The purpose of this piece is to draw your attention to some significant experimental film works that emerged in 2021. These are films that mostly played small festivals, such as Prismatic Ground, the new Light Matter festival in Alfred, New York, or Mark McElhatten’s “Carte Blanche” program at MoMA. Others, to my knowledge, have not yet debuted in North America. This piece intends to draw your attention to these films (although you may have already seen some of them), and to make a case on their behalf.
I have started writing this piece several times, and each time I have scrapped my introductory remarks. In one draft, I talked about those festivals in some depth. In another, I briefly analyzed the 2021 selections for the New York Film Festival’s Projections program, conjecturing about the prevalence of essay films as part of a backlash against formalism. In another, I talked about Gramsci and hegemony, how the current domination of the film world by superheroes isn’t just a reduction of choice but an attempt to curtail our ability to imagine other possibilities; in yet another, I considered the return to cinemas in light of the COVID vaccine, and the looming threat of yet another variant. In the final attempt, I engaged in some self-criticism, noting that my views on the cinema may not be any more significant than anyone else’s.
This difficulty in beginning may be telling me a few different things. First, this has been another difficult year. Things seemed to be improving, but we now find ourselves in another post-traumatic replay of the pandemic. Will things ever feel normal again? Should they? Is another massive tragedy looming around every corner? There is an assumption that we should pick up where we left off, as if that place even exists anymore. Also, there are probably no lessons from this. There is no Zeitgeist, no overriding sense of things being one way or another. The quarantine may have produced a spike in the overall productivity of artists, but there are few commonalities in what that work was like.
In other words, the more we demand answers to these problems, the further off-track we get. We are going to have to come to terms with uncertainty, which is of course incredibly difficult. Our economy, our justice system, intergenerational relationships—precariousness is the hallmark of our times. And now we can’t feel confident about being outside? It can seem like a cruel joke. This overbearing sense of drift may prompt us to look elsewhere for the predictability we crave, and popular culture is more than happy to oblige. But it’s also possible that the challenges of experimental art, a positive form of uncertainty, may help us derive strategies for navigating an unmoored world.
The following are nine films that did not receive as much exposure as they should have. Saying this, of course, is a bit paradoxical, since very few good films ever receive the exposure they deserve. But even if we (somehow) bracket the pandemic from consideration, it seems clear that film art is in a moment of flux, accelerated by the broad reach and ever-narrowing potential of the internet. I detest the phrase “now more than ever,” but I must admit, the current environment is uniquely hostile to small, artisanal production. This is my small attempt at redress. In a sense, these films were sent out into the world like messages in a bottle, and I did my best to pull them in.
From Bakersfield to Mojave (James Benning)
Benning's latest feature film may not exactly form a trilogy with his two earlier films, RR (2007) and BNSF (2013), but in a lot of ways it does seem like a very precise amalgamation of those two previous works. RR depicted dozens of trains slicing through the American landscape, often moving so quickly as to reconfigure our basic relationship to filmic space. BNSF, meanwhile, is a three-hour film that is nearly static, showing sequential trains on a single length of track. A train crosses the frame once every fifteen minutes or so, as minor events (dust, wind, cloud movement) organize the wait time.
From Bakersfield to Mojave consists of nine individual shots, taken with an unmoving camera and meticulously framed. Each shot is around ten minutes long, and a length of railroad track appears in some place in the image. Sometimes it bisects the landscape; other times it hugs the horizon line and is barely visible. But each of the nine shots implies potential movement that we are prompted to wait for. We know that a train is coming, in much the same way that we can watch a narrative film and anticipate certain actions based on our previous experience and cognitive faculties. From Bakersfield’s title makes it evident that the film has a starting point and a destination, but Benning’s patient observation of brief segments of the journey reminds us that the landscape challenges our movement, grounding us in the unavoidable physicality of time. Or, as our man from Stockton Steven Malkmus put it, “between here and there is better than anything here or there.”
