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Wavelengths 2011. Notes from a Dark Room

Reviews of nearly two dozen works screening in the Toronto International Film Festival's program of experimental film and video.

As has been noted many times before, by me and others, the Wavelengths series of the Toronto International Film Festival is like a festival unto itself. So far removed from the red carpet nonsense, the deal-making, and the me-firstism of web journalists hoping to hit the Web with their initial impressions of some new Bryce Dallas Howard vehicle, Wavelengths affords breathing room to cinema and video at its most formally adventurous and, yes, uncommercial. We come here to look and listen, not to look “at” or listen “to,” and if that sounds hopelessly pretentious, come on down to the Jackman Hall and see for yourself. It’s actually quite cleansing, often funny, and a guaranteed good time, at least in part. (Short films are like the weather in my hometown of Houston, Texas. Don’t like it? Wait a moment. It’ll change.)

Sadly, Wavelengths 2011 will be the final year for series curator Andréa Picard. As I’ve written elsewhere, Picard’s unique vision is all too rare in the world of cinema programming, and certainly in the increasingly cookie-cutter, bottom-line oriented environment of TIFF. She has consistently promoted challenging fare from around the world, introduced North Americans to major figures such as Josef Dabernig, Eriko Sonoda, Hannes Schüpbach, and the late Klaus Lutz, and been a tireless champion of Canadian experimentalists. While I have no doubt that Andréa’s future is bright, the loss of her stewardship of Wavelengths is a major blow to TIFF, Toronto, and the avant-garde community. And I’m sure the entire community joins me in thanking her for her efforts over the years, and wishing her the very best.

Note: The following films were not available for preview: Twenty Cigarettes (James Benning, U.S.); Bouquets 11-20 (Rose Lowder, France); and The Return (Nathaniel Dorsky, U.S.). I will be providing reviews of these films as soon as I am able to screen them.


Erratum: The Toronto International Film Festival inadvertently supplied me with a preview copy of Joshua Bonnetta's film American Colour that was in fact an unfinished workprint with a temporary, incomplete soundtrack. I have been informed by Mr. Bonnetta that the disc I received is not representative of the final film, and that it should not have been sent to members of the press. In light of this (and since the soundtrack, in particular, was a point of contention in my original review), I have chosen to delete my review, until such time as I am able to see the actual, final work. I regret this error.


 WAVELENGTHS 1: ANALOGUE ARCADIA

Loutra / Baths (Nick Collins, U.K.)

This brief and deceptively breezy-looking landscape study by Collins (a filmmaker with whom I was not previously familiar) is an exceptionally intricate mosaic whose construction largely hinges on the interplay of what we might call “subjectless reverse shots.” Or, if you prefer, the camera itself is the subject, and since Collins refrains from assigning that point of view, seemingly even to himself, it becomes an experience of pure natural vision. An ancient Roman bath, and all the natural overgrowth around it, is spatially delineated through interiors and exteriors, light and dark passages, as well as rhyming negative spaces in the foliage and decaying architecture. When Collins shows us a view toward a cave, he then takes us inside, giving us the parallel view right back out, and this symmetry, in addition to describing this chosen space with an ideal cinematic cognition, also places us, Collins’s viewers, in a kind of dialectic between the present of the film image, and the movement through time and history that the semi-preserved space itself represents.

Edwin Parker (Tacita Dean, U.S. / U.K.)

Of the films I was able to preview, I can say without hesitation that British artist/filmmaker Dean’s film portrait of the late American painter Cy Twombly is far and away the standout in this year’s Wavelengths program. If you’ve seen other work by Dean (for example, her 2002 portrait Mario Merz), you may have some clue as to what to expect. But even still, the quiet, tremulous audacity with which Dean hovers (like a mad-scientist’s cross between a housefly and Mark Lee Ping-bin) around Twombly’s office/studio in Lexington, Virginia, slowly pulling focus across thick vertical blinds, observing the midday Southern sun through the front window as cars whizz by, and using extreme close-up and hazy shifting lensing to observe the aged hands of Twombly, fumbling through his beige slacks pocket for his glasses. The scene is hushed and banal, Twombly resembling nothing so much as an elderly insurance agent in a neighborhood firm about to close up shop. Were it not for the presence of a few of the man’s inimitable plaster sculptures standing about on the desks, there would be little to distinguish Edwin Parker from a scene in an early effort by a regionalist like Ira Sachs or Kelly Reichardt.

