Spatial Stories

Highlights from the BFI London Film Festival's Experimenta program.
Ben Nicholson
Dawn City: Frozen Time
“A place is thus an instantaneous configuration of positions. It implies an indication of stability. A space exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables… Every story is a travel story, a spatial practice."
—Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life
Time is the central tenet of all cinema. The impression of its passing is the enthralling illusion at the medium’s flickering heart; petrified images are reanimated by the whirr of the projector. Even at its most micro level cinema traverses the intersection of time and place, as the static location of a single picture is temporally transported before our eyes by the flurry of subsequent frames. On a macro level, that relationship and those concepts are no less pervasive or vital. In 2006, found footage filmmaker Bill Morrison told Senses of Cinema that: "for better or worse, the projector is the closest we’ve gotten to expressing our ability to see and hear in time.” Morrison’s latest endeavor, Dawson City: Frozen Time, gazes back over a century and was just one of several films to explore the dynamics of time and—particularly—place in the Experimenta strand of this year’s London Film Festival, a uniformly arresting program curated by the artists' moving image agency, LUX.
In keeping with the structural and aesthetic style that Morrison has developed over the past twenty years, Frozen Time is primarily composed of rescued and recycled photographs and clippings of celluloid. The practice of found footage filmmaking sees the director playing cinematic archaeologist, excavating material from archives to preserve and give them a new lease of life. The digging was done for him on this occasion and his picture follows the wide-ranging but discernible narrative of a gargantuan cache of nitrate film reels discovered in the eponymous Yukon town in the late 1970s. From this buried treasure, Morrison compiles a riveting history of the settlement, entwining its origins and Gold Rush with the concurrent birth of cinema and growth of Hollywood—Dawson’s stages played host to Fatty Arbuckle amongst others and the town proved to be the end of the line for traveling film prints, hence its entombed hoard. The picture is a monument to a boomtown and the explosive material that recorded it for posterity.
Unlike 2002’s rhapsodic Decasia, Frozen Time lingers less on the fetishized and mesmerizing decay of the physical film stock, despite some sequences exhibiting the familiar swirling clouds of irreparable damage. Instead, this a celebration of preservation and the rediscovery of images long presumed lost. The rhythms of the location’s past are allowed to dictate the focus. Dawson’s is not merely a story of entropy, but a bustling one of rapid growth and equally tumultuous decline, of evolution and rejuvenation amidst tragedy and the mass migrations of prospectors. Morrison sculpts the footage into a poetic portrait of a place as it endures the ravages of time while being equally seduced by the remarkable tale of the film reels and their subterranean survival.
Frozen Time’s dual focus (Dawson and nitrate) make it a useful film from which the rest of the program seems to fan out: on one hand are geographical meditations (Detroit, Illinois, Ireland, Chile, Belgium) and on the other are cinematic (Hollywood, and the cinema as a place). Christine Molloy and Joe Lawyer’s Further Beyond is another film which straddles the two. Its beautiful footage of Ireland and Chile is as interesting and informative as its pseudo-documentary meanderings through the life of adventurer Ambrosia Higgins—born and raised in Sligo and eventually Captain General of Chile—and its investigations of identity, storytelling and personal and national history.
Machine Space
The more conventional documentary Exprmntl recounts the history of the titular film festival that saw a legendary gathering of filmmakers and artists in Knokke, Belgium to screen and debate avant-garde cinema. Attendees ranged from Jean-Luc Godard and Agnès Varda to Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas. Mekas appears in Exprmntl for longer than he appears in I Had Nowhere to Go, Douglas Gordon's highly experimental presentation of the Lithuanian-American filmmaker's memoirs—in which Mekas' voice is heard with only few minutes of images to punctuate an otherwise pitch-black listening environment. The title’s specific absence of place and the film’s lack of visual content suggests—intentionally or otherwise—a direct correlation between place and image. As infuriating as it is exhilarating, it prompted lively post-screening debate about the appropriate exhibition venue for such a work and the nature of the physical space of the cinema itself.
Paul Anton Smith’ Have You Seen My Movie? is a feature length supercut that acts as a paean to the act of movie-going and to that same venerated space of the cinema. This love letter has paragraphs dedicated to the rituals surrounding the screen—the box office, the popcorn, the back-row necking—but the ultimate object of its affection is the place that time and technology are lamentably leading us away from. For Smith, nothing beats the shared experience of the movie theatre.
Elsewhere, several of the strand’s vast shorts selections featured films about film, including one program called Hollywood Dissections which included a humorous take on Eisenstein and Brecht’s sojourns in Tinseltown, Two Marxists in Hollywood. Other highlights include Margaret Salmon’s sublime wander in a British forest, Eglantine, and Fiona Tan’s fact-fiction hybrid Ascent. Ascent begins with something like an approximation of Jean-Gabriel Périot’s 200,000 Phantoms before blending photographs of Mount Fuji with a nebulous correspondence across time.
Heading back to the United States, we arrive at the Experimenta’s most fascinating screening—Midwestern Parables—which combined Deborah Stratman's The Illinois Parables and Stephen Connolly’s brilliant short Machine Space. Connolly’s film is a spatial story about Detroit, one that examines the notion of the city as a commodity and the ways in which the local economy has seismically shifted from manufacture to land, space, place. Connolly combines aerial photographs which illustrate the economic divide—the film also broaches the racial lines on which that is drawn—with a meandering car ride following the metro line. It drinks in the atmosphere of the city in the style of psychogeographic dérives. Deborah Stratman's own dérive is far more wide-ranging, taking in the whole state of Illinois and engaging with its history from centuries ago to the very recent.
An evocative and challenging work, The Illinois Parables is a dense blend of archival footage and audio, photography, re-enactment, superimposed text and her own 16mm images. Stratman's own footage is testament to the sense of pilgrimage that the director sees as vital to such a work—there is a palpable physical feel to the film as it probes moments where the boundary between the past and present is porous; these twelve chaptered vignettes are hyper-specific folkloric stories transformed into allegory. Often focusing on narratives of displacement and exodus—which implicitly gives the local an empathetic, universal quality—Stratman repeatedly meshes together the political and spiritual in her images and sound design. Classical, often religious, music accompanies her chosen visuals and in some cases, such as a fantastic tornado sequence, she blends the past with the present, and the personal with the political and spiritual all through the layering of the stunning soundscape. With her sound and unfamiliar modes of cinematic language that reach for something deeper, Stratman, a cinematic archaeologist much like Bill Morrison, gives voice to those buried and forgotten in the Illinois soil, and—like her final shot that floats into the sky above Michael Heizer’s Effigy Tumuli—taps into to something transcendent.
The Illinois Parables


London 2016LondonFestival CoverageBill MorrisonChristine MolloyJoe LawyerDouglas GordonJonas MekasPaul Anton SmithMargaret SalmonFiona TanDeborah StratmanStephen Connolly
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