Razzle Dazzle

23 January – 3 February 2008

The V2_Institute for the Unstable Media is housed in a small warehouse building down a modest alleyway in Rotterdam’s museum district. Actually, everything about the city’s architecture seems modest, and during the film festival, the weather-worn modernist buildings blend in with the grey drizzle of the late-January sky. In other words, there are few distractions. Admirably devoid of movie-star glitz and premiere frenzy, Rotterdam is a cinephile’s haven with expansive and forward-thinking programming that is firmly rooted in the long history of avant-garde practice, a place where the old informs the new.

Thus the most exhilarating experience of the festival for me (sorry, but Rotterdam’s focus on singular, idiosyncratic filmmaking encourages first-person reflection) was a decade-old piece, the V2 gallery’s installation of a 1996 video projection Modell5 by the Austrian art duo Granular Synthesis. The thundering, percussive bass tones of the installation rumbled through V2’s concrete walls and metal door into the streets. Inside, the piece consisted of four projected video images of a woman’s face, on a screen stretching ten meters wide. Frozen, manipulated, and reanimated, the beautiful face is subtly distorted, transformed into a series of eerie masks, eyes and mouth blinking, twisting, in a spastic, sensuous dance as the techno track confronts and immerses the audience – in this case a lone viewer on a beanbag chair. A kinetic confrontation between computer processing and human expression, the piece also feels perched between the rat-a-tat drumbeat of celluloid animation and the mysterious morphing of digital manipulation, a futuristic vision from the previous century.

At the recent Orphan Film Symposium, archivist and historian Paolo Cherchi Usai made the startling prediction that the celluloid output of the entire previous century may soon be consigned by historians to an era known as “pre-digital”. There is no longer a war between film and digital, but there are still some skirmishes to be fought. Celluloid is dead, but long live celluloid…at least in Rotterdam, and 2008 was a particularly good time for a fresh dialogue between vanguards of different eras, suggesting perhaps that we might consider replacing “avant-garde” with a word that suggests a circle, moving back and forth in time simultaneously.

Perhaps the circle metaphor is suggested by Ken Jacobs’ astonishing new work Razzle Dazzle, a feature-length embrace of digital editing and relatively low-tech special effects as a means of – among other things – examining, stretching, slowing, expanding, and otherwise playing with a 1903 Thomas Edison short film of people gazing into space (and time) as they spin on an amusement park ride. Since his 1970 masterpiece Tom Tom the Piper’s Son, Jacobs has been finding unprecedented ways to unleash the inherent energy and ghostly power of moving images, those frozen moments of real life that were once captured in the swirling grains of film stock but now reside in the swarming bits and bytes of digital information. In Razzle Dazzle, with image processing reminiscent at times of Nam June Paik, the background turns red and the shape of the frame changes constantly, yet the long-gone subjects continue to spin, unaware that they have been frozen in history and, now, art. (Interestingly, Henry Hills’ short video Failed States, with footage shot in present-day European amusement parks, also seized on spinning rides and manufactured thrills as a metaphor for the blithe self-destruction of modern life).

Since I’ve already introduced the first person, I’ll acknowledge here that like much of New York’s film world, I’ve spent many hours in Jacobs’ downtown loft, a fifth-floor walkup enclave on what must be the only block in Tribeca that has escaped gentrification. Crammed with books, gadgets, and the miscellaneous hardware used to build his handmade projection machines, Jacobs’ loft is a warm bohemian refuge. It is also the setting for one of Rotterdam’s other treats, Azazel Jacobs’ feature Momma’s Man. Azazel cast his father and mother, Ken and the perennially beautiful Flo, as the parents of a young man who has fled from the demands and pressures of married life in Los Angeles, and the pressures of a newborn child – for a visit home that turns into an overextended retreat back into the womb. A delicate yet incisively observed portrait of the young man as a schnook who simply refuses to grow up, Momma’s Man is also a film about the irresistible but impossible urge to turn back – or at least slow down – time and its demands. And speaking of the circle of time, it is a film in which the parents come from a world that makes more sense than that of their children.