And this is precisely the point. Dean very pointedly titled her film “Edwin Parker,” Twombly’s given name rather than his nom de peinture. It’s not just that we’re being given access to one of the greatest American artists of the 20th century, at the dawn of the 21st and the twilight of his years, in a purposely demystified manner, although it’s true that watching Twombly and his assistant take an Italian curator to lunch in a workaday Virginia diner makes for a scene of pure joy. (Some of those sloppy, “food fight” canvases take on a new meaning after watching Twombly lustily tuck into a bowl of applesauce.) What Dean demonstrates with Edwin Parker, and what this time with Twombly demonstrates as well, is in perfect concert with the Twombly we’ve been “reading” right off the paintings and drawings for fifty-plus years. As the ultimate “my kid could do that” artist, Twombly’s grand gesture has always been the active normalization of the erudite, bringing the Gods down to Earth with the dead seriousness of child’s play. When, near the end of Edwin Parker, Twombly picks up a book by Keats and briefly talks poetry, it’s both a surprise and an inevitability. Twombly, the great palimpsestic artist, allowed Tacita Dean to uncover a few more layers, just before the last great erasure. We’re all the richer.

99 Clerkenwell Road (Sophie Michael, U.K.)

A purely formal film that does manage to evoke a significant sense of play (you’ll think you’re seeing planetary movement and other symbolic, not-just-spherical things, and you’ll be right), Michael’s experiment harks back to the 1920s and 30s work of the geometrical abstractionists and “visual musicians” – Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye, Hans Richter, Mary Ellen Bute – but with a harder, 21st century edge. This isn’t to suggest any computer-generated malfeasance; by all appearances Michael is generating her images with old-fashioned tools, and in fact the title refers to a defunct toy shop where she located the basic materials for the film, it seems. (Can’t say I’m entirely clear on how that works. Is Clerkenwell partly a ray-o-gram?) More than other purely geometrical films, Clerkenwell exhibits a palpable manipulation of space; the solid-colored round “discs” that swirl into the foreground pop out into sphericality quite often, enacting a groovy, almost Sesame Street-ish tension between polka-dot action and planetary orbit. Dark field, saturated hues, all in your face like it’s neo-geo party time.

Empire (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand / Austria)

Unlike the other festival trailer on this program (see below), Apichatpong’s submission for the 2010 Viennale is a lovely but surprisingly slight entry, especially considering the fact that Joe is the rare feature filmmaker who can produce work of equal strength in the short form. Empire is a brief, slowly unfolding exploration of an undersea grotto, its bulbous stalactite formations hanging down like udders or vampire bats. (I was reminded more than once, actually, of the Mugwumps from Cronenberg’s film version of Naked Lunch.) The organic forms are no doubt beautiful, made all the more so by Apichatpong’s spot-lit underwater cinematography, which excises these hidden objects from the darkness quite casually, with none of the portent you might expect from, say, an accompanying Werner Herzog narration. The seeming appearance of great mystery (a long root or tail) is rapidly replaced by the banality of the human form, a hand examining snail shells. But why the title? If every shell is a home, is the explorer no better than a conqueror, annexing the sea in scuba-assisted Anschluss? Hard to say, and hard not to feel like I’m over-interpreting a probable Uncle Boonmee outtake.

Sack Barrow (Ben Rivers, U.K.)

The recent shift in Rivers’s work has been quite fascinating indeed. The artist has expanded beyond the poetic crypto-ethnographies that justifiably made his reputation and is now exploring multiple genres and modes of address, without entirely leaving behind the creative nonfiction procedures that instantly set his work apart. His film Slow Action, in the Future Projections section, resituates Rivers’s frequent concern with geological time within a quasi-fictional context. On the other hand, Sack Barrow is a spectral, multi-part tour of a plating factory in its final days of production. That is, rather than considering the temporality of sediment layers in the earth, divorced from their direct interaction with human beings, Rivers’s latest film revels in a material process that can only transpire when skilled humans engage with metals, salts, the thick bubbles, smoke and residue of production. Many of the shots in Sack Barrow display the shop floor as an empty relic, with its impasto of hardened metallic froth over the edge of basins, or lingering pin-up girl postcards about three decades out of date. But Rivers also shows us women and men at work, stationed independently, not on an assembly line. This is clearly high-quality, inefficient labor that maximizes time over both productivity and managerial oversight, the buzzwords that drive contemporary manufacturing (and drive it right on over to China). Rivers, it should be noted, maintains medium to medium-long shots of the workers, never showing exactly what they do. Like the smelting smoke, they’re more like an organic part of a fully functioning entity, not “at” or “inside” it. And now that organism is gone.

