Festivals: Ann Arbor
With its mix of youngish filmmakers and hoary college-town hippies, Ann Arbor is one of the more rambunctious festivals out there. The 52nd edition (which ran March 25 to 30) was aided by a particularly electrifying slate and a dusting of early spring snow that helped drive people indoors to the grand, historic Michigan Theater. Two films in particular whipped audiences into a frenzy and came courtesy of filmmakers pushing 70: Penelope Spheeris’s seminal The Decline of Western Civilization (81) about the Los Angeles punk scene in 1979-80, and Thom Andersen’s — —– (aka The Rock and Roll Film) (67, co-directed with Malcolm Brodwick). The musical performances on screen and the hyperkinetic filmmaking had the crowd cheering, hollering, and whistling louder than any avant-garde-film crowd I’ve ever heard.
Lori Felker’s trailer for the festival offered a soothing contrast. Stroking her hair and smiling, she whispers coyly into the camera: “I hope this experience brings you much relaxation and peace.” Felker then demonstrates the projection of the Sofia Coppola film Lost in Translation in two different formats: a 35mm print carefully threaded through a projector; and then DVD, with the push of a few buttons on a player. Felker’s trailer is not only a playful take on “found footage”—Lost in Translation is never “seen” except as the physical material of celluloid film or a DVD disc—but also a mash-up of trigger video, meditation tape, and internet porn solicitation. Felker invites us to slow down and consider the means by which we watch films, as well as the various kinds of labor that go into the process, whether the rapidly disappearing role of the projectionist in an era of DCP press-and-play, or the kinds of attention demanded of the viewer.
Encounters with Your Inner Trotsky Child
Jim Finn’s Encounters with Your Inner Trotsky Child also riffs on the self-help genre by reading the persecution of the Russian Marxist of the title as an allegory for finding inner peace. Mimicking the wobbly appearance of Eighties video graphics, the film employs New Age-y visualization techniques (one section is entitled “Arrogant Breath of the Puffed-Up Bourgeoisie: A Guided Meditation”) and quasi-spiritual affirmation exercises conducted by a German-speaking aerobics instructor. The better life promised by such instructions, of course, was not something that Trotsky, murdered in Mexico by Stalin’s agents, was able to achieve. Instead, the video’s narrator (Lois Severin) offers a counter history in which Trotsky evades Stalin’s reach by building an underground bunker and triumphs over his enemies. Though Encounters elicited laughter with its hyperbolic Communist rhetoric and lo-fi video effects, it also prompts a serious engagement with its central premise: that to imagine a better life for ourselves means, in part, imagining a different history.
The Handeye (Bone Ghosts)
With The Handeye (Bone Ghosts), Anja Dornieden and Juan David González Monroy, who go by the name OJOBOCA, mine not a counterfactual history but a secret one. In their eerie, hand-processed film, they imagine an early 20th-century séance, conducted by Robert Musil and Sigmund Freud, in which the ghost of Franz Anton Mesmer, the founder of modern hypnosis, is summoned. Eugenie Schwarzwald, the only other known participant that day, wrote in her diary an enigmatic account: “A distinguished flea hypnotizes the ghost of a distinguished man.” The flea, presumably, refers to one that appeared in a dream to Musil, predicting impending catastrophe in Europe. At one point during the film, a voiceover commands us to shut our eyes, then directs us to look at an array of disturbing images. Some are named and addressed in the second person: your dead grandfather (a photograph of an elderly man in a coffin), the place where you were born (a laboratory), your body on display (a statue), and the place of your death (a table in a morgue). Dissected animal specimens then appear, and acquire a ghostly sense of animation thanks to the superimposition of rapidly moving black blotches and scribbled lines. The overall effect is both lulling and assaultive, a somnambulist journey into the nightmarish visions presaged by Musil’s flea.
Pawel Wojtasik, Toby Lee, and Ernst Karel’s Single Stream often approaches abstraction in the sheer mass of materials it depicts at a recycling facility in Charlestown, Massachusetts. (The Ann Arbor screening was the world premiere, though an installation form of the work appeared at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.) On a winding conveyor belt, boxes, cans, and bottles are sorted, shredded, and crushed as if in a giant, industrial digestive tract. Shot at a slightly slowed motion, and accompanied by Karel’s whirring, clanging sound design, the movement of this waste takes on a mesmeric dimension. As plastic bags and rumpled sheets of paper tumble down the production line, some pieces occasionally take flight as if suddenly inspired to escape. At times, recognizable brands appear—Coke, Tide, The New York Times—but as far as product placement goes, Single Stream offers only an image of their transformed status as garbage, used up, discarded, and reduced to their material composition in a process most of us never stop to consider.
The Dark, Krystle
Two of the strongest films came from young but already seasoned filmmakers, Michael Robinson and Laida Lertxundi. Both have won the “most promising filmmaker” award at Ann Arbor and subsequently served as jurors for the festival, and it has been gratifying to watch, over the course of many years, Robinson and Lertxundi maturing into confident, complex filmmakers. Of Robinson, curator and writer Colin Beckett said in a lecture on the current state of experimental cinema that his films “romanticize the ironic and ironize the romantic, refusing pride of place to either one of them.” The Dark, Krystle (which premiered in the New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde last fall) is one of Robinson’s most focused forays in this regard, using as its source material two women, one suffering and the other scheming, from the Eighties soap opera Dynasty. A montage of Krystle’s tormented expressions presents her in varied states of dress and distress, her bangs windblown in one shot, her hand clutching a Danielle Steele novel in another; the second part of the film answers the first with a montage of Alexis drinking an astounding variety of alcoholic beverages. Accompanied by Alexis’s taunts played as voiceover, Robinson’s montage is dense and accumulative, underlining the sadistic psychodrama at the heart of the show.
We Had the Experience But Missed the Meaning
Lertxundi’s We Had the Experience But Missed the Meaning, which had its North American premiere, is the most literary of her films to date. As she does with The Room Called Heaven (12), she uses superimposition to collapse two separate physical spaces into one perspective. In Heaven, she combined the interior view of a door swinging open with the exterior shot of an ocean. Here, she adds to the complexity of the overlaid shots—a chair, this time on a sunny patio, and again an image of ocean waves—with sound: a woman’s voice reading from Adolfo Bioy Casares’s “All Men Are the Same” and the audible turning of a page. Later on, superimposition recurs but as a filmed process: Lertxundi records the projection of a desert landscape onto the pages of a blank book. With both these sequences, the experience of watching a film is likened to the act of reading, with each page, and each image, a revelation. Like text illuminated from the opposite side of a page, the spindly silhouettes of cacti cast onto a book suggests another latent set of images waiting to appear on the surface. As with the T.S. Eliot poem “The Dry Salvages” from which the film derives its title, the meaning of a film is not always available in “the unattended moment,” but arrives sometimes later, when the hidden dimensions of its images are revealed.