TIFF 09: Wavelengths Preview – Part Two, + Future Projections, Etc.

Operating on the assumption that you’ve probably either already read, or already (wisely) opted to skip my introductory rigmarole form the previous Wavelengths entry, I’ll keep it brief here. This one mostly focuses on the final three programs in Toronto’s Wavelengths series, the indispensable avant-garde film and video showcase programmed annually by Andréa Picard. As will be apparent from the write-ups below, overall I consider Program Number Five – “Une Catastrophe,” to be the most unmissable one, if you’re forced to prioritize amidst other obligations (say, ogling George Clooney, or protesting the festival’s toadying up to the Israeli consulate – both worthy pastimes).

However, this report does feature one significant difference from the last. After profiling what I consider to be the most accomplished films and videos among the final three Wavelengths shows, I’m appending three entries on “expanded cinema” works or film / video installations featured in TIFF’s Future Projections series. Now, let me say, this initiative has come a long way since its sad initial outing in 2006, when the lone Projection was an exceedingly lame film loop by Denmark’s Jesper Just. Last year I failed to make time for the series, which meant that I missed out on two very fine pieces by Canada’s Clive Holden. This year, while wildly uneven (avoid the Lightbox!), Future Projections includes some true stunners. Finally, I’ve thrown in a film of note by one of Canada’s premier experimental filmmakers, which has ended up in the Canada First! Section. It’s technically outside my purview. (Purview? What is this, a bloody Jane Austen novel?) But trust me, it fits.

***

Une Catastrophe (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland / Austria)

Godard’s trailer for the 2008 Viennale is, like so many of that festival's commission's, much more than a trailer. Even while clocking in at a mere one minute, Une Catastrophe is indubitably a contribution to the late Godardian corpus, and although it is a 35mm film, it is fundamentally steeped in the man’s hybrid film-video aesthetics. Not nearly as intricate or convulsive as Origin of the 21st Century, nor as magnificently dialectical in its articulation of abstraction and materialism as the "Hell" sequence of Notre Musique, there is nonetheless a stern poetic density here that moves in multiple directions, from the tragicomic power in the opening seconds, when Eisenstein's Odessa steps massacre is sonically equated to a tennis match, through the grim neon procession of tanks and ordnance. All these images are leading to a slow motion rendering of the gestures of cinematic heterosexual affection (joined to a love poem in low German), a kind of achievement of eternal cinema-stasis. The micro-montage delivers Godard’s crucial but offhand life lesson --  "A catastrophe is the first strophe of a love poem” – in much the way that someone looks back at you before disappearing down the jetway. (Program Five: Une Catastrophe – Sunday Sept. 13, 6:30 pm.)

***

Film for Invisible Ink, Case No. 142: Abbreviation for Dead Winter (Diminished by 1,794) (David Gatten, U.S.)

I think it was probably sometime in the 1920s when Mayakovsky or Tristan Tzara or somebody first declared the death of the avant-garde, and it’s been biting the dust pretty regularly ever since, usually at 15-year intervals. It is difficult to evaluate the film art of one’s own time, since fads and fashions cloud the judgment, and what seems vital today can frequently age into irony or outright irrelevance. But sometimes a viewer, or a sizable group of viewers, just knows something in their guts about whether or not an artist in their midst matters. And it seems abundantly clear to many of us now that, in their subtle, modest way, through the delicate vibrancy with which they palpate our optical intake, the films of David Gatten are among the most important contributions being made to film art anywhere in the world. Although there are various strands to his project, Gatten is best known for a series of works that explore the interface between the printed page and the printed image, between ink and celluloid. These films create fragile calligraphies, emphasizing the unique properties of the film medium but always looking outward, opening themselves to the inscriptions of the larger realms of history. Case No. 142 is frequently an abstract canvas, modulations of white on white, revealing the tooth of antiquarian tomes. As Gatten shifts the focus, the words of Charles Darwin come into and out of view, themselves abstracted into dark and light textures in a dense coalescence of forms that are, in fact, paper thin. (Program Five: Une Catastrophe – Sunday Sept. 13, 6:30 pm.)

***

Greenpoint (Jim Jennings, U.S.)