Ars Colonia (Raya Martin, The Philippines/The Netherlands)

Martin, who up to now has been primarily known for highly experimental narrative films exploring the history (cinematic and otherwise) of The Philippines, has produced a silent, ultra-brief but replete film (just over one minute), originally commissioned as the festival trailer for the 2011 International Film Festival Rotterdam. It begins with a rain of blue and green “static,” vertical hashmarks from the top of the frame down to the bottom in a kind of pyramid formation. These painterly forms resemble TV fuzz, or Brakhage mark-making (Brakhage is a primary presiding spirit in Martin's film), but above all the “temple ceiling” canvases of Ross Bleckner, a touchstone I suspect to be a mere coincidence aside from the fact that both Bleckner and Martin are employing light, color and gesture to imply a firmament. Seconds later, Martin introduces Ars Colonia’s primary motif — a helmeted man (a conquistador, it appears), crossing a beach in medium close-up. He crosses in front of a broad island expanse, dark trees melding with his features. We see the sea and the sky, with a large dark rock in the background. Scale and perspective in the image essentially equate the rock (the new land) and the colonist's royally-appointed head. (Not to put too fine a point on it, Martin scratches into the emulsion of the scene, placing hashmarks of cartoon radiance — a halo flash — around the soldier's head, and then around the summit of the rock.) Throughout this brief passage (only about seven seconds), Martin paints the sky in magentas and tinged yellows; colors pop in and out, and squiggly outlines define, for split seconds only, the contours of the island and the galumphing Spaniard’s head.

The unstable movement of the fields of color (seemingly applied with permanent markers rather than paint) adds to the nervous activation of the scene(s). At the 40 second mark, a red sky and a green-black sea give way to solarized/negative forms and the pure dot-gestures of fireworks. However, Martin has drained these shots of their expected color, so we see only darkened, circular mandalas of negative emulsion (reproduced in video, it appears) superimposed on bold, shifting color fields of blue, green and red. This “structure,” then, goes haywire, and all manner of animated line/dot formations — rain swipes; Robert Breer-like pastel polka dots on clear leader; competing felt-tip marker fields; swarms of celluloid scratches in skeins of raw color — get swept up in the image-collapse of bad VHS. Tracking lines and stuttering vertical hold bars “eat up” the pure cinema, “colonizing” it. The last “image” we see (apart from Raya Martin’s super-quick signature, again quite Breer-like) is a Man Ray-style black and white reversal, black buckshot on a pure white field, a sort of gunfire ejaculation of reversed light. It’s celluloid’s feeble last stand, but a bang nonetheless.

WAVELENGTHS 3: SERIAL RHYTHMS

Found Cuban Mounts (Adriana Salazar Arroyo, Costa Rica / Germany)

Another highlight of the series, Salazar’s film nestles in at a perfect conjuncture of formalism and political history, neither one ever gaining the upper hand. Found Cuban Mounts is a slightly rough, seemingly in-camera graphing of various revolutionary monuments and civic squares throughout Havana and environs. We see, for example, bas-reliefs of Guevara and Marx, broken into single-image segments, presented one after the other in a makeshift grid pattern that Salazar imposes through her segmented cinematic looking. At times, as with a monument featuring the words of Castro, this patterning results in an implicit request that we read the text, broken up across a series of mini-“plaques” of fixed frame imagery. Salazar’s method is polyvalent. It prevents touristic gawking at her subject. It emphasizes both positive and negative attributes (both internally and externally defined) regarding the Socialist state – seeing becomes labor, but it is also subject to management and restriction – such that neither attitude becomes “right.” Like many structural films, Found Cuban Mounts has a back-story (or a back-formula) that explains how and why it’s built (Salazar’s rhythm corresponds to cadences in Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech), but as is usually the case, knowing or not knowing this fact makes little difference in the appreciation of the film itself.

