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

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



My general comments of the experimental section of the Nashville Film Festival can be found here. My broad coverage of the Images Festival in Toronto can be found here. In both cases, I will be writing in more depth about select films from each festival below.




Deep Red (Esther Urlus, The Netherlands) [s]* (Nashville)

This short abstract film (seven-minutes-and-change) is the first work I've seen by the Dutch filmmaker Urlus, and now I'm a bit embarrassed that she was completely off my radar. Deep Red has quite a bit in common with some of the work coming out of the hand-processing / microlab renaissance at the moment, films that are displaying a newfound (or I should say rediscovered) interest in the physical properties and textures of celluloid when it's actually pushed to do more than just "depict." I'm thinking of the L'Abominable folks in France (Nicolas Rey, Olivier Fouchard, Marcelle Thirache, others), the Double Negatives in Montreal (Karl Lemieux, Christopher Becks, Daïchi Saïto, and more), and even going back to the U.K. scene from the 1970s. That is to say, Deep Red bears a superficial resemblance to certain Brakhage works -- the layering recalls, I suppose, his working-over of Dog Star Man to form The Art of Vision, and the graphic quality of the images have a little something in common with Brakhage's final films, especially The Chinese Series. But Urlus's approach could hardly be more different. She has taken the same basic material (a high-contrast, hand-held "pass" or two over bare winter trees) and printed it in Technicolor, over and over again. At first we're given the searing red of the title, then a midnight blue. Next are yellow and baby blue, and other colors soon enter the mix. Eventually, Urlus superimposes the multiple color-prints of the same material, which has several different effects. First, it creates color interaction, both through blending and through stark color "montage" and complementarity. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the play of mobile light-forms against one another, within the sea of overall darkness, generates an active film space, one which rapidly expands and collapses as the two, or three, or more segments of trees and sky play against one another. As Urlus layers more of these filmstrips (she claims to lay them on 36-deep at one point), the image becomes a kind of trembling ball of yarn, and so Deep Red evolves from a sort of Len Lye forms-in-space graphic architecture to a swirling light-Pollock. This is all the more impressive given that, in less than eight minutes, Urlus composes a rhythmic context for this build which in no way feels hurried or pictorially cramped. Rather, Deep Red is an organic outcome of a color study, one that simply multiplies, showing the tangible seductions of film.


Fragments of Kubelka (Martina Kudláček, Austria)

I had the pleasure of writing this review for Fandor as my April edition of The Big Ones, given that Fragments is just under four hours. I'll admit that I've run hot and cold with Kudláček's documentaries on avant-garde masters. Her In the Mirror of Maya Deren is certainly a worthy introduction to Deren's work. But the Kubelka film is on another level altogether, largely because Kudláček gives her subject wide swaths of time. And, of course, she's focusing on a live subject, which I think makes all the difference. Here's the review.


A Third Version of the Imaginary (Benjamin Tiven, U.S. / Kenya) [v/s] (Images)

"Video is an amnesiac medium. Film always remembered what it saw." These words are spoken near the start of Benjamin Tiven's video, which is a brief but potent inquiry into the ontological problem of the archive as it relates to human memory and national identity. Much of the tape consists of a young-to-middle aged man edging through metal shelves filled with gray videotape cases, looking for something. The small, cluttered, claustrophobic room in the Kenyan Film Archive, and Tiven observes its modest with a detective's dispassion. One of the key aspects of Imaginary is the problem of video's endless potential for erasure. As we learn, most of the tapes in the archive have been recorded over again and again. So presumably, their placement in the archive room represents a terminus in their recycling (although who can really know?). However, as Tiven intimates, every "top" recording is haunted by all those images and lives that were sacrificed so thst more work could be produced cheaply. In other words, TV and video may be amnesiac, but they are also indubitably haunted.


The Woolworths Choir of 1979 (Elizabeth Price, U.K.) [v/s] (Images)

This video work has already gained a substantial degree of notoriety for having won its maker the 2012 Turner Prize, and as winners of this high-profile contemporary art award go, the response has been generally positive among both art critics and writers in the popular press. For those who are somewhat unaware, the Turner Prize is often a bit of a lightning rod in British culture, serving as an easy target for commentators on both the left and the right. "Look how far the fine arts have tumbled from the days of the Old Masters!" That sort of thing. It was established in 1984, but it gained widespread infamy in the 90s once the YBAs started making the awards shortlist. Folks like Tracey Emin (never won), Damien Hirst (winner, 1995) and Chris Ofili (1998, for "the painting with the elephant dung") were causes for teapot-tempests in a tedious media environment. (The fact that private sponsors award the Turner cash prize mitigates the outrage, of course. No taxpayers were harmed in the making of this "scandal.")


