Up near the Great Lakes, the avant-garde is great shakes. It's the



All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)


I would like to have a wonderful preface here, to say a lot of brilliant things about the festival as a whole and its place in the universal cinematic firmament. But the truth is, this was my very first tim e attending the Ann Arbor Film Festival. I will say this: being here on the 50th anniversary was a unique treat, since in addition to having the chance to see a multitude of great recent avant-garde film and video, I also experienced the AAFF's retrospective programming. Films were shown that had been drawn from the fest's entire history. In addition, Program Director David Dinnell and filmmaker Tomonari Nishikawa collaborated on two comprehensive programs of Japanese experimental film and video, a truly edifying exhibition. I truly wish I could write something meaningful about each and every one of those films, but time and memory simply got the best of me. I discussed the Japanese program in general terms in my piece for MUBI. (You can find that piece here, by the way.) And, of course, the Bruce Baillie retrospective (with the filmmaker in attendance) was a once-in-a-lifetime event. I was honored to be asked to introduce the festival's screening of Quick Billy, and to take part in the panel discussion, "What The Hell Was That?" (One audience member's response to the panel can be found here.) So all in all, a marvelous experience. Look at me! I'm gushing. Okay, time to get critical...


seen prior to the festival



349 (for Sol LeWitt) (Chris Kennedy, Canada) [v/s]

TIFF 2011. See review here.


Crossroad (Phil Solomon / Mark LaPore, 2005) [v/s]

Rehearsals For Retirement (Phil Solomon, 2007) [v/s]

See my Cinema Scope article on these videos here.


Last Days In a Lonely Place (Phil Solomon, 2008) [v/s]

Views 2007. See review here.


The Matter Propounded, of its Possibility or Impossibility, treated in four Parts (David Gatten) [s]

Novermber 2011. See review here.


Quick Billy (Bruce Baillie, 1970) [m]

My brief piece for Fandor can be found here.


Rocketkitkongokit (Craig Baldwin, 1986) [m]

See my interview with Baldwin here.


Sack Barrow (Ben Rivers, U.K.) [s]

TIFF 2011. See review here.


Sounding Glass (Sylvia Schedelbauer, Germany) [v/s]

October 2011. See review here.


Tokyo-Ebisu (Tomonari Nishikawa, U.S. / Japan) [s]

TIFF 2010. See review here.


Untitled (Neil Beloufa) [v/s]

TIFF 2011. See review here.


Films by Michael Robinson [s; v/s]

Various reviews. See my interview with Robinson here.


seen at the festival






Flight (Greta Snider, 1997) [s]

Spending a significant portion of my adulthood, and all of my avant-garde conscious-raising, in the Bay Area, I of course was aware of Snider and her work. But I'd somehow managed not to see it until now. I was surprised, since everything I'd read about Snider and her work led me to expect something punkier, possivbly more identity-politics oriented. Flight, instead, is a scruffy, defiantly San Franciscan variation of structuralism, wherein found footage loops and riffs in pockmarked black and white. Thick, semi-legible image clusters pulse across the screen as a thupping optical-materialist soundtrack keeps arhythmic time. Only when images of an airplane hit the screen does Flight halt, allowing the film to register as a representational event, rather than an abstract, self-referential one. But again, the cleanliness of so much East Coast formalism is replaced with a gray, grotty sky with a dank, granulated icon flying through it. This is, indeed, a film in which there appear dust particles, edge lettering, etc. Snider's title takes on a double meaning, since its only periodically that our cognition takes "flight," makes one kind of logical meaning, over against a grungier musical sense. Well done.


The Strawberry Tree (Simone Rapisarda Casanova, Canada) [v]