I Will Forget This Day (Alina Rudnitskaya, Russia)

One of the few outright duds of this year’s series, Rudnitskaya’s quasi-narrative short employs half-hearted serial technique to drive home a message of de-individuation of young women in contemporary Russia, but I Will Forget This Day is so stranded in equivocation that it almost refuses to make a mark. In hazy black-and-white 35mm (so washed out it resembles video, not unlike a distaff Sokurov in its own way), woman after woman dons a hospital gown and goes behind the double doors of the clinic’s private area. Then, woman after woman is wheeled out on a gurney. Are they having plastic surgery? Abortions? Lobotomies? Turns out the answer is (B), and we hear a craggy counselor harangue the women who are in late-term. The only shots outside the hospital are repeated long shots of a bridge in the snow, presumably taking woman after woman from the miserable hospital back to their miserable lives. Rudnitskaya’s method never allows any woman’s plight, or the Plight of Woman, to have much impact. Everything remains a gauzy, half-considered veil of general woe. I will forget this film.

Sea Series #10 (John Price, Canada)

One of the consistent pleasures of the Wavelengths programs under Andréa Picard’s leadership has been her championing of John Price, a really fine Canadian filmmaker whose work doesn’t get shown in the States nearly as much as it ought to. His films tend to straddle a line between diaristic, private affairs and something bigger, gesturing outward from the very personal. Unlike others who work in this vein – the small-scale, almost notepad approach to filming daily life – Price’s films never feel precious or even geared to elicit what we typically think of as empathy. Instead, they isolate within the everyday a kernel of formal or intellectual distance, which is then subsequently reflooded with the rush of the quotidian.

The latest film in Price’s Sea Series is, on its face, a three-part “trick film” about visiting the lakeside beach. The first part finds Price’s camera trained out on the water as sailboats come in and out of view. Oddly, the boats just seem to appear on the screen, without entering from the side of the frame. Price must be exploiting a low cloud cover. Next, we see the water again, then pan ¼ turn and see what the frame had been concealing: Toronto’s Pickering nuclear power plant. It dominates the background of the “beach,” and produces anomalies in the sky (“funny clouds”). In part three, Price uses black and white to gaze down the beach at the activity (and inactivity) on this stretch of coast. What this home movie is looking for, however, is more complex. The title card gives the date (May 21, 2011) and Pickering’s distance from Fukushima, Japan. Price and his family are spending the day out by a nuclear reactor, thinking about those less fortunate living near the Daiichi plant, its core in meltdown following March’s deadly tsunami. But why May 21st? As Price reminds us (and sadly, even I’d forgotten), this was the day so many American Evangelicals told us the Rapture was coming. (Here in Houston, a non-evangelical religious group posted billboards on the 22nd which read, “That was awkward.”) So Sea Series #10 uses the vast waters to display connection, rather than the usual sense of separation, and to remind the more impressionable among us that, as time and history move us along, the world “ends” a bit every day.

Sailboat (Joyce Wieland, Canada, 1967)

This year’s lone classic in the Wavelengths line-up, and it’s a fine if ineluctably odd film from one of experimental cinema’s underappreciated greats. Like her from 1933 from the same year, Sailboat is a kind of cognitive game in which the pure sensual information of the image is pitted against the honking semiotic stamp of language. For just under three minutes, we see a blueprint-blue whirl of grain, an ocean expanse on the screen with small sailboats drifting placidly across in the diegetic time of their own travel. Along the top of this image, dominating its top third, is the word “sailboat” in white serif font. A cinematic cousin to the paintings and sculptures of Joseph Kosuth, Wieland’s film is wry conceptualism that also remembers to address the eye.

A Preface to Red (Jonathan Schwartz, U.S. / Turkey)

There is an openness and curiosity about the world that characterizes the films of Jonathan Schwartz. It is often the case, when describing a filmmaker, that too much emphasis can be placed on where they studied and with whom. It’s the kind of background information that easily mutates into a lazy shorthand or empty factoid. But in applying one’s eyes and ears to Schwartz’s unusual films, it’s hard not to consider (if only as a starting place) that he worked with both Saul Levine and the late Mark LaPore while at MassArt. Most of Schwartz’s films are relatively short but dense, sometimes edited in-camera, and almost always organized more according to associations of color and shape than any obvious argumentative rhetoric. And many of the films document Schwartz’s international excursions, particularly to the Middle East. We can see throughout Schwartz’s work the tension between the two approaches to the world exemplified by his masters — Levine’s exuberance and LaPore’s caution reticence.

