September is here again, and it's time to delve into the cinematic bounty of the Wavelengths section of the Toronto International Film Festival, that rambunctious and idiosyncratic corner of the Reitman Machine largely cordoned off from commercial concerns and set aside for lovely and sometimes difficult film art. Despite the ever-changing profile of TIFF, stalwart programmer Andréa Picard has [cue needle-scratching-record sound] WHAT? Yes, last year at this time, the avant-garde community thought we were seeing Ms. Picard leaving this position behind. Fortunately for us all, TIFF won her back.
And this is where things get interesting. Starting with this 2012 edition of the festival, the Wavelengths section is a much more broadly based, festival-wide category. In essence, it now subsumes the old Visions designation, which was TIFF’s home for formally challenging, feature-length arthouse fare. This merger, which may seem like a bit of a shotgun wedding to some, does in fact make sense. More and more avant-gardists are making features (as evidenced from this year’s lineup), and the once-firm categories between narrative and non-narrative fare are becoming much more permeable. At the same time, how such an interlacing of unique forms and histories will go – Levinasian encounter or big-money colonization? – depends entirely on the stewardship of such a project.
Fortunately, TIFF was wise enough to put Picard in charge of this new, expanded Wavelengths – the experimental shorts as well as the features. (While there was not 100% total autonomy, it was a fairly broad mandate.) While there are fewer of the traditional Wavelengths program(me)s than in past years, certain avant-garde features that would’ve occupied those additional slots are now playing more broadly throughout the festival. How will audiences and filmmakers respond? We’ll find out, but as a slate, it’s solid and admirably adventurous. I’ll be profiling the features in a couple of days. For now, here are my brief reviews of the films and videos in the four shorts sections.
WAVELENGTHS 1: “UNDER A PACIFIC SUN”
PACIFIC SUN (Thomas Demand, U.S.)
Clocking in at a mere 100 seconds, Pacific Sun is a likely candidate for “Shortest Film of the Festival,” but it’s also clearly one of the most labor-intensive. Demand, an artist and filmmaker whose chosen medium is construction paper and cardboard, has a clear desire to truck with the uncanny. He uses these artificial means, ones typically associated with grade-school handicrafts, to meticulously replicate real scenes. His films, then, are stop-motion animations created in the same manner, with an added “layer.” Demand copies actual footage, and Pacific Sun is a paperboard “remake” of surveillance-cam images from a cruise ship being tossed about in stormy waters (in this case, the Tasman Sea). There’s no denying the wow-factor of Demand’s art – “that sure was a lot of work” – and Pacific Sun is thankfully lacking in the exploitative tinge found in other prominent “realitist” / YouTube artists working today (e.g., Kota Ezawa, Amie Siegel). It hits hard and moves aside, before its ultimate lack of social meaning can start to seem like a problem. Hooray for brevity!
21 CHITRAKOOT (Shambhavi Kaul, India)
Too often we forget that the tendency in experimental film to leave narrative questions aside can result in imagery so unexpected and inventive that it supplies a brand of humor far richer than the customary plant-and-payoff. 21 Chitrakoot is, in its simplest terms, Kaul’s exploration of Chroma-Key, that misbegotten late-70s TV technology that slaps fake, wavering backgrounds behind hapless screen-actors, positioned in front of a blue screen. (Woe unto them who wore pinstripes standing before the daunting power of the Chroma!) Nowadays this tool is restricted to weather maps, but Kaul shows its broader, more egregious uses – fake exotic transport, chintzy “location shoots,” and the quick blending or reversal of onscreen entities. (It’s like bad Méliès.) But part of what makes 21 Chitrakoot more than just a silly riff on an outdated technology is the fact that Kaul combines it with another lingering, half-dead relic from the not-so-recent past: Orientalism. Kaul is poking at the West’s misguided utopian aspirations, not for the cheap irony so popular these days (ha ha, Jurassic technology!) but to help us glimpse what Lewis Klahr called “the forgotten future.”