But Woolworths Choir, while not a favorite to win among oddsmakers (yes, some people actually bet on Turner winners) has been seen as a solid and intelligent choice all around. It is an unusual piece, one that provides the outward pleasures of classic pop music and 1980s / 90s rock video structure (Price, I learned, is a former member of the Oxford guitar-pop band Talulah Gosh). The girl-group rhythms and bright, blasted-out videography resemble aspects of early MTV, as though Price were recreating a kind of Bow Wow Wow era clapping song. But in contrast to this infusion of overt pop appeal, Price withholds the ostensible and promised subject matter of her videotape. Instead, the first two-thirds of Woolworths Choir blends the musical material with a meticulous delineation of the architectural features of a classical British cathedral. The purpose of this art history lesson, offered in snapshots and sing-song, is to take us through the church and demonstrate how its hierarchy is figured in the very construction of its space. The lesson eventually leads us to the choir, which is, relatively speaking, a feminized space, and one of marginalization.


Once Price begins intercutting soundbites and news clips from the actual event her piece is examining -- the fire at a Manchester Woolworths department store, in which ten people died -- she similarly demarcates the space of the department store building. In so doing, she articulates just how negligence and the spatial organization of class and gender were largely responsible for the tragedy. Many women were trapped behind windows with metal burglar bars that were welded on. The fire brigade had to waste precious time cutting through these bars. But most of the death and injury resulted from a giant stack of couches piled unsafely in a corner of a storage area. They were not only flammable; the cheap polyurethane foam of their cushions emitted cyanide gas as it burned. The fire resulted in a reconsideration of fire codes, naturally, but Price's piece places this horrific event in a different context. How do we remember the faces and voices that correspond to half-forgotten news items? The TV news made them soundbites at the time, and now we can "resurrect" them through YouTube. But Price demonstrates that, like disconnected entities on an Internet soundboard, we can summon up these dead, now with greater ease than ever. (We can make them "sing," for any purpose whatsoever.) Is this yet another marginalization, a redoubling of the social violence that destroyed them in the first place? Price enters this dangerous ground by considering their position, and beatifying them all for a rousing, charismatic memorial, a jab against the powers that squandered them and would let them be forgotten.




Currents (Patty Chang and Noah Klersfeld) [v/p] (Images)

In an Images Festival that, as per my wrap-up piece, was truly defined by its strong film/video installation work, here's an entry that showed a great deal of potential. But in the end I came away feeling as though the artists (with whom I am unfamiliar -- I plan to do some research on them in due time) knew that they'd hit upon a striking formal idea and really just kind of left it at that. In terms of execution, or conceptual heft, Chang and Klersfeld don't completely deliver, and I'm not exactly sure why. Currents is a series of "passes" or iterations through a single (quite clever) videography scenario. They insert their camera in a circulation bin and set in on a journey through the luggage conveyance system of an airport. (At first I thought it was a federal post office. One imagines the massive belts and byways are quite similar.) We have a series of POV shots as the camera slides and banks through the track, jostled and shuttled to an eventual dead end. On some of the passes, the camera is followed by another bin containing a single flower or plant, whose disconcertingly rough misadventures provide a kind of point of identification, if one chooses to read the piece in that way. The bins stop at different points, so the individual videos have non-uniform running times. They are shown in sequence, blown up to wall size, on the left; on the right, a monitor shows them all simultaneously in a grid. Currents works fairly well as a kind of kinetic painting, and a one-liner. We aren't really asked to think about the mechanization of the events we're observing, nor do we gain any real insight from watching all of the passes in sequence. The grid shows just how clear the videos are when presented in small format, which only emphasizes how much resolution is lost in the wall projection. This doesn't seem deliberate; we're not asked to "consider" the distortion as a factor in the composition of Currents. All in all, the projection is a necessity that wasn't adequately accounted for in the piece's creation. It's a fun ride, but I found myself left with a pretty substantial "so what?" factor.


