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TIFF 2014. Correspondences #4

Our fourth dispatch from the Toronto film festival is a report on the experimental short films from TIFF's lauded Wavelengths programs.

brouillard passage #14

Dear Fern,

Many of the features you have told me about I have subsequently seen and very much like: Ferrara's tender, banal Pasolini (with a fantastic lead performance by Willem Dafoe, and, as you so justly pointed out, a truly moving homage with Ninetto Davoli), and the eccentric structural romantic comedy from Johnnie To, Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2. Two of the best films at Toronto, so far. Maybe I will return to these films later in the festival to tell you more of what I thought, but first somethings you may not have seen.

The much-anticipated shorts programs of the Wavelengths section wrapped up two nights ago and was presided over as always by indomitable programmer Andréa Picard—practically a cult figure in the festival world these days—who year after year has made it the most distinctive, the most personal, and the most engaged and engaging section at TIFF. It's safe to say it's really these four screenings of shorts that are what get me most excited about Toronto's festival each year. (On opening night, Picard dedicated the sessions to the memories of Michael Glawogger and Harun Farocki, two major loses this year that have been, for me at least, resounding into and around every theatre here.) Many of these shorts Michael Sicinski has written about in his Wavelengths preview, but I will try to touch upon a few highlights he wasn't able to see, as well as re-iterate some of my own favorites of those he has already covered.

Like many avant-garde films, I don't have any idea how Alexandre Larose made brouillard passage #14, the film which opened the first program, curated around body and camera performances. I think he filmed multiple times a walk along a foliage-lined pathway until reaching a lake and superimposed those images of the corridor upon themselves—but I'm not sure. How often are you not sure of what you're watching during the festival's dramatic features? It's this kind of destabilization and lack of, to put it bluntly, presumed supremacy over films we watch that I so look forward to in Wavelengths, where even the features, like Jean-Luc Godard's, so refreshingly put me at a point of disadvantage, curiosity and wonder rather than patronizing advantage.

I can tell you instead how Larose's short looked and felt like: it looked like a gauzy, sunny dream but felt like a lugubrious nightmare from which one cannot escape. Plunging through this nature-de-naturalized pathway at the speed of molasses, you can't tell if you are slowly swimming forward or, horribly, sinking through this pastoral smear: the images atop one another cause a normal sense of moving through both space and time to fall in upon itself, creating an undulating, rippling spatial movement. Is it fluidity, a gluey continuousness I'm experiencing, like Abbas Kiarostami's slow, real-time passage through terracotta-colored corridors in Certified Copy? Or am I having a kind of quantum vision, the ability to see multiple versions of the same space and time all at once, clouding and layering my perspective? I know not what to call any of it, really, but the experience was special.

A more straight-forward performance film included in the same program was Friedl vom Gröller's Poetry for Sale, an 8mm black and white portrait of a street artist who sells poetry in the Paris Metro. Clear and direct, the film is in three parts: an imagined scene of the poet sitting in a vestibule in a church, looked after by a diaphanous female muse, his hocking of his wares on the Metro, and a brief literal portrait of the man smoking. The soundtrack, after much silence, is the poet's patter-mouthed spiel in French and then translation in rapid-fire English, and these three scenes and the practiced, mantra-like sounds combine into a lovely sliver of personality from the streets, touching both 1930s city working class documentaries and the 60s/70s urban performance art films represented in the program by Open Form - Street and Tribune in Front of PKiN (1971), one of two films Picard has included from the Filmoteka Muzeum archive in Poland. (The other being the world's greatest bukkake art film, Open Form - Game on an Actress's Face).

(A brief, necessary digression. Fernando do the know the delicate cinema of Jean-Claude Rousseau? For North American audiences he is at best a tender echo heard from European film festivals, small tributes, quiet premieres, and rare, nearly secret select screenings in the US. Wavelengths has finally taken some action to bring his small, very personal digital essay-diary-poems to our side of the Atlantic with Under a Changing Sky, which Michael has written about. We can only hope this is but one of many more revelations of Rousseau's work, new and old, on this continent.)

Catalog

Within shorts programs of often overwhelming formal and sensorial impression, the simple and true, such as Poetry for Sale, can be a welcome refresher serving to calm and re-orient oneself after filmic storms. Dana Berman Duff's Catalogue is one such refresher, a silent record in resplendent black and white film stock of images from an interior design catalog, shown in Wavelengths' second shorts program, dedicated to found and recovered images. Voluptuous shapes of frozen curtains, deep, spreading carpets, and velvety pillow shams are shown in spare, voluminous images seemingly recorded by Duff in silver gelatin shades of matted, shimmering graphite and charcoal. The dream imagery of David Lynch comes to mind, co-opted for purposes luxurious and hackneyed by the pretentious catalogers and re-appropriated by Buff to tweak the poetry-for-commerce back around to commerce-for-poetry. The for-sale items are at once strangely, subtly flattened and mysteriously dimensional, existing in an undefined in-between place between their original material existence, the photograph, and the final moving images.