One of the most striking and accomplished debuts I've encountered in quite some time, Rhapsodist Strawberry Tree is all the more impressive as a genuinely new contribution to the evolving field of experimental ethnography. There is,without a doubt, a certain degree of serendipity involved in the final shape that Rapisarda's film takes. He had come to Cuba with the intent to observe the daily activities of a family in the village of Juan Antonio, one of the country's few remaining fishing towns. Although this was the ostensible subject of his film, Rapisarda opted to time his filming to coincide with the village's preparations for Children's Day, as a framework for their usual endeavors. However, an entirely different event befell both the filmmaker and his subjects: Hurricane Ike. The village of Juan Antonio was completely destroyed, and The Strawberry Tree begins with a bleak survey of the flotsam-strewn space where this community once stood. We are also introduced to our host family, sitting in a room well after the disaster, mordantly joking and even making up a song about the decimation of their home. (Suitably, we cannot tell if they're sitting in a studio, or an evacuation center.) As a result, Rapisarda's film becomes a kind of accidental document of two rates of change, one instantaneous (and "natural," if we're willing to temporarily bracket out or awareness of climate change and its role in the generation of super-storms like Ike) and one gradual. How do we observe the otherwise placid, uninflected daily rituals of a family whose way of life is already on the wane, knowing that it will soon give way to a more immediate destruction?


But there is much more to the success and revelation of The Strawberry Tree than simply Rapisarda and his hosts being at the wrong place at the wrong time. These coastal residents are Cubans, and this means that they are relatively well-versed in the practices of documentary and ethnography. Various national educational initiatives, focused on leftist and anti-colonial philosophies, have armed even the farthest-flung Cuban citizens with a basic understanding of the power relationships inherent in the ethnographic encounter. This awareness provides Rapisarda with a unique opportunity for spirited collaboration and jocular sparring with his subjects, who welcome him into their home, quite deliberately stage ordinary events (such as the slaughter of a goat) for his camera, and, in the case of the elderly matriarch, even ask "Simone" if he has enough film to capture her food preparations or if she needs to start again. Throughout The Strawberry Tree, Rapisarda and his co-conspirators turn the "salvage ethnography" paradigm on its ear by playfully turning the curiosity about (not to say nostalgia for) faltering artisanal practice in the era of globalization into the occasion for a home movie of sorts, centered on the fundamental ordinariness of labor. The Strawberry Tree is a must for anyone interested in experimental documentary and ethnography. I anxiously await Rapisarda's future projects; he is a major talent.






/Peyote Queen (Storm de Hirsch, 1965) [s]

You think you know some of these old films, and then you see them again and they just pop. De Hirsch's classic is so damned playful, taking a kind of Len Lye scratch-shape animation into the realm of multi-colored, stained glass optical play. But it's pure jazz, not "formalism" in any sense. The bebop tune she uses will get stuck in your head for days. (duh-DA! dee-duh-DA! dee-duh-da-duh-da-duh-DA!) Deeply dippy, pure unadulterated eyewash.


/Schmeerguntz (Gunvor Nelson and Dorothy Wiley, 1965) [s]

Very nice to see this anarcho-feminist classic at last; quite a bit different from the five or so other G. Nelson films I've seen. (The only Wiley solo effort I've seen to day, Miss Jesus Fries on the Grill, bears no relation to this film at all, really, since its tone is that of a sombre current-event.) While seeing so many classic titles all at once, I inevitably started making connections, and Schmeerguntz, Mass for the Dakota Sioux, and Lipsett's 21-87 all seem to partake of a certain "modern life is rubbishness," to widely variable results. Granted, no other film contained the explicit Second Wave feminist content that Schmeerguntz does, but -- I hate to say this -- the specific brand of domestic rage Nelson and Wiley are trading in here has not aged particularly well, at least not within the context they created for it. Amidst tacky scenes of advertising, fashion shows, glamor magazines and other anti-woman pop culture hucksterism, the women insert "reality" -- emptying shitty diapers into a stopped-up toilet, or vomiting in a filthy bathroom. Dirty little secrets of suburban domesticity, like the fact that Happy Homemakers are only on TV and most working women had kitchens and bathrooms that looked like truck stops on the interstate, are of course vital aspects of 1960s consciousness-raising, and their place in Schmeerguntz must be seen in that framework. But they no longer speak meaningfully to the surrounding material, which is comprised not only of media lies of which most of us have long ago been disabused, but a mode of avant-garde meaning-making that itself has become, in time, an identifiable genre. And, as such, Nelson and Wiley did not execute it as well as many other practitioners. [NOTE: I checked my old screening logs, and it turns out I had seen this before. It just failed to stick in my memory, which is kind of weird.]


