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

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




-Monologue Exterieur (Francien van Everdingen, The Netherlands) [s]

In experimental cinema, many if not most of the best ideas are the simplest, the ones that, upon witnessing their expert execution, you wonder why no one's done it before. And while I cannot testify beyond a shadow of a doubt that Monologue Exterieur exploits a completely original idea, I am certain that I've never seen anything quite like it. It's a landscape study of sorts, the camera moving through green garden spaces, patches of grass and thick leaves. The final edit, however, layers these segments on top of each other, each one peering through the negative space of one single shape in what looks like a Matisse window-and-dressing-table interior. So, in the course of its too-brief three-minute running time, we watch as a sturdy painterly composition assembles itself out of a dizzying array of snippets from the natural world. These images of nature, due to the mobile camera, are bobbing and weaving, panning and scanning over their subject, resulting in a still life that is composed of its dialectical opposite. There's so much going on in the frame, and so little time to absorb it, that Monologue might simply overwhelm the viewer if it weren't for Everdingen's firm orchestration of her film. It's a piece that demands, and rewards, repeat viewings.




Aspect (Emily Richardson, U.K.) [s]

Organizing one's abstract film images along with a soundtrack is tricky. Most often the sound dominates the pictures, turning even the most advanced piece of experimental film into an inadvertent music video. Richardson's earlier film, redshift, while intriguing in concept, consisted of images that could not withstand composer Benedict Drew's sonic assault. Aspect, on the other hand, succeeds handsomely. Time-lapse treatment of nature images is a virtual cottage industry in avant-garde cinema, but Richardson manages to bridge two distinct styles with skill and originality. On the one hand, these images (shot in and around the forests of Kent, england) maintain the modernist quality of an Abstract Expressionist picture plane, the trees' undulations in the wind taking on a jagged, activated aspect in fast-motion. In a way the film recalls similar work by Rose Lowder and Jeanne Liotta. But together with Drew's glitch electronica, Richardson invests this formalism with an eerie psychological dread, reminiscent of implied-narrative experimental work such as Pat O'Neill's The Decay of Fiction, or non-narrative interludes from David Lynch. Aspect's combination of pure pictorialism and malevolence is a potent brew. In a way, you could even think of it as the unleashed spatial unconscious of House of Flying Daggers, the trees themselves having the final say.


Mini Cine Tupy (Sérgio Block, Argentina) [v/s]

An unassuming, formally uninventive little documentary short that manages to charm just by dint of its subject. Block profiles a Buenos Aires garbage-picker and cinephile who builds his own microcinema out of discarded junk. Even the 16mm projectors are refurbished, some of them made out of old vinyl LPs and rejiggered rotors and lightbulbs. The piece serves as a kind of unintentional postscript or scrappy little cousin to Varda's The Gleaners and I, reversing the stakes and treating cinema itself as a dusty discarded artifact worthy of retrieval. [NOTE: This piece was all the more poignant given the fact that Syracuse University's institutional commitment to the magic of projected light is virtually nil. I would think that SU has a few more resources at its disposal than some Dumpster-diver on the outskirts of B.A., but shit, what do I know?]


-The Missing (Lee Kang-sheng, Taiwan)