MANY A SWAN (Blake Williams, Canada)
Wavelengths presents what may be its first 3D film with this highly unusual anaglyph tone poem by Williams (Coorow-Latham Road). Many a Swan is not a piece that yields its secrets easily, and I will freely admit that it took me three viewings to find my bearings in the work. If there is one key concept that guides Williams’ video (and, I would say, could productively guide your viewing of it), it’s origami. Swan’s specific relationship to Akira Yoshizawa (1911-2005), the legendary origamist and Japanese cultural treasure, is not quite as important as understanding Williams’ insistent use of folding and sectioning of the video screen (and the subsequent three-dimensional play) throughout the piece. Seen in this light, Many a Swan’s employment of deep photographic space – particularly images over and through the Grand Canyon – can best be understood as an optical challenge, to see these pictures as poised somewhere between shoebox dioramas and an actual tactile world.
CONCRETE PARLAY (Fern Silva, U.S. / Egypt / Turkey / France)
One of the richest works in this year’s lineup, and without a doubt one of the most perplexing, Concrete Parlay represents a considerable shift for Silva. Many of his previous works have partaken of an internationalist approach to seeing, but they’ve always implicitly worked against “ethnographic” clichés, mostly by behaving as though they just didn’t exist. That’s to say, Silva makes films like a traveler, not a tourist, and even though his work is much lighter and more fleet of foot than that of the late Mark LaPore, both consistently treat(ed) “the encounter with the Other” as a moment for self-examination and de-centering. Concrete Parlay is somewhat different in that it makes themes of Otherness and exoticism quite explicit, even holding them up for gentle mockery. After all, Silva’s dominant image throughout the work is a whirling Magic Carpet; at times it bobs along before the camera like some globalist ride at “Chuck E. Cheese.” Within this faux-serious framework, Silva introduces image sets that imply a detached spectatorial gaze – a sheep-biting ritual, distant landscapes of the East, and even a “great pyramids” scene worthy of Jia’s The World. It’s a heady mix, at times reminiscent of Michael Robinson’s work – not a bad new direction, as new directions go.
DEPARTURE and AUTO-COLLIDER XV (Ernie Gehr, U.S.) were not available for preview.
WAVELENGTHS 2: “DOCUMENTA”
PHANTOMS OF A LIBERTINE (Ben Rivers, U.K.)
A small, delicate, and defiantly private film by Rivers, whose most recent works – Slow Action and Two Years at Sea – have been gesturing toward ever broader meanings, Phantoms is mostly comprised of still photographs and hand-scrawled captions, clearly glimpses into the journals and souvenirs of an individual just slightly outside of our own time. (Had Robert Beavers not gotten there first, Rivers’ film could have been called From the Notebooks of . . .) While some of the images, at least from what Rivers shows us of them, denote “straight” holiday and travel snaps, the pages of the albums also contain odd collages, some of them comprised of additional, context-free photographs of an off-color nature (hints of the title), others blended with seemingly random images from books or news clippings. Is there a hidden logic to this private breviary? In the company of Rivers’ other films, Phantoms prompts us to think about its subject’s collection of snapshots and assorted memories as bearing a similar character to the large-scale detritus in the world of Two Years’ Jake Williams or the “junkopias” profiled in I Know Where I’m Going! But instead, The Libertine occupied a sphere of mental clutter, not unlike the “Mnemosyne” boards of renegade art historian Aby Warburg. Does a life ever conform to the headings on the files? I guess only J. Edgar Hoover knew that, and he sure wasn’t telling . . .
A MINIMAL DIFFERENCE (Jean-Paul Kelly, Canada)
Kelly presents a set of miniature theatrical flats, the slight suggestion of receding space. That is, we are presented with a closely assembled collection of planes, not unlike what you’d encounter in a pop-up book. We’re shown pen-and-ink environments consisting of felled logs; barricades of tires and rubble; multiple planes of billowing smoke; massive garbage piles with swarming flies; impoverished neighborhoods in the snow. Within and against these cartoon-like settings, four figures recur: a blue square (or cube), a yellow triangle (or pyramid), a green circle (or sphere), and a red rectangle (or rectangular solid). They show up against a neutral gray background (Suprematist painting, basically), accompanied by a synthesizer note. But they also hijack the scenes of “realist” concern (poverty, war, violence) by asserting themselves – their flatness, their geometrical universality – over the “local” scenes. Kelly is not leveling tired charges against high modernism and its evacuation of History. Rather, A Minimal Difference introduces abstraction, as typically understood, into the realm of social representation, which always entails its own, less obvious substitutions.
