Each year, the Toronto International Film Festival (or, per its ongoing rebranding campaign, simply “tiff,” in lowercase tangerine) allows perspicacious programmer Andréa Picard to assemble a series of showcases for experimental film and video. As some have noted (and I’ve probably said this on some occasion—after a long flight, my memory fails me), Picard’s Wavelengths series is virtually a festival within the festival, for several reasons. First, it does tend to attract its own subset of devotees, many of whom ignore the larger festival altogether. (And, it must be said, not without reason. In the past I’ve criticized this insularity on the part of avanties, but now, with once-subtle shifts in TIFF’s priorities now pretty much amounting to undeniable sea changes, withdrawal in disgust is indeed not the same as apathy. But I’ll get into all that another time.) Second, while the diffuse team programming method means that it can sometimes be difficult to discern exactly whose curatorial imprimatur accounts for the content of much of the rest of TIFF (Midnight Madness guru Colin Geddes being the exception), each Wavelengths program is a direct reflection of Picard’s unique and critically engaged sensibility. This is a boon in an increasingly administered film culture. Even when I find myself disagreeing with Andréa’s choices—for instance, this year I do think she selected far too much silent work, lending several programs a sometimes stifling tonal sameness—they are intellectual choices, worthy of engaged debate, and unfailingly enlightening. Hers is curatorial programming at its best, and Wavelengths remains TIFF at its finest, a cultural organization actually fulfilling its mandate in spades.
I have had the opportunity to preview most of this year’s Wavelengths slate. Below I have chosen to highlight the works I found most exceptional, and would recommend either without reservation, or in some cases those I found challenging enough to grapple with even when I did harbor significant reservations. These are, of course, highly subjective opinions of extremely open-ended artworks. All six Wavelengths programs will screen at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall, 317 Dundas Street West (McCaul Street entrance).
Please note that I was unable to preview several major works in the series. John Price’s Home Movie (W2: Plein-Air); Peter Tscherkassky’s Coming Attractions (W6: Coming Attractions) and none of the Nathaniel Dorsky films (W4: Pastourelle) were available, but based on these artists’ previous work, I would be very much inclined to recommend them.
Atlantiques (Mati Diop, Senegal / France)
This debut film by Diop, most recently seen as the lead actress in Claire Denis’s lovely 35 Shots of Rum, ruminates on memory, death, and the human toll of illegal immigration without ever once veering into political shorthand. Beginning with a grainy, sepia image of an old cylinder record player, we hear a recording, telling of a tragedy at sea, the waves destroying a pirogue of immigrants making their way to Spain. Soon, we meet several young Senegalese men who are discussing the horrors of this death at sea, including one, Serigne (Serigne Seck) who was the sole survivor of the previous accident. His friends (Alpha Diop and Chiekh M’Baye) try to convince him to stay in Senegal and count himself lucky, but Serigne announces his intention to leave again on the next available pirogue. Diop films this conversation by a campfire at night, lending the scene a burnished, grainy feel not unlike an excavated document; later, she will use this diegetic situation as a jumping-off point for a broader, more diffuse threnody for all those lost at sea in search of a better life, concluding with the blind eye of a lighthouse, its mirrored pane reflecting only itself. This striking film marks the emergence of a strong new voice. (W5: Blue Mantle; September 12, 9:15pm)
blue mantle (Rebecca Meyers, U.S.)