As a result, Schwartz’s work exists as a dialectic all its own, with a kind of wry fascination with things and a tinkerer’s yearning to take them apart and put them back together again. A Preface to Red exhibits this attitude, while at the same time displaying a rather unexpected level of formal aggression from the usually sedate Schwartz. Beginning with the night-time tail-lights of a traffic jam, Red soon enters daylight with a series of bright forms in the titular hue. Many are composed against the hot color temperature of the Turkish sun, and before long, the Constructivist beauty of Schwartz’s semi-ethnographic fragments (not dissimilar to Warren Sonbert in their brevity and aesthetic exactitude) is being overpowered by a violent, ear-damning sound design wavering somewhere between white noise, stadium cheering, and the cyclical whinny of an unseen factory machine. (According to Schwartz, it’s a field recording from inside a tunnel near a harbor.) Schwartz is to be commended for having the chutzpah (so rare today) to generate pointed, rigorous discomfort, and as Red progresses and concludes, the purpose becomes clear. In the final shots, we see people filing onto a bus, and a close-up of a loudspeaker (perhaps indicating that this otherwise everyday occurrence has become “news”). Some lives, some places, exist under the squall of permanent pressure. And sometimes, the perspectives we try our best to bracket out just hang with us, like a ringing in our ears.

Resonance (Karen Johannesen, U.S.)

Blown up from Super 8, the gauge in which Johannesen customarily works, Resonance is a lovely, amber-toned abstraction that initiates a set of essentially painterly values and then sets to work pumping, popping and thrusting them about in a shadowbox of deep, miniaturized space. Taken as purely optical information, Resonance consists of vertical black bands interrupted by shifting golden stripes, which themselves are traversed by thinner horizontal black stripes. The golden stripes move forward and back, and sometimes seem to whirl around each other as different frame-by-frame “sets” blend in the eye. The more you look at it, the more you see “what it is.” (The yellowish forms are parts of a brick wall; the black stripes are negative space possibly produced in the processing, or maybe actually by some actual object like vertical blinds.) But space and motion overtake any sturdy resolution into “thingness.” Johannesen’s film is there strictly to vibrate, to open up a gap in vision – a literal hole in the wall.

Optra Field VII-IX (T. Marie, U.S.)

Late last year I had the pleasure of presenting a selection of works by video artist T. Marie in a festival program entitled “Pixel Painting,” alongside works by Phil Solomon and others. Sadly, it was to an assembled audience of five. But nevertheless, we repaired to a coffee shop and had a wonderful discussion about the screening, particularly Marie’s pieces, which fascinated by their unique application of painterly principles (particularly color mixing and the organization of the frame) to the video raster. Likewise, the pieces in question – 010101 (2009) and Slave Ship (2010) – represent a complex intersection between two distinct temporalities, which we might call “screen time” and “painting time.” We know that screen time is a duration determined by the maker of a work. But the beholder typically controls “painting time”, even though he or she may not consciously comprehend how a (still) picture unfolds before him or her in the looking mind. T. Marie’s practice, in addition to pushing individual pixel work to a highly defined level of aesthetic control, is also a deeply original and challenging investigation into this problem. And having said all this, I hope I can be understood when I explain that Marie’s latest works, Optra Field VII-IX, strike me as rather disappointing. Although these three “canvases” are clearly as meticulous as Marie’s earlier efforts, the decision to explore the black and white lines and forms of Op Art seems redundant, if not wrongheaded. Op Art, with its almost neurological play on the standard sensorium, is already functioning “in time.” Setting forth an electronic Op field and then gradually shifting it is, in some sense, gilding the perceptual lily. In fact, this activation, together with the light quality and pixel shifting of video (as opposed to the latex matte of actual Op Art painting), threatens to place the spectator in a position so passive as to cancel “painting time” altogether. I deeply admire Marie as an artist and as a pioneer, but I simply feel that she’s barking up the wrong neurons this time around.

