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By Michael Sicinski
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”—Yogi Berra
In an ordinary year, the Crossroads Festival, presented by the San Francisco Cinematheque, provides a kind of alternative to other showcases of experimental film and video that, for various historical or institutional reasons, can be less catholic and more risk-averse. But—need it be said yet again?—2020 is no ordinary year, and many of those competing festivals did not or will not occur. With the spotlight just a little brighter on Crossroads in this, its eleventh year of existence, we are given the opportunity to look critically at a number of deserving, significant artists who have been worthy of our attention for quite some time. Artistic director Steve Polta’s diverse, even idiosyncratic programming provides a new urgency, since we find ourselves not just as a “crossroads,” but a clearing, a temporary break in the noise.
I was mentioning to some colleagues recently that Polta may be the programmer right now who is closest to carrying on the spirit of longtime New York Film Festival avant-guru Mark McElhatten. A true curator-as-artist in the Langlois tradition, McElhatten was meticulous about tone and rhythm, how one film played against another in a program. But more significantly, he was dedicated to nurturing artists, identifying roiling, inchoate ideas and encouraging potential. Mark would sometimes screen films that many of us thought weren’t all that good, but they made sense to him in terms of an artist’s overall trajectory or process. He appreciated interesting failures and promising mistakes.
Polta seems to share this attitude: he understands the value in imperfection, as well as the need to exhibit a wide swath of avant-garde productivity. For example, another festival might not find a place for a film of such great sensitivity and scope as To Forget (2019) by Austria’s Lydia Nsiah, a 17-minute work that incorporates cityscapes, ocean imagery, skies, and hillsides with materialist abstraction. In a way, Nsiah seems to be offering a veritable encyclopedia of ways that a camera can engage with the outside world. It’s not entirely successful, in part because its procedures imply an epic approach that its running time cannot fully contain; in other words, Nsiah needed to make a longer film. Still, To Forget announces the arrival of a significant new filmmaker.
One could make similar observations about British filmmaker Kamila Kuc’s noonwraith blues. A film that could maybe be considered experimental horror (it would play beautifully in front of Midsommar ), noonwraith combines cut-up animations from Albrecht Dürer and a series of live-action performance passages involving a young woman on a farm, either experiencing isolation and madness or feeling the pull of vengeful witchcraft welling up inside her. Kuc’s interplay of the banal and the uncanny is highly suggestive, although, again, the film might have generated more power at a longer running time. Nevertheless, this is the sort of imperfect but evocative film one sees only at Crossroads.
Polta’s programming also exposes us to new artists who have not gained widespread exposure, and by showing multiple works by these lesser-known individuals we’re able to play catch-up with folks we probably should have been paying attention to all along. For instance, this year Crossroads showed two films by Finnish filmmaker Eeva Siivonen, who uses a combination of poetic nature study and wry essay form to interrogate the gender politics of experimental film and the world in general; her Demoiselle (2017) is a particularly clever consideration of women’s position relative to the Western canon, as a group of men demand that a camerawoman provide her credentials. The line-up this year also featured multiple films by Britain’s Onyeka Igwe, whose No Archive Can Restore You is a standout of lyrical documentary, a film that boldly argues for letting colonial history rot in the can. And after seeing three films by Canada’s Charlotte Clermont, I can attest that she has a highly unique style and is certainly an artist to watch: her films’ overworked black-and-white surfaces imply excavation from another time, like an irony-free Guy Maddin telling her own story in the past tense. But some of the work can lapse into preciousness, particularly in her would-be elliptical use of language. Her latest film, dream less, is by far her strongest.
A number of this year’s most compelling works happened to engage with landscape, which naturally strikes the viewer in a different way in 2020, as we watch the films at home. But this can be a reductive response to a wide array of artworks with varying aesthetic agendas. Most of the work included in this year’s festival dates from between 2017 and 2020 (not counting repertory series such as the Bruce Baillie and Luther Price programs), which means that some works were made before COVID-19, some after (and directly in response to), and that it’s possible to read all of them in relation to the outbreak. This strikes me as its own deal with the devil, and not a particularly profitable one. I mean, the peerless films of Baillie, renowned for their poetic delicacy and specific California light, are indeed piercingly beautiful to see now, when simply being outdoors is a rare privilege. Works inevitably change with time, but this is hardly determinative. Still, being under quarantine necessarily alters one’s perception of the outdoors, perhaps redoubling the diminution that already exists by looking through a camera in the first place.