As a critic, there aren’t that many films I feel confident recommending sight-unseen. In the case of this year’s Wavelengths series, where not everything was available for preview, there are three films I do feel utterly confident in directing any reader toward, simply because they’re made by three of the finest avant-garde filmmakers currently working anywhere in the world : Ernie Gehr, David Gatten, and Jim Jennings. A few years ago, Jennings’s film Close Quarters was featured in Wavelengths, and while I was already a Jennings fan, that film did more than just blow me away. It reduced me to tears, and by the time all was said and done, I realized that Close Quarters was a flat-out masterpiece. (For those who care, I typically employ a 1-10 rating scale, and have awarded only around twelve 10s since I began. Quarters was one.) Last year, Jennings returned to TIFF with another fantastic film, Public Domain, a fast-and-dirty NYC city symphony that effortlessly encapsulated a hundred-plus years’ worth of cinematic ways of looking at a metropolis. Jennings is, by my lights, a modern master, almost always composing his films at the editing table like some visual equivalent to musique concrete, his films’ silence leaping off the screen like sculptural Free Jazz. Neither meditative nor overbearing, Jennings’s films dart across the screen as a sort of bike messenger of the senses, giving your brains a run for their money. His new film is Greenpoint, and I am counting the days until I get to see it. (Program Five: Flash Point Camera – Monday, Sept. 14, 9 pm.)

***

A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and Phantoms of Nabua (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand / Germany / U.K.)

In addition to being a magnificent work all its own, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee also has the distinction of playing against the equally great Phantoms of Nabua as half of a mutually redefining diptych. Despite the fact that Boonmee is a screen-work and Phantoms an installation, the two films necessarily deepen each other. A Letter to Uncle Boonmee finds Apichatpong having first one, and then another speaker read the opening text, which states the filmmaker's intention to make a film in which a monk addresses his Uncle, a man about whom he has but scant memories. In fact, Boonmee's own son (or is it his nephew?) has trouble remembering all that much about the man. What we soon discover is that Boonmee has been subject to numerous reincarnations, and so pinning down his identity will be a very slippery business. What Apichatpong and the film know for sure, however, is that Boonmee has always been in the village of Nabua. Nabua was an occupied town from the 1960s to the early 80s, when military forces considered it a stronghold for Communist farmers. It was a scene of intense brutality and repression, and many of those who were not executed by the government forces had to flee to escape a similar fate. In a stunning act of political avant-gardism, Joe has adapted Thai Buddhist tenets regarding reincarnation as a means for excavating the hidden history of a troubled landscape. As his camera slowly creeps and pans through darkened, abandoned homes, Apichatpong is displaying the remnants of a repressed past, in the form of an assertion of ghostly, vertical time. Frequently, these slow pans will tilt in a slight arc, resulting in multiple depths of field, multiple barriers to vision (broken walls, overgrown foliage, window panes) sliding alongside each other, creating fragmented, differential vision within the landscape, an objective correlative to the problem of history's haunting spirits. What's more, Joe's dominant visual cue throughout Boonmee is the depiction of dark, illegible interiors whose porous walls and broken-out windows allow the bright green of the jungle to puncture the once-domestic space with light and texture. As beautiful as the effect may be, it is also chilling, since it represents the breakdown of human effort's separation from natural encroachment, the dissolution of basic boundaries. (Not for nothing is Joe's new major work, of which the Nabua pieces are a component, called Primitive.) But in addition to Boonmee's visual tropes, the film employs narration, reflexive storytelling, and the power of myth, harnessing Thai popular modes for the sake of a trenchant volley against official amnesia. And, where Boonmee is the more mythic / literary version of this project, Phantoms is its sculptural equivalent, drawing on modernist idioms (Beuys's ritual as art; the projection textures of Jacobs / McCall; Flavinesque illumination; Walter de Maria's Lightning Field) to convey the fractured phenomenology of Nabua's occupation, and the trauma is left behind. The Primitive project is shaping up to be Apichatpong's greatest achievement. (A Letter to Uncle Boonmee plays in Program Five: Une Catastrophe – Sunday Sept. 13, 6:30 pm. Phantoms of Nabua will be on view Sept. 10-20 at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, 952 Queen St. West.)

