All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
In a recent Cinema Scope article regarding Sundance's scattershot, rather anemic attempts at incorporating experimental film into their program, Robert Koehler articulated the need for a single governing intelligence when it came to avant-garde programming. In a lengthy excursus praising (quite rightly) the work of Andréa Picard (and Susan Oxtoby before her) in shaping the Wavelengths section at Toronto, Koehler explains that they were / are "authors of the section," providing a clear and unique curatorial voice and "signature" for Wavelengths, a clear sense of what path is the most important one to carve through the vast thicket of nonnarrative film and video production. He certainly has a point where TIFF is concerned. Picard has a specific and extremely valuable sensibility. As I've noted elsewhere, she tends to be more attuned to film and video with its roots in the international art world than many other programmers, and favors the high-aesthetic end of 16mm co-op work (Dorsky and Hutton are blue-chip examples) over scragglier, more funk-encrusted efforts. Now, I do think Koehler overstates the degree to which Wavelengths is integrated into the overall pro-industry texture of TIFF. There are no press screenings for Wavelengths films during TIFF, and I'm certain that many festivalgoers toddle around the Varsity Theatre oblivious to the section's existence. But so what?
What can we glean from Images? For one thing, the single-channel videos and single-strip films are but a small (though vital) part of the project, and if a festgoer like myself relies on his usual preference for sit-down onscreen presentations -- the lure of single individual "films" -- you'll miss some of the best work on display. There is some question as to whether the "media festival" format is a necessary corrective to the limitations of what film festivals in the usual mold can do. Some of the resistance, no doubt, stems from the triumphalist crowing of certain new-media types, intent on displacing the classical model of sitting down and, you know, paying close attention in dark room. But there's no hint of this attitude at Images. Between single screenings at the initially rather jarring home-base theatre venue of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, whose campus is applaudably central to the city's gallery district (a sign that Canadian gentrification will
seen prior to the festival
The following films from the Louise Bourque tribute, most of which I discuss in the catalogue. There's a link on my index page.
Just Words (Louise Bourque, Canada, 1991) [s]
Fissures (Louise Bourque, U.S. / Canada, 1991) [s]
Imprint (Louise Bourque, U.S. / Canada, 1997) [s]
Self Portrait Post Mortem (Louise Bourque, U.S. / Canada, 2002) [s]
Jours en fleurs (Louise Bourque, U.S. / Canada, 2003) [s]
L'éclat du mal / The Bleeding Heart of It (Louise Bourque, U.S. / Canada, 2005) [s]
seen at the festival
There are certain works which are clearly accomplished, intelligent, and yet you find that they exemplify a certain sensibility you just don't share. This kind of describes the films of Jim Trainor for me. He's an independent animator whose works operate at a juncture between conceptual art, abstraction, and conventional character animation. A little bit Robert Breer, a little bit Don Hertzfeld, Trainor tends to formulate pseudo- or speculative-anthropologies and / or biologies, and his latest film, The Presentation Theme, is actually the sharpest example of this project to date. Using basic (dare we say "primitive"?) line drawings, Trainor offers discomfitingly apt representations of visual motifs from the Moche culture (2nd-9th century BCE) indigenous to Peru. He extrapolates (with the help of a deadpan female narrator) a hapless, impotent male subject at the center of thee rites, belittled by the mythic, unfeminine mother and dominated by the father. In a sense, Trainor's humor comes from his descriptions of tribal kinship structure and sexual power being so spot-on as to become banal. At the same time, there is a fundamental ugliness in the images, particularly of this puny, defeated embryo-boy, his genitalia tacked onto his side like some Pin the Tail on the Donkey humiliation game. Granted, this is Trainor's point, and here we do see shared territory with Hertzfeld's work. But it's also hard to reconcile the relentless creepiness of The Presentation Theme, given that it does not build along a discernible arc. Once we identify with this fragment of proto-Freudian horror from across the centuries, it's difficult to know where else our minds are meant to go. In some sense, Trainor's film feels more like anthropological field notes than a work of art in its own right, which could be the point for all I know. But then, like I say, it's possible I just don't get his overall project.
Very much like Naomi Uman's film Removed, which scratched women's bodies right off the emulsion of old porn films, 1-9 is a serialist presentation of found footage from science and / or police films featuring a body in convulsions. That body, nearly always center frame (cementing the notion of scientific inscription rather than aesthetic interest), is removed, replaced by a throbbing body-shaped blob of white light. However, unlike Uman's more comprehensive expurgations, Billyou provides single-frame glimpses of the original bodies on the footage. Although I cannot be 100% certain, some passages appeared to be repeated, although it is also possible that Billyou incorporated different segments from the same source material. "Experimental" in the most fundamental sense of trying out a particular hypothesis, 1-9 introduces its single idea very quickly and does little else over the course of its running time other than promulgate that idea. It is possible, however, that Billyou's material could have significantly greater impact in the context of a gallery installation, where the nine passages could be seen and compared side by side.
