Once Upon a Time

28 September – 6 October 2007

The Lucca Film Festival was set up in tribute to the late Italian critic Marco Melani. Run by a group of young cinephiles, this remarkable event is distinguished not only by excellent programming but also by an atmosphere of warm conviviality. This ambience is partly the result of the festival’s relative smallness, which obviously allows opportunity for interaction amongst those attending to go beyond utter superficiality. But scale fails to adequately account for the joyous sensation of cinema, or at least a type of cinema, being lived with an unusual intensity – something I know I was not alone in experiencing there. However the cocktail of film past and present, exceptional guests, youthful enthusiasm, and the beauty of the walled city of Lucca combined, the effects of its consumption found voice in the triumphal opening declaration of festival jury president Adelpho Arietta’s address at the award ceremony: “Cinema is life and life is cinema.”

Although not its only aspect, a significant part of the festival’s project would appear to be charting the history of experimental cinema through its choice of guests and retrospectives. Last year, my first in attendance, boasted retrospectives of Kenneth Anger, Stephen Dwoskin, Tonino di Bernardi, and festival regular Arietta, with each of those filmmakers present. This year, Michael Snow and Aldo Tambellini were around to present a substantial number of their films and videos, and Alice Debord was on hand for projections of all of her late husband’s cinematic works. Another important festival feature was a symposium dedicated to influential late ‘60s / early ‘70s Italian film magazine Cinema e Film. This brought together many of its erstwhile writers, and was accompanied by a season of films it had championed, with a special emphasis on the Tavianis.

Beyond cinema screenings of nine Michael Snow films, the festival’s celebration of this great artist extended to collaboration in a wide-ranging exhibition spanning his entire career and including several moving-image works. The most recent, Sshtoorrty (2005), consists of the superimposition of two shots, both depicting different stages in a trite domestic drama. Typically playful and witty, this video invites the spectator to decipher the story that emerges after a couple of viewings from within its cleverly orchestrated criss-crossing of event, action, and even subtitling (the dialogue is in Farsi). Beyond illustrating the extent to which familiar narratives can be codified and remain legible, this ingenious, if lightweight, work unassumingly highlights an aspect of Snow’s films, or of seeing Snow’s films, that distinguishes many of his best works. This could be defined as the process of orienting oneself in relation to a film like Wavelength (1967) or Back and Forth (1969) or La Région centrale (1971), in terms of the spaces Snow opens up between the viewer and the film.


In the case of Sshtoorrty, this process is clear to the point of caricature: what are the relations between the stock characters on screen and how do they develop? Its posing of the question “what’s happening?” goes no deeper than that of a superior Brian de Palma thriller – a formally sophisticated puzzle predicated on an assumption of shared knowledge of pop-cultural stereotypes. And the obstructing element between film and viewer is plainly manifest: one dramatically busy image has been plonked on top of another. The disorientation engendered by his earlier masterpieces is more profound and complex and, not least, harder to locate. Granted, elements of typical film narrative crop up in Wavelength, notably in the form of the dead man in the room through which the camera advances for forty-five minutes. But these exist chiefly to be magisterially swept aside by the camera’s ineluctable phenomenological trajectory. The “what’s happening” that characterises Sshtoorrty is there conjured up to be consigned to redundancy.

The “what’s happening” of Wavelength and Back and Forth stems as much from what the film is doing to the viewer’s perception as from what the viewer is invited to perceive. Both films are, of course, meticulously designed on a structural level, yet in such a way that the schematics of these designs remain just beyond our grasp. This distinguishes them from much structural cinema (not least Snow’s own massively entertaining So Is This [1982], also screened in Lucca) which diagramatically foregrounds its modes of construction. True, Wavelength evidently explores the progress of a forward moving camera through a single space, and Back and Forth sets in motion an examination of the possibilities of horizontal and vertical pans. But the effects Snow achieves within these frameworks, particularly concerning the viewer’s experience of time, create a mind state wherein distinguishing the exact arrangement of events becomes well-nigh impossible. The result is an oddly subjective viewing experience. Post-screening chats with other audience members always seemed to come around to comparing this viewing of these films with prior screenings, and how different the movies appear every time. Some sections of these films appeared longer or shorter, forgotten events occur and others turn out to have been imagined, some images differ completely from memory.