SHOOT DON’T SHOOT (William E. Jones, U.S.)
William E. Jones’ work over the past few years has consisted of an admirable divestiture of self-expression in favor of humble, almost passive media archiving and excavation. This represents its own losses – Jones is an artist of rare political acuity, and more overt speech-acts in his work would always be welcomed, just as some others could stand to be quite a bit more silent. But as with his found-object masterwork Tearoom and his recent work on W.P.A. photographs, Jones believes in the power of artifacts to speak for themselves when presented in the proper light. Undue manipulation would only muddle the historical record. Shoot Don’t Shoot presents an excerpt from a police training film. Judging from the film stock, the fashions and the architecture, it’s most likely from the early 70s. We see an African-American male (as the voiceover tells us, “wearing a pink shirt and yellow pants”) who matches an APB description of a perp. Do you, the first-person trainee, SHOOT or DON’T SHOOT? The fact that the actor is forlornly heading into the cinema, and resembles the great Demond Wilson of “Sanford & Son” fame, only adds to the unintended resonance.
ORPHEUS (OUTTAKES) (Mary Helena Clark, U.S.)
As evidenced by last year’s confounding but infinitely rich By foot-candle light, Mary Helena Clark is in a very fecund phase of her career at the moment. Her films and videos are not direct in their communicative approach, but instead suspend a handful of dense images and sounds in a kind of intellectual flotation tank. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Clark’s work is good to think with, and Orpheus (Outtakes) is no exception. Cleaner and more straightforward on its surface than foot-candle, the new film originates with optically printed footage from Cocteau’s classic, taking it in a far more materialist direction. Clark begins with a repeated gesture (with magnification and positive / negative reversal) of an actor picking up and swinging a ladder, bisecting the frame and puncturing the Z-axis. After some flecks and scratches, a white field is gradually consumed with a black spot – a punched hole in the film, perhaps, becoming an entity. (Actually, this recalls the cold-open of Jacques Nolot’s fine Before I Forget.) Clark continues to foreground other concrete details of the cinematic process, like subtitles (in odd, poetic blurts) and the diagonal lines of a “rain storm.” But the centerpiece of (Outtakes) consists of a pair of catlike female eyes, peering through what seem to be holes in a black sheet, as the deep field of unlit cinematic vision consumes them into the leader, again and again. Clark locates Surrealism’s very unconscious: the film’s desperate desire to look back.
PIPE DREAMS (Ali Cherri, Lebanon / France)
Pipe Dreams, from Lebanon, is one of a number of pieces this year that deal, directly or obliquely, with the uneven development of modernity. The tape specifically focuses on Mohammad Faris, a Syrian cosmonaut (as Cherri’s piece informs us, the last Arab to make it aboard a manned space flight) who was part of the Soviet Soyuz TM-3 team to dock with the Mir space station. Cherri makes use of Faris’s congratulatory phone call from President Hafez El Assad – and the connection between the two men, from Syria to space and back again – to speculate on a thwarted future for non-U.S. aligned scientific and industrial triumph. (In this regard, Pipe Dreams echoes certain themes of another Wavelengths film, The Lebanese Rocket Society.) But above all, the video prods us to consider the ongoing Syrian Uprising, and whether al-Assad pere’s patrician gentility, which elicits such deference from Faris, represents little more than the calm mask of absolute authority. Al-Assad asks Faris what he can see from space, and the cosmonaut replies that he can see Syria, truly see it, in all its splendor. Can he see what the Eternal Leader hides? And, as Cherri shows us the contemporary removal of a giant Hafez al-Assad statue (“for its security”), is it possible to observe in this awkward, time-delayed conversation the hint of what’s to come, the wanton tyranny of al-Assad fils? Of course not! You can barely see anything from space – certainly not the future.