Against a film of flatness let us place two deeply dimensional films: Blake Williams' anaglyph Red Capriccio and Ken Jacob's stereoscopic Canopy, separated in two different shorts programs but blood brothers in cinema at this year’s TIFF. Red Capriccio has also been written about eloquently by Michael, but since he wasn't able to see this siren assault on the big screen, I must admit just how ocularly oppressive—and impressive—the screening was, the "police spectrum" of colors stabbing one-two your eyes in an overpowering visual experience. After this abusive encounter with (simply) a parked police cruiser, a nighttime freeway escape becomes a welcome relief, a pulsating quasi-3D corridor of escape; though no doubt, in fact, but the movement of the police from one space to another, bringing with them the unearthly luminosity of their red-and-blue dimensional blitzkrieg.

The next night, Ken Jacobs brought us his own kind of 3D film from New York, a vibrating exploration of a transparent tarpaulin laid over scaffolding on a city street. Made of stereoscopic still images rapidly alternated—another one-two, like the police lights of Red CapriccioCanopy finds in this corridor of occluded light and soft shadowy lines animated plays of pulsating geometry. The space on the screen ripples but not with the laconic fluidity of Larosse's film the previous night, but with an uncanny, unnatural revelation of tricks of space and perspective. Still long shots of the canopied corridor and of a man walking down it (a NYC police cruiser glanced once or twice) become a warbling, twisting expressionistic experience of a city space. Meanwhile, in close-ups of the canopy itself, abstraction reigns, pulling from a documenting of photographic space rhythmic, shape-filled animations found between the two minutely different images taken with a stereoscopic camera. These images have a life within, a revelation indeed that Jacobs has been trying to communicate to us for many decades now, the infinitesimal life and meaning in every frame, in every corner of every frame, and in every second of our wonderful photographic medium.

Finally, with the festival's best sensory assaults—including Red Capriccio and Tokyo Tribe—must be counted Johann Lurf's Twelve Tales Told, which opened the series of shorts in which Canopy played. I wrote the catalog notes for the film for its distributor, sixpackfilm, and will therefore share with you what I wrote about this fun found footage film after I first saw it:

After a sojourn in a more contemplative series of films observing the looming ominousness of large scale architecture, Johann Lurf returns to the frenetic structural analysis of found footage with Twelve Tales Told. A dozen logos for Hollywood production companies play before you as they would precede a normal Hollywood production; appropriately in 3D if watching digitally, in 2D on 35mm—and self-aggrandizing in any format. Only, each logo sequence, some animated with glossy grandeur (Disney, Paramount), some more restrained (Regency, Warner Bros.), is stutteringly interwoven image by image into the others, beginning with the longest and ending with the shortest. The resulting visual effect is of a sustained anti-climax of bombast: the fanfare for the main attraction is drawn out and aggravated to become the main attraction. Since new production logos are progressively feathered into the mix, the manufactured desired climax of full logo revelation—say, of Disney´s beloved castle and fireworks—is continually delayed by other interfering companies. This suggestion of nefarious corporate perpetuity and competition is echoed in the film´s playful title: count the logos and you´ll find an unlucky thirteen told tales. But look closer still: Disney owns Touchstone (and once owned Miramax), which itself is partnered with Dreamworks, 20th Century Fox owns part of Regency, and both Columbia and TriStar are owned by the unseen Sony Pictures Entertainment. So here´s a fourteenth tale, or perhaps the only real one: a tale of overlapping corporate dominion of culture. Lurf repurposes the iconography and production values of Hollywood literally as a digital brand rather than, as in traditional found footage films, Hollywood as a producer of photographic images. The visual omnipotence of these companies—the insistent onslaught of their recurring brand imagery—and the accompanying aggressive musicality of their chopped up soundtracks are integrated and combined into a singular, homogenized mega-brand thundering HOLLYWOOD. Who needs stories when the brands create their own?

And with that I must close this long letter with a question: what guides you through the festival schedule, how do you end up parsing 250+ movies each year?

Happy viewing,

Danny

Danny, I just caught a screening of Brouillard, and I don’t know if it spoils your sensory response to the film or deepens your appreciation of it, but it turns out Larose actually superimposed different takes of the same shot not just “multiple times,” but approximately 120 times! In a post-screening Q&A, Daïchi Saïto attested to the fact that Larose physically walked the same path over and over on a bright sunny day, meanwhile calibrating his exposure with near-miraculous precision. Just thought I’d drop by to share that confounding backstory.
Wow, fascinating! More “quantum” than I thought. Thanks Carson.

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