I want to apologize for providing this Wavelengths avant-garde preview a little later than I might've liked. Hell, given that it's been over a week since movies died, I'm not exactly sure how much more kindling I can chuck onto the pyre. But I should remark that compared with previous years' iterations of the TIFF Wavelengths series, 2016 does feel a bit...off. I'm chiefly referring to the experimental short films here. (My second part, addressing the Wavelengths features, will be along in a matter of days.) Make no mistake. There's plenty of great work in this year's programs. But I do feel that the disparity this year between the truly exceptional films and the mediocre-to-not-very-good ones is markedly high.
I enjoy films, and more than this, I enjoy enjoying them. I hardly get my kicks by being a nattering nabob of negativity. But programmers have to work with what is available to them, and as it happens many of the most consistently great avant-garde filmmakers did not have new work ready this year. (I think the NYFF Projections slate reflects that as well. It's a true annus peculiarus when even Ken Jacobs doesn't have a new one in the can.) Still, there are a few films out there that might have justifiably replaced some of the ones that got programmed. I don't think I can see an island by Christopher Becks and Emmanuel Lefrant and Alee Peoples' If You Can't See My Mirrors, I Can't See You come to mind, along with several recent works by Stephen Broomer and Dan Browne.
But why grumble? There's plenty of good work in this year's edition. We can always trust Andréa Picard's curatorial instincts, and here's my highly opinionated, seriously caffeinated, tardy-to-the-party look at what's up.
025 Sunset Red (Laida Lertxundi, U.S. / Spain)
I used to struggle with the fact that Laida Lertxundi’s films seemed so tough to write about. In time, I discovered that this difficulty speaks to the sure-footedness of their construction, the sense that everything is exactly where it belongs. Where many filmmakers try to build their works piece by piece, implicitly arguing for the inevitability of the final object they’ve fashioned, Lertxundi’s films are assemblages in the Deleuzian sense. She places disparate but related sounds and images alongside one another, allowing them to generate charged relationships across time while also retaining their basic autonomy.
This is not an easy way to make movies. It requires firm trust in one’s instincts, and Lertxundi has an almost unerring sense of taste. Partly this is because she works with some of the most essential elements in the visual code: landscape and portraiture. But she is also willing to delve into personal esoterica, confident that her private signification will resonate in the proper context. 025 Sunset Red appears to be named after a color, and a desert landscape is shown early on, shot through a piercing red gel filter. But red is the color of a history, political and familial: 025 is ultimately a tribute to Lertxundi’s father Roberto, a Communist politician in Spain. As we see, the intersection of the public and private is highly fluid, and it’s in the stain left behind—somewhere between a Joan Mitchell canvas and a Rorschach blot—that we find a living memory.
350 MYA (Terra Long, Morocco / Canada)
“350 million years ago the Tafifalt region was the Rheic Ocean.” So we are informed at the end of Terra Long’s lovely formalist landscape study, which employs the sharp contrast of colored silk against sand and sky to emulate a kind of visual oasis. The material, undulating in the wind, is not a metaphor for the once-present waves. Rather, it demonstrates a time-frame separate from that of the desert itself, which is always in motion but whose geological existence is at a significant remove from human time. Adding an additional dimension to these images of differential flux, Long displays the work of the apparatus itself: slippage in frame registration, sprockets vibrating, and the specific meeting of the Moroccan sun and the surface of the lens. Each reflects a topography, and in turn a temporality all its own.
AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN (Manuela De Laborde, Mexico / U.S. / U.K.)
AWSW (not entirely sure why the all-caps title) has a self-enclosed, vacuum-sealed feeling to it, which is partly due to the fact that at first we think we're observing actual heavenly bodies. As the anomalies compound—no planet or moon has a giant chunk missing from the side—we recognize that we're examining props made of foam, polyurethane, and other inorganic materials. De Laborde's decision to isolate these objects within a dark space means that they acquire as much ostensible grandeur as any "true" galactic rock, and so in a way AWSW is a more clinical consideration of the artificial sublime for which the models were created in the first place. Plus De Laborde's application of colored light brings out the plainly artificial aspects of the props while lending them a greater aesthetic pull. The film, ultimately, is a single-idea exercise, not as perceptually rich as the artist's earlier film Sun. But it is certainly interesting to see these movie mock-ups getting a starring role for a change.