Of course, this is a common feature of rewatching any film, but it is considerably exacerbated in the case of these Snows. Perhaps this is caused by the extent to which the hypnotic, even visceral quality engendered by their rhythms – and, as importantly, their shifts in rhythm – influences the audience’s receptiveness, to the point that we feel we are often missing something as we try to follow both the structure and the narrative fragments that Snow inserts. It’s like watching a film intoxicated or half-asleep, where we try to concentrate and follow events through our haziness. Except, in these cases, the haziness is a result of the film rather than external factors. For certain filmmakers, effecting the audience in this way would suffice as a work’s raison d’etre. With Snow, it is more like a side-effect stemming from a film that we are never allowed to fully grasp and pin-down, one that remains tantalisingly suspended, mirage-like, over an unreachable horizon. Their haunting elusiveness is their most unique and striking feature.

On the other hand, the epic La Région centrale, arguably Snow’s masterpiece, couldn’t be less elusive in concept or more clearly focused on the hypnotic rhythms it describes. For three and a quarter hours, his camera swoops and spins on a lonely mountaintop, creating what the filmmaker described as perhaps the “only motion picture” ever made. For all the intricacy of its production, involving the construction of a device for moving the camera in ways inimitable by the human eye, La Région centrale arrives at the sort of staggering simplicity that one encounters in films by the Lumières or in some of Garrel’s portrait images – the rare and awesome event of cinema revealing one of its basic, native powers in the most concentrated form possible.

At what point did Guy Debord enter the paradox of his films as viewed in 2007? After his retreat into images following Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952), Debord’s anti-cinema involved flatly-voiced narrations of his theory trickled across visuals appropriated from popular culture, and frequently interspersed with elegant passages of classical music. Of course, the kind approach to these works would be to historicise them, to “understand”. But time has done curious things to their fragile text/image tension, destabilising them in ways that also merit discussion.

There is an assumption of neutrality in his use of images, as if they were all drawn from the same media garbage pile and would suffer détournement without resistance, so much part of the smog of day-to-day image pollution that they are almost beyond differentiation. But with the passage of years, the smog has changed colour and density, and banal images of yesteryear assume a quaint charm or exotic strangeness. And films are remembered – for some cinephiles, the throwaway appearances of clips from Welles, Ford, Walsh or Ray carry enough native resonance to temporarily derail Debord’s train of discourse. Likewise, the pinched, nasal delivery of the narrator, striving for a generic dryness, now seems expressive of a weirdly distant past. In short, we no longer take the material from which Debord constructs his films for granted. Sometimes it answers the voiecover back with unexpected insolence.

The content of Debord’s texts hangs over these visuals, finger and thumb tightly clasped on nose. Their relationship with “his” images is more melancholic than critical, a passively disapproving refusal to deign to interact with them. Now that the radicality of the very fact of what Debord was doing with the form of these films seems less startling, their strangeness as ostensibly politically revolutionary works becomes more apparent. The enemy images rumble on and on, while the alienated text declaims disincarnate from a void. There is no chance of one influencing the other, of battle or change. The films’ energy is stifling and negative.

In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni

What Debord has done in his cinema work from Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unite de temps (1959) onwards is to create a sort of audio-visual tomb for his texts. These are sad, self-defeating films, relics sometimes possessing a compelling melancholy that culminates in the very beautiful, utterly despairing autobiography of In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1976). Today, it is actually the imageless Hurlements en faveur de Sade that stands up best. Far from being a negation of cinema, it remains a joyous and-still radical plunge into some of ithe medium’s minimalist possibilities