Quite possibly the most mystifying film / video I've seen in ages, mostly because I cannot for the life of me ascertain what I was supposed to take away from it, Adrift is, if nothing else, odd. Really, it consists of six minutes of roving camerawork, producing off-centered close-ups and medium-close-ups of seated figures, mostly middle-aged and lower-middle-class, in a waiting room of some sort -- most likely a doctors' office. They sway back and forth as though they're on a nautical vessel, and they hum. And that's it. I wish I could say that Adrift bore the mystery that comes with implied but withheld diegesis, some sense that what we're seeing was an excerpt out of an implied but nonexistent supernatural narrative. But honestly, it's a kind of obscure curio. I'm completely at a loss. (Did I forget how to watch experimental film overnight?)
I'm very glad to have the chance at last to catch up with Goldt's work, since it is frequently programmed in major festivals but I always end up missing it. As per what I've heard, I Deeply Regret falls in line with Goldt's general approach, which is to employ video to make small, slow changes across an image, using the medium more like an opportunity for painting-in-time. This work is interesting in that it haunts the corners of a kind of agit-prop, while retaining a fundamental indeterminacy of meaning that foregrounds the aesthetic interaction of its components more than any final "message." The dominant image is of a young woman's face. It begins in black and white and slowly takes on coloration, although of an abstracted, painterly sort, blues and greens smeared across the surface like marker strokes. This woman seems to have bruises on her lips and eyes, but again, this is ambiguous due to the morphing of the light and color as well as the overall texture of the image. A female voice hums the theme from Rocky ("gonna fly now"), and the concluding text finishes the title's incomplete thought: "...not killing you when I had the chance." (The words of the victim, or the assailant?) Goldt packs quite a lot in two minutes' time, and yet I found that visually, the video-based work on the image never yielded particularly compelling results. Not to put too fine a point on it, certain computer programs are hardwired to generate the effects we see in this video, giving me the sense that mutation was the primary order of the day, and not necessarily the concrete forms those mutations took. Which is to say, after all the ambiguity, I Deeply Regret is a video "about change," more as a concept and even a social idea than a formal principle unto itself.
The shell of an essay film that builds itself on a pun regarding "oral history," Cleopatra's Teeth is a complicated epistolary documentary (or, for all I know, pseudo-documentary -- the thing is highly unclear) about a dentist who is also an amateur historian / Egyptologist. We read his letters addressed to Cleopatra while we see footage (found as well as original) of dental procedures, the casting of dental molds, and the flubbed casting of a large Cleopatra statue of some sort, intermittently interrupted with Mothlight-like "bites" out of the celluloid. In case I am failing to convey this, let me state outright, Cleopatra's Teeth is a phenomenally ambitious little film. (17 minutes!) But, alas (yes, I am going to say it), Kiburz bites off more than she can chew. The exact relationship between dentistry and ancient Egypt, apart from one man's dual interests, is left rather vague. When you consider the sheer strangeness of the material Kiburz is dealing with, it's hard not to want to see it play out in longer form, where ideas could naturally find their rhymes and resonances without the need to hurtle from one thing to the next. Like an Errol Morris effort, Kiburz has clearly located an odd little dialectic in the universe. But as long as the ideas are cramped into this ill-fitting container, they will seem gimmicky, which is unfortunate because they clearly aren't. Also, the scenes of the men performing the molding and casting should also play out with more patience. Now, not everyone is as inherently fascinated with the gestures of labor as, say, the Dardenne brothers or Robert Beavers. But still, more time spent observing what is going on will clarify how their labor both relates to, and is markedly different from, that of the dentist. In other words: go long!
And one of the most mind-boggling (and in a way depressing) evening of short films concludes with Kempinski, a film that virtually exceeds my ability to parse it, or even speak remotely near its orbit. It consists of numerous night shots in and around a village in Mali, where interviewees speak in impenetrable future conditional tense. One man explains that his wife is one of his cows, and that their marriage exists in his mind, and so when he wants companionship or intimacy he simply thinks about his cow and what they have together. Another man talks about outer space and a new space station. As best as I can tell, Beloufa is playing with fictional convention, proposing that since "Mali," in the Western imagination, must always signify itself, as "the developing world" or what have you, that the only place for pure fantasy is in a kind of projected-future documentary. The topics under discussion are not just folktales or jokes or flights of imagination or games of bullshit. "Mali" must represent its truth, so these obvious falsehoods are couched in a possible or even a near-certain future. Or, at least I think so. Kempinski kind of confused the hell out of me. I think I need to see it again. But I think that Apichatpong could be a significant touchstone here. And now I can kind of understand what viewers who are flummoxed by Joe's films must be going through. Please, throw me a line, somebody.
Screened as a work-in-progress (although it's apparently done except for the video-to-35mm transfer), A little prayer marks a new direction for Bourque. Composed of rephotographed film footage of Houdini, this film employs a constant flicker that is actually quite different from any I can recall seeing in other film work. Rather than alternate image-frames with black, or alternate two image-frames, Bourque here introduces an internal shutter, wiping the frame shut from the top and bottom, like a closing eyelid. This rapid-fire action produces bizarre results. Relatively stable images appear to be spinning like a phenakistascope, while other portions acquire a shallow, slightly rotating 3D effect. Naturally this calls Ken Jacobs' Nervous System / Eternalism work to mind, but Bourque has done it differently, so that quick shots of Houdini being tied down skitter across the screen with both a harmonic motion (back and forth) and a kind of forward thrust, like a pop. Where Jacobs' movements are overpowering but ultimately elegant, Bourque's are jarring and almost hysterical, partly because the 35mm source strip shot from the TV documentary on Houdini bears the scars of hand-processing. So human and spatial images collide with the pure markmaking of Franz Kline gashes in the frame. What's more, many images only appear for a few seconds at a time, only to recur later. So although Bourque manages, for instance, to utilize long shots of Niagara Falls to describe deep scoops of space into the screen, they're almost immediately flattened by the appearance of a bobbing head or a random slash on the filmstrip. So in a way, the rhythms and brushstroke of Bourque's painted films resurfaces here in a different, altogether more frightening guise. This is an impressively aggressive film, and I think we'll be seeing more of it this year. Brace yourself.