Before I Forget

Jacobs fils has created an indirectly autobiographical portrait of the artist as a young man. Towards the other end of the chronological spectrum, Jacques Nolot, one of Rotterdam’s “Kings and Aces”, has done nothing less than establish himself as one of the finest writer-directors now working, with a trilogy of personal films L’Arrière Pays (Hinterland, 1998), La Chatte à deux têtes (Porn Theater, 2002), and Avant que j’oublie (Before I Forget, 2007). A screenwriter who has worked frequently with (and clearly learned much from) André Téchiné and Claire Denis, and just as tellingly, and even more intriguingly, was a former gigolo whose clients included Roland Barthes, Nolot is also the lead actor in his incisive, precisely modulate films whose keen wit and gentle compassion serves Nolot’s key subject: the ravages of time, and the ongoing battle between man’s desires – largely carnal – and the inevitable decay of the body. In other words, life and death. In Hinterland, Nolot plays a modestly successful television star who returns from Paris to his rural hometown to attend to his dying mother. Nolot’s camera, and his art, are unblinking. In a startling extended scene, we see the mother’s naked, just-deceased body as it is prepared for burial. The scene is at once loving and unsentimental; the same can be said of the entire film, which was made largely with non-actors from the town. Nolot’s next film was released overseas as Porn Theater; the much more evocative original title translates as The Pussy with Two Heads. Here, Nolot plays one of the regular denizens of another cinematic institution being made obsolete by the advent of digital cinema – namely, the porn house. Nolot’s character begins a tentative friendship with the cashier, a woman who serves as a kind of den mother to the lonely clientele. There are as many empty, furtive sex acts taking place in the seats, aisles and bathroom of the rundown theatre as there are onscreen, and Nolot depicts all of these as clearly as he charts the emotional interactions, rivalries and friendships among the audience. One needn’t look too far past the sensationalistic subject matter to see that Nolot is implicating not just himself but the viewer in this ultimately touching reflection on moviegoing and on cinema as both reflection and projection of our emotional and sexual needs. Perhaps it was a form of reflexive humour on the part of Rotterdam’s programmers that had this film, and the entire Nolot trilogy, programmed in a cramped, rather shoddy theatre that made the porn house on screen look palatial by comparison. Before I Forget is Nolot’s latest film, and is his masterpiece to date. Nolot plays Pierre, an aging, frustrated writer who seeks solace in young hustlers, pills, coffee, and the companionship of old friends. Nolot has perfected an artistic approach that is defined by long takes, a laconic, pared-down narrative style, and most importantly, a bemused acceptance of the degradation and humiliation of the aging body. He is a man looking clearly into a mirror; luckily for us, this particular man is a keen, brilliant observer.

The programming of Nolot’s three films back-to-back-to-back allowed for that rare experience at a festival, a singular focus for the better part of a day on one filmmaker. That’s the exception to the rule; more likely one will find themselves running from a screening of Milyang (Secret Sunshine), Lee Chang-Dong’s harrowing and exhilarating drama about a young woman who loses her husband and then son and looks for salvation through the church – a thoroughly draining big-screen emotional experience that also contains a withering critique of religious fanaticism – to a program of exquisite, quiet gems, like Chalk Marks in the Rain, brilliant programmer Mark McElhatten’s compilation of miniaturist domestic studies, in which artists like Abraham Ravett, Ernie Gehr, Vincent Grenier and Robert Beavers meditate on memory and loss through poetic pinhole-narrow focus on the most mundane and beautiful visions of home life.

Whether writ large – like the movie-movie melodrama of Secret Sunshine – or small, like the handmade artisan cinema of McElhatten’s avant-garde surveys collectively titled Films That Can’t be Told – many of Rotterdam’s works seemed to be defined by their intimacy, by the creation of new cinematic forms that express the most private states. Arnaud Desplechin’s L’Aimée is the director’s most directly intimate work, a 70-minute documentary about his grandmother’s house. The filmmaker and his father rummage through photographs, letters and diaries and Desplechin learns about this family member who he barely knew. This enchanting movie explores the links between identity and memory, a theme made hauntingly clear by Desplechin’s deft incorporation of Bernard Herrmann’s theme music from Vertigo.