Hotel Room (Bernd Oppl, Austria) [v/s] (Nashville)

Here's a perfect example of, in the words of the great John Baldessari, "a work with only one property." I don't mean to call it a one-liner, because Oppl's quite a bit more sly than that. What Hotel Room really is is a "trick film," in the full early-cinema definiton of the term. Much like the classic courts métrages by the likes of Georges Méliès or Émile Cohl, or the Lumières' "Destruction of a Wall" (wherein the brothers discovered the reversal of time and action through backwards cranking), Hotel Room has but a single artistic project, and that's to disrupt our cognitive expectations. Oppl's film can only do this once, but subsequent viewers can reveal exactly how well Oppl did it, and how the film uses subtle misdirection to make us ignore certain rather obvious anomalies in the frame. It's fun, and a little lovely in its own way. Are we watching a flood? A sinking ship? Video itself breaking down into another state? It's an aperitif for further Oppl work, that's certain.


Maître-Vent (Simon Quéhiellard, France) [v/s] (Images)

Some videos seem to exist as single-channel works, unfolding in linear time, just because their maker didn't exactly know how esle to present them. To my eyes, this is the case with Maître-Vent ("Wind-Master"), which is presented as a set of brief comedic vignettes involving precarious temporary structures being set up on the side of a busy two-lane highway by Quéhiellard, perfoming in the guise of a wandering roadside salesman / artist / derelict in Jacques Tati mode. He props up "tables" made of boxes and styrofoam inserts, dowels and plastic bags, and the inevitable outcome is that the whole business collapses as soon as a car drives by. The amusement factor evaporates rather quickly, or at least it did for me. So what's left, eventually, is an interest in Quéhiellard's Arte Povera assemblage modes how they evolve and how he introduces new materials into the mix. Since the video is, to all intents and purposes, a performance documentation, there is very little in the way of "build." It's a modular proposition, and as such Maître-Vent is a work that would probably be better served as a component in a gallery installation, maybe alongside some of Quéhiellard's evanescent constructions. If the very possibility of movement within the gallery space, the subtle shifting of air, could result in these semi-structures falling down, think of the tension such an exhibition would generate? This would take Quéhiellard's work from mere cutesy humor into the realm of nearly unbearable anxiety.


Museum of the Imagination (Amit Dutta, India) [v/s] (Images)

In its own way, "experimental documentary" has developed into its own subgenre, such that when we see a film described as such, we start to have some idea what to expect. It might be a vague idea -- a formalist approach to sound / image relationships, for example, or an approach to interview material or other visual evidence that will in some way problematize (if not entirely subvert) their presumed authority. But Museum of the Imagination is initially offputting. It's a film that doesn't offer a lot of cues on how to watch it, at least at first. A portrait of B.N. Goswamy, a major historian of classical Indian art, the film is also a landscape study, a series of tracking shots around the architecture of his home and office, and a close examination of a number of original artworks, frequently shown both in details and at length before a still camera. There are also more "action" oriented interludes, such as a brief sequence of a woman grinding pigment, for example. But Dutta's portrait of Goswamy (which intermittantly includes the professor's voiceover) is overwhelmingly defined by fragmentation. That having been said, however, Dutta's Constructivist editing patterns, unusual rhythms, and slow, prowling camera all conspire to link these shards into some hard-to-define sculptural entity. The nearest comparisons I can draw with what he achieves with Museum would be to certain efforts by Heinz Emigholz and latter-day Straub-Huillet (especially their Cézanne film), but even those modernist totems exhibit more continuity than Dutta permits here. Instead, it is as though, while viewing, we are actually involved in an investigative process, the placement of these images (and their past meanings) becoming an active, striving concern. This is a tough film, but one I admire greatly.


Reality (Matteo Garrone, Italy / France)

[The following is an excerpt from a full-length review of Reality forthcoming in Cineaste.]


Matteo Garrone, quite strategically, does not show us Luciano’s hour-long audition at the legendary Cinecittà in Rome, where the Italian edition of “Big Brother” is conducted. We only hear Luciano enthuse about how he opened up, kept talking, telling the producers things he had never told anyone. Much like Luciano’s misrecognition of Enzo as a pal or fellow performer, it is quite possible that the encounter with the producers was an awkward expulsion of private information that made the reality TV people want nothing to do with the blinkered fishmonger from Naples. Keep in mind, “Big Brother” is a show that is superficial and jejune even by the barrel-scraping standards of so much reality programming. The underlying purpose of having all that surveillance is prurience, the hope of catching young, dumb hard-bodies in the midst of semi-censored bump and grind. A secular version of the Catholic confessional, or a televised form of lay psychoanalysis, it most certainly is not. That magic phone call never comes, and it becomes apparent to all but Luciano that he will not be selected as a “Big Brother” contestant. However, his fixation on being a public spectacle, rather than dissipating, becomes warped; frustrated drives, as we know from Freud, do not just evaporate. They find unlikely and sometimes detrimental detours, and in Luciano’s case, the need to exist as someone special quickly devolves into a reaction-formation of social paranoia. He becomes convinced that producers for “Big Brother” are scoping him out everywhere he goes, making sure he is really a fishmonger, watching him to see what kind of a person he truly is.