An Aviation Field (Joana Pimenta, Portugal / U.S. / Brazil)
Working in a realm we might call “speculative geology,” Pimenta’s film combines distant images of volcanic activity with ambiguous astronomical footage, postulating an apocryphal origin story for the city of Brasilia. Drawing on the light works and installations of the South American avant-garde (particularly Hélio Oiticica) while also displaying her connection with Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Pimenta demonstrates a cosmic vision without compromising the concrete, little-c constructivism that characterizes the best contemporary poetry.
Ayhan and me (belit sağ, Netherlands)
Not so much a work about its subject than a rumination on the problematic cultural life of images, belit sağ's Ayhan and me deals with an instance of political and institutional censorship and how it speaks directly to the power that resides in particular images. After receiving a commission to produce a work for an art show that would be seen in both Istanbul and Amsterdam. Upon preparing the show for Amsterdam, sağ was informed that her planned video piece could not be included because of "the political situation in Turkey" (i.e., the increasing totalitarianism of the Erdogan government). The piece centered on Ayhan Çarkin, a member of Turkish covert forces who has come forward and admitted to having participated in the illegal murder of over 1,000 Kurds. The exclusion of sağ's piece, particularly from an international exhibition, is troubling. However sağ has taken the opportunity to expose the fragility and paranoia of the Turkish state in a way that only artists can.
Burning mountains that spew flame (Helena Girón and Samuel M. Delgado, Spain)
Not as wide-ranging as last year's Neither God Nor Santa Maria and at the same time not as satisfying, this new film by Delgado and Girón is a mood piece through and through. Much of the first half of Burning mountains is deeply dark, so much so that images appear onscreen at the absolute verge of visibility. As most of the film is shot in underground caverns, the pair spend a lot of time tracking over worried surfaces of rock and wall, establishing the hidden space of volcanic reality as one that bears the scars of time. Most interestingly, Delgado and Girón double down on this craggy surface texture by using outdated film stock and/or hand-processing their film, much as they did in Neither God. All the same, there is the film might've benefited from perhaps one more strand of material, since the caves signify very little beyond themselves.
Children of Lir (Katherin McInnis, U.S.)
From old issues of Life Magazine come strange, flickering snapshots of a particular kind of scientific future. Even the most benign pursuits (paleontology, examining root systems, the body structure of the standard honeybee) seem somehow shadowed by the looming menace of The Bomb. It's as though McInnis's film is a tremulous dynamo, on the verge of laying to waste everything around it.
Cilaos (Camilo Restrepo, France)
A true cinematic UFO, Cilaos comes on like a bastard combination of Pedro Costa and Owen Land. Centered around a joyous, charismatic performance by musician Christine Salem, Cilaos often feels like a raucous game of the Dozens, with Salem starting out singing about her desire to find her father, known as The Mouth. From there, she and her two male costars (David Abrousse and Harry Pérrigone) perform, declaim poetic aphorisms ("what does the tree say to the saw?"), and pose in various semi-plausible environments. In terms of pacing, construction, and its phatic, off-kilter mode of address, Cilaos resembles eminent Land masses such as Wide Angle Saxon and On the Marriage Broker Joke, even as Restrepo's openness to pure performativity bears traces of Claire Denis' great music documentary Man No Run. And for what it's worth, if anyone ever moves forward with a live-action Steven Universe project, Salem is shy just one pair of wrap-around shades, and Garnet is cast.