/__ ________ (Short Line Long Line) (Thom Andersen and Malcolm Brodwick, 1967) [s]

By contrast, this is a film that seems more advanced, more shockingly prescient, every time it's screened. As per usual, the presenter (Kathy Geritz in this case) told the audience that Andersen and Brodwick edited sound and image together in an asynchronous manner that adheres to a very stringent, predetermined pattern. But no one will reveal exactly what that pattern is, for fear of getting ejected from the Brotherhood of Magicians. No matter; simply by looking and listening, the complexity of SLLL's synch events is apparent. We are witnessing the occasional discrepancy, and linking up, between a scene (Sunset Strip in the late 60s) and its broader impact, through radio and the music industry -- that is, locality and broadcasting, the center and its concentric impact. There is a time lag, and a geographical displacement. How "precisely" the film documents this is strictly beside the point. One of the great films of the sixties, hands down.


/Necrology (Standish Lawder, 1970) [s]

As much as I've always enjoyed Necrology, I've also had mixed feelings about it. It's a semi-structural film and a "comedy" at that, one that works like gangbusters even as it poses somewhat serious questions regarding cinematic perception, the cognitive dissonance between linguistic and pictorial information, and the uncertain play of memory. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is no way around the fact that Lawder stages Necrology as a cheap joke. The backwards shot of the escalator is so banal that it inevitably captures the styles and comportment of 1970s America with a photographic vengeance; the title only emphasizes the "deadness" of this scrolling roll call of gone, gone regular folk. Even without Lawder's up-to-heaven reversal and self-serious soundtrack, the first part of the film is wholly invested in providing a capsule of temps perdu. So, when the marching band strikes up and we are provided with the goofy, test-your-recollection designations for all those evaporated faces and bodies, it's less like Frampton's (nostalgia) and more like Nelson's Bleu Shut, with a bit of Chuck Barris thrown in. Alas, Robert Nelson's career wasn't defined by a single snarky film. The conundrum exposed....


Washing Walls With Mrs. G. (Tony Buba, 1980) [s]

Braddock, Pennsylvania: Anywheresville, USA, and then again not. This was my first exposure to Buba's work, and I found it to be a lovely character study, a portrait of an elderly immigrant engaging with both the camera and a set of seemingly ordinary tasks which, due to her advancing age, now required the assistance of a less adept helper. The playful use of subtitles -- Buba claiming to abandon them because they cost too much money, but really posing a vital challenge to the viewer to listen to Mrs. G's accented English -- implies a postmodern anthropological edge to the work, although its simplicity and intimacy belies any such agenda.


/The Red Book (Janie Geiser, 1994) [s]

Comments forthcoming.


Ägypten (Egypt) (Kathrin Resetarits, 1997) [s]

An unusual treat from guest programmer Kathy Geritz of the PFA. I'd never seen a film by Resetarits, but hope to see more. Egypt is a semi-documentary work zeroing in on a group of deaf elders in a community in Vienna. We see them hanging out, eating lunch and gabbing away with their hands, while a few less observational, to-the-camera inserts display a few less commonplace signs, such as "Marilyn Monroe" or "widow." We also watch as a long story about an Egyptian exploration voyage is signed by an animated racconteur. One of the most fascinating aspects of Resetarits' film for me was noting the significant differences between European sign language and American Sign Language (of which I know a fair amount). With the English subtitles, I found my viewing to be trilingually split in a most satisfying manner.


/Sarabande (Nathaniel Dorsky, 1998) [s]

One of Dorsky's richest and, at least to me, most concrete works, Sarabande is a film that strikes me as testing certain intensities of light, and color in particular. Most of the shots -- close-ups of jagged foliage, geometrical features within large-scale architecture, even just reflected patterns on a floor or window -- seem to be organized around a nest or skein of darkness, a shadow weave that gives otherwise flattened images a resonant depth. (Granted, Dorsky's non-additive editing, which insists upon the this-ness of each visual event, means that the dimensionality of forms doesn't really hit you all at once. It's a time-release phenomenon.) In most, but not all, the shots, color (and its attendant form) is organized along the periphery, and frequently at a canted angle, adding to the peculiar sense of depth. (Dorsky's Vertigo? I doubt it, since to my knowledge he is not the Hitchcock fan Warren Sonbert was. But still, Sarabande is a film whose mysteries are purely physical, with a tactility that is solid yet hovers. I wish I had it in front of me. I'd love to be more specific than my faulty memory allows.