Eventually, every single person in Naples is Luciano’s potential evaluator. His need to be a TV star, to bear his performative id as a gregarious clown, has become introjected; he is now internalizing the prospective “viewer” in the form of a societal superego, yet fearing its 1,000 eyes everywhere he goes. It’s well worth noting that we can find variations of this trait through Garrone’s mature cinema. The individual assumption of social ideals, which may indeed be pathological from the outset, become forms of sadism or masochism, exaggerated as they are within the protagonists’ psyches. Peppino in The Embalmer (2002) takes on others’ judgments of him based on their homophobia and ablism and expands them into a sinister, sadistic identity; Vittorio and Sonia, the body-discipline couple in Primo Amore (2004), absorb anorexia as a regulative aesthetic ideal which drains any framework of love or security from the S/M scenario; and broadening his canvas, with the Cosa Nostra drama Gomorrah (2008), Garrone displays the psychological toll of an honor culture, wherein people come to derive their identity as “good men” through murder and exploitation. By contrast, the wounds of Luciano’s paranoia are primarily self-inflicted, although he does harm his family in the bargain. And, unlike the damaged individuals who populate Garrone’s other films, the logic of Luciano’s attitude is subject to multiple interpretations within his social sphere.  Michele, Luciano's partner in the fishmongering business, suggests that what Luciano is feeling isn’t the pathology of TV obsession, but the omnipresence of the Lord, who sees all and takes notes for the final Judgment. This only complicates matters, which is precisely Garrone’s point.


While this would be a creatively counterintuitive reading of “Big Brother,” and reality TV in general, in most other contexts, it has a very particular sociopolitical valence in contemporary Italy. It isn’t just that Italian culture is perpetually at odds with its deeply traditional Catholic roots, something well understood by leftists from Gramsci to Negri and beyond and a fact that has arguably been the dominant topic in Italian cinema since its inception, and certainly since the advent of Neo-Realism. But beyond this long-term trajectory, Reality speaks to the specific problematics of the crisis of “videocracy” in the Berlusconi years and their immediate hangover. As Erik Gandini detailed (to admittedly mixed effect) in his documentary by that name, Italian culture, as consolidated under Berlusconi’s media empire and intermittent political reign, replaced news and journalism with flashy, prurient reality TV and gaudy variety programming, all designed to flatter a (meticulously constructed) Italian common man. As Videocracy showed, with the example of “Ricky,” the wannabe singing star / auto mechanic, only by breaking into this debauched vision of tele-democracy can one possibly hope to “be somebody,” to actually matter within the populace. So, whatever faults we may find with Michele’s (and Italian history’s) unifying culture of Catholicism – and there are certainly many faults to be found, patriarchal prerogative being only the most obvious – it nevertheless retained openness and availability as a regulative ideal, even when it fell short. The Berlusconian glamour society, by contrast, resembles a spectacle-driven, secular version of Calvinism, with “salvation” (being seen, becoming loved by all) a dangling carrot to be captured only by the Elect.




The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie, U.S. / U.K. / Canada)

I wonder what it would be like if Rob Zombie directed a non-horror film? Now, just because I'm not much of a horror aficionado, let me clarify: I'm not saying that getting out of scary movies would be some kind of "step up" for Zombie, or that he's "too talented for genre filmmaking," or any elitist bullshit like that. It's just that the films of his I've seen -- House of 1,000 Corpses, The Devil's Rejects, and now The Lords -- all share such a pitch-perfect commitment to the general trappings of 1970s / early 80s American and Canadian cinematic style, and not just B-grade and grindhouse. The opening credit sequence of Lords, for example, with its chilly, autumnal evocation of small town New England, calls to mind not just psychological thrillers of that era, like The Exorcist, The Stepford Wives or Sybil, but numerous TV movies (especially on CBS) that treated northern WASPishness as a post-60s seat of repression. In a way, The Lords' use of the Bruce Davison character, Francis Mattias, is a play on the shorthand of this period, when the middle-aged white guy in the knit sweater had to reflect the stifling force of authority. And of course, to the Salem coven, he certainly does.