Dark Adaptation (Chris Gehman, Canada)
At festivals, critics see so many films that we often discover common themes and patterns. Usually this happens with narrative films, but this year among the avant-garde works I've made a discovery. 2016 is the Year of Saturated Color. Judging by new works by Sky Hopinka, Sophie Michael, Terra Long, and now Chris Gehman, Wavelengths will be your connection for fiery crimsons, deep emeralds, hot whitish yellows, and a full submersion in cobalt blue. Dark Adaptation, unlike the other films, provides nothing but color, liquid and striated as it filters across the screen. Very reminiscent of the abstract mandala films of Jordan Belson, Dark Adaptation frequently prompts a viewer to wonder just how Gehman got these semi-solid colorforms onto celluloid—whether we are watching smoke patterns with lights and gels shining through them, or some sort of optical-printer manipulation. Now, granted, the film drifts from pattern to pattern, and at 14 minutes one's attention can be stretched a bit thin. But this is not so much a movie you follow or decipher as it is a bliss-out tranceformer. Psychotropic "refreshments" are strictly B.Y.O.B.
Ears, Nose and Throat (Kevin Jerome Everson, U.S.)
This is one of Everson's very best short films, and if you know the man's work you know that's saying something. Part of what makes EN&T so affecting is its combination of storytelling and formal invention. Everson constructs the film so that certain elements are introduced before we have a clear sense of their full context. As the film begins, we're seeing a series of brief neighborhood establishing shots, each edit accompanied by a beeping tone which we take to be an audio "control track." Later, we see the subject of the film, Shadeena Brooks, getting a hearing test. She is indicating whether she hears the tones in either her left or right ear. And, as she tells the story of a senseless shooting death right outside her home, we can intuit that the gunshots themselves damaged her hearing, thus prompting the visit to the ENT. As is so often the case with Everson's work, a seemingly marginal part of a larger social issue becomes our way to grasp its magnitude. The ripple effect of urban violence is materialized on an African-American woman's body, but she is telling us about yet another victim. Otherwise abstract montage is grounded in a tragic materialism.
Flowers of the Sky (Janie Geiser, U.S.)
Janie Geiser's latest effort, we discover at the end, is dedicated to fellow filmmaker Charlotte Pryce. This goes a little way toward explaining some of the ambiguities of Flowers of the Sky since, like much of Pryce's work, Geiser's film addresses itself to overall textures rather than any distinct temporal motility. In fact, although Flowers is not loop-driven, there is an overall sense of stasis that characterizes the film. It hovers in place like a bee, asserting its presence without necessarily mastering space. Set to a sound collage build around the voice of a tenor (by timbre, I'm guessing Enrico Caruso), Flowers focuses on two primary varieties of visual material. Geiser comes back again and again to photographs of a large hotel banquet filled with women, all part of a group called the Margaret Lauritzen Association. The image is revealed in horizontal bands, alternating with Ben-Day floral patterns. Geiser then introduces physical objects into the frame—flowers which may or may not be real.
Apart from moving the copystand camera closer or further away from these objects and images, or moving through them at a faster or slower pace, Geiser does not really alter the trajectory of Flowers, which gives that sense of suspended time. (This is one of the things that makes Geiser's work so different from that of Lewis Klahr, whose stop-motion films are equally ambiguous but always seem to be moving in a particular direction.) If there is not a definitive meaning here, we can perhaps think of Pryce's films, with their movement of woven, shadowy forms. In that respect, Flowers of the Sky could be taken as a contrast between the vast, multi-cellular body of women in the photographs and the singular, organic forms of the flowers themselves. Questions of femininity and identity might be considered within this essentially formalist dialectic.
Foyer (Ismaïl Bahri, France / Tunisia)
A foyer is an entryway, and to a large extent Ismaïl Bahri's experimental video work is less a work unto itself (although it is that) than it is an entryway into a number of public situations that almost certainly would never otherwise occurred. To make Foyer, Bahri set his camera up on a street in Tunis and began shooting with a piece of white paper covering the lens. When passers-by asked him what he was doing, he explained that he wanted to let the wind decide what patterns of light and shade would be recorded on the video, depending on the fluttering of the paper.
This is rather simplistic as conceptual art. But what we find is that Bahri's method invites scrutiny, conversation, and in one case police intervention. People argue with him about what art really is (some pro-Foyer, some against), his job as a professor, and whether his living in France is a bad thing (young toughs decry his "tourist mentality") or a good thing (one police officer praises him for showing the West "the good part of Tunisia" instead of terrorism). What we find is that, like the sheet of paper itself, Bahri gets the most from Foyer by remaining a mostly blank slate, allowing Tunisians to reflect their irritations off of him.