A film about the hypothetical freedom promised by landscape (and Western landscape painting and photography) that is inevitably denied, Olivia Ciummo’s We Carry With Us Our Mother begins with a slow zoom into a red image of trees; eventually, Ciummo reframes and crops various landscape images at angles to the frame, turning potentially expansive views into “pictures” that are geometrically interrupted. In a similar vein is the new film by Jeremy Moss, Camera Sick (2019). Moss is an interesting filmmaker worthy of more attention, and this may be his best film yet: a kind of meta-study of landscape transcription, split between grainy 16mm and slick digital video. He whirls the camera, Snow-style, with the first, and then documents himself producing camera set-ups in the landscape with the second. The editing toggles between these motifs, rendering “experimental film” as a set of gestures that can be performed or approximated, with the desert itself a kind of secondary tool in the process.
In her super-short As Long As There is Breath, Emily Chao films the green light of a sunlit yard out her window; through precise editing, she interjects visual memories of rocks, outdoor activities, and other brief gestures, suggesting a kind of formalist reverie of boredom and confinement. Equally personal in scale, though somewhat operatic in scope, Bruno Varela’s cada vuelta que da una cosa enrollada alrededor de otra (2019)is a dense, Brakhagesque film, sweeping and painterly as it articulates gestural connections through the mountainous terrain. It should be noted, however, that Varela uses very similar visual material as the basis for a short sci-fi crypto-narrative piece, Neon Cortex (2019), in which context the work is disappointingly tedious.
This leads to another difficult issue that should be addressed—one that was prevalent at Crossroads, but is an even more widespread problem. Certainly some films are made to be silent, but many more are comprised of a technical juncture of image and sound. 1929 was a long time ago, and even back then, Vertov and Eisenstein (and later Peter Kubelka) suggested that sound should be contrapuntal rather than merely synchronous. But a disappointing preponderance of films today evince no serious thought about the use of sound. The most popular “solution” to this issue is a low-grade EDM drone, something meant to occupy the ear but not challenge it. At worst, this kind of aural homogeny can actually serve to ground the images, falsely unifying a film that, on its own compositional merits, would fall apart. Why is this happening? What are people learning in film schools? Every moment of sound and image is a decision point.
If you want to see a masterful use of sound/image relationships, look no further than the films of Laura J. Padgett. An American who has been living in Germany for the past several years, Padgett studied with Kubelka, and her films display a gemlike precision that recalls masters like Bruce Conner and Abigail Child but show an entirely original humour and flair. Her work abjures simple sync sound in favor of a subtle, atonal hop. In 2017’s Solitaire (an edit of German documentary footage that should play before a future Sergei Loznitsa film) and 2016’s A Few Spaces In Between (a collage of European sociological imagery, reminiscent of Morgan Fisher’s 2003 film ( )), Padgett provides a virtual clinic on cinema dialectics. What a discovery.
Another filmmaker screening this year, Siegfried A. Fruhauf, should be better known on these shores. Fruhauf’s work is often a little knottier and less forgiving than his fellow Austrians and contemporaries Peter Tscherkassky and Martin Arnold, in part because of his fascination with pure abstraction. Although he has traditionally worked with 16mm, his latest piece Thorax (2019) is digital, and he has made the most of the new tools. Working primarily with the form of a flickering vortex, with searing liquid-gold and cobalt-blue paint swipes pulsing and receding on the screen, Fruhauf then introduces Rayograms of bridge scaffolding, creating a tension between organic and geometric forms. Meanwhile, different forms generate their own tonal character, grabbing the ear and piercing the silence. Although Thorax operates in an entirely different vein than Padgett’s films, it displays the power of careful editing and considered composition.