UFOs (Lillian Schwartz, U.S., 1971)
Justifiably rediscovered in recent years as a major figure in experimental cinema as well as early video and computer art, Lillian Schwartz created highly kinetic, searingly vibrant works of techno-abstraction, of which UFOs is one of the earliest and most famous, along with 1970’s Pixilation. (Schwartz’s work is extensively collated on her website, lillian.com.) UFOs was made with the assistance of like-minded computer graphic artist Ken Knowlton, who like Schwartz was working at Bell Labs at the time. These films are still the property of AT&T, which may have something to do with their regrettable marginalization from the mainstream of American avant-garde history. Unlike in Great Britain or Canada, where government or commercial entities commissioned works by the likes of Len Lye and Norman McLaren as a matter of course, the U.S. model has historically been an artisanal one, incapable of accounting for great artists laboring on the corporate dime. (As it happens, Schwartz did have a champion in the late programming pioneer Amos Vogel.) To see these films now is to marvel at how Schwartz took the limited palette of the early computer raster and made it sparkle, treating the chunky CRT pixels as a kind of warp and woof on a rough virtual surface, fashioning course geometries and penumbraic forms from this new medium, this radiant data box.
SORRY – HORNS (Luther Price, U.S.) was not available for preview.
WAVELENGTHS 3: “I AM MICRO”
I AM MICRO (Shumona Goel and Shai Heredia, India)
An outstanding work of dialectical history, I am micro combines sounds and images from distinct but related situations to create a complex portrait of trans-Indian film production on the margins (or, if you prefer, in the shadows, since Bollywood casts quite a large one – even this year at TIFF). In sumptuous, granulated celluloid that is clearly contemporary but nevertheless resembles an excavated artifact, Goel and Heredia take is through a variety of ruins, the forgotten fragments of low-budget independent filmmaking in India: a film lab in Kolkata, fallen into disrepair; leftover shards of a movie set; and eventually, scenes from an actual production. Through deft editing and exposure control, all of these disparate parts of the “micro-history” of Indian film seem utterly of a piece; this doesn’t register as a compilation film. This is all the more significant since the “ruins” of the film shoot are partly fabricated – bits taken from the production of Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely (also in the festival), which replicates B-grade Mumbai filmmaking. Holding the essay together is the audio, in which another marginal figure in the Hindi film world, Kamal Swaroop, expounds on why he makes small, oppositional films, and stopped being a director when that was no longer and option. (By the same token, Swaroop was Assistant Director on Attenborough’s Gandhi.) Very much of a piece with recent post-industrial reclamation films by Ben Rivers and Tacita Dean, I am micro is a testament to cinema’s role in forging our “usable past."
SELECTED VIDEO WORKS (Francesca Woodman, U.S., 1975-78)
There is so much mystique saturating the late Francesca Woodman and her work that it is often quite difficult, even deemed tasteless, to evaluate it on its own merits. It’s clear that Woodman’s work displays a concern with the female image and in particular female performance, personal and political themes that were very much in the air during her all-too-brief career. These are themes and impulses that link her to contemporaries such as Ana Mendieta and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, two other artists whose lives ended far too soon and whose extant output, like much of Woodman’s, is indicative of rich potential that would never be realized. For this standpoint it is interesting to view Woodman’s video experiments, since they are, by and large, far less conceptually realized than her photographic work and provide only a hint and what she might have accomplished with the medium. Some are frankly jejune (Woodman exposing her nude body from behind butcher paper, ripping out the word “FRANCESCA”), but some others show the unnerving, unfurnished-hellhole ambiance that is a hallmark of her best images. These videos are of historical interest; overpraising them only further clouds our ability to see Woodman’s art separate from the myths. But they indeed provide a fuller picture of a single-minded vision at work.