Há Terra! (Ana Vaz, France / Brazil)
This complex, searching film seems to engage with the spectre of subjugation, in particular Brazil’s colonial past with the Portuguese. (The refrain, “Há terra!”—“There is land!”—is taken from Manoel de Oliveira’s 1981 film Francisca, his adaptation of Agustina Bessa-Luís's novel Fanny Owen.) What Vaz actually shows us is a young woman in dry grass, the camera struggling to contain her in the frame. There are Brakhage-like jerk-pans and tilts, as if Vaz is willing the space to move. The young girl looks ready to run, crouched at an imaginary starting line.
She quickly moves from having a stick as defense, to holding a microphone, recording the environment and perhaps the story of how her foot swells each full moon since being bitten by a snake. Vaz is proposing a hasty civilizing process, from nature to technology, and soon from a disorderly system of vision to a clearer film, showing the girl, animals, trees, and words, all in place. Eventually, Vaz concludes with representation: paintings of violence in the jungle, the horror of first contact. This is not the end, though. The taxonomic order breaks down in the end, with animals and junked cars tennis courts and dirty windows all vying for some sort of evolutionary last word. But it’s always the desperate men arriving by sea who claim it all for themselves—“Paddle! There is land!”—presuming they ever actually arrive.
I’ll Remember You as You Were, Not as What You’ll Become (Sky Hopinka, U.S.)
Hopinka’s follow-up to his highly acclaimed film Jáaji Approx. is a tad more difficult to hold onto, although that by no means makes it any less lovely to behold. Beginning with footage of First People dancing in formation, Hopinka manipulates the images—video processing is the likely mode here, although at times the work resembles hand tinting. The dancers are abstracted into shafts of brightly colored light. This scene, as well as the ending during which the figures have been even more effaced, vaguely recall the video installations of the late Jeremy Blake. In between, Hopinka incorporates the poetry of Sarah Long, sometimes as documentation of a reading, but more often as onscreen text. The film seems to pertain in part to transformation. Note the title, and the fact that so many of the onscreen bodies are signified by a neon aura emanating from them. I’ll Remember You… may turn out to be the kind of work that will make much more of an impact once we can evaluate its place within a much larger body of work.
Indefinite Pitch (James N. Kienitz Wilkins, U.S.)
One Second in Berlin, New Hampshire (or Possibly Lewiston, Maine). Travis Wilkerson's Wavelength. The Automatic Moving Company Presents "The Masked Menace," as Performed by Jean Arthur Under the Direction of Prof. Mike Davis. A Primer on Pitch Shift and Frame Rate, or Why Racist New Englanders Can Never Step into the Same River Twice. A very probable masterpiece.
Luna e Santur (Joshua Gen Solondz, U.S.)
One of the very best films in Wavelengths and possibly one of the year's best films overall, Joshua Solondz's Luna e Santur is in equal measure mysterious and disturbing, seductive and repellent. Characterized by an aggressive flicker, Luna doesn't make its images easy to parse, and in fact obscures them through skeins of surface scratches, paint swipes, and other thickets of distress. These medium-specific elements form a kind of architecture of twisted-metal perception which, together with the flickering, half-life absence of the figures under scrutiny, makes for a prison of visual distance, the figures on display locked firmly apart from us in an isolated and inexplicable world.
And what is this place? We continually see two figures draped in white sheets cut with eye-holes, the classic Halloween ghost costume but here more sinister, as if the point is to obscure identity in films that should never have been shot. The figures are in some sort of room, faded and beige like an indeterminate porn set in the 1970s, which is appropriate since the two people grapple with one another in highly ambiguous ways. If we got a clearer look, perhaps we'd know if they were fighting or struggling to have sex, or if the relations on partial display were consensual. From what we do see, however, there is an unnerving sense of ritual, as if these draped bodies have been condemned to do this over and over again, a kind of Sartrean Abu Ghraib.