***

Snowing Chestnut Blossoms (Ute Aurand, Germany)

More than any other single film that I have seen so far in this year's Wavelengths programs, Ute Aurand's achingly lovely Snowing Chestnut Blossoms is a paradigmatic example of programmer Andréa Picard's unique vision. Perhaps too personal, too domestic, to register with certain other tastemakers, Snowing Chestnut Blossoms is precisely the kind of "small" film too often overlooked because of the fundamental modesty of its approach. In trying to identify existing analogues for what Aurand's film accomplishes, I find myself coming back to grand names, like Brakhage and Nathaniel Dorsky. Like Brakhage, Aurand is zeroing in on the absolutely singular, exquisite textures of the daily life around her -- her loved one's hands, the glare through a window pane, a tabletop crisscrossed by a perpendicular shadow, the dust halos encircling individual strands of hair twisting out of a braid. Separated by white flash-frames, individual moments pop like fleeting revelations, the seconds whose very preciousness is defined by their ineffability. And yet, Aurand's cinematic inner sanctum is radically different from Brakhage's. It is a community of women, a multi-generational network of mothers, daughters and grandmothers, passing wisdom through gestures and glances, time shared at the table, in the garden, skating on the frozen pond. Similarly, Aurand shares Dorsky's focus on slices of present time, the unique play of light across the hand of a woman in her sixties, or the sundappled impression of muted color when the midday hits a bedspread. But Dorsky's films are inimical to the formation of social worlds, at least ones that are immediately legible from the film itself. Snowing Chestnut Blossoms is, in some way, a diary film, but one that records sensual phenomena rather than narrative event. Or, perhaps more properly stated, Aurand generates flashes of illumination, collecting them from the slow drift of everyday existence, allowing them to achieve a hieratic character. And yet, in their filmic arrangement, in the assembly and temporal re-experience, they become a different kind of narrative, a story of us all that insists on absolute particularity, insisting that these images only mean anything because they are of these people who Aurand has deeply loved. (Program Five: Flash Point Camera – Monday, Sept. 14, 9 pm.)

***

"In a City" (Mark Lewis, Canada / U.K.)

This three-film installation by Canadian media artist Mark Lewis (now based in London) is one of the festival's must-sees, if only because one of the single works is among the year's best. However, the other two films are vastly improved as imaginative touchstones (and formal endeavors) when the three works are taken as a unit. Each pertains to the spatial realities of Toronto, and the vast differences among the three works are highly productive, since the films jostle against one another for a kind of supremacy of temperament and access. The most breathtaking of the group is Nathan Phillips Square, A Winter's Night, Skating, a trick film that is also so much more. In the initial moments of viewing Nathan Phillips Square, there is a lag time wherein one's sensorium struggles to understand exactly why the scene before us is so bizarre and oneiric. Is it the crystalline Eastern Canadian night sky? The gentle pivot of the steel arcs as our skaters describe slow pirouettes and figure-8s on the ice below? In time we realize [SPOILER] that Lewis is using back-projection, and that the two ice-skating lovers in the foreground are completely outside the scene we have been watching. Once this disjunction is discovered, we become aware of the magnificent grace of Lewis's camera as it skates along through the Phillips Square area, generating a grainy, hovering tone-poem to winter's suspended light. The skating pair, meanwhile, are impressive enough dancers that it becomes hard to tell whether or not Lewis even has them on ice in the foreground. (By the end, their turns would indicate that in fact he does.) The teasing, frozen eroticism between the pair is heightened, of course, by their total separation from the world around them. In all respects, this is a magnificent film. And at first, it would seem to have little connection to Cold Morning, a single-shot, static camera take at street level, wherein we observe the early morning rising of a homeless person, or TD Centre, 54th Floor, in which Lewis's camera simply tracks back and forth across an observation deck high above Toronto. But Lewis is giving us different levels of social vision, marred by systematic blind spots. In this respect, the relationships between homelessness, middle-class bliss, and the view from atop a megabank, surely require no comment. (Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, Hart House, University of Toronto. Sept. 9 to Oct. 26, 2009. Monday through Friday, 11 to 5 pm; Thursday to 8 pm. Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 5 pm. Opening Sept. 8, 7 to 9:30 pm. Free to the public.)