Chevelle (Kevin Jerome Everson, U.S. / Canada)

No Really, Get Out of the Car – One of the simplest and most elegant films in this year’s program, Everson’s short, structural mini-documentary has bounce, crunch, and... well, I was going to say “a chassis that just won’t quit,” but as a matter of fact, Chevelle is a fixed-frame, real-time observation of the flattening of two junkers in a junkyard in Cookstown, ON. (The first is a green Grand Am, the second the Chevelle of the title, in Mary Kay pink.) Everson takes his distance from the rectilinear, ground-level smasher, giving his composition the distinct feel of a proscenium (In fact, it strongly resembles one of Robert Wilson’s postmodern opera sets – the CIVIL warS as populated by the John Chamberlain sculptures of the future.) Coming in from frame right, like an open-armed Shiva, is the forklift, sliding the cars onto the smasher like Pietàs. The plate comes down; the whole apparatus bounces. Pressure increases. Glass flies out midway to flatness. And there you have it: metal on metal, that’s what we crave. Program it alongside Thom Andersen’s latest. Yeah, we bust the windows out your car.

WAVELENGTHS 4: SPACE IS THE PLACE

349 (for Sol LeWitt) (Chris Kennedy, Canada)

Kennedy is one of a number of filmmakers who, to my mind, have returned to the lessons of structural film in recent decades, but with a difference. Whereas that tendency (don’t call it a “movement”!) eventually became anathema due to perceptions of academicism and an anti-humanist bent, this newer generation of film- and videomakers (including Scott Stark, Lynn Marie Kirby, Tomonari Nishikawa, Daïchi Saïto, and folks on this year’s program, like Recoder / Gibson and Blake Williams) understand “formalism” as a toolbox rather than a crusade. Having moved through that history, and others as well, it can serve as an opportunity not only for playfulness but even sly self-expression. 349, like Kennedy’s Tamalpais from two years ago, takes an external set of terms and organizes them according to a sequential grid. But unlike the earlier film, which segmented a landscape into a syntagmatic chain, 349 takes the elements of a Sol LeWitt wall drawing (one of the artist’s conceptual works, created as a series of directions for gallery employees to “perform”) and runs through them in such rapid succession as to practically layer them into one animated semi-solid. The primary structures of minimalism, when combined with the accelerated time element of digital video, results in a comical new form of “primary,” a bright, electric play-object that would not look out of place in between more conventional segments of Sesame Street or Yo Gabba Gabba! (And in this regard, Kennedy’s piece offers a hat-tip of sorts to the late avant-animator Robert Breer, whose films did in fact end up in children’s television.)

Black Mirror at The National Gallery (Mark Lewis, U.K. / Canada)

In its single, semi-remote-controlled shot, Mark Lewis’s Black Mirror manages not only to raise certain questions about the nature of art spectatorship. (To call them “probing questions” would be to pun too hard to request clemency.) The film also accomplishes the noteworthy secondary goal – intended or not, I can’t say – of being frightening as hell, easily the scariest film in Wavelengths (not hard to do, typically) and a likely candidate for Horror Film of TIFF 2011. With a nod or more to Michael Snow’s classic La Région central, Lewis has outfitted a tall black mechanized arm (although I think we may catch a glimpse of human control – not certain) with a flat reflective disc. This robotic mirror-man is on dolly tracks moving straight ahead toward the camera, and it moves ever so slowly through two rooms of paintings in the National Gallery. On its central axis, the mirror dislocates the wainscoting, playing angles off each other to realign the gallery space, bringing some paintings closer, sending others further away. Views from the far room are enfolded into the nearer chamber. But this creepy giant eye isn’t just for spatial games. It really is an artificial “looker,” a kind of A.I. art-thinking machine. It pointedly bypasses canvases it isn’t “interested” in. At one point, it uses its mirror reflecting capability to “compare” two paintings side by side, in the Heinrich Wölfflin style. And indeed, it zooms in on “us,” the camera eye, before retreating into itself. Much as Snow’s film demonstrated the landscape’s bald existence apart from any human life, Black Mirror seems to postulate a hermetic world of self-sufficient masterpieces, a forest of signs that “makes a sound” even when our eyes are averted.