Joshua Gen Solondz has made a number of solid films, but he has been working, I think, to find his own distinctive voice as a filmmaker. Luna e Santur marks the arrival of a major artist.
Silueta Sangrienta and Anima, Silueta de Cohetes (Ana Mendieta, U.S.)
The Wavelengths programme often screens older works from the experimental film canon, films that have been restored or are perhaps simply ripe for historical reconsideration. In addition to a newly discovered short film by Straub and Huillet (not available for preview, alas), this year allows us to have a look at two sculptural / performance documentation films by the late Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta.
Many women artists of the 70s and 80s have been notable for taking up the language of minimalism while bringing gender and embodiment forcefully into dialogue with that discourse. Mendieta’s work is notable in this regard because, using her silhouette, the outline of her body, or even the impression her body made in the earth, she gave the viewer not just a sense of her own physical presence but her absence as well—a dialectic that brings language itself back into minimalism’s often-taciturn phenomenology. While some glib, repugnant individuals have made the (tendentious) claim that Mendieta’s death from falling was in some way a “final act” in this process—the body aggressively there, and the body gone—I’d say we need only look at her work, its engagement with earth, fire, and blood. Mendieta’s art is a tale of the contact zone between the body and the living earth.
Strange Vision of Seeing Things (Ryan Ferko, Canada / Serbia)
Ryan Ferko's new film is a kind of anti-travelogue of Belgrade. More specifically, it's about the way that the remnants of the Balkans War can only be seen as absence—empty buildings and offices, spaces where key events happened but there is no evidence to be found. If a work like Claude Lanzmann's Shoah takes this key historiographic idea and presents it as straightforward tragedy, Ferko displays it not as farce but as a tragicomic aspect of late 20th / early 21st century postmodernity. In one sequence, Ferko erects a "TV monument" to the very problem of monumentality, shooting video of a makeshift curbside shrine, and then projecting it on a large monitor on a pedestal in front of a building, where a classical monument would stand.
Two moments, though, best encapsulate Ferko's poetic consideration of the crisis of cultural memory. In one scene, we see a mother and child at a memorial marker for those killed in the war. The kid asks why they can't go see the actual ruins of one of the bombed-out buildings. "It's not safe," she tells him. "It could collapse. Just cross yourself and say 'rest in peace,'" and he dutifully complies. And, in an earlier discussion, a young man explains how, during the war, cigarettes were very hard to come by, but weed and LSD were plentiful. So, during a particular deadly raid, he happened to be tripping his ass off. The sound of bombs, the lights, and vibrations all felt to him like a "strange vision of seeing things." But Ferko seems to suggest that in both cases, there is a misconception that is dictated by the desire to see Serbia as something very different than what it actually is.
Ten Mornings Ten Evenings and One Horizon (Tomonari Nishikawa, Japan)
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Untitled (Björn Kämmerer, Austria)
I don’t know what it is, but I’ve never had much luck with venetian blinds. I always seem to pull the cord the wrong way, or I don’t pull it hard enough. So when I am trying to get them to go down, I end up making them go even higher. Or if I want to open them up and let some light in, more often then not I hit the release and make them drop to the windowsill—bang!—which my cats really enjoy, believe me. So here we have Austrian experimentalist Björn Kämmerer, who is possessed of such skill and precision that he can make a film not just about venetian blinds, but about their rhythmic opening and shutting in different positions. Not in the sense of “open,” “half-mast,” and “closed,” but 30°, 45°, completely flat. They even change color! Now of course there is some editing involved. (If you look closely, you can sometimes see little light bursts between the dropping of the shades.) But Kämmerer has turned blinds into a sculptural proposition. At times they resemble Donald Judd wall-stackables; other times they seem more like thin horizontal lines drawn in the dark background, sort of an inverted Agnes Martin effect. But the bottom line is, this is a nifty little film. Kämmerer has turned “throwing shade” into something positive, even beautiful.