Not a lot to add to Mike D'Angelo's capsule from Rotterdam (scroll down to "Tue 27"), since he hits it on the head. (But I'll ramble some anyway.) Lee's directorial debut bears the same relationship to Tsai Ming-liang's films as Liv Ullmann's do to Bergman's. Same basic m.o., but with slight deviations from the master's efforts that take on a significance utterly lost on total newcomers. But this isn't to say the films are unfriendly to beginners. Like Ullmann's Faithless, Lee's film is less severe than Tsai's films not because of any slackening of rigor, but because he's less afraid of conventional displays of emotion. The result comes to stunning fruition near the end of the first half-hour, when we see a frantic grandmother running all over a Taipei park looking for her lost grandson. The sequence is divided into about five shots, the last being a bravura nine-minute single shot. The camera roves, whereas Tsai would probably adopt a chilly fixed frame for her to run in an out of. Emotionally, Lee picks up with actress Lu Yi-ching where she and Tsai left off in What Time is it There?, in a state of total breakdown, and yet Lee refuses to turn away. The impact turns formal rigor into an ethical stance -- we're forced to watch this human tragedy while recognizing, deeply feeling, our inability to get involved. (Compare this with the opposite gambit Lodge Kerrigan undertook with Keane, and note how much more honest Lee's approach is with respect to the role of the spectator.) And, as with What Time is it There?, Lu's character both repels us and elicits our empathy because it's her body and its basest needs that have betrayed her. This story represents one of the finest stretches of cinema I've seen in quite some time. Unfortunately, Lee intercuts this thread with a less compelling allegory about Alzheimer's and a younger generation "lost" to videogames. And the final shot tidily wraps everything we've seen into a little bundle of sad irony, even punning on the idea of "missing" someone. I'm certain that the relative failure of Tsai's last few films at the American box office has served to scare distributors away from The Missing, which is not only sad but wrong. In fact, Lee is a much more accessible version of Tsai, and those elements of The Missing that strike me as too blatant are in fact the very touches that would win the student's work wider acceptance than that of his master.


-The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Episodes 1-3 (Peter Greenaway, U.K. / The Netherlands)

At this point, could there be a man in the highfalutin world of Art Cinema more friendless, more studiously ignored, more -- let's face it -- reviled than Peter Greenaway? First, he was a British structuralist filmmaker, drawing inspiration from the likes of Hollis Frampton at a time when concerns such as his -- mathematics, rigor, self-reflexivity, gamesmanship -- were considered the depth of masculinist self-regard, a white-male cogito jones anxious to distance itself from the messiness of bodies, and the body politic. Thankfully, Frampton has been critically rehabilitated, but this neo-structuralist reconsideration (led less by critics than by filmmakers themselves) has left Greenaway behind. Why? Because he became a maker of 35mm, diegetically driven narrative cinema, combining his interest in structuralism with his fancy for Left Bank French intellectualism, that of Robbe-Grillet and particularly Resnais. The avant-garde film world had no use for this traitor-cum-social climber, with his desiccated allegories of Thatcherism and his Miramax distribution deal. Meanwhile, those sectors of the film world that should have embraced him (for shorthand's sake, let's call it the Film Comment Posse), gave it to Greenaway from both ends. Some never cottoned to his structuralist leanings. (As we all know, there's a segment of the abstruse film world that will give Béla Tarr seven hours of their lives, but Ernie Gehr not five rigorous minutes.) Others found his proto-"artsploitation" -- the brutality and vulgarity of The Cook, the Thief . . ., the jiggling titillation of The Pillow Book, the viewer-implicating sadism of The Baby of Macon -- not only tasteless but cynical, the equivalent of an academic deconstructionist pausing mid-lecture to fart at the podium, all the better to disrupt the bloodless terms of his discourse. Finally, Greenaway's dwindling cadre of fans abandoned him. Somewere turned off by Macon's finger-wagging at the ethics of spectatorship (while paradoxically ushering in Michael Haneke with great fanfare). Some (like myself) grew rather bored with Greenaway's retreat into classicism as a vindication of his interest in the smut / language nexus (The Pillow Book, Prospero's Books). And some (again, like myself) just threw up our hands at films clearly designed to be repugnant to any and all comers (8 1/2 Women). The tailspin, it seemed, was complete. Greenaway was a man abandoned by cinema, petulantly giving it the finger as it walked out the door.


