9:30am may seem to early to watch James Benning’s first digital feature, Ruhr, but no amount of jet-lag or early morning grogginess can dispel the immediate, intuitively pleasurable sensory assault of the ones-and-zeros that open the film, an image of infinite mysteries between its curves and its lines, its modulation of greys, and the question of where the magic wind comes from. It's the image that is quoted at the beginning of Matthew Flanagan’s terrific piece on Ruhr from last week, and immediately introduces the key themes of Benning’s documentary on the industrial Ruhr valley: absent workers and populace; barren industrial landscape; flux and flow of anonymous mechanized movement into and out of the frame; digital flatness that makes that movement and its relationship to real space and recorded time tenuous; and a great deal beyond this than the morning can register (read Matthew’s article here for a more in-depth look).
I mentioned force of impact when talking about Heng Yang’s use of video in Sun Spots to practically entomb his characters against a flat pictorial landscape, and Benning’s video, made up of 6 takes—tunnel, factory, forest outside of an airport, mosque, suburban road—which are relatively short compared to the hour-long 7th and final image of steam billowing and receding from a smoke stack as the sun slowly sets, is just as physically arresting to watch for similar reasons. Video may remove tactility and perhaps even weight from an image, but what it enhances is a totality, one that favors the long-take and the long shot. Before the festival has barely begun the bar has been set astoundingly high for the way a movie’s content can be completely and dramatically changed when a filmmaker chooses to investigate and challenge the medium they are shooting in. Shooting on digital is no simple technical or economic decision, it is video’s aesthetics and not its resolution or price that will assist a filmmaker and his or her vision.
Yet going from digital projection to 35mm is still a relief—the supposed high-definition and crispness of digital cannot explain the satiny textures of the mosque attendee’s clothing in Ruhr, or the inability for the camera to see relatively speedy movement without ugly digital streaking. (Perhaps one reason Yang eliminates both camera movement and most movement in general!) Going to Nicholas Brooks’s Laitue, an erratic and not exactly coherent but always eloquent and empathetic hand-drawn animation in the Romantic Melancholia program of shorts, projected in 35mm, was a textural jolt after being lulled by Ruhr’s final shot of spectrally-lit steam, often wonderfully appearing like a gauzy, impressionistic collage texture or an unreal version of a mediocre old school composite layer special effect than a record of steam steamed. Laitue morphs so often from person to object, from abstraction to bare representation, from perspective to geometric pattern, all in fine, stitched lines amidst a sprawling white background of empty space, that occurs the odd effect of literal visual continuity—the strokes often transitioning one section or style of the film to another—with barely suggested connections beyond the drawing itself. It is hard to begrudge the film much, though, as the surprising, shockingly precise and perhaps rotoscoped motion of a person, or the rotation of a room around a viewpoint, or the tearing of a page into sinuous, draping lines which in turn morph into the horizon, are only a few of many moments and movements that grant the film a tremendous stenciled grace, fine and emotional.
Leave it to an experimental program to muddle everything up. Janie Geiser’s Ghost Alebgra was the day’s first passage away from the real world; no more of the representative clarity of Benning’s above-all-this-is-a-street and Brooks’s whatever-else,-this-started-as-a-line, Ghost Algebra is a sharp, energetically dreamy peep-show collage-animation cross-dissecting ornithology, military bunker defense (and its stowed secrets and missing limbs), and a sleep-curious young female doll who tours the sites via much optical irising and cross pollination between these cardboard and photograph puzzles of graphic motifs. With matter repeated, colors vibrant, and the sound pop, crackle, and hissing, a pattern easily registers but perhaps only a doll’s dream could make sense of what emerges, and in this dense single viewing the narrative remains allusive, losing a game temporarily to the invigorating oddness of Gessier’s haunting juxtapositions.