Much of my problem with so-called experimental cinema is a matter of language, and my marriage to it as both a viewer and a critic, despite language’s inevitable failure in the face of other forms of meaning. Some of my difficulty is based on background and affinities, some of it exposure and/or familiarity; most is plain obduracy. For whatever reason we may chose to fixate on, I have a hard time letting non-narrative films tell me how to read them beyond the sense I can put into words. After all, I am inarticulate without them.
One friend says the trick is to bring the films “down” to the most fundamental ways in which they work, how the pieces may “add up”—but again this is a metaphor, which is of course the premise of language—an arbitrary equation of different things—and awfully teleological in a realm of expanding the sense or the possibilities inherent in a medium so dominated by story and money—the two most accepted and powerful metaphors we’ve invented. Then again, a lot of the work (some, plenty, all?) experimental films are doing is categorically not metaphorical. Or a sidestep, a move away from metaphor. Some things are simply things, and “experimental” has the same root as “experience.”
The ends we seek from art say more about us than the art we experience, or create. As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to understand things and have recourse to relate these ideas to an interlocutor. I’ve sought possession of a vocabulary fit for any occasion. (I’m still seeking it, and I think it likely my search will find no endgame.) Because of this, I tend to enjoy and gravitate towards art that has a similar interest in communication (although, yes, showing any film to a congregated audience can be considered an effort of sensorial communication). I think it’s a desire to be with people, or to be better with people—that is, to be a better at being with people. I don’t expect all art to have the same aim, but I know I’m biased in favor of such a core idea, and I know it’s tied to language, to a practice of naming things. Experience is easier to manage (understand) when it’s broken down, compartmentalized, everything in its right place. And I know the aim of most experimental work is specifically designed to upend that practice, to break those habits, if only for a terminal period. Reconciling these poles of understanding, held apart from one another in the way a seesaw separates friends, should be a challenge; I just seek the test, as my metaphor in the previous clause attests, in a form of play.
The San Francisco Cinematheque’s annual Crossroads Festival gives us another metaphor in its title. What if these ways of understanding were to lace? Sounds magical. Nothing glitters as brightly, as seductively, as the possible. Nothing hurts my brain more than disappointment, except for maybe the migraines I endure every so often. When combined, I get madder than a snake, quick to fight off entreaties. In short, during the festival it sometimes felt like I failed the films I did not care for as much as I felt in turn felled by them.
The festival is marvelous, however: a lively crowd of receptive spectators quick to cheer and reward films with more than polite applause, a thoughtful series of nine programs each organized by a coherent theme, a lovely polyphony of media from celluloid to digital and back in between or in concert, a vibrant melange of conversations and cigarettes and bourbon and beer when the auditorium transitioned, a real nexus of weirdos sadly missing in most 2015 San Francisco social circles. In other words, it’s a festival motivated not by commerce but actual art works, and its audience’s desire for them. (Even Panda Bear’s ecstatic performance across town not three days after the festival closed smacked both of its debt to his latest, greatest, ever-purchasable record—pop will pop—and an appearance at Coachella, perhaps the ne plus ultra of corporate hedonism.)
Another friend told me one way he enjoys experimental films is by experiencing them as discrete studies, akin to the earlier meanings of essay: “an attempt” or “an effort” or “trial” or “test.” It allows for imperfection; it’s a generous posture to take in your seat. There are a few films at the festival that I simply had to block out, for fear of my migraines and the nausea they engender as much as the stabbing pain behind my right eye. I understand them to be tests, and I see the possibility for a unique experience therein, but I’m not afraid to say I closed my eyes—I squinted with my index fingers across my lashes—and plugged my ears for a few fifteen minute periods. One of these films earned rabid, prolonged applause, further shaming me, but also relieving me of any debt I owed the filmmaker.
My favorite film all weekend was one of the last I saw: The Kiss, by Luis Maciás. A couple appears, seated cheek to cheek, and the man murmurs sweet nothings we cannot hear (indeed nothing), before fixing his mustache as preparation to, yes, kiss his belle. The first vision appears to be true silent cinema, 18fps and everything, down to the costumes. Next it seems to wash out a bit, as if aged in an edit, viewed again at a slightly slower pace, in a slightly different frame size, in a slightly different area of the frame, before it too finds an abrupt end in black. It repeats, it degrades. It begins to look like video. The light bleeds this time. Their faces just white shapes now. Are they cats pawing each other? Is she a cow now? A leopard. No, the image tracks like VHS, and the man is gone. The man’s elbow once an acute angle is a blush of greyscale. They are one. They radiate. She’s everything, all light, a vision of osmosis, an expansion. A balloon inflated and abated. A read out unlike any other CAT or EKG I’ve known. A murmur in the end. And some of the most hilariously protracted credits for something seemingly so simple that I have ever seen. (The crowd giggled, too.)
I recognize that Rose by Shiloh Cinquemani is fascinating, alive; I cannot watch it for very long, as its flickering construction is the kind of assault my eyes and brain will not accommodate. vindmøller, by Margaret Rorison, is a handmade beauty of textures in triplicate, an arrangement of trios in a three minute waltz of black and white and sine waves that is 95% pure pleasure. Karissa Hahn’s Sayre’s Vapor has a nice conceit (window as a ghost’s world) and welcome brevity sadly undone by its soundtrack (a generic plague). Traces/Legacy is an alarming throb of alternating textures that Scott Stark uses 35mm to picture pieces of, as if the frame is a always-already crop tool. I want to see what Mary Helena Clark’s work-in-progress The Sound of Running in My Voice becomes over time, if she focuses on hands more than the fire finale. Ross Meckfessel’s The Golden Hour plays and essays with what emulsion is and does and is not and does not, how exposure might work, in a scarred and blemished frame unique to 16mm hand processing, what color should be (used for?), how we concrete shadows, histories, and memories to confront the darkness. Figure—Ground by Jean-Paul Kelly is obnoxious, deft, blocky; a trick of animation asking you to focus on what’s missing (words, one thing). Under the Heat Lamp an Opening (Zachary Epcar) is as funny and blythe as its title is obtuse, a mix of Jacques Tati and Ernie Gehr tropes that makes lunch a horror show of pretension in extreme close-up and goofy “dialog” ADR’d without a care for directness. Sugarcoated Arsenic by Claudrena Harold and Kevin Jerome Everson is the most “Right On!” movie the festival showed, and a great game of representation, as a subject and genre (or medium itself) to give its subjects a true voice, a real say in things in this world where we feed the powerless what they’ve titled their film: maleficence cloaked in the most superficial compassion.