Untitled (Neïl Beloufa, France)

In many respects Untitled is the closest thing that this year’s Wavelengths has to a narrative work or “calling card” short. Even Rudnitskaya’s film has more in the way of looping and non-characterization – hallmarks, after a fashion, of the avant-garde’s customary non-psychological approach – than Beloufa’s film, with its unity of place and time, symphony of consistently assigned voices, and exploration of a particular social/emotional complication. However, there is absolutely nothing conventional about Untitled, or about the films of Beloufa, one of the more interesting figures to come onto the scene in recent years. The “story” of an Algerian villa occupied, and ostensibly abused, by guerrilla rebels, Untitled is a surreal quasi-stage play about trying to repair a massive rupture in the colonial membrane, a vulnerability displaced onto a building continually referred to as “her” and “she.” We see and hear the servants, neighbors, and the elderly master of the house, all as turned backs or truncated torsos. We never see them straight on. And “she,” the house “herself,” is also never seen in a straightforward manner, largely because the home’s existence is manifestly a projection, a physical fantasy. Look closely, and every vista is a photographic blow-up. The walls are cardboard and veneer.

Space is the Place (Eriko Sonoda, Japan)

It took me awhile to "get" Eriko Sonoda's videos. Even the piece of hers that I think is her strongest, 2008’s Garden/ing, took a bit of time to grow on me. This is by no means a criticism; a lot of strong and highly original experimental work has fallen into this category for me, taking some time for understanding. I think what tended to throw me off (and what, I admit, still throws me off at first, when encountering her pieces on first viewing) is that her pieces can feel somewhat static, like time-based works that are not fully engaged that crucial fourth dimension. Instead, they can sometimes feel as though they are promulgating a single idea over and over. However, I have kind of changed my mind about this, and even though I still have some initial reservations with the pieces (including this one), I have become a Sonoda believer. And I think it's because now, I think of them as something other (or even "Other") that videos.

Sonoda’s work (much like Michael Snow’s) is not multimedia but mixed media, bringing photography, digital video, and even drawing into the purview of a single piece. In fact, her latest piece uses video to add a specific time dimension to what is essentially a work of minimalist installation. Once again shooting a gallery space, this time at the corner, Sonoda covers most of the white walls with moving pieces of white paper, travelling across the space in a left-to-right grid pattern. Interrupting this expanse, mostly along the bottom but occasionally peeking out from the top, are images of beige hardwood gallery flooring (with a slightly lighter finish than the gallery floor itself), forming triangles that bob up and down from the base of the wall like toy sailboats in a bathtub. In time, these triangles rotate, invert, and even break apart into kaleidoscopic geometrical static. Sonoda’s work is still resolutely “in” video, but is more directly connected to artwork that engages with the gallery/museum space as its own subject (the Asher/Lewitt/Smithson line). Could a work that is absolutely “in” video – single channel, made for the screen, intended to be taken in during one sitting – ever be considered “expanded cinema,” or a “Future Projections” effort? I’m interested in watching these boundaries become irrelevant.

Young Pines (Ute Aurand, Germany)

Aurand’s film Hanging Upside Down in the Branches, an intimate film-portrait of women friends and relatives young and old, was a high point of Wavelengths in 2009, and she returns this year with a medium-length film that, while quite different in subject and approach, maintains the same tactile curiosity with the world in front of the camera. Young Pines records Aurand’s movements during a stay in Japan from May 2009 to November 2010. Her hand-held, staccato jump cuts (the result, it would appear, of in-camera editing) instigate a kind of “breath” in the images before us, a mark of the watching woman who maintains a respectful distance but nevertheless remains fully engaged. This is no “empire of signs” (to borrow Roland Barthes’s term); Aurand never reduces Japan to stock signifiers, even when examining such cultural markers as ink and brush calligraphy or Shinto shrines. In fact, Aurand’s formal approach could be said (if you can imagine it) to reflect a kind of dialectical position between the placid, timeless emanations of Nathaniel Dorsky and the vibrating, restless inter-frame fluctuations of Rose Lowder. (They’re both on this year’s program, so see for yourself. Oh, Andréa, you sly fox!)