/Soft Palate (Martin Arnold, Austria) [v/s]

There has always been a wonderfully sinister Freudian streak in Arnold's work, something all the more enjoyable because he slathers it right across the surface of the screen. The trilogy of scratch DJed / hiccupping films from the 90s and 00s that brought Arnold to international prominence were all refreshingly frank about their gender politics, engagement with neurosis and hysteria, and especially the concept of repetition-compulsion as a productive wellspring for anxious loop-inflected cinema. We were never asked to "identify," exactly, with the figures onscreen -- Judy Garland or the kids from To Kill a Mockingbird or that banal couple entering and leaving the room in Piéce Touchée. But their plight inevitably invoked a crisis in our vision. Their stymied gestures and halted rhythms almost harmed us, precisely because they took a Gestalt and snapped it in half; we know where the movement is supposed to be going, and we are not given that satisfaction (or at least it doesn't come to us clean). The fact that Arnold has been working with Mickey Mouse in his recent work can be seen as a logical extension of this process, as well as its inversion. In some sense, an animated character has no "natural" trajectory. Granted, neither does a photographed human being. But our psychoanalytic suture over the basic lack at the heart of cinematic knowledge (its irreality, its anteriority) demands that we shelve that awareness. So Mickey is a partial acknowledgment of the unnatural act that was haunting Martin Arnold's machine all along. But at the same time, Soft Palate finds Arnold taking his method further because the non-photographic Object that is Mickey can be more radically plumbed for its utter incoherence. In this very short film, we see Mickey sleeping in his pajamas. Everything but the figure has been blacked out; there is no context. And as Soft Palate progresses, parts of Mickey Mouse (his head, arms, ears, legs, giant gloved hands, red pajamas) disappear and reappear, blinking like parts of a neon sign. We cannot ever truly identify with Mickey -- what is he, anyway? -- but animated cinema asks us to empathize with him, and to anthropomorphize him along with Walt Disney. In segmenting Mickey into an incoherent, shimmering mirage of pieces, Arnold takes Mickey Mouse (and our viewing of him) back to the moment prior to Lacan's Mirror Stage, when we see (or more properly speaking, feel) ourselves to be a disunited bundle of limbs and urges. Suitably, Mickey sleeps. In this state, there is no subject, no "Mickey," and by extension no spectator. There is only a dark realm of sensation, struggling to come into being. To apply a physiological metaphor, the human subject is one big fontanelle at this vital moment. No wonder, then, Arnold titles the work after one of our weak spots.


-The Discipline of DE (Gus Van Sant, 1978) [s]

A purely delightful and surprisingly comedic early effort from GVS, this black-and-white 16mm curio is, formally speaking, an illustrated short shorty by William S. Burroughs. That is to say, the audio consists chiefly of a narrator reading the story in full. However, the piece is so gawkily cinematic that such an approach is actually quite perfect. The protagonist of the story and film is imparting to us his maniacal philosophy of labor-saving Taylorized gestures and actions, which predictably become more and more outlandish and surreal. The "DE" stands for "do easy," and it is related by the speaker quite matter-of-factly, like a Zen meditative practice, which becomes a kind of hopeless prison of impossible precision. Odd to see this little cine-bauble now, considering all the various phases Van Sant's filmmaking has gone through. One can see his later minimalist clampdowns as a form of "do easy," turned inside out as well, I suppose.


A Lax Riddle Unit (Laida Lertxundi, Spain) [s]