ICH AUCH, AUCH, ICH AUCH (Friedl vom Gröller, Austria)
Depending on how you look at them, the films of Friedl vom Gröller are either ideal for programming in experimental group shows, or they are little bombs placed between otherwise unsuspecting films, detonating in a matter of seconds and leaving the audience in a state of shock after they’re long gone. Usually less than two minutes long and often just around a minute, vom Gröller’s films are highly idiosyncratic portraits of the people closest to her, typically conveyed with a gritty but exacting handheld punch and parry. She doesn’t make diary films, but the works have that sort of immediacy; instead it’s as though vom Gröller had been waiting somehow for the revealing expression or gesture to present itself for her extraction. She has made several films of her elderly mother, who appears to be in the throes of some form of dementia. This film (whose title translates as “me too, too, me too”) captures her angry, frightened agitation, at what (if anything) we cannot really see. Vom Gröller’s camera doesn’t grab the film by the sprocket holes quite right, so the woman’s animated state is compounded by upward vibration, ghosting and a blurred visage. Films of the end of life always seem to privilege slow, meandering decay (see Haneke’s Amour) but this compressed panic feels more akin to what I imagine: time coming unstuck.
WAITING ROOM (Vincent Grenier, U.S. / Canada)
How about this: we propose the ideal of a “small modernism,” an abstraction that trains its sights on that which is closest at hand – the midday light through the window, slicing diagonally across the sofa cushion, or the seemingly insignificant event of nature’s most vibrant colors standing out in stark relief against the day-to-day backdrops we inadvertently made for them – back fences, car fenders, the gravel on the side of the road. How about if we remember that part of loving those dearest to us is being fully attentive to who and what they are in the world, and part of what they are is reflected light, shifting space, a voice asking for a drink of water or wondering where you’re going. We saw this approach, the revelations of the small and the private, in early Brakhage, but he eventually moved in other directions, as did Baillie – they grasped for the mythic, in different ways. But this ideal survives. Every new work by Vincent Grenier is an invitation into the filmmaker’s most ordinary environs – the yard, the bus, the garden – but he is not so much recording daily life as he is alerting us, and himself, to it. Waiting Room, his latest video, is shot at his son’s pediatrician’s office. (Note the cartoon shark on the wall.) While observing the paint and the movements and the queue at the desk, Grenier also uses his tool, the DV camera, to examine the sweeping disphasure of fluorescent lighting. It’s an amber color field, and it drones on alongside normal business. We can’t see it, but it organizes every other relationship in the room. It was right there. Someone just needed to look.
THE TRANSIT OF VENUS 1 & 2 (Nicky Hamlyn, U.K., 2005 / 2012)
British filmmaker Nicky Hamlyn has been using cinema as a research tool for a good part of his career. Although his work is frequently about landscapes and skyscapes and the aesthetic pleasure they can impart, he has also been very dedicated to film’s unique ability to manipulate time. High-speed motion study is his primary domain, and while it doesn’t characterize all of Hamlyn’s films it does tend to be a part of his most successful ones. The two Transit of Venus films are, as the title indicates, records of Hamlyn watching the heavens and charting the “movement” of Venus across the sky. The first, shot in black and white, simply marks a white circle speeding across the black screen. The second, in color, presents a lighted sky with significant cloud cover. I’ll admit I was at a loss for even seeing Venus the second time around. Or, um, across. As a diptych, Transit of Venus provides a pleasing contrast, since the less reductive film is in many ways less “informative,” even though it is much more seductive as a piece of single-shot cinema. At the end of each film, Hamlyn provides detailed notes on location, coordinates, film stock used, exposure speed, and other key technical details. In short, Prof. Hamlyn is showing his work.
CLASS PICTURE (Tito & Tito, The Philippines) and AUGUST AND AFTER (Nathaniel Dorsky, U.S.) were not available for preview.