Monday, April 6
If psychoanalysis is going to take a beating, which it absolutely is in the current century, at least the public flogging ought to be an amusing one. Reinke seems to agree. Boy/Analysis is almost entirely composed of a series of floating phrase-texts on a pea-green video background, the phrases in small font against the colorfield expanse swirling up into a helix pattern before evaporating. As promised, these are fragments of an analysis, or at least they would almost have to be. Or else (again, a qualifier is necessary), these images and ideas can only connote the free-association and displacement of the dream-work at its most surreally reductive. Musings about Latvia and Estonia become questions of genital desire; a recurring motif, no matter how banal the set-up, is the analysand's fantasy of a "Hitler-penis." As with Trainor's Presentation Theme, the iconography of psychoanalysis is, in and of itself, presented as a kind of punchline, which creates as many problems as it purports to solve. (If this mode of interrogating desire is hopelessly ironized, what besides irony can be put in its place?) Reinke concludes the piece, very suddenly, with three bold "color plates" of child's drawings, presumably those of Klein's patient. Still, amidst the fragments it's difficult to see what exactly Reinke is hoping to shore up or retain, apart from evincing a general distrust of certain narratives that, to say the least, were already wide open to contestation.
Sometimes "derivative" isn't a bad thing, particularly when a piece wears its influences so lovingly on its sleeve as The Pitch. A one-shot, one-take, 17-minute video performance work, The Pitch has an audio track that consists of a voice-off droning on with childlike excitement about an elaborate ad rather ill-formed narrative, one whose "and then, and then, and then" non-structure quite deliberately mimics the unformed, extemporaneous storytelling of young children. I suppose it's possible to listen to "the pitch" with rapt attention, and maybe as a parent I have developed an unhealthy habit of, um, pretending to listen very closely. But it seems quite evident to me that this inchoate yarn is supremely beside the point. Instead the action is on the visual track, where a round-shaded listener, a rather androgynous, slightly stout young woman, sits impassively as the key prop in a mobile play of light, color and texture. The video lens zooms and shifts, gauze and fishnetting slice the frame, spotlighting and backlighting come and go, colored bulbs radically alter the scene.... In essence, Spengler has created one of the most convincing recreations of the Jack Smith / Andy Warhol atmosphere I have seen anywhere outside of their own films. The too-cool, queerish listener is done up in Late Superstar; the play with chintz and aluminum foil scream to the depths of Atlantis, particularly in Smith's handmade evocation of von Sternberg's play with shadow and scrim. It's an homage that manages, in its genuine affection, to transcend mere duplication. Granted, "the pitch" itself isn't as funny as it could be (these stories never are), and even at 17 minutes, the piece does outstay its welcome just a bit. But Spengler swings for the rafters of classic fabulousness and actually comes damned close.
A work that would be kind of astonishing were it not so exceedingly modest in its every aim, Uman's Kalendar is a brief, cyclical passage through the months of the year via plainspoken but startlingly beautiful single shots taken from Ukrainian village life. Whether focusing on blossoms on a branch bobbing before painted wall, or the patient preparation of dandelion tea (one of the only montage segments in the whole film), Uman employs clear, medium-range depth of field, what appears to be the slightly muted light of the afternoon sun, and an additive, poetic accretion of detail that belies any traditional documentary agenda. Instead, Kalendar is like a series of portraits of a small place, the registration of change accelerated through cinema's unique capabilities and yet, in the spectatorial "taking in" of the thing, those changes again perceived as slow, humbly cosmic. Uman's film can be placed alongside works by Bruce Baillie and Chick Strand in terms of an imagistic, non-argumentative cinema of fact. But of course its structure also places it in the tradition of breviaries, books of hours, and just simple registrations of the passing of the seasons (traditions that encompass Ukrainian cinema from Dovzhenko through Peleshian, and painterly-narrative cinema from Erice to Kiarostami to Egoyan). Kalendar sneaks up on you, like so many small, unassuming things.
A video this minimal, this fixated on the smallest gestures of intimate activity, probably needed to pay a bit more attention to certain aesthetic matters, and while I have no doubt that issues of form and even beauty may have been on Zaatari's mind, they take a back seat in the finished product. (I would consider blaming poor video projection had all the other pieces I've seen at the venue not been so crisp.) Zaatari spends the majority of Nature Morte fixated on a two-man framing, wherein the position of the two men one behind the other, creating distinct foreground / middleground activity, pretty clearly represents two ways of life. Whether the men embody two possible futures or even two distinct points on a timeline of progress, is less clear. But one (foreground) is fashioning a homemade bomb with tubes and tape, the other (midfield) is sewing a hole in his jacket. While there are certain mood effects Zaatari no doubt generates from setting the action in a very dark room (the bomb maker manipulates an oil lamp, and at one point the room fills with even light), the results are frustrating since much of what we actually see consists of muddy low-res video black. And, as I mention above, a film or video that is devoted to minute attention to a specified activity across time (call it, for lack of a better term, the Jeanne Dielman Effect) must allow us to zero in on the details of that action, to re-key our event-structure to the micro-level. Nature Morte, whose very title, of course, conjures the importance of the visual field in its art history reference, kind of stumbles on this important point.
