The films in this program, for the most part, seem to pertain to global space, in particular the subjective experience of movement that one can glean from travel, displacement, or the disorienting impact of visual technologies. Now, I know from experience that I always enjoy the disorientations generated by the 3D films of Blake Williams, but sadly I was unable to preview his new film 2008 because I could not secure equipment on which to view it. Apologies for that. The rest of the program is discussed below.
Amusement Ride (Tomonari Nishikawa, Japan)
Q: What's a "structural film"? A: That's easy! Everybody knows what a structural film is! It's when engineers design an airplane or a bridge, and they build a model to find out if it will fall apart too soon. The film shows where all the stresses are!
—Owen Land, On the Marriage Broker Joke as Cited by Sigmund Freud in Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious or Can the Avant-Garde Artist Be Wholed? (1977)
Although not really a maker of structural films per se, Tomonari Nishikawa is a dedicated formalist whose work employs a poetics derived in part from the structuralist lexicon. And his newest film is indeed a close examination of structural properties, the beams, rivets, and girders that form the internal skeleton of the Cosmo Clock 21 Ferris Wheel in Yokohama. Using a kind of gestural looping approach, Amusement Rise situates itself in a seat on the ride and looks deep into the center of the machine, traveling up, in truncated rolling shots.
That is to say, Amusement Ride only seems to move in one direction, since Nishikawa's clipped editing only provides the upward gestures (or takes the downward shots and includes them upside down—a distinct possibility). This takes the ordinary, vernacular movements of the Ferris wheel and defamiliarizes them, turns them into criss-crossed metallic "flips" of a Rolodex. In a way, Amusement Ride differs from many of Nishikawa's recent films, such as Ten Mornings Ten Evenings and One Horizon, 45 7 Broadway, or Shibuya-Tokyo, in that it doesn't foreground technique so dramatically. It is more about direct perception than process.
The film begins and ends with red leader which seems to indicate the start and end of the "ride," and we do see and hear passengers on the Ferris wheel, even though it is the mechanics of the apparatus that are Nishikawa's main focus. More than once while watching I thought about the recent structural documentary Manakamana, with its unbroken shots of cable car rides and the people onboard. Amusement Ride is a bit like that film's miniaturized unconscious, the interstitial moments between the individual journeys when any mode of transport is left to its own device(s).
Black Sun (Maureen Fazendeiro, France / Portugal)
Taking as its overt topic the recent partial solar eclipse, Fazendiero’s film is a meditation on the role that light plays in shaping reality and our consciousness of it. To this end, we hear a recording of Delphine Seyrig on the soundtrack, reading a poem by Henri Michaux about a land where sunlight is a rare, precious commodity.
Fazendiero opens the film with tinted images—mountains, volcanoes, waterfalls—that resemble the ethnographic recordings of early explorers (or, even more specifically, the appropriation and re-presentation of such images by experimental documentarians Yervant Gianikian and the late Angela Ricci Lucchi). In context, this material seems to suggest that, at one time, everything before the camera seemed out of reach, impossible to see. Now, not even the sun is off limits to our curious eyes.
Black Sun has a bit of experimental-film star power behind it. Fazendiero’s collaborators on the short film include Nicolas Rey (Differently, Molussia) and Pedro Pinho (The Nothing Factory). Nevertheless, there’s a strange disconnectedness that characterizes the film’s seven minutes. Straightforward documentary material mingles with more abstract imagery, with the Michaux poem floating uneasily on top, and depending on your outlook, Black Sun either resists totalizing meaning, or it fails to cohere.
Personally I’m on the fence between these two positions, and I suspect that had the film been at least twice as long, its more evocative aspects might have had time to take root. But then, eclipses don’t last, and so there’s a certain logic to the fact that Black Sun doesn’t linger.
A Topography of Memory (Burak Çevik, Turkey / Canada)
When you watch Burak Çevik's new medium-length video piece, one of the main things you'll observe is a visual quality that is significantly degraded compared to what we are accustomed to in most professional art productions. That's because Topography is a half-hour compilation of closed-circuit footage from various wide-angle security cameras stationed throughout the greater Istanbul area. The authorities, as you can see above, cover the waterfront. They are also monitoring the public squares, the highways, the areas around the airport, the park perimeters, and other such "soft targets."
What you find over the course of Topography is that, aside from a taxi here or a delivery truck there, Istanbul is rather quiet and underpopulated on this particular night. In the last shot, we see a jogger on the edge of the park, and his presence is rather jarring, which in itself is very strange. Where is everybody?
The soundtrack gives us a few hints. We hear a family—mother, father, and son—all leaving the house and preparing to vote in the 2015 general election. While discussing logistics, like where the polling place is located and where they will find parking, the family also talks about political matters. In particular, the son and mother disagree about who to vote for. The son supports the more left-leaning HDP, while his mother is planning to vote for the center-left CHP. (The crux of their disagreement pertains to Kurdish nationalism and separatist violence, and whether the leftist parties have implicitly endorsed such tactics.)