WAVELENGTHS 4: “FROM THE INSIDE OUT”
BLACK TV (Aldo Tambellini, U.S., 1968)
Another recent rediscovery from avant-garde film’s Undeserved Dustbin of History, longtime Syracuse, NY resident Aldo Tambellini has been enjoying a much-needed renaissance over the past year or so. His contributions were brief but specific, and deeply germane to the tumultuous era in which they were made. The “Black Films” were a series of variations, things Tambellini could do with black film, black leader, the rich tones or even just the idea of “black.” Like a more formalistically inclined Bruce Conner, Tambellini employed found footage from the social and political arenas and combined it with the “pure materiality” stuff – scratches, grain, wear and tear. Black TV is a dual-screen, two-image work that consists of zapping pictures across two television sets. The dominant motif, seen and heard on both screens: Robert Kennedy has just been assassinated. A semi-companion piece to Conner’s Report, Black TV infuses history with binocular vision.
BURNING STAR (Josh Solondz, U.S.)
Here’s some father-son trivia for you. Solondz named his film after A Burning Star (1995) by Kenji Onishi, in which the filmmaker grapples quite directly with the death and cremation of his father. In that black and white film, Onishi treats his father’s memory as if it were a tangible object. By contrast, Solondz’s Burning Star was made as a tribute to the filmmaker’s own father, a “burning star” all his own. How does he “burn”? Whereas Onishi’s image of death is that of a glowing crucible of energy dispersed, Solondz produces a flat, geometrical “star” that holds the center of the screen and radiates out, like an Op Art piston or electronic flag. The paintings of Frank Stella are a clear influence; keeping the center busy in order to produce all-over, non-hierarchical compositions. Ernie Gehr’s classic film Serene Velocity, also seems to be a source for Solondz’s playful spatial play. Vibrant explosions of color belie the fact of their meticulous, geometrical construction.
QUANDO I CORPI SI TOCCANO (Paolo Gioli, Italy)
I’ll be the first to admit that it took me awhile to cotton to Paolo Gioli’s films. When NYFF Views from the Avant-Garde honcho Mark McElhatten presented a solo program of Gioli works in 2006 – effectively the Italian master’s North American coming-out – I was, as Elvis 2.0 once said, overwhelmed by indifference. But McElhatten was right, I was wrong, what can I say, etc. Gioli’s films are a bit like grungy artifacts from another moment in avant-garde history. They are usually not “black and white” but gray, faded and weather-beaten as if they were aged right out of the camera. They also possess a strange staccato rhythm that lay somewhere between collage work and in-camera editing, with images intersecting with the frames occupied by other images, jutting and thrusting in a manner almost reminiscent of Marinetti’s Futurism. The closest analog they seem to have in “mainstream” a-g history would be certain of the key Austrian makers, particularly Kurt Kren, but whereas Kren’s chaos was always reined in my structure, Gioli seems to start out with parameters that break down, or at least undergo severe strain, over the course of the film. His latest Quando I Corpi si Toccano (“When These Bodies Touch”) is no exception. Images of male and female faces and hands collide, melding into a high-speed field of contrasts with more materialist filmic residue. The film is overlong, and eventually runs out of ideas, becoming little more than a Tscherkasskian slash-and-flash exercise. But hey, there are worse ways to peter out.
RITOURNELLE (Christopher Becks and Peter Miller, Germany)
Probably the simplest film on the docket, and possibly the most elegant, Ritournelle is a study of light in black and white, plain and simple. Composed by working independently of one another, “exquisite corpse” style, and then compiling the unforeseen results, Ritournelle provides glimpses of windows and curtains, the rafters of a barn ceiling, but doesn’t “light” on any of these delicate impressions long enough to concretize them into concepts, or even provoke certainty as to what has been seen. Abstraction in the truest sense, the film pulls from the ordinary world only what it needs for the generation of its attenuated forms.
WATCH THE CLOSING DOORS (Jim Jennings, U.S.)