The State of the Union, as per Deborah Stratman, has to do with (a) the need for demarcation and boundaries; (b) a drive to conquer nature; (c) a triumphalist machismo that exerts its will for the sheer pleasure of it; (d) militarism as a kind of substitute for otherwise unfulfilled dreams and desires. So, some guys enjoy reenacting the French and Indian War. Others get really into high school football. Then there are these fellows who work Border Patrol, smoothing out paths so that illegal crossers will leave discernable footprints. A lot of people are seduced by the open road, and want to buy RV's. Others love going to special ranges where they can fire off machine guns. But sometimes nature is a harsh mistress. There was this guy, Col. Rankin, who ejected from his plane in 1959. He was thrown around by a thunderstorm, pelted with hail, and then his chute hung in tree while his body bled for nearly an hour. But, miraculously, he survived, owing, according to Rankin, to his proper military training. Also, there are still large swaths of forest across the U.S. that remain pretty much untouched by human development, although those areas are of course dwindling. And wow, Niagara Falls sure is awe-inspiring. And if you are noticing that my discussion of O'er the Land is 100% non-evaluative, that's because the film itself is pretty much non-evaluative as well, apart from very, very generally making those extremely broad thematic "assertions" (common-sense inferences, really) listed (a)-(d) above. Stratman, whose work has been called essayistic and has been compared with James Benning, has made a film that bears none of the stylistic or organizational aspects those labels would imply. O'er the Land puts one thing after another, after another, but the only thing "essayistic" about it is the fact that it circles around certain ideas rather than orchestrating them through traditional documentary means. But there is the Adorno "constellation" / Benjamin "dialectical image" -- bringing a set of related concepts into a productive tension, allowing their meaning to coalesce in an agitated, unresolved state -- and then there is just allowing the work to remain vague and underarticulated. What's more, O'er the Land, in its allegedly essayistic irresolution, is rather remarkable in that it manages to encompass (and even speak with) U.S. gun enthusiasts, military buffs, and even present-day members of ICE (formerly INS / border patrol), without ever actually evincing a political opinion on the structures that subsume them all. Apart from an overall wry, "boys will be boys" undertone, and the presumption of left-leaning sympathies that Stratman understands that her self-selected audience will bring with them to thethe film, O'er the Land conveys little about the sociopolitical state of things between the coasts, and much more about the rather complacent, NPRification of the American Left.
Elegant in its simplicity, Latimer's work suffers significantly from its title, which doesn't just explain the video away. It overburdens it, well past the tipping point. But, if we can get past that, what we have onscreen is a brief, lovely examination of a kind of museum or gallery exhibition view, the frame bisected by a thick wall and a mechanical apparatus pitched toward us at about 30° off the z-axis. On the left, we see a distant wall illuminated with horizontal bands of video color, something almost out of the decor from an arcade or dance-club, but more organized, more restrained in its prismatic movement. On the right, white-hot flickering images from a film projection. (At times I discerned representational figures; it even vaguely looked like Chaplin. But I can't say for sure.) These two vastly different organizations of light duke it out in the margins of the frame, in total silence, for four minutes. What Latimer displays in this work, apart from the obviously distinct textures and temperatures of film vs. video light, is the fact that video has a hard time dispersing itself, even when it apparently wants to. The colored bands keep flaring out, but do so in a highly regimented manner. The film image, however, wavers and spills out, even though its path is completely determined, fixed as it is on a series of frames on a moving track. This is an interesting work in that it draws on installation art, but uses the video frame to control out view of the showdown, something a gallery installation could never do. "Experimental" in the best sense -- art as a means of discovery, sorting out the media we're left with at the start of our century.
It's always a pleasure to get blindsided by a great new film. I've been vaguely aware of Oliver Husain, mostly as a video artist, over the past few years, but this 16mm production represents my first encounter with his work, and I must say I am duly impressed. Judging from his website, Husain frequently employs puppetry, props, and other sculptural and musical elements in his work, but the bizarre confluence of text, performance, gesture and ambiance that goes to concoct Mount Shasta is really rather thrilling. This is a film that doesn't look like anything else out there, but points of comparison can be drawn if you stretch the pencil far enough. My initial thought was "Spike Jonze doing Owen Land, sort of," and there is a hint of truth to this. Like Land's films, Mount Shasta plays with conventions of text / image relations, the fallibility of narrative drive, the mismatch between the written word and its performative visualization. And, like Land's best work, Mount Shasta evokes a time and place -- an earnest 1970s, before the social and educational theories of the 60s had been rejected as failures. Pastel-colored institutional walls contain fabric-and-pipe-cleaner inventions of a whimsy that almost seems forced, were it not for the total belief evinced by those participating in it. In the background, a bearded man at a cheap keyboard (again, of the sort familiar from middle-school music rooms of a certain era) warbles a story-song as half-formed handkerchief puppets fly around each other on visible wires, the puppeteers made "invisible" by their white canvas beekeeper suits. Husain's story is about a mountain trip waylaid by a fog which turns out to be the smoke from a destructive fire. In a sense, this could be a way of understanding Mount Shasta as a film. The elements that envelop this gorgeous film in mystery (is this avant-garde? a narrative short? a children's film?) are also the ones that threaten to unmake it at every turn, since "the spell" is always already about our ability to turn away from its blatant disenchantment.
