spoiler: flatness wins.) But the throw of the cop lights across the darkened neighborhood produces a widespread chromatic distortion within the image, a chiaroscuro that keeps shifting in “attention.” There is other action within the film as well, including several shots through the “eyes” of the moving cruiser, appropriately enough a Chevy Caprice. (Williams states that he was interested in the idea of the capriccio between classical music and painting.) But the dominant effect of Red Capriccio is a spatial confusion brought on by the imposition of inaccurate color effects, as imposed from without by police power. I should hope that the social implications of such a gesture are not ones I need to spell out.

San Siro (Yuri Ancarani, Italy)

This highly unusual documentary short seems to come from another universe, or at least at first looks like some highly ritualized performance that bears no obvious connection to any lived human reality. The first thing we see is a man with a crowbar prying open metal plates in the middle of an empty street. He then starts pulling bungee cords and thick cables out of what looks like a sewer main. Is there a creature beneath the city that must be appeased? The next thing we see is a brigade of workings in safety-orange, maneuvering portable metal crowd-control gates with a lock-step precision that borders on the balletic. Slowly we begin to attain some context: Italian video artist Ancarani is showing us the behind-the-scenes preparations for a big match at the Giuseppe Meazze Stadium, aka the San Siro in Milan. As we watch the priming of the pitch, the hooking up of the mobile TV units, the pregame movements of the players, and the filing in of the fans through various gateways, we realize that we’re viewing the thrumming life of a municipal building, and not athleticism per se. However, watching San Siro, I was prompted to reflect on the peculiar connection between sport and the arts that seems to exist in many nations but definitely not in the U.S. This short would play quite well with Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane. One player, one venue, one night only!

La Sapience (Eugéne Green, France / Italy)

A lithe, luminous film that truly “dances about architecture,” Sapience is the rare work of narrative art that can invoke philosophical problems in a manner that feels completely organic to the world it has created. That is, Green gives us a peek into a set of lives in which questions of dwelling and design are genuine moral challenges. Alexandre Schmidt (Fabrizio Rongioni) is a reformed modernist architect now struggling to build public housing in accordance with vernacular meanings and user-based initiatives. Squelched by bottom-line clients, he retreats into long-dormant academic research on the Baroque architect Borromini. This places Schmidt on course to meet a young student (Ludovico Succio) whose rational idealism partially renews the older man’s faith in the craft. It is rare that the mere visual description of space can produce a shock for the viewer. However, the opening moments of Sapience—in which Green spends minutes gazing upon classical European structures, only to cut them down with an agonizing edit to a modern factory landscape—quite literally took my breath away.

Sea of Vapors (Sylvia Schedelbauer, Germany)

For some time now, Schedelbauer has been off on her own, mastering a genuinely new way of processing and manipulating images. Her films have been primarily comprised of found footage, connecting her work to a tradition so exhaustive as to grab the eye of the viewer, as if by the lapel, dragging his or her cognition into a waiting lane. For the experimental film watcher, the found footage film has become a subgenre, complete with expectations that we could generously call baggage (both intellectual and emotional). Schedelbauer’s films, which do not so much flicker as pulsate, have found a way to obviate that familiarity; they hold images out, dangling them, at the edge of cognition, then substituting them with others, in sets and series that coagulate like liquid or (to speak less metaphorically, in more strictly materialist terms) hang together in the air like notes in a chord. These groupings and assemblies, characterized as they are by additions and subtractions, never produce clear thematic information. Instead they make unconscious demands of the viewer, much like music does. Sea of Vapors may be the most fully realized iteration of Schedelbauer’s method, in several respects. For one thing, the speed and the framing of the images is more purely abstract and tonal than ever before. Inasmuch as the mind lights on actual visual ideas, they are confounding: moon or serving dish? Arched back or curled legs? I should also note that this is far and away Schedelbauer’s more disturbing film. I strongly disliked it on first viewing, preferring her earlier formal elegance to this new turn toward guttural horror-core. But subsequent viewings have proven me wrong, and Sylvia right. The way she controls and dispatches the individual images, into a kind of primordial soup, is a method that always threatened to pull itself into a dark vortex. I was the one keeping myself anchored with legibility and tradition. This time, the deluge.

Twelve Tales Told (Johann Lurf, Austria)

Seemingly one of the simplest films in this year’s Wavelengths line-up, Twelve Tales Told is a piece that builds in resonance over the course of its brief running time. What’s more, Lurf returns to some basic premises of experimental film, “the way we used to do it,” which is not to say that TTT is a backwards-looking or retrograde artwork in any respect. Far from it. All I mean is, one of the longstanding tenets of avant-garde artistry, and something that seems to have gotten lost along the way (especially in the slouch into “postmodernism,” a tendency so slack and undefined as to not really commit to having any tenets at all), is that the commonplace can be transfigured through method and form. That is, we can see and hear something anew by composing it, enframing it and possibly demanding that that “thing,” whatever it may be, explain itself within a newly organized context. This can be a purely aesthetic event—a lot of high modernism behaved this way—but it could also be a means to shake the hegemonic crust off an object and force it to stand apart, making it available for critique. That is the work of the historical avant-garde, and yes, it demands a program, a set of ideals against which the artifact can be evaluated. This is how popular cultural material can enter the artistic realm, although it’s rare that it does so in this form. Twelve Tales Told is a comedic model for such work, a rather blank appropriation of all-too-familiar signifiers that rapidly becomes a Schoenbergian 12-tone nightmare of corporate dissonance. Interestingly enough, almost every image Lurf selects involves a conquest of the skies.

Under a Changing Sky (Jean-Claude Rousseau, France)

One of the wonderful things about Wavelengths is its international scope, something entirely attributable to the stewardship of Andréa Picard. While there is more contact and exchange among global filmmakers today than ever before, artists and audiences still be frustratingly parochial, something this series “combats” by pretending it isn’t there. The lush, attentive films of Jean-Claude Rousseau should require no introduction, and certainly don’t in Europe. But he remains an artist whose work should be more widely known; hopefully Under a Changing Sky [Sous un ciel changeant] will continue the positive trend. In its most basic terms, Rousseau’s film is a day in the park, or more properly speaking a set of stationary views and situations around Monument Hill in Edinburgh taken within a relatively brief amount of time. The shots repeat, divided by short passages of black. Some are indeed monumental: temple columns against the sky, a Heideggerian image offset by young people horsing around. Others are mundane: a covered hut with a vending machine inside, with people walking past and occasionally in. All the while the clouds darken, threatening a storm that doesn’t come. With its unusual combination of static landscape, patterned repetition, modern and antiquity, Under a Changing Sky feels a bit as if Rousseau is combining the sensibilities of Jean-Marie Straub and Robert Beavers. That’s to say, every time the scene verges on timelessness, there’s a blackout, and a shift, back to the here and now. This temporal play works in reverse as well, which is perhaps how Rousseau wants us to think about the experience of Monument Hill, being alongside another time but unable to truly exit our own.

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TIFFTIFF 2014WavelengthsRené FrölkeKen JacobsBasma AlsharifLonnie van BrummelenSiebren de HaanSergei LoznitsaTsai Ming-LiangLisandro AlonsoYuri AncaraniEugène GreenJohann LurfspotlightFestival Coverage
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