This is the first new work in quite some time from Jennings, the great film-poet of New York street life. Although not all of his films rely on the bustling energy of urban existence – his domestic-portrait masterpiece Close Quarters comes to mind – there is just a particular knack that Jennings has for capturing the shadows and forms, the rhythms and communions of people sharing the spaces of the city. This is as true in his more architectural studies, like Silvercup, as it is in the down-and-dirty, ground level “people watching” films – Miracle on 34th Street or the more recent Public Domain. So it’s not easy to report that Jennings’ latest, his first foray into digital video, lacks the poetic whimsy and elegance that made his work in film so peerless. I’m at a bit of a loss to identify precisely where Closing Doors breaks down. It might be the flat facticity of the synchronized soundtrack. Jennings best films were either silent or used asynchronous, composed audio. It might also be the harsh editing, which sometimes seems rather automatic and at other times downright glitch, as if time were lost but not realigned into a newly constructed event. Jennings’ subject – riding through the New York subway in close to real time – also seems to limit what the piece can do. The connection between film / video and trains goes back to the medium’s infancy, so much so that a train ride itself virtually implies cinematic vision. So a piece made on the rails must be very specific about what it adds to that experience. Watch the Closing Doors feels hesitant about its contribution.
VIEW FROM THE ACROPOLIS (Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan, The Netherlands)
This is, hands down, one of the very best films in this year’s Wavelengths selection. Both meditative landscape study and subtle geopolitical assay – that is, a literal survey of the “lay of the land” – View From the Acropolis looks down on the western Turkish city of Bergama from the original site of the Pergamon Altar. (This treasure of Greek social statuary now resides in Berlin.) Van Brummelen and de Haan show us the city below, but also the mountaintop and its field of “meaningless” ruins –ancient foundation stones left behind from the removal of the Altar, cluttering up the grass like children’s toys. The film asks us, silently and implicitly, to consider this complicated history relative to the triangulation between Turkey, Greece and Germany in the present. Who owns Western Civilization, of course, is still an open question, since the Turks are to this day grappling with the issue of whether or not they are “Western” enough to satisfy vague European dictates. Taken purely as a piece of cinema, however, Acropolis generates other, more complex feelings. The radiant landscape, with its painterly sky and city in sfumato below, conveys atmosphere more than territory. The still camera and swirling grain recall Peter Hutton’s films, and their unique combination of materialism and religiosity. In these sumptuous, holistic images, the land and sky look unified. Film, then, registers a holy light that remains impervious to borders.
THE MUTABILITY OF ALL THINGS AND THE POSSIBILITY OF CHANGING SOME (Anna Marziano, France / Italy)
A well-shot film that seems to imply a great deal more than it actually has the nerve to say, Anna Marziano’s Mutability is a short para-narrative work that left me not only baffled (although it made more sense after reading about it) but also a bit irritated. In the next wrap-up, where I address the Wavelengths features, I’ll be talking about this more (with regard to Gabriel Abrantes’s Birds), but I am starting to observe a trend in European “experimental” cinema toward works that, apart from being exaggeratedly open-ended, are little more than arthouse calling cards. I cannot purport to know what Marziano’s designs on the future are. However, Mutability is a film in which the director directs actors to perform a script within well-appointed locations that are notable for their expressive mise-en-scène. The thing that really separates this film from, for example, Roy Andersson or Yorgos Lanthimos, is the fact that Marziano, a “non-narrative filmmaker,” is free to jam disconnected sequences together with only the most tenuous thematic or theoretical through-line. In short, Mutability is “something else,” and I’m not really concerned with it.
RECONNAISSANCE (Johann Lurf, U.S. / Austria)
Wavelengths shorts programs end in style with a true mindbender. Lurf, a notable member of the seemingly inexhaustible posse of Viennese a-g talent, has made what looks to be a rather straightforward film-document of an out-of-the-way bit of civil engineering. The Morris Reservoir, near Asuza, CA, has the grand appearance of any number of North America’s massive dams, and Lurf is correct to recognize that their stolid majesty counts for something cinematically, not only as a kind of shortcut to the formalist-sublime, but because the very idea (at least in the U.S.) of marshaling public resources for the greater good has somehow become anathema to so many. But wait . . . Something about this film isn’t right. It’s been a long night. Are my eyes tired? What gives? It’s best that I tell you as little as possible about Reconnaissance ahead of time, but you are in for a bit of dislocation when your reference points start coming unmoored. Sorry, but I gotta say it. Dam.