But actually, Aurand does possess her own unique rhythm, one that becomes clearer as the film unspools. Young Pines has a macro-structure that, while hardly “narrative,” does mark definite shifts in perception and stance toward the locale before the lens. The shots become less jagged, and Aurand’s images are less murky, more vivid and (for lack of a better term) “involved” as the film goes along. (A turning point of sorts comes when Aurand observes a couple of elderly farmers harvesting cabbages. She hands them to him; he pitches them into the basket on his back, over and over, in a series of NBA no-look alley-oops. Growing old, lest we forget, means mastery.) Young Pines is mostly silent, but there are occasional passages of sound, Aurand providing a sustained sense of depth in these moments. The general arc of the film comes full circle, as nervous train-window shots indicate another uprooting, the end of hard-won belonging. But we also see the gorgeous, imposing normalcy of the natural world – bright flowers, red peppers on the vine, some kids unearthing a sweet potato. Only once does Aurand introduce text, and the 30 minute mark. A title card reads, “Matsushima, ah!” It’s at this instance, perhaps, that Young Pines evinces a melancholy recognition that belonging has its limits, beyond which lay only empathy.

Coorow-Latham Road (Blake Williams, Canada)

There’s something afoot in the seeming long take down the long road in the Australian outback in this highly attenuated (in more ways than one) new work by newcomer Blake Williams. After a few seconds of possible cringing (festival veterans may initially think there’s a projection or digital rendering problem), it becomes fairly evident what Coorow-Latham Road is up to. It’s the mirage-like gaps that give it away; they almost imply that we’re entering some other dimension, like those shimmering portals Walter Bishop opens up on Fringe. Or maybe it’s just a wall of heat. But of course, what we’re seeing (pace Eric Morecambe) is “the join,” not an entry into another space but a mismatch-up from another time. Williams has created this “tracking shot” artificially using Google Earth, and so we’re witnessing the record of multiple passes, a kind of spatial average that refuses to smooth out into faux-singularity. For his part, Williams is able to reduce the older tropes of structural realism – duration, physical presence, the flat correspondence of time with space – to a desktop procedure. For his part, it isn’t perfect, and I’m not sure it’s meant to be. (I have trouble figuring out why Williams pans left when he does; his move into reverse-shot is anything but smooth.) But Coorow-Latham Road does adhere, in its problematized 21st century way, to the early dream of the Lumières, to bring the distant closer. The smeary trees, meanwhile, remind us that this proximity is a form of distance.

WAVELENGTHS 5: THE RETURN / ABERRATION OF LIGHT

Aberration of Light: Dark Chamber Disclosure (Sandra Gibson, Luis Recoder, and Olivia Block, U.S.)

In a closing performance work guaranteed to bend and warp not only the definition of “cinema” (who needs a filmstrip?) but light itself, the justifiably lauded team of Gibson, Recoder, and Block take over Jackman Hall in order to dazzle if not overwhelm. Aberration of Light is a work that leaps off the screen and into the breach between its audience and the architecture it shares with them. Horizontal bands of white light form cylindrical patterns, spinning in space to the muscular, sheetlike accompaniment of Block’s music. Working only with projectors, filters and movement (although, like their fellow film-performers Ken Jacobs and Bruce McClure), Team GibRecBlo never reveal all their trade secrets. Nor should they; part of the thrill comes from witnessing the seemingly impossible mutation of pure ingots of light, bent and sliced, just jiggling up there so close to the ceiling, and looking back at the booth and seeing Sandra or Luis making what appears to be the slightest adjustment of a knob, or the tiniest flick of the wrist. It’s all good science, but it may be better not to try to “get it.” Just enjoy it as these three high-precision artists make it rain in the club.

Many thanks Michael for providing brief respite from the barrage of melancholy news today…
Erratum: The Toronto International Film Festival inadvertently supplied me with a preview copy of Joshua Bonnetta’s film American Colour that was in fact an unfinished workprint with a temporary, incomplete soundtrack. I have been informed by Mr. Bonnetta that the disc I received is not representative of the final film, and that it should not have been sent to members of the press. In light of this (and since the soundtrack, in particular, was a point of contention in my original review), I have chosen to delete my review, until such time as I am able to see the actual, final work. I regret this error.
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Excellent overview. Thank you for the information and the great stills as well. I would have loved to see a bit more global diversity (read: non-Western works) in Picard’s selections. Perhaps there was and you didn’t have time and space to cover everything?

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