***

Speak City (Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak, Canada)

A deceptively subtle and rigorous videowork that directly engages issues of site-specificity, Speak City is worth seeking out, especially in a setting like TIFF where it could easily get lost in the shuffle. On the face of it, all Steele and Tomczak have done is shoot static footage of Toronto street signs, fading one into another in the editing process. The blue street signs are shot in close-up, dominating the entire middle third of the frame in most cases, sometimes even a bit more. The choice of fades is careful but not at all overbearing in its formal language. Although there are frequently homologies from one image to the next -- the position of a telephone pole, the direction of swaying foliage, the relative position of the waterfront, etc. -- sometimes these visual rhymes are so subtle as to elude perception, and on multiple inspections I can attest that in other cases they are not there at all (although bear in mind, I’ve seen only a preview disc that simply excerpts the final piece). But what the conjunctions of the two streets usually do accomplish is the drawing of a specific linear form through mapping. If, for example, you Mapquest some of the instances when street numbers as well as names are given, you will find that Steele and Tomczak's start and endpoints are very close to one another, but actually driving between the two points entails an out-of-the-way Big Dipper shape around several city blocks. In addition to offering a wry commentary on the foibles of automobile traffic vs. pedestrian life -- "you can't get there from here" -- Speak City also seems to have a purely formal element, using these pairs of addresses as mapped components of a prospective public drawing assignment, reorganizing Toronto according to interlocking minimalist units not unlike Sol Lewitt open-cubes. Steele and Tomczak would seem to understand that most of this will be hard to grasp even for the locals, but virtually lost on out-of-towners. When one considers not only the underlying cultural politics of TIFF -- its necessary relationship to film industry interests vs. its struggle to maintain its key role in Canadian cultural identity, as well as the larger film industry's ever-expanding effort via tax shelter to turn Canada's major cities into "any-space-whatever" -- Steele and Tomczak are to be commended for using their commission to consider Toronto itself. (On view at the TIFF Box Office at Nathan Phillips Square. Sept. 5 to 19, 7am to 7pm. Free to the public.)

***

All Fall Down (Philip Hoffman, Canada)

Hoffman is a figure who's too often taken for granted in the world of experimental film, greatly appreciated but not quite given his due. The best of his works -- What These Ashes Wanted, ?O, Zoo! -- employ a method of construction that seems at first to follow the darting patterns of immediate human thought. But over time, the visual sketchpad mode reveals itself to be something very different, a centripetal / centrifugal motion that Hoffman organizes around a few central ideas, always pulling the "digressions" back into the overall fold. All Fall Down is partly a family investigation, Hoffman trying to grapple with a past, which could hardly be nearer to him, but from which he is at the same time profoundly excluded. The primary subject is George Lachlan Brown, the father of Hoffman's stepdaughter, a man whose disheveled, desperate existence unravels over the course of Hoffman's film. Brown is present primarily through a series of answering machine messages, in which he negotiates with Hoffman's partner Janine over parenting matters (emotional and legalistic), and in which he is calling out for help in rambling, self-absorbed monologues detailing his dire straits. As is always the case in Hoffman's work, the incorporation of home movie and other visual textures -- faded super-8; sumptuous, high contrast black and white; warm, rich Ektachrome passages -- serves not only as a catalog of anterior moments but as a physical representation of the faculty of human memory, the variegated tenors and tonalities with which we choose to imbue the past. Hoffman's plan is to concretize his act of memory by making it site-specific, excavating layers of history that have accrued at the 19th century farmhouse in Normanby Township, Ontario that was the locus of the personal material. This leads to recurring discussion of Victorian-era aboriginal land-rights activist Nahneebahweequa, which, strangely enough, often feels as though it is floating alongside the Brown content. Large unbroken passages of All Fall Down are devoted to articulating her story and the fraught political history surrounding her land claims. What Hoffman still doesn't exactly do, except in wholly implicit ways, is articulate the Brown material with the surrounding / supporting ideas, although it's clear that the negative space of the Southern Ontario landscape -- that is, the strife its magnificence conceals -- is the ostensible ground that holds All Fall Down together. While there is an occasional awkwardness in the film's construction, largely due to Hoffman's relative absence compared to his previous films (his "voice" is purely editorial and occasionally present as onscreen text; the spoken words are given to others), this is also indicative of Hoffman’s charge, to step back and learn about the very ground beneath him. (Saturday Sept. 12, 2:15pm, AMC 10; Sunday, Sept. 13, 11:45am, AMC 2. AMC Theatre, Yonge & Dundas St.)

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