Below I recommend an important and challenging James Benning film about which I have significant reservations. Here, I’m going one better by suggesting that perhaps you should check out the world premiere of Meyers’ new film so that perhaps you can explain it to me. blue mantle is, quite simply, one of the oddest films I’ve seen in years. I’ve recently become an admirer of Meyers’ filmmaking. Her deft sense of editing and refracted color, sometimes muted by reflection, other times quite vibrant, has exhibited traces of Dorsky and Leighton Pierce. Like those filmmakers, Meyers has made works that extract the exquisite from the quotidian. Nothing quite prepared me for blue mantle, though. It’s not so much an essay as a compendium, a collection of sea footage punctuated with literary quotations, nautical paintings (some of them so genre-bound as to have little in the way of aesthetic interest), artifacts from maritime museums, even scenes from an ocean-centered puppet show. Meyers’ aquatic images are placid and nearly declarative, signifying “the oceanic” more than any emotional charge. What’s more, there isn’t an obvious build or rhythm to blue mantle. Instead, Meyers seems to be plunging us into a kind of conceptual sea, where every association is equally weighted, we can “dip in” at any point, and there is an infinite depth belied by an apparently undifferentiated surface. This is an unnerving film, and I confess to feeling utterly adrift in it. But see it. Maybe you can throw me a line. (W5: Blue Mantle; September 12, 9:15pm)
Burning Bush (Vincent Grenier, U.S. / Canada)
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will say it again: Grenier is a veteran filmmaker whose transition to digital media over a decade ago has resulted in one of the most acute, alive bodies of experimental currently being produced. Where many who turned to DV out of economic necessity tried to replicate their celluloid practice in the new medium, Grenier mastered his new tools and became a full-fledged video artist. This is but one of the unique aspects of Grenier’s practice that sets him apart. The other main thing is that he’s not just a formalist. He’s a funny formalist. This wasn’t so unusual in the grand heyday of Snow, Frampton, Wieland and Land(ow), but a lot of that got lost along the way. Luckily, Vincent Grenier’s found it. His latest painterly pixel flurry cum perceptual game, Burning Bush, is simple enough. It is a bush along a fence, covered with what appear to my non-botanist’s eye to be azalea blossoms. Grenier zooms in, pixelates them, turns them into a general mass of crimson HD color, but this is hardly his most intriguing intervention. Burning Bush is actually Grenier’s study of the possibilities and parameters of color manipulations within digital video. The reds are deepened, and eventually drained, resulting in a wan, wintery kind of image that resembles Japanese cherry blossoms or even just a delicate pen and ink drawing. In time, these temperature-range alterations become more rapid and more intense, resulting in optical tricks and of course an obliteration of the flowers themselves. Like all of Grenier’s recent work, Burning Bush explores the infinite perceptual experiences (and foibles) that daily life offers to eyes that care to find them. (W2: Plein-Air; September 11, 4:30pm)
Cinematographie (Philipp Fleischmann, Austria)
One of this year’s most original films possesses one of the most unassuming titles. All films entail “cinematography.” Of course, that’s a term we can deconstruct to discover the complexity lurking within. Cinematography is literally “writing with light,” and French master Robert Bresson expanded the term to differentiate real cinema from that which was merely filmed theatre. True cinematography, he insisted, used the camera to caress the world’s surfaces, allowing people and things to reveal their mysteries over time simply by presenting themselves as the brute material phenomena that they were. Philipp Fleischmann’s outstanding film Cinematographie does all of these things. It writes with light; it absorbs the surfaces of the small portion of the world before it; and in its brief running time it generates a sense of another universe settled exactly alongside our own, shadowing it, hovering beneath it, lending it both gravity and an untapped, ghostly potential. And yet, Fleischmann accomplishes all of this through strict attention to the physical world. Cinematographie is a radically materialist film. Its imagery is produced via the construction of a large, circular camera obscura; the film inside is exposed without frame breaks, producing a kind of phenakistoscope effect. The film, exposed on a side other than the manner in which it is projected, turns a forest into a series of horizontal tic-marks, which are eventually joined by a group of people in a circle. The round, spinning aperture method creates a double exposure, one strong, one weak. If Cinematographie’s hazy, granular images were more solid, we might feel as though we were in that old carnival ride, where the floor drops out and we’re pinned to the wall by centrifugal force. Instead, it’s the trees that are held steady. We’re on our own. (W2: Plein-Air; September 11, 4:30pm)
The Day Was a Scorcher and Jonas Mekas in Kodachrome Days (Ken Jacobs, U.S.)
For Ken Jacobs, depth never takes a holiday. But fortunately, the Jacobs family did, and The Day Was a Scorcher is a beautiful, touching video work made from family photographs taken during a trip to Italy. We see Aza, Nisi, and strong, proud Flo as Ken activates both them and the picture plane they rode in on, pulsating them in two stereoscopic views to produce a gentle, hovering 3D sensation. Likewise, Jonas Mekas in Kodachrome Days finds Jacobs working with vibrant snapshots of the great film diarist and Anthology Film Archives founder dancing in the rain, looking intense, and of course shooting with his Bolex. These scenes are simple; compared to Jacobs’ more mind-blistering phenomenological play with 3D effects these two videos are sketches of a sort. But they display a tenderness that reminds us that artistic creation is always aided and abetted by those who we’ve been lucky enough to have been loved by. (W6: Coming Attractions; September 13, 9pm)
Get Out of the Car (Thom Andersen, U.S.)
