A Distant Episode
Projections, the avant-garde sidebar to the New York Film Festival, often yields some of the year’s most vitalizing cinema, displaying experimental works that run the gamut from playful ethnography to mystical invocations of cinema’s history. Putting these works under the microscope can often complicate their mysteries more than explicate, which is one of the genuine pleasures of diving headfirst into the avant-garde. Here are five particularly stimulating short works
chosen by MUBI curators, demonstrating the best of last years NYFF's Projections lineup.
In addition to continuing Ben Rivers’ interest in ethnography, his film A Distant Episode equally displays the filmmaker’s cinephilia, drawing heavily from Catalonian filmmaker Pere Portabella’s disruptive 1971 nonfiction horror film, Cuadecuc, vampir. Coupled with Rivers’ characteristic fascination with the implications of shooting on heavily grainy film stock, the appropriation of the soundtrack to Portabella’s film is a repurposing. Rivers commandeers the aesthetic and conceptual trappings Cuadecuc used for subversion (namely, filming a genre movie's production—in that movie, it was Jess Franco's Count Dracula—and distorting the footage to poetic and political ends) and uses them to tease out and provoke mysteries hidden in his own film. The film consists of 16mm ultra-widescreen behind-the-scenes footage from the shoot of Towards the Possible Film by Shezad Dawood, capturing silhouetted images of bodies against littoral vistas. The choice to go black-and-white lends the piece its penumbral quality, invoking the idea that A Distant Episode is, as the title suggests, an otherworldly vision, distant from our common notions about film production. This choice keeps the film faithful to Cuadecuc, also in black-and-white, thus solidifying its place in an experimental, nonfiction cinematic lineage.
Neither God nor Santa Maria
Also interested in ethnography and the textural exigencies of 16mm film is Samuel M. Delgado and Helena Girón’s Neither God nor Santa Maria, a poetic work of complimentary juxtaposition. In a way, the tactile qualities of this film's 16mm are more illusory than one would expect. Shot in 2014 on the island of Lanzarote, the images of elderly women working in the fields and in the home are accompanied by recordings from the mid-to-late 1960s, detailing the rituals of ostensible ancient witches on the island of Tenerife, both part of the Canary Island chain. The scratches and bedraggled color splotches that often make up much of the frame are clearly meant to adhere and evoke both the era that the recordings were made (the 60s) and that in which these ‘witches’ inhabited (some aeon of primacy). This nimble trickery on the part of Delgado and Girón imbue the quotidian tasks that the women perform with a sort of mysticism, a sinister property that makes these images all the more impenetrable, despite seeming to be constantly on the verge of decay. The material vicissitudes of the photochemical process are on full view in Neither God nor Santa Maria, as evinced by the aforementioned scratches and splotches, in addition to a plethora of frames detailing nothing but variegated leader, morphing between inscrutable shapes of blue and green.
Neither God nor Santa Maria
As the film progresses from day to night, the vexing nature of the juxtaposition between the audio and images becomes increasingly pronounced. From the film’s accompanying description: “Night is the time when travel is possible.” This “travel” (the common mode for witches before airplanes existed, as the recordings tell us) is alluded to with abrupt editing, disjunctive cuts that relay a invigorating sense of the supernatural and the ancient.
Ana Vaz’s Occidente similarly draws from disparate sources, pulling together something of a patchwork that aims to be poetic in its indictment of colonialism. An example of the short’s approach to conveying the constrictions and follies of Portuguese neocolonialism comes in the form of a sequence with an extended focus on the flopping fish caught by working-class fisherman edited against the piscine china of some upper-class family. Not only do the rich exploit the proletariat, they take the essence of their work and smother it, restrain it so that domination seems casual and domestic. Occidente directs much of its attention to the ocean, using the color blue much the same as American experimental film master Bruce Baillie did the color red in his classic Quick Billy, as a leitmotif tying together accentuated moments of beauty.
Indeed, the portions of Occidente shot in 16mm give the film texture that goes a long way in advancing Vaz’s critique about the particularities of neocolonialism, with its rough-hewn qualities complimenting the subjects being documented. But her digital photography is also used effectively, especially in one sequence that could be most accurately described as a roaming Google Street View insertion, capturing Lisbon’s monuments in images with stultifying, hermetic qualities, much the same way that these landmarks are consumed and discarded by those participating in tourism. The utter inanity of these norms are entertainingly rendered in the closing montage, equating class tourism with extreme aquatic sport, and fated to meet the same end—embarrassment brought on by major wipeouts.
The Two Sights
The apparent outlier of this group of films is Katherine McInnis’s The Two Sights, a wholly digital work that nonetheless works from an analogue medium coupled with an even older (ancient, really) theoretical basis. McInnis’s short film is based on the work of 2nd-century Muslim scientist Ibn al-Haytham, specifically his Book of Optics. From the filmmaker: “The Book of Optics debunks theories that the eyes emit rays, or that objects project replicas of themselves, and accurately describes the strengths and weaknesses of human vision…The Two Sights is a false translation of this work, using images from the Life Magazine photo archive.” The method through which McInnis goes about conveying this ends up resembling Ernie Gehr’s pioneering spatial distortion experiment Serene Velocity, only with infinitely less concentration on one space, and with still, black-and-white images. McInnis alternates stills of different environments in rapid succession, each only changing in minor ways, such as a model in a 1940s department store moving from the background of the image to the foreground, followed by a scientist working in a lab, one image with the lights on, the other with them off. These transpositions, underscored by a creepily minimalist soundtrack, do indeed yield an optic workout, using the Life stills to probe the connections between how these various milieus were photochemically captured while simultaneously investigating the very nature of seeing.
Night without Distance
It's fitting that the short that has garnered the most acclaim from last year's New York Film Festival is the film that quietly subverts the norms that we come to expect from art-house 'festival filmmaking.' Lois Patiño's Night without Distance
earns its comparison to acclaimed festival favorites Lisondro Alonso, Pedro Costa, and the like, with its long takes observing figures in a landscape and with a sparseness of narrative clarity. Supposedly, the film is about smugglers on the border of Portugal and Galicia, but this seems to be just a pretext for Patiño to consider the relation between bodies and nature. The most immediate of Night without Dance
's ruptures in our expectations of festival cinema is the presiding aesthetic choice of the film: to shoot the image in with blown-out lighting and then invert the color scheme such that the entire short plays in negative. Over at Filmmaker Magazine
, Vadim Rizov very helpfully explicates and investigates the technical ramifications of this decision, to enlightening effect. The negative image-reversal proffers almost literally an alternate world, morphing initially benign compositions (one can figure out what these would look like by using the "invert colors" function on their computer) into ambiguous visions with ominous bearings. The spectral implications of these images are made clear towards the end of Night without Distance
, and with its conclusion, Patiño makes the most memorable outro of the selection, and perhaps the whole Projections sidebar.