It has been said, in language much more compelling than this, that the most advanced filmmakers (which is not to say "the best," although I do think Lertxundi is quite good) identify and operate within a particular set of aesthetic problems, time and time again. If it's true that an artist with a highly unique sensibility will spend years honing it, perfecting it, making it seem not only masterful but somehow inevitable, then it must be said that A Lax Riddle Unit is Laida Lertxundi's most "ideal" film, her most accomplished to date. This is not to say that I think it towers with such grandiosity of purpose over Lertxundi's earlier works. But Lax is like a sun-kissed blueprint for how her films work, how she seems to think. Beginning with an early morning establishing shot of an L.A. sunrise (over what looked to me like Echo Park, but I'm not sure), the film delivers the first of two records, "Love Attack," by James Carr -- its pleading vocal somewhat at odds with the methodical movement of Lertxundi's camera drifting through the space. With a sharp cut, we are soon inside a beige-yellow apartment, one bedroom, one large living room, a hallway. As we begin to explore this new interior space, through a series of tracking and reverse-tracking shots, a Robert Wyatt record is the accompaniment. Moving through the apartment, we hear the music, we zoom in on an album cover, and then pull up to see the back of a woman's head as she plays a keyboard that's situated on the couch. We pull away, glide through the darkened hallway. A turn into the bedroom reveals a woman lying on the bed. (Is she the keyboard player? How did she get there without our seeing?) A Lax Riddle Unit -- the title, of course, is an anagram for the filmmaker's name -- expands upon and more cleanly articulates the elements that have defined Lertxundi's three previous films -- spatial description and distortion within a long-take, "realist" framework; the emotive power of offbeat pop music selections; the suggestion of narrative, particularly diegetic / narrative space, without ever sealing it off from the camera or the spectator, a kind of permeable filmic universe. Lertxundi's mysterious mood pieces consistently impress us because, on the surface at least, the means with which she generates them appear so simple. Even her "rigor" feels offhanded, relaxed -- like the Wilco song says, "beautiful and stoned."


/Ricky (Janie Geiser) [v/s]

Review forthcoming.


Undergrowth (Robert Todd) [s]

Todd managed to get his camera way down low on a forest floor, and somehow make it dolly ever so smoothly through the trees and leaves. It's impressive as a technical stunt, but Undergrowth, which seems to be filmed within wooded areas nearing encroachment -- along ravines, beside highways and the like -- has a droning, sub-Arvo Pärt soundtrack and stars a giant hoot-owl. No, it really stars this owl; it zooms all up in its face, keeps coming back to him/her as this Powerful Symbol of Nature or whatever. The film is slick, simplistic, and resembles nothing so much as a bank commercial. I always feel bad every time I hate another Robert Todd film, but I just look up on the screen and there, again, is a film I cannot help but hate.


Conjuror's Box (Kerry Laitala) [s]

Review forthcoming.


Point de Gaze (Jodie Mack) [s]

I am always a bit worried when I start seeing truly exciting events brewing in the films of a young artist, because as a critic my first tendency is to doubt my own enthusiasms. The skepticism isn't just reflexive bitterness, as some might think. It actually comes from the suspicion that highly positive responses might partly be reaction-formations against all of the mediocrity we see day in and day out. Nevertheless, I've spent some time with Jodie Mack's films over the past few months, and I'm beginning to feel quite confident in saying, here is an important new filmmaker, someone who is really onto something.


Part of what took me awhile to entirely come around on these films, even though I liked them immediately, is that Mack's method has a built-in sense of whimsy and deceptive offhandedness, a look that could signal to the casual observer that Mack is aiming for the minor leagues. (And it should be noted, some of her films are better than others.) Mack works in animation; her mien is frame-by-frame photography of quilts, fabrics, and laces -- textiles that are specifically tied to the realm of (female) handicraft. This, of course, raises a key issue in Mack's work. Her subject matter is associated with the feminine, and with craft rather than high art. This is a political gesture, but also one that sets off particular cognitive buzzers within the prospective viewer of her films. Can they be seen as formalist, given their denotative content? This is one of the key challenges Mack's films pose.


But aside from this, Mack's best films call on the wide array of formalist and color-field animation techniques from avant-garde film history, referring to them but not entirely relying upon them. Mack's films never drop into absolute abstraction, but she organizes them to produce modernist effects. Point de Gaze is a case in, well, point. The film is comprised of close-ups of various laces and tattings. At first, the relative similarity in terms of form and void, connective tissue and its absence, means that Mack can edit shots together and generate relative continuity. Eventually, however, she introduces difference, in the form of high shot-to-shot articulation. The density of the weave and the moving placement of the patterns in the lace (if there is any at all) produces a thickness on the screen akin to film grain. As one image replaces another, the "grain" "swirls."