The avant-garde film essayist is a rare species these days. Harun Farocki is a one master of the form; his 2006 installation Workers Leaving the Factory in Eleven Decades is part of this year’s Future Projections program. Britain’s Patrick Keiller is another; his latest film Robinson In Ruins is a perplexing omission from this year’s Real to Reel slate. And then there’s Deborah Stratman, whose work has appeared at TIFF several times. She’s one of a number of avant-luminaries (along with Madison Brookshire, whose work appears in Wavelengths program 2) who collaborated with the great film-esssayist Thom Andersen on his latest missive from L.A. image culture, Get Out of the Car. Much like Andersen’s magisterial film-historical feature Los Angeles Plays Itself, which examined the recorded presence of the lost elements of the City of Angels on celluloid, Get Out of the Car is an examination and partial preservation of things gone by. But Get Out is entirely lacking LAPI’s tone of mournful indictment. A cultural studies scholar in the 80s wrote an article entitled, “Theodor Adorno Meets The Cadillacs,” and that pretty much sums up Andersen’s approach here. Combining shots of defunct signage, disused buildings, half-preserved pop landmarks, and Latino mural painting with the sounds of Los Angeles rock and soul, Andersen turns Angelino car culture on its head. We’re on a walking tour of all the things you’re never supposed to appreciate or even notice because, like the song says, nobody walks in L.A. Comic, aesthetically exacting, and politically astute – like a chapter of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz with a horn section – this is Andersen at his best. As such, it’s a must-see; it could be the single best film in the festival. (W1: Soul of the City; September 10, 9pm)
Leona Alone (Oliver Husain, Canada)
One of the most elliptical works in the series this year is also one of the most beautiful. Husain’s piece is striking because it seems as though it is going to gesture toward some sort of identifiable fictional or documentary-derived connotative meaning, but he wisely withholds such cues in favor of direct engagement with space—public space as well as that of the picture plane. Leona Alone takes us into a Toronto neighborhood undergoing gentrification. This progress, in terms of Husain’s shot progression, is utterly literal. In the course of the first four minutes we go from the middle of a wooded road, through a street of ranch-style homes, and eventually onto high-rise construction sites. But Husain inserts freestanding stained glass frames into the filmic scenes. Each of these colorful frames mimics the proportions of the video frame, so eventually the stained glass is flush against the cityscapes Husain captures. In fact, many of the glass works are so perfectly aligned—neon signs inside rectilinear panels, undulating skyscraper windows inside curved edgework—that they almost appear to have been crafted specifically for certain locales. Leona Alone, with its plangent but off-key, modernist string score and final sequence in a sun-blistered parking lot, is not exactly a “statement against gentrification.” Instead, it’s an inquiry into disproportionate, if not incommensurate, notions of the Beautiful, and, by extension, the Good. (W1: Soul of the City; September 10, 9pm)
Portrait; Tea Time; Red Curtain (Helga Fanderl, Germany)
I once asked a university colleague of mine, the Slovakian diary filmmaker Miso Suchy, whether he found it difficult to balance filming his life and being in his life. “That is the question, Michael,” he laughed. “I don’t know.” Some, like Jonas Mekas, appear to have effaced that distinction. But the brief, poetic super-8 works of Helga Fanderl offer a different approach. Her films, sometimes just minutes long, are like time-based snapshots, half-remembered fragments of seemingly mundane daily details that are given shape through framing, repetition, or a focus on a shock of color. Many of Fanderl’s films are portraits of loved ones, but just as many are records of fanciful gestures, such as motion on a swing or the sweep of airplanes across a sky. In and of themselves, a single Fanderl film might seem slight or even negligible, too offhanded to fully communicate as a work of art. But, like the perceptual life they document, Fanderl’s films accrue greater meaning when experienced as a signifying chain. So in some ways, Fanderl’s method demonstrates an ethical decision to eschew “the perfect shot” or “the summary statement” in favor of existential co-presence with her subjects. In the three films shown here, we see fragments of a relationship—multiple ways in which to capture fleeting glances at a desired man, the simple pleasures of a European snack, and the bold formalist erotics of bedroom light. (W2: Plein-Air; September 11, 4:30pm)
Ruhr (James Benning, Germany)