Future From Inside (Dani and Sheilah ReStack)
With their third film in a trilogy about “feral domesticity,” the ReStacks have moved away from the extremely private eros of Strangely Ordinary This Devotion and Come Coyote (both 2018). The new work expands on the ReStacks’ highly developed mode of montage, bringing various objects and situations into conversation through a process of abrupt accumulation.
But it also moves toward something quite new. Future features a cast of dozens, women who slide into a sculptural contraption and allow a pipette to drop water into their eyes. This is an opening up, and the logical conclusion to the duo’s exploration of time, memory, and kinship. By welcoming so many others in, Future From Inside ends up functioning as a kind of public art.
Hotel Royal (Salomé Lamas)
Situated somewhere between structural cinema and abstract narrative, Lamas's newest film owes a certain debt to Chantal Akerman (especially Hotel Monterrey) while more than staking out its own aesthetic language. Hotel Royal is constructed around a semi-fictional conceit, that of a part-time chambermaid (Ana Moreira) who occupies the titular hotel like a ghost, roaming the halls and entering the private sanctums of various guests. Each room is introduced in the same way, visually described by the same set of shots.
As a metronome clicks off the seconds of her day, the chambermaid narrates the various contents of each room, a set of stories implied by objects temporarily abandoned by their owners. Itinerant labor is the unseen force that drives both the film and the functioning of the hotel itself, and Moreira emphasizes her detachment from everything she sees. She is not interested in fantasy, envisioning herself entering the secret lives of others. That's because her time, and to some extent her consciousness, are already bought and paid for.
Merapi (Malena Szlam)
Mount Merapi is an active volcano, one of several on the island of Java. In this silent film, Szlam conducts a fragmented survey of the landscape around Merapi, closely observing such ordinary phenomena as cloud movement, sunrise and sunset, and the subtle interplay between light and shadow, the horizon and the mountains that tower over it.
Although Szlam's camera is mostly stationary (there is one noteworthy right-to-left pan early on), this is a film in the tradition of Brakhage, composed of brief shots and edited according to rhythmic gestures. Close-ups and long shots suddenly follow one another, and the sky, conveyed with radiant reds and ambers, suddenly gives way to the dense blue of dusk. And of course we see the steam rising from Mount Merapi, a signal of the earth’s own temporality. Molten terrain bubbles just beneath the surface, waiting for the perfect moment to reorganize the landscape.
THAT WAS WHEN I THOUGHT I COULD HEAR YOU (Matt Whitman)
The only filmmaker on the list who was a complete discovery in 2021, Matt Whitman produced one of the most criminally underseen films of the year. For starters, its all-caps title has a built-in irony. The eight-minute film is completely silent. And although the title suggests some sort of personal response or subjective statement, THAT WAS WHEN I THOUGH I COULD HEAR YOU is an eerily formal effort, one that generates a sort of shotgun wedding between old and new media.
At its start, we observe an image that is difficult to place. It appears to be a translucent white cloth, and underneath it spins a large metal halo, of the sort that the sculptor James Lee Byars used to produce. It slowly rotates like an otherworldly gas station sign, until we cut to a collection of leaves strewn across a background of flashing lights. In the center of the frame, Whitman displays an isolated iPhone. For the remainder of the film, we see a placid confrontation between digital phone video and organic light on celluloid. This film-within-a-film offers clear, bounded images within a highly permeable frame, suggesting a kind of technological Russian doll scenario, the future always just out of reach.
Time Crystals (Abinadi Meza)
I wasn’t sure if including Meza’s film was kosher, strictly speaking, since I premiered it in my program at the Houston Cinema Arts Festival. Clearly I think highly of it, but I didn’t want to confuse my identities as a critic and programmer. Nevertheless, it’s one of the most original works I’ve seen in quite a long time. Meza is a multimedia artist, and a lot of his recent work has been in the area of sound installation. This concern with ambiance and envelopment is wholly evident in Time Crystals.