Well, surprise, surprise. Greenaway is back. Sadly, no one seems to have noticed, which (who knows?) may be part of the point. The Tulse Luper Suitcases (volume one, anyway) is a bracing, rollicking return to form, achieved not by Greenaway pulling his head out of his ass but by shoving it even further up. After all, what do you do when you have no one left to please, and virtually nothing left to lose? Greenaway's answer is to bring his own career-long alter ego, amateur naturalist and "professional prisoner" Tulse Luper, into the foreground. Luper has been a vague, shadowy presence in many other Greenaway projects, and they get cited here in turn: sequences from The Falls, Vertical Features Remake, A Zed and Two Noughts, and The Belly of an Architect all pop up amidst the multilayered images. This film, and even the trilogy of which it's the first installment, are not stand-alones (it's a multi-format, ostensibly 92-part opus), and TLS 1-3 does not even pretend to function as a self-contained work. Even having some familiarity with the Luper mythos, I was hard-pressed to make heads or tails out of this film. In conventional terms, it makes not a lick of sense. And yet I found it so fussy and overworked, so saturated with text and image and designs and data, that I was having way too good a time to care. There's a skeletal plot involving Tulse Luper (J.J. Feild) and his friend Martino Knockavelli (Drew Mulligan) and their misadventures across the 20th century. While Volume One namechecks Kafka and Beckett in a brief roundtable discussion, the project smacks more of Ulysses, The Magic Mountain, or Gravity's Rainbow, towering modernist tomes that aim to encapsulate large spans of history by employing an interplay between diachrony and synchrony, horizontal and vertical temporal relationships. Sound heady, almost preposterous? Well, Greenaway appears to realize this. TLS 1-3 is both pretentious and self-effacing, promising a grand scheme for organizing the history of the world while undercutting its own ambition. It does this in at least two ways: (1) Greenaway traverses the film with interlocking and mutually canceling counting systems and taxonomies, like the "92 objects to represent the world" and the inserts of the 92 suitcases themselves. They pop up, out of order, and more often than not tell us nothing about anything. They promise clarity and organization, but are just more din; (2) Luper is a blowhard and an anti-hero, young, well-hung and full of dung. He continually runs afoul of various authorities and petty martinets (Nazis, territorial Mormons, his own dad), and gets locked up for his troubles. He never eludes capture; he just manages to wheedle out of his prisons as he needs to. Like a true Greenaway protagonist (well, any Greenaway character, really), Luper has the gift of gab, but to little or no effect. His tormentors are like Mel Brooks' grand inquisitor: Luper can't Torquemada anything. (Knockavelli, for his part, is no help. He's crippled by chronic diarrhea. And unlike most Greenaway characters, it's of the ass, not the mouth.)


Greenaway's self-indulgence has rounded a corner and become accessible again, in a manner of speaking. Harking back to his early work, he's abandoned plot almost completely, instead investing his energies in those aspects of cinema he really cares about: systems and surfaces. Greenaway uses digital editing and image-layering to stunning effect here, enveloping the action with drawings, theatrical sets and lighting, looped and fragmented images, architectural animations, and all manner of effluvia. And, as I mentioned above, sometimes Greenaway is cannibalizing his own earlier work for these screwy inserts. So, in a way, Greenaway is following the auteur theory through to its logical conclusion, an inside-out decentering of himself as text, "Greenaway" as a taxonomy that hints at coherence but always unravels. (Andrew Sarris, meet Roland Barthes.) Taking it as a given that no one's listening, Greenaway has gone beautifully off the deep end, landing up, not surprisingly, not far from where he began, but with a difference. If the structuralist Greenaway of Dear Phone, The Falls and Vertical Features Remake had affinities with the Frampton of Zorns Lemma, the Snow of Wavelength, and the Jacobs of Tom, Tom the Piper's Son, TLS 1-3 goes the way of these ambitious experimentalists, into works of sprawling, mindboggling, unkempt encyclopedic ambition, and terminal incompletion (the Magellan Cycle, Rameau's Nephew, the Nervous System project). If narrative concerns, and a desire for a wider audience, excluded Greenaway from consideration as a true avant-gardist, now we can see Greenaway abandoning those ambitions while paying them just enough lip service to secure funding for his every multimedia gleet. He's now secured a beachhead positioned somewhere between Frampton, Matthew Barney (who shares Greenaway's interest in Mormon arcana; compare TLS 1-3 with Cremaster 2), and the outer limits of the film festival circuit (especially Rotterdam). The segments of TLS 1-3 set in Moab, Utah, certainly give the impression that Greenaway fears the cultlike proclivities of American Mormonism, but clearly he's also taken some lessons from them as well. A patriarch presiding over his own proliferating, polygamous clan of ideas, Greenaway has, against all odds, exploited the international funding system to support his own little conceptual outpost, a remote place where virtually no one will follow him, and no one will give him any grief. Producers in eight different countries have lined up to subsidize Greenaway's Waco of the mind, making him cinema's ultimate welfare cheat. The Mormons? They call it "fleecing the devil."