This festival was my introduction to the work of Aldo Tambellini and it was a major discovery. The Lucca retrospective screening of this New York based artist brought together films from the ‘60s, videos moving into the ‘70s, and one recent work, Listen (2006). Most impressive were the earlier films, made without camera, from a series which featured the word “black” in every title. Gene Youngblood explains the significance of black for Tambellini: “Black is the womb and the cosmos, the color of skin and the color of the new consciousness. ‘Black is the beginning’,” he says. “It is birth, the oneness of all, the expansion of consciousness in all directions.” (1) These mainly abstract, black and white films feature both images scratched directly on to film and documentary shots. Furiously kinetic and accompanied by deafening soundtracks, they are hypnotic and ultimately overwhelming, pounding the viewer with a sort of primal cosmic rage. They could be seen as a movement in the opposite direction to Brakhage’s work with the idea of hypnagogic cinema. Brakhage is always, even in pain and confusion, reaching outwards towards light and colour, with darkness tending to be static. Tambelllini plunges inwards into dynamic darkness and primordia. Brakhage’s eye, closed or open, as against Tambellini’s viscera.

Another filmmaker reaching into blackness to retrieve images is Stephen Dwoskin, whose Nightshots (2007) trilogy explores the extreme limits of intimacy that video can extend to. Shot from what is unmistakeably Dwoskin’s point of view, these erotic films patiently record the behaviour of three women in the minutes preceding and during sexual engagement with the filmmaker. Simple in the extreme, these works are shot in the dark, with the camera set to nightvision. They are also completely silent. What Dwoskin, in effect, achieves is to extract images from experiences that were felt rather than seen. He places his viewers not only in the middle of some of the most private situations imaginable, but reveals images of these situations that are, without the aid of the camera, literally un-seeable even to the participants. In this context, the camera abjures any ontological claim to being an analog for human vision. Yet it doesn’t become an instrument for generating virtual images, either. On the contrary, it remains firmly embedded in the reproduction and sharing of subjective human experience.

How, then, can we situate the image in relation to the filmer? As a sort of memory, perhaps? The imprint of physical sensations turning themselves into images capable of representing non-visual feelings after the fact? Not, in this case, literally “after the fact” as the camera was obviously forming an instantaneous image. Rather, it seems Dwoskin has invested himself so completely in his camera that it has become part of him, a sensitive organ of perception with its own powers and, consequently, no need to imitate the human eye. Yet its gaze is every bit as ‘warm’ and as implicated in the filmmaker’s desires as a real eye.


And what does this new organ that can see in the dark, and record “impossible” images of what can only be felt, see? A triptych of phantoms, their eyes burnt white by the nightvision photography, their movements further abtsracted from reality by the depth of the soundtrack’s silence. Nightshots is at once as uncomfortably close to the physical reality of the bodies that appear in it as film can be, and undermining of any sense of solidity in those bodies through its eerily spectral photography and problematisation of seeing. This insubstantiality of the physical affects not only the women’s bodies, but equally that of the filmer receiving their favours. The result is oddly poignant, as if touch itself had become redundant as a vehicle of closeness, with the will and intention of giving of oneself proving insufficient to endow the body with reality. This elegy for the body is a magnificent achievement, at once morbid and ineffably tender.

Dwoskin was also the eloquent subject of an interview film shot at the 2006 Lucca Film Festival, Steve Is (Silvia Palermo, 2007). Rivers of Anger (Antoine Barraud, 2007) proved a stranger and more formally striking interview film, also shot at last year’s festival and featuring its other headlining guest, Kenneth Anger. Barraud’s film falls into four sections. The first consists almost entirely of a black screen, with occasional, fleeting images interrupting the darkness, and Anger’s voice on the soundtrack. The sceond consists of shots of a painting hanging on the wall of a villa in which Anger stayed, upon which the venerable Magus ruminates. Then the camera faces Anger for the first time, in the villa’s garden, but remains out of focus, with the subject an imposing blur of light and colour. Finally, Barraud’s camera, still unfocused, hovers over details of the sun flooded garden. Anger’s voice is omnipresent, rambling down one entertaining tangent after another. Yet Barraud’s bold and rather eccentric visual approach suceeds, through keeping Anger all but invisible, in both maintaining a powerful sense of his mystique and capturing the atmopshere around him. Rivers of Anger is as much a record of Barraud’s impressions of a time and place inflected by Anger’s presence as of the man himself.