Untitled, 1925 (Madi Piller, Canada)
A highly associative film whose images do not immediately seem to belong together, Untitled, 1925 is anchored by a soundtrack refrain of flipping pages, which provides something of a clue as to how we might approach the film's contents. Trains, hillsides, flora, and a general nonstop kineticism characterize U25, along with a sumptuous black and white photography that frequently slides into negative-reversal. This lends everything not so much a look of the past but an underside, the sense that otherwise benign moments in a life might be hiding some darker secret. At the end of the film, Piller's text explains how her grandfather's decision to live in Peru for a time became a fateful one. Untitled, 1925 is perhaps the retroactive photo album, snapshots of moments that seemed negligible at the time but in fact changed everything.
Venus Delta (Antoinette Zwirchmayr, Austria)
A work of dry humor and even dryer textures, Venus Delta is a brief study of figures in a landscape, with still life elements subtly incorporated in the composition. What Zwichmayr does that is noteworthy and appreciably odd is that she separates all the elements of this “study,” in much the same manner that a haute cuisine chef might serve a classic meal in so-called deconstructed form. Instead of a hamburger, per se, you have a plate with an artfully arranged array of a lettuce leaf, a cherry tomato, a dollop of ginger-fennel mustard, a Kobe beef tartare meatball, and a chunk of roe-dusted challah bread.
In Venus Delta, Zwichmayr shows us a rocky grotto, with a stream rushing through it. Next, we see ambiguous tendrils hanging from the rock ledge and into the water. Soon, we see the woman’s head to which this hair is connected. She is nude. Eventually she is resting her head on the shoulder of a naked man, whom we barely see at all. The film also features three yellow spheres, possibly lemons but also maybe just balls. They appear on the rocks in various geometrical configurations, and before Venus Delta is over, they are floating down the stream in a tight but undulating triangle, clearly bound together. Zwirchmayr is providing the minimum cues for a Western genre painting, showing just how little we need to get the point. But her title is also a sly play on Delta of Venus, the title of Anaïs Nin’s volume of erotica. Zwirchmayr seems to slyly suggest that she isn’t just in it for the formalism. This stuff really turns her on.
The Water Show Extravaganza (Sophie Michael, U.K.)
Sometimes all the cinema has to do is record a phenomenon with relative accuracy. That's the case, for the most part, with Sophie Michael's new film, which largely hangs back and asks us to enjoy the whimsy that is the Mighty Mortier's Water Show, an automated light-and-sprinkler display with canned pipe organ music. It's a piece of folk art, a strange low-rent version of the fountains at the Bellagio, thinned out with a bit of penny-arcade nostalgia of the sort one feels upon re-encountering the Rock-a-Fire Explosion robo-band from the old Showbiz Pizza Place. Mortier's Water Show, on the other hand, is an echt-British attraction, "Rule Brittania" mixed in with "Edelweiss" and "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke," and the Union Jack featured prominently throughout. Looking closely, we can see that Michael superimposes images at times, making compositional decisions to spruce up the spectacle. But overall The Water Show Extravaganza is just what it is: a record of a folk art curiosity, and a suitable Eaux d'Artifice for our times.
What’s New (Nina Könnemann, Germany)
Along the wall of what looks to be a metro rail station, there’s a ground level billboard. As these signs so often are, it is changed rather frequently. And as Könnemann shows us, the orange metal frame of the sign is used by lots of young people to pull themselves up onto the embankment alongside the station, presumably a shortcut to some other area.
So these kids are going behind the sign. And in a way so is Könnemann, since the basic premise of What’s New is to photograph the billboard and then compare it with actual live footage of the thing depicted in the ad. So we see a notice about a DJ show at the House of Vans arena, and later we are shown the actual concern (or one that looks just like the ad image). Könnemann matches a municipal poster showing a Berlin skyline, dead-on with the exact same shot. She performs similar switcheroos with other such scenes. (Sadly, Könnemann could find no real-world counterpart for the gentleman, possibly a politician, with a penis scrawled across his face.) What’s New is interesting enough, but it’s unclear what we should take away from the experiment, apart from a rather baseline sense of mise-en-abyme.