Meanwhile, there are some filmmakers who simply reward us for continuing to give them our attention. Three of the best films in the festival are by folks who certainly need no introduction. If you haven’t seen Jodie Mack’s Wasteland #2: Hardy, Hearty (2019), you should: it expands on her formal vocabulary but has obliquely personal meanings at its core. Kevin Jerome Everson’s new film mockingbird is a lovely, low-key portrait of an African-American solider looking out over the horizon; when we learn that he is birdwatching, an ironic political subtext emerges, in light of the Christian Cooper incident in Central Park. (This one goes out to all the Karens.) Deborah Stratman’s Vever (for Barbara) (2019) is an intergenerational document, showing the late Barbara Hammer engaging with the work of Maya Deren, with Stratman herself completing the vision.
Even among the developing filmmakers, hemmed-in landscapes, sound/image ruptures, and dispatches from established masters, a few works at Crossroads 2020 stood out. They spoke to latent anxieties, the struggles to assert selfhood and create spaces for desire, to avoid the machinations of a totally administered society. While these works’ emotional valences are heightened in mid-2020, as we find ourselves at so many uncertain crossroads, the concerns they express have been with us for quite some time, and they will not evaporate with better social distancing or favourable election results.
Kerry Laitala’s Fire Fly EYE, originally designed as a dual-projection work, is a hot-orange missive from a planet ablaze. While the film generally alludes to environmental destruction, with an eerie shadow-play approach that recalls Janie Geiser’s best work (but much more sinister in tone), it is impossible not to watch it with the recent California wildfires in the back of one’s mind. Laitala employs the factory-made detritus of the industrial world—light bulbs, bubble wrap, and wisps of artificial smoke—to signify the hot wave of inexorable doom.
Carleen Maur’s Traces (2019) is a materialist film that travels through the gate like a blueprint, rapidly displaying fragments of an illegible text. There is an appearance of direct transfer from page to celluloid, as the pockmarked film and disintegrating words bear some resemblance to David Gatten’s Byrd films. Then a kind of interference breaks in, the image overtaken by a nest of scratches and dark black forms floating in a field of pale grey. As a clearing emerges from this abstract visual noise, we begin to see reddish-brown forms in the background, revealing two women engaging with one another sexually. Traces is a subtle, exquisitely crafted film that brings two seemingly opposed formal languages—structural materialism and bodily desire—into a seductive, tactile union. But more than this, it obliquely alludes to the spatial and temporal barriers that collude to keep bodies apart.
Along with Padgett’s films, possibly the most exciting example of complex sound/image relationships—the stuff of pure cinema, really—is We Love Me (2017), by Thai filmmaker Naweek Noppakun. A 17-minute dynamo of ideas, film history, and subversive political commentary, We Love Me is one of the first films I’ve seen to take up late Godard as a serious formal challenge: Naweek’s work could honestly be mistaken for a lost outtake from Histoire(s) du Cinéma, except that while Godard produces lofty philosophical pronouncements about everybody and everything, Naweek restricts herself to Thai material and Thai concerns. The power and intelligence of We Love Me demonstrates how Godard’s comparative technique can become an incisive analytical tool when brought to bear on a specific subset of film and/or political history. Programmers unfamiliar with Naweek’s work should investigate immediately.
Finally, the best for last. Chicago-based filmmaker Calum Walter has produced one of the most beguiling films of the past year, the experimental techno-thriller Meridian (2019). Rather Farocki-like in its approach, Meridian presents edited footage from a set of automated sea drones designed to send a vaccine from one place to another. Several of the machines malfunction, producing unexpected night footage of waters unsuitable for a drone: fields of lily pads, major thoroughfares for large crafts, etc. But Walter’s film actually displays the surveillance function of such robots as they traverse the dark of night under the cover of a humanitarian mission.
Partly a sumptuous nightscape, Meridian is also a sort of dystopian flipside of Snow’s La région centrale (1971), as the placid beauty of the visual field is abruptly truncated by a robotic camera manoeuvre controlled by “no one.” Partly influenced by the work of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Meridian shows us the way that we have been watched for quite some time, but it also suggests a possible future for the avant-garde, an experimental cinema generated by algorithmic impulse and robotic arm. Walter has produced a film that shows us exactly the crossroads at which we find ourselves: art infused with a humanistic spirit, or with something else as yet undefined.