In any case, once Lords gets moving, Zombie's primary sources start coming to the fore: The Shining and Rosemary's Baby. And of course, one can do much worse than to pay sincere homage to Kubrick and Polanski. Zombie is an incurable cinephile, which no doubt explains the richness of his cinema compared to that of his "peers." He thinks in images. The halls of the residential hotel, of course, are a Shining riff, but more than this, The Lords continually plays with a motif of symmetry versus asymmetry, uniformity versus freedom. Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie) is not only a spunky, assertive individual whose will is subdued by the Lords, first musically and then by physical force. They transform her unusual clothing, whiten her face, remove her from her highly individualized apartment, in order to rebuild her as a vessel. (You could almost read this metaphorically. Heidi is turned into the bride / mother of Satan, and she goes from being an actualized woman to being enslaved by this unholy 'domesticity.') As the whole plot comes to a close, Zombie becomes ever more reliant on genre mechanics, along with a tendency to throw every idea he can muster up at the screen. There's less and less interest value as The Lords goes maximal, partly because it had banked so much of its power on holding back. And so, this leads me to wonder, what would he do with a domestic drama, of the Bergmanian ilk, that had no horror or supernatural element whatsoever? That is to say, what would happen if Rob Zombie were permitted to direct a film on the basis of atmosphere alone?


Me and You (Bernard Bertolucci, Italy)

I suppose it ought to be acknowledged that Me and You, Bertolucci's return to the director's chair after a nine-year absence, is a minor work. But to be fair, it is equally necessary to acknowledge that Bertolucci has experienced the significant setback, in 2003, of a botched operation on a herniated disc, which left him confined to a wheelchair. As he has only recently began to discuss in interviews, he lapsed into depression, became a recluse, and felt his career was over. For Bertolucci himself, then, perhaps Me and You could be seen as a bit of an experiment, an icebreaker both for sorting out the logistics of directing within his new physical circumstances, and simply getting back into the game, which would pose a challenge for anyone after a lengthy hiatus. It would be facile, I think, to interpret the choice of material -- an adaptation of the novel by Niccolò Ammaniti, who co-scripted with Bertolucci -- as being a direct expression of the director's sense of confinement. Yes, the plot is about a somewhat troubled young man, Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) who hides out in his family's basement, only to be unexpectedly joined by his older half-sister Olivia (Tea Falco), and so this scenario results in a nearly one-set film characterized by close quarters, darkness, and relative immobility. But confinement has been a key trope in many of Bertolucci's greatest films. The Conformist, for example, becomes, among other things, about the problem of hiding, first in plain sight and then eventually in increasingly narrow spaces. The Last Emperor played off the vast discrepancy between little Pu Yi's mastery of the Forbidden City, versus the adult emperor's post-Revolution arrest. Even The Dreamers, which is not among Bertolucci's very best work, ultimately focuses on the three youths attempting to turn an apartment into a world apart. As for Me and You, there is an overall failure to either expand the space into something expressive (a psychological state, for example) or to really emphasize its claustrophobia. The text itself (which to begin with is not exactly the most compelling material BB has taken on -- "adolescent learns from dissolute junkie") is enacted in an essentially theatrical manner, never fully expanded in cinematic terms. Me and You is diverting enough; the pacing and the expressiveness of the two young actors demonstrate what this master can do. But this is a lukewarm effort, a tepid toe-dip back into the pool. The fact that Bertolucci has reportedly already begun his next project is the real cause for celebration.




The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark)

I ended up reviewing not just The Hunt, but the majority of Vinterberg's career to date, for Cinema Scope. This wasn't my intention when I started out, but I do kind of have that habit -- situating a director's latest effort in relation to her / his overall oeuvre. Typically, this process doesn't turn into such a hatchet job, and I honestly didn't set out to write some sort of hit piece. Mainly, as I looked back on what I consider to be a series of misfires, I found myself wondering about my initial enthusiasm for The Celebration, and so I would up mentally pairing it with The Hunt, not only as a set of markers in terms of creative ground traversed by Vinterberg but as two Zeitgeist-bound explorations of "The Father" and the social anxiety that figure provokes. Anyway, here's the piece.


Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski)

As the kindly commenter will tell you, not my finest work as a reviewer, and even through my fragile ego, I must agree. I had very little to say about this shamelessly derivative but well-appointed corporate gewgaw. And yet, duty called, as it sometimes does. Like the great Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus, I stand accused.