[NOTE: I plan to rewatch (and possibly regrade) TLS 1-3 after seeing the other parts, so the 7/10 is highly provisional.]




-Basis pH (Dietmar Brehm, Austria) [s]

The simpler of the two "pumping screen" Brehm films I've seen, and perhaps for that reason it struck me as also being the stronger of the two. Footage of a woman before a mirror, putting on what looks like make-up, and then eventually bandaging her head with gauze, alternated with found-footage images from battlefields (whether fictional or documentary, I cannot say). The resulting interaction, combined with occasional interruptions by shots of a film crew with large standing lights, works over the course of the film to provide new information that recodes what we're seeing. That is, the film's images become less and less straightforward, their actual content (real or fake? beauty or safety? Hollywood product or government training film?) harder to pinpoint. The flicker that Brehm introduces during his rephotography process -- a midrange opening and closing of the f-stop that Peter Tscherkassky has identified as Brehm's primary artistic strategy -- did not serve to "free the images from their prescribed context to repatriate them into the rudimentary code of light and dark," as Tscherkassky claims. (This may well be due to the fact that I had to watch Brehm's films on video transfers.) Flicker has a long and noble tradition in avant-garde cinema, and Brehm's employment of it didn't serve to disintegrate or disrupt the images' representational quality all that much. In fact, Basis pH's primary interest value, and its ability to hold together formally, hinge largely on its interplay of thematic statement and revision / retraction. (NOTE: Tscherkassky's essay on Austrian experimental cinema, cited above, is indispensable reading for anyone with an interest on the subject.It appears in the 1994 catalogue Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema, 1955-1993, co-published by the San Francisco Cinematheque and Sixpack Film. Uninterested parties, please pardon the dip into unrepentant academic hackery.)


The Jacket (John Maybury, U.K. / Canada)

A perfectly watchable psycho-thriller hodgepodge of Jacob's Ladder, La Jetée, Je t'aime, Je t'aime, and stylistic grabs from numerous David Fincher joints. It never really builds into outright goodness, but it manages to treat its fundamentally silly premise with a modicum of seriousness without toppling into self-importance. Interesting casting is the main ingredient for this qualified success. Adrien Brody anchors the film with a sly self-awareness, clearly feeling himself sell out and reach for mainstream embrasure but never really pandering. Given the premise and the character he has to play, Brody dials it down admirably, coming off like your emotionally tortured, time-traveling neighbor kid from next door. Likewise, Jennifer Jason Leigh invests this crispy little pop-tart of a movie with an odd gravitas, as does Kris Kristofferson (looking vaguely Brakhage-like), essentially reprising his gruff demeanor from the Blade series. The one serious clunker in all this, surprisingly, is Keira Knightley, whose tough-but-neurotic working class heroine ends up coming off a lot like Sandra Bernhard. Eek. One final note for the auteurists: Maybury, a British experimentalist who once worked with Derek Jarman, has indeed taken a turn for the mass-cult with this one, but he can't refrain from avant-garde touches and shout-outs. For no apparent reason, the diner Knightley works at is called Baillie's, given the spelling of filmmaker Bruce Baillie instead of the more common "Bailey." The Brody character's flashbacks all feature a layered, scratched-over, multicolored composition that gestures, however anemically, to Brakhage's films. And the most obvious homage comes in the final credits, which are basically a widescreen remake of Brakhage's Mothlight backed with the olive drab of military fatigues. None of this elevates the film one iota, but it does send out a clear, rather disturbing message: "Help! My name is John Maybury, and I'm being held prisoner in a Hollywood morgue drawer!"