Conceptual art can and usually should be funny. But I'm not sure it ought to be cute. 12 x 26 consists of its own title, multiplied guess-how-many times in an upward crawl of white on black font. Then, we get a series of abstract structural poems which uses 26 words, one for each letter of the alphabet. The words are jumbled together as if Paterson typed them in a particular font, and they took up as much screen space as their size permitted. Given the extraordinarily reductive visual information onscreen, it is frustrating to see just how little concern 12 x 26 evinces for composition. What's more, a structural / conceptual exercise such as this one would seem to have as part of its mission the suspension, if not the outright defeat, of traditional narrative elements like suspense. So why the bottom-to-top, Star Warsesque vertical crawl? Couldn't the words be shown as a single unit, or set of units? This video shows some thinking along the right track, but also displays a lack of engagement with the long history into which it inevitably inserts itself -- conceptual art video (Baldessari, Serra, Wiener, Muntadas, just off the top of my head) as well as Oulipo and other "language" based writing movements (from Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa to the poetry of Charles Bernstein, Bob Perelman and Lyn Hejinian). I look forward to seeing what Paterson does next, since he is a witty and intelligent maker and obviously understands the power of impersonal systems.
So, yeah. This film clacked through the projector, but it didn't have so much as a white scratch on it. Maybe the projectionist turned the lamp off. Who knows? Also, it was silent. But there was no silent-strip on the sound head. Perhaps the sound head was turned off, or maybe there was just nothing but a slick, pristine wall of celluloid where a sound strip might have been. Was there any film at all? The catalog says there was, but maybe it was an Andy Kaufman stunt or some highbrow John Cage Jackass maneuver. Anyway what this is is there was nothing -- NOTHING -- on the screen for five minutes. Even though we were "warned" during the introduction, I think we all expected something, not just a dark, five-minute intermission where we all shuffled and fidgeted. Which may well have been the point, since apart from seeing this as the filmic equivalent to Cage's 4:33, there's no there there. Literally. Is this a 10/10? Or a 0? Also, my God, is there actually a 100% Black Film 2?!!
A quite exceptional film. The Diamond opens up more conceptual avenues than it can successfully explore, yet it also points to a new way of thinking about the category of experimental film. Wardill, like fellow Brits Tacita Dean and Rosalind Nashabishi, is a film artist who primarily works from the gallery space rather than the cinematheque or the co-op. This results in a slight shift in concerns, treating film as a set of tactile and sculptural possibilities rather than a medium whose number-one defining characteristic is time. The Diamond is organized around an ostensible narrative, the recounting of an apocryphal philosophical anecdote steeped in anxieties surrounding gender, embodiment, and consciousness. Our old friend Descartes was on a ship, supposedly, and his "daughter" went overboard. In the course of things we learn that "she" is a mechanical automaton, the only sort of object in which Mr. Cogito could ever fully invest from a libidinal standpoint. Against this "idea track," Wardill plays a "physical track" within a thick black visual field. A woman's leotard is marked with tape while playing Wii to reveal parallels to E.-J. Marey's motion-study scheme. Meanwhile, multidirectional glints off the titular diamond produce solid bars of white light against the total ink-black darkness. In a way, Wardill's sense of rhythm and movement mimics the sense of being moved through an installation piece, but with spatial juxtapositions and controlled duration that would be impossible in a real-time scenario. The Diamond always feels like a component of some larger work, pointing outside itself. But Wardill's deployment of the specific capacities of the medium also lends the film an autonomy that only becomes striking in retrospect. For a film that throws so much at you, it's really rather lithe and dazzling, gliding over missed thought-connections like elisions in spoken French.
[SECOND VIEWING, 1/22/10: When one is able to spend a concentrated amount of time with The Diamond in isolation from other films, Wardill's skein of conceptual patterns reveals itself to be considerably tighter and more revelatory. At base, this is a film about post-humanism, the crisis of embodiment in the age of "intelligent machines." But Wardill expounds upon this issue, in true essay-film style, through inference and anecdote. She begins -- I hadn't remembered this -- trying to recall which film she'd seen contained a scene in which a diamond heist was carried out by having a steady robotic arm slide between the laser beams of the security system. This leads to questions surrounding the plastic character of light in the cinematic image, Cartesian notions of embodiment, and a very early crisis in humanistic, "centered" subjectivity -- Descartes's daughter -- whereby, allegedly, a machine taught the girl through approximation how to behave like a 5-year-old. Through it all, Wardill's mostly-black frames, highlighted with green night-visions of workers and tools, provides a seductively spare visual field, each physical impression breaking open the vast negative void. A fine film.]