What's more, Mack's disjuncture between colors of lace (or, possibly, her introduction of filters -- not quite sure) produces a stark play of vibrant color fields. Using the rapid alternation of images of collected bits of (mostly antique) lace, Mack produces a film that pistons out at the eye like a Paul Sharits piece, carves out self-referential, intra-frame motion in the Brakhage mold, and connects to the traditions of non-objective and formalist stop-motion animation, from Fischinger and Richter to Breer and Klahr. In doing all this, Mack has managed to make films that just don't look like anybody else's. They are fully "in the dialog" of an ongoing tradition, but they are new -- bracingly new.


/In The Open (Im Freien) (Albert Sackl, Austria) [s]

Review forthcoming.


Vergence (Tina Frank) [v/s]

Review forthcoming.


Nocture (Phil Solomon, 1980) [s]

Comments forthcoming.


The Snowman (Phil Solomon, 1995) [s]

Comments forthcoming.


/Psalm II: "Walking Distance" (Phil Solomon, 1999)

Comments forthcoming.







August Song (Jodie Mack and Emily Kuehn) [v/s]

Review forthcoming.


The Scratchman (Heather McAdams, 1979) [s]

Comments forthcoming.


Yellow Horse (Bruce Baillie, 1965) [s]

Comments forthcoming.


Termination (Bruce Baillie, 1966) [s]

Comments forthcoming.


/Quixote (Bruce Baillie, 1966) [m]

Comments forthcoming.


/Valentin de las Sierras (Bruce Baillie, 1967) [s]

Comments forthcoming.


Woman with Flowers (Señora con flores) (Chick Strand, 1995/2011) [s]

Comments forthcoming.


Peril of the Antilles (Fern Silva, U.S. / Haiti) [s]

Review forthcoming.


Lack of Evidence (Manque de Preuves) (Hayoun Kwon, France) [v/s]

Although Kwon's short animated semi-autobiographical documentary narrative is quite rich and exceedingly well-crafted, I must admit that it strikes me as a highly peculiar choice for the AAFF's top jury award, which it won. (Note: I had to go back and view Lack of Evidence a second time much later, because the Ann Arbor screening had no subtitles due to a shipping error.) Utilizing first-person testimony and a stark, open visual style mostly characterized by a kind of organic, weedlike line quality, Kwon's film describes a disturbing intersection between superstition and governmental / bureaucratic indifference, A father slaughters one of his sons as a sacrifice, and Lack of Evidence chronicles the plight of the brother who escaped, seeking asylum in France. Unfortunately, he cannot prove his brother's murder or his own impending demise, at least not to the satisfaction of the authorities. In a sense, Kwon's brief contribution has the distinct advantages not only of being reasonably well-made but of being "zeitgeisty" as well. The dialectical relationship between two forms of systemic violence -- those of the West and its Other -- speaks the lingua franca of contemporary global culture. Still, I find that Lack of Evidence tends to provide just that, even within the realm of the partial, situated knowledge it brings front and center. Personal testimony here becomes a kind of substitute for analysis, such a shortcut that Kwon can begin rolling credits during minute nine, knowing full well that private truths (even when they collide with larger historical events) are well-nigh inarguable.


Saskatchewan (Richard Wiebe) [v/s]

Review forthcoming.


Correspondence (Robert Fenz, Germany) [s]

Review forthcoming.


Kid Beat Box: Twenty-two Tapes, Edit Nine (Stephen Wetzel) [v/s]

Review forthcoming.


This Our Still Life (Andrew Kötting, U.K.) [v/m]

Review forthcoming.


Amos Fortune Road (Matthew Buckingham, 1996) [s]

Comments forthcoming.


As Above, So Below (Sarah J. Christman) [v/m]

Review forthcoming.


And I Will Rise If Only to Hold You Down (Jennifer Reeder) [v/s]

Review forthcoming.


/Haunted House (Martin Arnold, Austria) [v/s]

Review forthcoming.


Landfill 16 (Jennifer Reeves) [s]

Review forthcoming.


Passage Upon the Plume (Fern Silva) [s]

Review forthcoming.


Within (Robert Todd) [s]

Review forthcoming.


By Foot-Candle Light (Mary Helena Clark) [v/s]

Review forthcoming.