Quick's Thicket (Diane Kitchen) [s]

A sequel of sorts to Kitchen's exquisite foliage study Wot the Ancient Sod from a few years back, Quick's Thicket is a tougher nut to crack. The extreme close-ups and variable focuses tend to turn the autumn leaves into instances of pure color. The film is at its most arresting when Kitchen foregoes nearly all clarity; the results are saturated with deep gold and rust-orange hues, implying a warmer version of objective, color-field cinema while hovering on the very edge of representation, a tiny patch of sky hanging in the corner, or the dried-out leaf stem jabbing gently into the frame. At these moments, as she did with Wot the Ancient Sod, Kitchen achieves something truly unique, an odd meld of Paul Sharits' cinema with the painterly palette of early Brice Marden. (I'm thinking specifically of his Four Seasons, in the Menil Collection in Houston. This one's less accurate but will give you some idea.) Over time, however, the organizational logic of Thicket becomes harder to locate. It's not edited with a perceptible rhythm, and often even the interactions between colors seem hazy and underarticulated. Toward the middle of the film I began to perceive certain relationships of shape -- a leaf cutting a pointy, volumetric figure, with the next shot rhyming in a negative-space inversion -- but even this was such a strain that I can't be certain whether I was coercing the film into some predetermined schema, or responding to its own buried cues.




-Jours en fleurs (Louise Bourque) [s]

I've seen a number of films by Bourque, and they've all been interesting and well-made but dispiritingly derivative, as though she has yet to find her own voice. Jours en fleurs surely suffered from being presented on video (it's made in 35mm), but I do think I got a fair representation of what the piece is like. It is strikingly Brakhagian, with bubbly fields of slathered color (autumnal golds and light-blues, mostly) occasionally giving way to step-printed images of a garden in out-of-focus medium shot. Slices of light bisect the photographic information, lending the piece a gentle surface / depth interplay. Bourque's soundtrack, a repetitive suite of flapping sounds, needle-jumps and the cawing of crows, feels overworked, and eventually smothers the sensual pleasures of the film.


Lawn (Monteith McCollum) [v/s]

McCollum's follow-up to the feature-length corn documentary Hybrid straddles an uncomfortable line between the pure sense data of the formalist avant-garde and the concrete yet allusive information one would glean from a poetic documentary. Lawn, to my eyes, doesn't exactly commit to either approach, and despite its obvious strengths -- gorgeous landscape photography in particular, a roving camera that captures stunning, mist-diffused meadows and indistinct, Impressionistic trees -- the piece ends up in a muddle. The human will to dominate nature is conveyed quite clearly in McCollum's images, which at times equal the radiant decrepitude of Tarkovsky, an achievement I'd have thought impossible for an artist using video at any stage of the production process. And yet, the subtextual impressions Lawn evokes in the viewer are spelled out with the interview material, as when McCollum consults a "lawn professional," or the main interview subject remarks, "Lawns are reflective of the character of the people who maintain them." The urge to incorporate text, clearly borne from a desire to fashion the data into another experimental / documentary hybrid, instead comes across like an impatient need to over-explain. This is frustrating, because in many respects Lawn is the most accomplished experimental video I've seen in quite some time. In fact, I highly suspect that it's my own set of aesthetic preferences that are dictating my reaction to Lawn, and no inherent failings in the piece itself, which is to say, your mileage may vary.


Ong-bak (Prachya Pinkaew, Thailand)

Tony Jaa is awesome. When he is being chased by a gang through the back alleys of Bangkok he dives through tiny spaces and twists himself in midair. He can do things ordinary humans cannot. And it is totally awesome. As a sort of confirmation of how awesome Jaa's stunts are, the film will often repeat them once or twice, from alternate angles, like on a porno DVD. So awesome! Unfortunately, Jaa's awesomeness is trapped inside one of the most narratively and technically inept pictures I have seen in ages. Ong-bak's "country-boy in the big city to save the village" business would be rejected even by Bollywood as too hackneyed and moronic. And director Prachya has not mastered even the most basic filmic grammar. Major characters just disappear and reappear, as though they can transcend time and space. Action sequences, like the taxi chase on the incomplete freeway, are incomprehensible, just zoom-zoom-BOOM! And most damningly, Prachya's jittery, excitable-boy editing often undercuts our astonishment at Jaa's athleticism, since the director usually fails to give us at least one wide-angle, single-take view of the stunts. (He should be chained to a chair and force-fed Buster Keaton films in my opinion.) So what we have here is an unskilled, amateurish filmmaker collaborating with a performer whose physical prowess demands, if not masterful auteursmanship, at least unassuming directorial competence. This is a rare instance in which I'd advise you to wait for the DVD. You'll want to skip around, and see that walking-on-shoulders stunt one more time.