It is composed of scratchy images and short passages of leader, giving the entire film the feeling of a long lost artifact, its distressed surface suggesting the neglect of a society that has perhaps moved beyond its need for images. As the visual fragments pass before our eyes, we hear a voice, mechanized but distinctly female. In her short phrases—“I remember before the crystals formed,” “before the patterns”—hint at epochal change, a past that we haven’t yet lived through. Memory, and film along with it, has mutated into some undefined state, as if the random access of our digital present broke down into an impressionistic miasma, from which logic and identity cannot be extracted. This is a work that resonates, and I hope more people have the chance to see it.
Untitled (34bsp) (Philipp Fleischmann)
For quite some time now, Fleischmann has used hand-built cameras to generate direct, mostly lens-free inscriptions of exhibition spaces on the celluloid. Rather than simply photographing a museum structure, he abandons the 24fps system of representation, creating conditions in which the architecture's own organization becomes the organization of the film. The results often resemble classic structuralism or flicker films, but Fleischmann's use of organized light reveals the visual systems implicit in the buildings themselves, the way they focus the occupant's attention on certain details while obscuring others.
Untitled (34bsp) was commissioned by the São Paolo Biennial's 34th edition, hence the title. The film is bracketed by lime green and peach colored frames, produced by direct exposure to available light. In between, Fleischmann shows us the red-tinted sunlight piercing the building, as well as the more controlled slats of gallery light. The building under investigation is the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, designed by Brazil's greatest architect, Oscar Niemeyer. Untitled (34bsp) does not bring outside images into the Biennial. Rather, the film documents the physical conditions under which the Biennial can occur at all, the spatial arrangement that inflects every work of art ever shown in the Pavilion. As such, Fleischmann's film (literally) exposes the political enfranchisement of national culture, an arena defined by having both an inside and an outside.
Wasteland No. 3: Moons, Sons (Jodie Mack)
Mack's newest addition to the Wasteland series, Moons, Sons, is sort of a direct sequel to her previous entry, Hardy, Hearty (2019). Like the earlier film, No. 3 depicts bits of collected flora and vegetation that have been frozen in water, much of the film consisting of Mack's camera watching the ice melt around the now-dead flora. But whereas No. 2's white background and subtle distance from the objects lent it a quasi-scientific mien, No. 3 is a kind of unexpected requiem for life itself.
Mack has stuffed all manner of flowers and plants together into cups and frozen them into circular clumps. The result is somewhere between a flower arrangement and a car crash, a tangle of different colors and forms artificially packed together in a brutal crush. We slowly observe the moisture dribble away from these leaves, and while No. 2's melting suggested a minor liberation, No. 3's gradual thaw conveys nothing so much as the oozing away of life.
The Well-Prepared Citizen’s Solution (Lydia Moyer)
Moyer's new film may be one of the only artworks about COVID that will still be worth looking at in a few years’ time. That's because Well-Prepared Citizen is only tangentially about the pandemic, and more about how it threw into relief certain cultural divides and geographical tendencies that already existed. Moyer speaks in the first person throughout the five-minute piece. In the first half, we see a number of text phrases presented on different colored screens. Statements like "I'M THE ONLY ONE WHO DOESN'T OWN A GUN" or "WE DON'T EVER WEAR MASKS" clarify Moyer's point. She is a creative leftist who lives in a conservative enclave (in Oregon), and yet she is accepted as belonging to the small community.
In the second half, we see distorted images of Moyer and the neighborhood, as the filmmaker speaks to us directly. She describes her neighbors as generous with their whisky and their meat from hunting, and at the same time outsiders are looked at with extreme suspicion. Moyer articulates her differences from the people around her, while explaining that COVID has made it clear that she is one of them, and they will be there for her if she's in need. Prioritizing community— "we take care of our own"—is essentially a conservative ethos, but that doesn't mean there's no room for an oddball or two.