Tuesday, April 7
A young film/videomaker could do much worse that to illustrate a concept by Raul Ruiz. Duran does this quite skillfully. One must ask, however, how much additional substance she brings to the table in Retrato Oficial. Jumping off from Ruiz's Poetics of Cinema chapter entitled "Images of Images" (that's pp. 43-45 for those of you scoring at home), Duran begins with a straight voiceover reading and slightly modified visualization. Ruiz, in full Borgesian mode, postulates a totalitarian society in which all art must consist of representations of the king. Some wiseacre makes an image from an existing image, blowing up a tiny detail from an original, straightforward portrait of the king, such an end-run meaning that the artist could attain permission to engage in abstraction. Duran begins with the portrait of Bernardo O'Higgens, father of independent Peru. But soon Duran is slicing images into grids and zeroing in on their isolated constituents. These choppy, pixilated representations become particularly acute when providing / withholding a look at (images of) the Chilean Revolution, or the fragmented, almost fetishistically unknowable visage of Pinochet. But Ruiz, a Chilean in exile, may very well have had these exact same political subtexts in mind when he wrote "Images of Images," and he chose to allegorize them into a general philosophical postulate. Retrato, supplying the "missing term" than is, in actuality, not missing at all, may well reveal a tin ear with respect to subtext. In any case, Retrato Oficial bears a certain earnestness and it is good that Duran is willing, in this exploratory phase, to try to throw a bunch of disparate elements and rhetorical devices into her piece, even if they don't add up to a single completely confident gesture.
Campbell's counter-cinematic anti-biography stands just fine on its own as a shrewd, revealing document about the uses of history for the active / activist present. And I'll get to the (exceptional) specifics of Bernadette in a moment. But the context into which Campbell's video intervenes seems crucial for fully understanding Bernadette's radical gestures. In 2008, production was announced on a Devlin biopic, to be titled The Roaring Girl (yes, I know...), starring Ms. Happy-Go-Lucky herself, Sally Hawkins. Devlin has stated her absolute objection to the project, mostly on what sound to me like biopic-based grounds. "The whole concept is abhorrent to me. How dare anybody make a pretend life for me while I'm still living the real one?" Devlin, now Bernadette McAliskey, is taking legal action to block the film. And why not? Whether or not this activist has bothered with cinema criticism, she as a figure not in history but in the now, the ongoing, lived time of what Raymond Williams dubbed "the long revolution," understands that biopics are almost always about using the seductive power of conventional narrative shape to place troublesome people under the glass of the museum case.
The opening movement of Bernadette functions in some ways as an unadorned highlight reel, arranging period news segments and interviews with Devlin, sometimes an isolated figure speaking to a reporter but more often caught in the middle of a political action. She becomes both a participant in the activist portion of the ongoing constellation-cum-clusterfuck we call the Irish "Troubles," as well as a sort of internal narrator and comic irritant. Devlin-McAlisky never succumbed to the seductions of political street theatre a la Abbie Hoffman, but her brash, piercing wit and economy of expression do give the distinct impression of someone in control of her own image, and always careful about its strategic deployment. "Bernadette" appears, and part of the shock and suckerpunch of her activism (part, absolutely not all) pertained at a particular moment to her presence as a woman in a variety of scenarios in which even staunch socialists were accustomed to seeing them. Yet, this aspect was never exploited. (A worthwhile comparison would be with Bernadine Dohrn's role in the Weather Underground, and how her gender frequently defined her position in the group despite a policy of egalitarianism.) Recall that Devlin's chief innovation in Republican parliamentary strategy was to actually show up to represent her riding, rather than follow the custom of protest by no-show.
In this vein, the single most telling moment in Campbell's film is a sequence in which Devlin is pointedly absent. We see a lacquered 70s news anchor filming his side of a "conversation" with Devlin, one "response" after another. ("So here I tilt, like I'm listening.") This is a key moment in Bernadette because soon after, Campbell begins a first-person voiceover, poetically ruminating from the standpoint of "Bernadette" the woman vs. the image bank. In a gesture which again seems to take aim at conventional biopic packaging, this introduction of the personal voice also brings about Bernadette's single biggest shock. It just ends in a quick white-out, almost as if in mid-thought. In fact, Campbell's non-conclusion resembles nothing so much as projector failure. But this move inevitably points outward, beyond the boundaries of the text. We first have to account for our material screening conditions -- where we re vis-a-vis this video. And then we must contend with the fact that "Bernadette" is an ongoing construction. McAliskey's life and work goes on, of course, but the history and meanings of her earlier career continue to jolt the present, searching for new forms of thinking that might complete the gestures they began.
Sometimes "conceptual art" operates in reverse of its typical aesthetic. When we encounter complex works by LeWitt, Nauman, Baldessari, Weiner, Beuys, and others, we're frequently confronted with the rather spartan physical remnants of an elaborate intellectual process. In a way, the art of Yoko Ono is the sine qua non of this, since she almost comically embodies a kind of naive conceptualism, where all there is is the language describing some rather pedestrian Zen dictate. Occasionally, some other works outthink themselves into an altogether different realm, one of a beauty and grace that renders the dense ideation behind the work if not moot, then certainly something optional, like an artist's interview or, at times, a title. Miller and Stewart have made a film that conjectures about the role of cinema on the moon, particularly the possibility that heavy camera equipment, once used for its scientific purpose, may have been jettisoned and left on the lunar surface as a kind of sculptural counter-density to the surrounding weightlessness. Based on Dubious Historical Accounts, the film, we would be led to believe that these cameras somehow overcame the lack of gravity to attain a thudding super-mass forever marking the moon in the name of Western technologies. As it happens, all of this barely matters. In terms of its pure denotative contents, DHA consists of almost sepia film images of Hasselblad cameras slowly, lovingly falling through an empty black expanse and landing, pillow-like, on a dusty recreation of the moon's surface. This event is repeated several times, and the film is projected at silent speed (18fps), although it looks just a bit slower. Whatever else this film is, it is above all beautiful. In my book, that is its own justification.