The Bens Rivers and Russell each had a short present—Things (16mm), Greetings from the Ancestors (Super 16), respectively—each pretty much in line with what their work has been (pushing documentation past representation), and each “better” than what they made together in my opinion, with Rivers ahead here. (I’m silly enough to deem their careers an unofficial competition from the outside looking in, given my proclivity for narrative, and in spite of no firsthand knowledge.)
Things is full of ideas and juxtapositions, many inscrutable, but it has a base or a background of words that helped me stay grounded. And it starts with a structure familiar to anybody: Winter-Spring-Summer-Autumn. Winter begins with black and white stills, primarily, given the illusion of life through the shifts in the framing (zooms, handheld pans) and plays of light across the frames—not to mention the edit—where a cut can Kushelov your brain. Its first image is a cave painting, light flickering, before a cut to a what looks like a stock image clipped from newsprint, the soundtrack an exploding shotgun and then a cacophony of undecipherable conversation before we hear “Where is he?” We see a man at a bookshelf, a poster of the moon, various statutes, everything archival (it would seem), but animated more than a series of documents. The “Winter” sequence even stops itself with a title card (the only “season” to do so) asking the audience if they’re there (“Ola?/You there?”) before we hear a Caribbean “Sinnerman” in the round, over photos of what culled together looks like a 1950s Hollywood party. Are these icons (long dead, akin to the statues) adrift in time? Unmoored in virtue?
And Spring arrives—with a flood. All kinds of water and ice falling, flowing, into our first color image: a page in a book, held by delicate thumbs, which an accented woman reads in total from off camera, before showing us a cover, and more words: “Fable / a novel by / Robert Pinget” above a wide-eyed young man in a black and white photograph. Birds chirp. A woman (the same?) reads in silence, observed through a doorway. Leisure. Whales sing and we see a pencil begin to draw in negative exposure. The songs of whales are a message intended, thanks NASA, to spread through the galaxy for 1.2 billion years in search of other life forms. The drawing is of the wide-eyed Pinget. Trajectory emerges: from one language to another, past the human, past the earth. But what was read from Pinget? A story that ends with cannibalism, and here’s a simpler drawing, of that naked leader holding his prey’s penis. Man’s impulse to dominate is forever self-directed, and violent, a negation. Spring wipes away winter, and is burnt into memory in turn.
Summer is lovely, fun, hilarious. We hear Andy Kaufman start a famous set on the soundtrack, not trying to be funny, but killing nonetheless, while we watch a squirrel meet a mirror, a wooden miniature, only to destroy it. Our species is not alone in self-effacement.
Autumn doesn’t look real: an unedited four minute “take” that shortly becomes legible as a computer generated POV tour of some small home. Cracked ceiling, walls. A doorway, another door beyond. An empty mirror and a puzzled grunt from whomever or whatever is exploring the space. Into the bathroom for a piss, each doorway crossed another water glyph sound effect, the piss audible too—but from where? In the end, we’re drawing on the fractured wall: a man, complete with eight fingers, one dick, and two funny feet, drawn at a diagonal across the cracks, above a one-stick-leg bird. Some things on a wall. A flare of yellow and orange only celluloid can make beautiful. And black. How far have we come far from the caves?
Things lends itself to such an elucidation/reading/cataloging as above because, I think, it holds as a foundational idea that “ a = a’ ” or, “a is not-a”, which is at the heart of all metaphor, and language. It sounds like tautology, but I find it can be a profound springboard into a river of new meanings. Things seems to argue that the world, disclosed by the camera here, is a cyclical game of recognition, each experience an opportunity to see what is continuous and discontinuous with our selves and how we see. (How we see things?) Like a lot of good art, it draws lines for us to fill in, another metaphor for meaning, or its process. But it doesn’t rest, solely, in metaphors, in that equation above, despite its tether to it. The last word we see in Things is “Vers” on a sign on a wall, above some plants, which is French for “towards.” “Metaphor” comes from “transfer” and “carry over,” and Aristotle liked to praise it as the most pleasurable way to learn: to be reminded of the familiar to conceive of something new.
It can even help with art that has no use for it, does not work with metaphor. Metaphor, after all, is a way of sense-making, the primary tool for most rhetoric to deploy concepts, to bring what’s disparate together. It’s fundamental to my ability to understand, and when it’s challenged, I need to remind myself that’s okay, to remember to pay attention to the differences, to erect the seesaw across not just one axis but allow for as many intersections/branches/poles as necessary. Not every film (or any object of thought) can support such generosity, of course, but then again not every essay should be complete. (Nor should the luxury of free thinking be ignored.) Each thing has a quality, good or bad, and recognizing it as it is can be understood as a spectator’s present duty in the dark—as much as teasing sense from the form of arrangement. What keeps me curious is how and when we choose to let an object tell us how to approach, use, experience, value it. Where does your charity lie?