For several years now, James Benning has been finally garnering the wider acclaim that he’s been due. Naturally there are many avant-garde masters who are certainly due much greater recognition than they’ve received, but Benning is a somewhat special case. For years now, he’s been making feature-length work that has dovetailed with the concerns, both formal and political, of many of the most revered directors on the film festival circuit. So, although Benning has never aimed for crossover success, it was only logical that some version of it would eventually find him. Ruhr, Benning’s first digital feature after decades working in 16mm, may actually put the brakes on that rise just a bit, since in many respects it is the most demanding film he’s produced in many years. But it’s also a deeply rigorous exploration of the newfound potentials that the digital medium has to offer Benning after decades of enforced limitations by camera rolls and time-events within the bounded frame. Moving outside the U.S. to explore Germany’s Ruhr Valley, Benning’s new film examines this center of heavy industry, and in so doing seems to be both harking back to his older work and decisively moving us away from it. The American Midwest that featured so prominently in Benning’s films of the 1970s and 80s also depicted smokestack industries, factory work, trains, and steel mills. But most if not all of this is gone now, offshored either to China (where there are no significant worker protections) or elsewhere in the West, like Europe or Canada (where universal health care slices corporate costs).
In the first part of Ruhr, we see static long takes in Benning’s classic style, such as an auto tunnel whose bends allow for off-screen sound prior to the visual appearance of the vehicles. The white-hot neon lights, offset against the black tunnel like a swipe of paint, announce that we are now in “video space.” Other shots, such as the meticulous removal of graffiti from an ambiguous steel object (I won’t spoil it) are, again, reminiscent of Benning’s earlier efforts. But a long take in a pipe factory, and an extended shot of trees near the airport, mark a difference. Benning is using video to represent repetitive cycles of action, all of them generated by human intervention, but now virtually devoid of the visible human hand. If film was a medium of small spatial dislocations and disjunctures, Benning seems to be telling us that he’ll use video to document patterns of industrialized movement across time, almost as a form of surveillance. This approach reaches its breaking point in part two, a one-hour single shot of a smokestack silhouetted against the sky as the sun goes down. Vertical tower, horizontal clouds, deep blue sky periodically flooded with sulfurous orange billows of smoke—it is an intentional gesture in every way, and the fact that Benning places it in a sit-down feature, rather than, say, producing an installation with it, is clearly polemical. We are being asked not only to think about these dangerous and ongoing processes, but about what digital video’s function is, and will be. I must admit that I have not yet worked out my own feelings about Ruhr’s attitude toward its spectators, but I have no doubt that it is a major work by a master filmmaker. (W3: Ruhr; September 11, 9:15pm)
Tokyo-Ebisu (Tomonari Nishikawa, Japan)
In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones has an article about Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. If you don’t know their music, they’re what he calls “revivalists,” creating exciting contemporary live music based very faithfully on classic models (James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Etta James). Idea being, there’s still great potential left to be explored within those historical models. It isn’t ironic postmodernism; it’s a re-exploration of what remains to be seen and heard. For several years now Nishikawa has been one of the most exciting new filmmakers on the scene, not so much by trying to generate bold new vocabularies, and certainly not by giving in to false seductions of new media manipulations. Nishikawa’s films are work in the classic sense—labor intensive on both the production and reception end. They are beautiful and challenging and they expand on the vernacular of experimental film as we understand it, locating new possibilities within multiple frames, exposures, the intensive articulation of frames. His latest, Tokyo-Ebisu, is a study in vertical time, checkerboarded across the picture plane, an urban train film that spreads the “timetable” out before us in interwoven spaces of disjunction that, through Nishikawa’s careful eye, fit together in relationships of light, engineered form, and human activity. As perfect an expression of Ozuian “betweenness” as Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Café Lumiere (with which it should be paired—get to it, programmers!), Tokyo-Ebisu is another unassuming slice of near-perfection from one of our finest working filmmakers. Once again, Nishikawa takes us back to the future. (W1: Soul of the City; September 10, 9pm)