In a festival whose dedication to celluloid is readily apparent, why not declare it directly? And so one of the Vienna International Film Festival's Special Programs this year is a bastion of that most wonderful format, 16mm film. Programmed by Katja Wiederspahn and Haden Guest with an admirably variegated range, the programs were gathered around collective films, war films, sex films, expanded cinema, and more. Key to the section's expanse, which begins in the 1920s and touches every decade between here and there, is also in highlighting new work done in this increasingly outmoded, "out of date," and unprojectionable format. Included amongst these are films every bit as exciting as the history and canon "Revolution in 16mm" touches on: Jodie Mack's Razzle Dazzle (written about here), Richard Tuohy's masterpiece of color Ginza Strip, and, most excitingly, a quartet of new films by Nathaniel Dorsky, the film poet who makes 16mm appear as if from some another, more resplendently serene and tenebrous world.
With thirteen programs of shorts and only a handful of which I was able to see, it would be full hearty to pretend to even give an overview of Wiederspahn and Guest's program, except to say I found its selection of films, the grouping of them, and the experience of watching 16 print after 16 print—some battered and nervous, some archival, some even newly restored—projected in the petite theatrical hall of the Metro cinema a source of fun and inspiration. I wish I could have seen them all; but I will instead touch upon the programs I caught and some of the highlights, perhaps familiar or canonical to some, but new for me.
The First Person Cinema and Diary Film program was an alternation of the meditative solitude of such films as Marie Menken's decade-spanning Notebook and Marjorie Keller's intimate, personal pastoral based on Virgil's Georgics, The Answering Furrow (1985), contrasted with the aggravated sensations of Gunvor Nelson and Dorothy Wiley's Schmeerguntz (1966) and Carolee Schneemann's Plumb Line (1968-71). This all-women sequence was then synthesized, somewhat, in lone male Matthias Müller's semiotic dream essay Alpsee (1994).
The smallest film was for me the brightest surprise, Orcadian director Margaret Tait's miniature A Portrait of Ga (1952), about her mother on the Orkney Islands. It masquerades as a slice-of-documentary portraiture when in fact it's a condensed, fresh and gemlike poem of clothing, minute movements, color and character—character as immediately and deeply etched as any of the evocations over in the John Ford retrospective at the festival.
Such slimness and quietude was emblematically turned upside down for Schmeerguntz, a frenetic collage film juxtaposing with fleet, angular rapidity pop images—from television and magazines—of proper, beautiful societal femininity against true domestic details of bulbous pregnant bellies, filthy sink drains, vomiting, and other semi-taboo imagery of young women. Made in 1966 in the middle of feminism's second wave, and in some ways resembling Godard's Une femme mariée from two years earlier, this furious, high energy, near manic debut film by Nelson and Wiley hasn't aged a day.
After the, to me, unclear arguments between filmmaker and the man on the film of the split paneled, aggravated Plumb Line, the program settled down again for The Answering Furrow, a seasonal series of chapters devoted to backyard (and self) cultivation, the filmmaker's father, and her own practice of filmmaking. Not being familiar with Marjorie Keller's work (nor the source inspiration by Virgil) on first view I found its guidance a bit obscure, but its limpid, airy but intimate tone very much pleasing, its edits easy and lovely, and some particular images, such as a slow motion sequence of bee flight, completely enrapturing.
Müller's Alpsee, the last film in the program, was a tour de force quoted-and-staged essay film, combining Douglas Sirk, Harun Farocki, David Lynch, and Todd Haynes in its conjuration of post-wedding female domesticity, a young boy's images of this home life, and through these two a fraught mother-son relationship. It achieves in its own nightmarish way the voluptuous personal quality of some of the preceding shorts, as well as the knife-sharp incisions of Scheerguntz and Plumb Line.
The Structural and "Free" (or "unstructured") program certainly began on the free side: Shirley Clarke's super jazzy, color tinted ode to the connective tissues of New York, Bridges-Go-Round (1958, electronic score version), and Bruce Conner's inexhaustible filmic orgasm of Americana, Cosmic Ray (1961), a film, incidentally, which cannot be bested.
The structuralist side was with characteristic firmness represented best by Richard Serra's highly plastic, muscular, sculptural and weirdly gripping—pun definitely intended—Hand Catching Lead (1968), Larry Gottheim's sublime and utterly, subtly alive single shot evolving landscape film Fog Line (1970), which reminded me of structuralist master Ernie Gehr's digital landscapes like 2009's Waterfront Follies. And indeed another gem here was Gehr's own 1974 short Shift, a tightly controlled paroxysm of geometric and color play of limited glimpses of traffic—forward, backward, upside down—from a window perch.
The rest of the program included a fun gimmick by Gary Beydler (Pasadena Freeway Stills, 1974), along with Robert Nelson's annoying Plastic Haircut (1963) and one of Aldo Tambellini's best "black" films, the hand-painted, cameraless Black Is (1966). Following the structuralist sequence of surprisingly modest films, the program ended somewhat as in Diary Film with a work of partially attempted synthesis between two poles of aesthetics, Kurt Kren's splatter paneled, time-splintering multi-screen-in-a-single-frame landscape "shot," Asyl (1975).
The last program I caught—alas, I missed Sex on 16mm and the amateur film program (including the tantalizingly titled Enemy Medley and Hunting Deer and...)—was provocatively titled Radical Enthnography. Embedded in the second half of the 20th century, these hardly appeared radical outside a context of what was conventional, but what truly united the works was profound observation of human bodies. Whether the heaving, clothed seaside workers in the neo-La terra trema of Portuguese fishing rituals in António Campos' A Almadraba Atuneira (1961), the small throbbing drum orchestra of Jean Rouch's Nigerian Tourou et Bitti (1971), or the play-acting hysteria of fake drug highs of male children of the Yanomamo tribe in Children's Magical Death (Timothy Asch, Napoleon A. Chagnon, 1974), we see bodies spanning cultures and inspirations toiling, dancing, faking, and playing.
The biggest reveal was Richard P. Rogers' Quarry (1970), which combined a bit of everything by focusing on the delinquents, youths, weekenders, malcontents and all other miscellaneous of momentarily escaping Americana at a flooded rocky quarry in Quincy, Massachusetts. The year is 1967. Lustrous black and white figures the rock faces, the stippled water, the reclining and gorging bodies at cliff-top and nearly flying bodies diving into the abyss.
An overlong program, Radical Entholography ended with Mark LaPore's A Depression in the Bay of Bengal (1996) but for me it climaxed with the penultimate Artificial Paradise (1986), where Chick Strand films and edits seven small vignettes of motion in Mexico in macro close-ups of repeated centrifugal motion: a red blanket furling, brushing glossy horse hair, the hurtling motion of a gallop, the sprinkling water of a nude shower, and so on, all in pristinely preserved gorgeous color.
While co-curator Haden Guest casually described the Revolutions in 16mm series as a kind of history of the format, my limited viewing couldn't be construed as such a survey but rather of a range of investigative possibilities: different subjects, different forms, different arguments and textures. Not exactly the most profound or specific picture, yet its variety was invigorating and encouraging. Underscored by Nathaniel Dorsky talking at the presentation of his new works of these being the dying years of the 16mm format, Revolutions in 16mm perhaps counterintuitively doesn't suggest a propulsive forward motion of the technology and the art. Rather, it suggested a massive and ungathered range of a perhaps soon to be thwarted form that sprawls over the decades for us to continually draw from in the uncertain future.