Wednesday, April 8
A perfectly interesting work that I ended up ducking out of at about the 20-minute mark, Chinese is a Plus was presented as a single-channel video at Toronto's Vtape video distribution center, and under those conditions it was too tempting to roam through the Richmond St. arts building and visit more engaging, fully-integrated installation projects. In its own straightforward way, Chinese is a Plus exists along a rather complex continuum of experimental documentary approaches. As an examination of how subjects implicate themselves within institutional power for hope of some personal gain, the piece echoes certain Harun Farocki works (such as Interview, How to Live in the GDR, and Nothing Ventured), but in its sustained look at a cross-cultural, cross-linguistic site of transnational exchange, the tape recalls a less adventurous Trinh T. Minh-ha project, or one component in a Jia Zhang-ke nonfiction mosaic. Boisseau and Westermeyer are observing students at a Stuttgart language school where young Chinese-Germans are learning Chinese for business purposes. (A second line of the project, showing German adults learning Chinese, had not begun at the point at which I bailed.) We hear the students working through oral reports, many of which engage with the works of Lu Xun, a key Chinese author of the modern period known for his use of vernacular language. As you'd expect, the students' perspectives demonstrate the struggle to learn Chinese as an intellectual struggle to reconcile cultural attitudes that have retained their strength in the immigrant community with 21st century hypercapitalism and their (desired) place within it. Like I said, didn't finish the piece, but under different circumstances I certainly would have.
Account (Jan Peacock, Canada) [p]
there there (Jan Peacock, Canada) [v/s/p]
An installation view of three distinct video works, all of which engage the problem of surveillance and seeing, Jan Peacock's Finder show serves as an ideal example of how video installation can operate within painterly and collage traditions that single-channel exhibition on a screen would most likely fail to illuminate. As it happens, Peacock's two older works, Account and there there, are stronger than the newest featured work. But Finder, the titular video, is elevated by its contextualization with the other works, especially there there. Account is composed of four tiny wall-mounted b&w monitors encased in anodized metal frames. The four images are dark, rustling, in constant motion, always fixed on small objects, magnified by their appearance in the immediate foreground. Soon it becomes clear that we're seeing a kind of visual ransacking of the back offices of Gallery 44, the very space exhibiting the show. In contrast to this multiplied, micro-scale obsessive, Peacock's wall-sized, full color projection there there describes the perimeter of an altogether freer, airier space but with an equally sharp demonstration of tactile compulsion. In close-up, we follow a female hand as it touches the railing along Paris's Pont Marie. Projected right alongside Finder, there there's lower-left to upper-right diagonal carves an exact compositional mirror of Finder's midfield view from from a balcony, with its upper-right to lower-left framing of the railing. Across the three works, Peacock's orchestration of radically distinct yet related spatial fields is especially striking, Account's cavernous inner space played against there there's extreme depth of field and Finder's second-story stare down at the street. Finder uses internal-framings and dual-image manipulations to introduce multi-temporal information flows within a fixed-frame surveillance view. We watch singletons and couplings, coming and going, mutating and coexisting through the placement of their cars. But the piece is one of diminishing returns, providing a somewhat wry but unspectacular formalist people-watching riff, with an implicit consideration of the specifics of Canadian urbanism. But seen against organizationally similar works by Ernie Gehr (to cite the most obvious touchstone), or Peacock's other two works in the exhibition, Finder is graceful but lacking in heft. Nevertheless, for me Peacock (a professor at Halifax's prestigious NSCAD) was one of the major discoveries of this festival, someone who should have been on my radar all along. O Canada!
Meanwhile, down on the first floor, at Wynick/Tuck Gallery, we have a work that is, I suppose, simple and elegant, but seems to be so much less than it intends to be that I found it difficult to meet it with much more than a polite nod. Ishida, whose work in painting and cinema I am largely ignorant of (I was aware of his reputation but not his work), "acquitted himself nicely," as they say, with a "stately" "minor" work. It's a gallery installation of two eight-meter scrolls, displayed on the floor. Abstract black ink drawings, with gentle hashmarked brushstrokes and a landscapishly jumbled influx of diagonal skeins, Franz Kline-like but more tightly knit in the style of Japanese abstraction. At the head of each scroll, a monitor depicting animations of said paintings, one "painting" it in scrolling hyperreal time, the other erasing it stroke by stroke. It's a piece that does one thing, and asks you to move on, but in a pleasant, unassuming kind of way. (Next.)