Winchester (Jeremy Blake) [v/p/s]

Blake (an artist probably best known for his colorful interstitials in Punch-Drunk Love) has created a highly digitized video triptych inspired by San Jose's Winchester Mystery House, an uncanny architectural oddity with doorways and corridors leading nowhere, all in the hopes of thwarting the ghosts the mansion's occupant believed to be haunting her. Blake's three pieces were completed three years apart, and each seems to have its own separate logic, despite being presented by Blake and the SFMOMA running simultaneously as one piece. The first, 2002's Winchester, returns again and again to iconic, solarized images of the mansion silhouetted against the sky. 2003's 1906 is perhaps the most complex and multilayered, with bleeding colors colliding with various collage materials (cartoons, photographs, film clips) relating to the Winchester rifle. The third (and for me the most intriguing), 2004's Century 21, combines film clips from Westerns and their balletic gunplay with a landscape study of San Jose, focusing particular attention on the city's bizarre Cinedome theatres -- Century 21, 22, and 23 -- that dot the I-880 corridor. (Passing these still-operational relics on the freeway, I've always wondered how exactly you'd project a film inside them. Blake maintains the mystery.) The piece is fussy and overworked, failing (at least to my eyes) to generate formal dialogue between its parts. As for Blake's style, it is impressive, in the way a very well-written piece of computer code is impressive, but managing to be both hyper and tepid, like an enthusiastic youngster trying way too hard to impress. Blake has one major move, and that's to employ the unique qualities of computer imagery to replicate modernist painterly and sculptural forms. So at various points we get animated Morris Louis and Sam Francis images, oozing down the screen in dry pixilated viscosity. Likewise, Blake employs the white-out properties of the video raster to generate artificial light emanations, as though a horse sequence or a set of color-field stripes were being burned away by a Dan Flavin quasar. It's kind of neat at first, but wears out its welcome quickly. Overall, the piece displays more promise than accomplishment.




-Echo Echo (Dietmar Brehm, Austria) [s]

As the title suggests, Echo Echo's chief formal strategy is repetition of each segment of film at least once. However, some repetitions are immediate, while others are spaced out along the four-minute running time. Stag loops and porn footage are apparently material Brehm has returned to often, perhaps making Echo Echo a sly repetition itself, but I'm not qualified to place this film within the larger context of Brehm's career. In addition to the porn, various types of imagery pop up -- the film opens with a still image of a knife poised on a diagonal, implying both violence (to be blended with the sex, a visual Lustmord that never arrives) and the montage process itself (Eisenstein, one recalls, loved the cognitive jolt created by composing on the diagonal). But the articulation of porn with both the jarring and the banal, combined with the film's "pumping" flicker and overall sickly-yellow-orange tint, infuses Echo Echo with an all-pervasive sameness, a flatness I found soothing but impenetrable even after repeat viewings. I think I may just not be catching Brehm's wavelength. And given that his films are short and plentiful, it could be that he's an artist whose approach requires more immersion than two individual instances can provide.




-A Hole in the Ground (Eveline Ketterings, The Netherlands) [s]

A Hole in the Ground is a Dutch music video by a band called The Farter Brothers. The Farters play dress-up in one of those wax-museum mock-ups of an old country house, consorting with a mannequin dubbed "Hank Williams, Sr." (You can tell it's Hank because he's holding a bottle of whisky, you see.) Tedious, self-satisfied, and remarkably unfunny.




My Most Important Self-Portrait (James Barany) [v/s]

This thing is terrible and I actually just wrote a really scathing review of it, but I realized that almost no one is going to see this piece, and I'm basically just being an asshole by explaining exactly why it isn't any good. It just isn't, that's all. Trust me. (I'll send the review only by request, if anyone actually cares.)