In addition to this unusually imaginative documentary, Barraud had a striking short showing in competition, Monstre 2 (2007), a pared-down portrait of a blood-drinker played with disconcerting intensity by the director. A number of other short films in competition stood out. Sebastien Betbeder’s Les Mains d’Andrea (2006) is a soberly poetic tale of loss and disillusionment, which owes perhaps more than a ghost-besotted Jerzy Radziwilowicz to Rivette’s vision of the blurred borders between this world and the next. Corinna Schnitt’s Once Upon a Time (2006) consists of a twenty-five minute single take, with the floor-level camera panning ceaselessly around a smart living room. Gradually, the room inexplicably fills up with animals whose presence wreaks often hilarious havoc on the neat setting. Alexia Walther’s exhilarating Twist (2006) strikes a delicate balance between camp nonsense and absurd, po-faced gracefulness in linking classical imperialism and protracted, all male twist dance sessions. Simon Aeppli’s powerful Secondhand Daylight (2007) makes impressive use of the textures of image-laden diary pages and photographs to give an oblique but intense account of a life marked by anger and alienation. And John Smith’s Pyramids/Skunk (2007), one of his ongoing Hotel Diaries, is as witty and elegant a distillation of political rage as any video in this series.

Yet nothing that I saw in competition equalled two enchanting early short films by jury president Adelpho Arietta. El Crimen de la Pirindola (1965) and La Imitacion del Angel (1967) are playful melodramas, the former quirkily emerging from what initially feels more like a ramblingly nostalgic home movie, the latter replete with Cocteau-style angelic metamorphoses. The young Arietta comes across as a dreamier, more graceful Spanish counterpart to the considerably more obnoxious George Kuchar.

Another festival highlight was a short film program designed for secondary school students that ended up attracting many older festival goers. This was a history of experimental cinema delivered in two three-hour morning sessions by Pip Chodorov. His lectures were accompanied by an often stunning selection of experimental classics projected from pristine 16mm prints.

This unexpected treat was not the only pleasant surprise that the festival had to offer. Two unscheduled features proved as interesting as almost anything in the program proper. Alommasolatok (Dream Reconstruction, 1976) is an avant-garde feature by Hungarian artist, poet and filmmaker Miklos Erdely. Erdely is a key figure in Hungarian culture, but one whose films are all but unknown in the West. On the evidence of this imaginative, episodic series of dreams “reconstructed” with frequent recourse to metacinematic devices, his work and reputation certainly deserve to travel.

Medee Miracle

Even more exciting was Tonino De Bernardi’s masterful Medee Miracle (2007) starring Isabelle Huppert as a modern Medea. Striking a delicate balance between theatrical stylisation and unglamorous suburban settings, this elegant, emotionally intense film occasionally skirts the brink of preciousness. But De Bernardi has the skill and poise to flirt with this danger while deftly avoiding its consequences. His reinterpretation of the tragedy, which sees the heroine’s anguish internalised rather than exploding into external violence, is very moving. A miraculous Medea indeed.

The Taviani Brothers are one of my few cinematic blind spots. Their films aren’t nearly bad enough to justify the intense irritation that they always inspire in me. Therefore, I avoided most of their screenings. A number of the other films in the Cinema e Film programs were old favourites, familiar thanks to repeated video viewings – Pasolini’s Che cosa sono le nuvole? (1967), Rossellini’s Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (1966), Ferreri’s hilarious and oddly creepy Dillinger is Dead (1969), Bertolucci’s wildly brilliant and widely underrated Partner (1968) … But the prospect of finally seeing them on a big screen was somewhat marred by the fact that they were projected from DVD. Fortunately, another film I had seen several times on video, Carmelo Bene’s mind-blowing Capricci (1969), was shown on 35mm. That Bene is not as established a point of reference in worldwide cinephilia as Godard or Antonioni is a severe oversight, and one that film culture is considerably the poorer for.

The discovery of former Cinema e Film critic Maurizio Ponzi’s medium length Stefano Junior (1969) was one well worth making. This solemn realist drama follows a day in the life of a working class teeanger. It is distinguished by the haunting beauty of several exceptionally long takes that detachedly track the youngster as he travels uneventfully through grey city streets by bus and on foot. After all, life is cinema. And cinema is life.

Lucca Film Festival website: http://www.vistanova.it


  1. Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, E.P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1970.