At least as far back as New Criticism, and possibly even earlier, it has been a commonplace in the theory of the arts that certain works are somehow inevitable. The surrounding language made their organization likely, since the works in question exemplify a particular style or approach that others have been hovering around, to greater or lesser degrees of success. Something Better, a three-monitor video work by Alessa Cohene, is an axiomatic work in this regard. As you watch it unfurl, it's impossible not to see it as a part of a genre or type within post-appropriation media art. It consists of an assemblage of clips from banal soap operas and made-for-TV movies, all of which center in some way on relations within the nuclear family and inside a highly conventional post-1970s ranch-house suburbia. Cohene makes no attempt to disguise the provenance of the source material, and in fact its origin forms a fundamental aspect of the piece's reception. That is, we realize right off the bat that we're seeing an artist combing through loads of detritus in order to distill an essence perceived within something hopelessly trivial and degraded. There have been umpteen-thousand creative works in this mold, from high-art installations to feature films, but Something Better lives up to its title in unexpected ways. Cohene renews these basic ideas through the application of forms which seem conventional enough but, over time, impress upon the viewer just how advanced they are.
Cohene's three monitors are placed side by side. They contain archetypes: the father on the left, a child in the center, and the mother on the right. But within this simple arrangement Cohene generates a consistent mise-en-scène, meticulously matching and/or slowly mutating the interchangeable domestic interiors to create a shifting yet coherent widescreen field of play. The result is that the trappings of suburban ideology -- the shape and decor of these outdated "homes of the future" -- attains a spatial continuity, while each of the actants are trapped inside their own private sphere of influence. The fathers come and go, continually struggling to gain readmittance to the family unit, or retain their tenuous positions therein. Mothers seem to dote and strive on the children's behalf, but are more often than not projecting their own thwarted desires onto their tele-offspring. And, in the middle, the kids are almost always lonely, isolated, ridden with anxiety about family dynamics they can perceive as tremors in the foundation but are physically barred from witnessing. Kids aren't just outside the traditional frameline; they are sealed within their own monitor, little John Travoltas in bubbles of isolation.
As I describe it, Something Better immediately sounds like a kind of work you know, perhaps all too well. In fact, it takes a festival like Images to highlight a work like Cohene's, precisely because on the face of it, its moves and rhetorics are all too familiar. We know that suburbia is stifling, and that a certain stripe of televised pabulum promotes false nostalgia for idyllic bonhomie. For the main throughline of experimental film/video criticism and practice, Cohene's effort will seem overly discursive and inadequately attentive to the material properties of images. But this is incorrect in the extreme; what makes Something Better so exceptionally powerful is Cohene's formalist chops, her way of linking images based not so much on their place in a recipe but on their tone, their lighting schemes, their articulation of televisual space. And, as far as using multiple clips and performers to synthesize her three symbolic meta-subjects, Cohene manages to afford each module in the collage its own integrity which successfully cultivating an arc, not just of character but of bodily type and similarity in comportment. The best point of comparison is Craig Baldwin's Mock Up on Mu, which splices iconic actors and performances into an external diegesis with utmost skill. But Cohene's meta-narrative is one of grand operatic ebbs and flows, reliant less on moment-to-monent storytelling than overarching motivic structures. (And music and sound design do play a key role in the broad graft of the thing.) Since it is so well-constructed throughout, Cohene's outsized intent -- one so often attempted but usually unable to lift itself out of the mire of irony -- hits its every emotional mark. Like certain proto-emo vocalists (Scott Walker, Nick Cave, and especially Jeff Buckley come to mind here), the rigor, the control over the instrument, puts the pathos across, sincerely and with aching precision.
This emotional range can best be understood with two examples of excerpted dialogue, stuff that would be risible in its made-for-TV context but here becomes almost shattering. A mother at the end of her rope (divorce? special needs children? encroaching poverty?) explains, "It is my job to do everything I can to make my children part of the normal world." But of course, it's the normal world that is crushing these children where they stand. These tightly permed Jill St. Johns and Jaclyn Smiths bear up, bite their lips, drink in private. A raging father, meanwhile, defends his abandonment of the family unit: "She prefers the senseless pain we inflict on each other to the pain we would otherwise inflict on ourselves. But I am not afraid of that solitary pain." All of Cohene's fathers struggle at the threshold, like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, bland Tom Courtenays and Gabriel Byrnes alone in the rain. I don't want to oversell Something Better, although I do think it's a fabulous piece. But it's possible that part of Cohene's success comes from the fact that she's mining something that we've rehearsed, again and again, like community theatre. We know the script and are inclined to expect very little. Cohene takes something routine, like an old Broadway number, and belts it out for all she's worth. And it hits.
and a final note about the 2009 Images Festival trailer (Jonathan Culp), which is one of the finest of its kind, pretty much ever. In basic conception, the trailer is fairly straightforward. It consists of a dense montage of clips from various festival films, videos and installation works. As such, it is pleasingly lilting, not bogged down in any one type of mode. But in the actual deployment of the trailer during the festival, its brilliance becomes critically apparent. The longer you're at the festival, the more of the clips you recognize, and the more you notice the ones from films you have not yet seen. It's like an onscreen checklist, but conducted like a game. This is one of the only festival trailers I've ever seen that takes into account the fact that fest-goers will be seeing it over and over in a relatively short amount of time. Culp turns this problem into a delightful aesthetic hide-and-seek. Well done.