Of course, the structuring absence of this conversation is Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his conservative-Islamist AK Parti, who have been consolidating power and reversing Turkey's tradition of Kemalist secularism for well over a decade. No members of the family plan to vote for the AK Parti and, given that we know that the 2015 election only strengthened Erdogan's autocratic power, there is a certain futility in their efforts that is emphasized by the empty streets.
But then, Topography of Memory is actually a bit slier and more disturbing in its presentation of recent history. There is a disphasure in Çevik's presentation of sound and image: while the audio is from the day of the election, the images are from the evening of the day after, when Erdogan's victory has been sealed. What does Istanbul look like? There are no celebrations, to be sure. But more significantly, there is virtually no public existence, no sense of the freedom of movement. All of the city is "under his eye."
Sun Rave (Roy Samaha, Lebanon)
Roy Samaha's Sun Rave is a complex, knotty little film that, like the espionage agents described in it, does not give up its secrets easily. By bringing a number of unlikely ideas into orbit around each other, the film leads the viewer not to conclusions but to hints and suspicions, to concepts just out of reach. Because it leaves some of its most impressive maneuvers suspended, Sun Rave lingers in the mind.
Ostensibly about the impact of solar activity and magnetism on human activity back on earth, the film is in part about the use of short wave radio as a tool for spies during the Cold War (as exemplified by the most famous of the "numbers stations," The Lincolnshire Poacher), and Samaha's own personal history with some next-door neighbors who, for whatever reason, listened to it religiously before vanishing in 1988. Sun Rave discusses political events from the point of view not of human agency but of unconscious build-ups of solar energy, a force of interplanetary agitation that is governing our affairs without our awareness.
In a way, Samaha's premise is silly, a sci-fi goof on world history à la Craig Baldwin. However, there is a melancholia coursing through Sun Rave that only really hits you after the fact. Samaha's film is actually trying to answer a very real question. Why did the revolutions that ended the Cold War succeed, and the Arab Spring revolts fail? It can't simply be that one group of insurgents were more dedicated or more competent than the other, so Samaha is looking for a scientific answer. But of course, we know that this is pure irony. The solution doesn't lie in the Van Allen belt. One group was aided by the West, the other abandoned. Isn't Sun Rave's proposition more satisfying? If you want a less tragic explanation, there's always the sun.
(tourism studies) (Joshua Gen Solondz, U.S.)
Joshua Gen Solondz consistently makes some of the most unusual films around. Part of this has to do with a polymorphic sensibility that I have not quite put my finger on yet—sometimes abstract and geometrical, at other times jagged and painterly, and at still other times exhibiting a psychotronic punk attitude. His latest, intriguingly titled (tourism studies), is sort of a rapid-fire combination of all of those modes, spun out in a centrifuge to create a persistently disorienting sense of non-space. Although Solondz is clearly working, in part, with material shot in various locales around the world, the title also suggests this enforced mode of spectatorship, a persistent inability to find one's footing.
The basic compositional procedure of (tourism studies) is a frame-by-frame alternation of contrasting images—sometimes toggling between two different sequences, sometimes introducing a third into the mix or just alternating black space into the hyper-montage. Many filmmakers in the age of digital editing have begun to work with this back-and-forth thaumatrope approach, in part because what used to require painstaking physical cutting between single frames can now be accomplished with a few commands.
This in no way simplifies the conceptual process of making films this way, however. A filmmaker must intuitively understand differences in shape, tone, and texture, so as to create the maximum impact from his or her flicker-power. In Solondz's case, he not only alternates between photographic material from various events and locales—footage, presumably, shot "on location" during his travels—but also includes purely abstract and graphic material. Some shots are scratched and overworked, whereas others are clean and geometrical. And at various points, Solondz rapidly flips the images from left to right on a vertical axis, resulting in a combined symmetrical Rorschach effect.
What do all these images have to do with each other? We see go-kart races, a photographer at a military security zone in Israel, and some grainy black and white footage that appears to be from Germany, shot while just walking around. And Solondz seems to throw these images into a kind of blender with other filmic elements that, in context, operate like signifiers of the aesthetic. They communicate their lack of denotative content, the fact that they offer a temporary respite from the "worldly" content of the more naturalistic passages in the film.
So in a way, (tourism studies) is not so much about Solondz's travels. (The avant-garde is filled with many more conventional travelogue films, and they tend to use the centered subjectivity of the filmmaker as the guarantor of their meaning.) Instead, it's about us, our gaze, and what it means to adopt the roving gaze of the tourist. (Gang of Four: "he fills his head with culture / he gives himself an ulcer.") The film, which drives images past us like the thrumming motor, functionally equates styles and situations that are, on their own visual evidence, qualitatively different. We are kept at arm's length by a wall of form, like visitors in a museum held back by a velvet rope.
(tourism studies) ultimately asks us to reflect on the epistemology for a unifying film form, one that assigns all images an equal value, making of them a kind of crypto-currency. (It is notable that Solondz alters the pattern at the end, focusing on a young woman's face. This signals a personal relationship to the person envisaged, even if none really exists.) From the news media to the Internet, an all-encompassing, unified form tends to flatten existential differences, turning everything around us into a consumable sight. How can we live this way, Solondz seems to ask, forever up in the air, perpetually at sea?