French-Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh’s Le papier ne peut pas enveloper la braise (Paper Cannot Wrap up Embers) chronicles day-to-day life at a brothel in Phnom-Penh. Rather than go HBO-style for hidden-camera nighttime encounters between hookers and clients, this surprisingly delicate and thoroughly disturbing documentary focuses instead on long, quiet daytime scenes, as the young women talk, hang out, prepare meals and casually reveal how they deal with disease, abuse and addiction as part of their daily lives. The filming is quiet and respectful; the viewer is left to draw their own conclusions about the broader social issues. Meanwhile, the resilience, humor, sorrow and complexity of the women is allowed to unfold slowly and surely. The film’s politics enter quietly, through the most personal focus.

Eat, for This is My Body

A similar effect is achieved by two poetic narrative films with covert political agendas: Alexander Sokurov’s Alexandra and Michelange Quay’s Mange, ceci est mon corps (Eat, for This is My Body). In the Russian film, an elderly woman (embodied unforgettably by the opera star Galina Vishevskaya) travels to Chechnya to visit her grandson soldier on the battlefront. While there are elements of Gogol-like satire in the setup, the simple juxtaposition of the world-weary, loving yet hardboiled matriarch and the harshly militaristic world is powerful both on an allegorical level and on a deeply personal one. Sokurov has found a new way to examine the folly of war. French-Haitian Michelange Quay has also found a poetic way to examine recent history, in his case the long history of colonialism and racism that defines his home country. After a long, slow helicopter shot establishes the contrast between poverty and plantation life amid Haiti’s lush natural beauty, the quasi-narrative moves deftly between the care and bathing of a wealthy white matriarch, the plantation’s young madam (Sylvie Testud), frenzied religious ceremonies, and a series of encounters involving a group of young black boys. The tone is late Buñuel, but the film is closer to essay than narrative.

This was the only competition film I saw; I was too busy exploring various other distinctly Rotterdam-ian alleyways, including a dazzling set of new prints of Robert Breer’s animated films from the 1950s to the present. Ceaselessly inventive and witty, Breer’s films are rapid-fire collages made with paintings, drawings and photographs assembled one index card at a time. More than any other, Breer’s animation is profoundly rooted in an understanding of cinema as a medium that offers its creator the potential for 24 inventive cuts per second. Continuing the idea of cross-generational dialogue, the elder statesman Breer was paired as an Artist in Focus with the younger and lesser-known Los Angeles video and installation artist Cameron Jamie. Regrettably, I wasn’t able to see much of his work. The colorful videotape JO, which cuts fluidly between Joan of Arc re-enactment parades in France and the July 4 Nathan’s hotdog eating contest in Coney Island, is an outrageous yet evocative piece of cultural anthropology, as is Neotoma Tape, an hour-long compilation of 1970s and early 1980s public access television tapes, an enthrallingly tawdry display in which the artist stands back and lets the society of spectacle speak for itself.

The third Artist in Focus was Paul Sharits, the prolific avant-garde filmmaker who died in 1993, but was very much alive in Rotterdam with film screenings, including double-projector works, a sprawling survey of contextual screenings featuring artists old and new, including archivist/programmer/projector performance artist Andrew Lampert, whose delightful Fluxus homage, the live piece Sweethearts (for Emmett Williams), involved three 16mm machines projecting the letters A, B and C, and two women to the sides of the screens reading and responding to survey questions in English and Dutch that ask the audience to divide themselves into groups based on answers to increasingly intimate questions. With Lampert darting back and forth between the control table and the clanking projectors, the piece combined the handmade chaos of 1960s underground art with a computer-age nod to binary classification, where all information can be reduced to 0s and 1s. It also reduced the idea of projection and audience involvement to its most elemental level, making it fit into the overall framework of the “Sharits in Context” program to which it belonged. Sharit’s films often reduced film to its purest elements, machine-gun bursts of pure colour frames, flickering light and abstract sounds. Sharits paved the way for many artists who moved from single-screen to multi-screen and installation work, and one of the festival’s major events was Sharit’s gallery exhibition at Tent, organised with an accompanying catalogue by Yann Beauvais.

At the Beach

With its focus on miniaturism, and its intimacy, it is easy to forget how massive in scope is Rotterdam’s programming. I was only able to sample a few works from a 4th Generation Chinese cinema retrospective. Teng Wenji’s 1984 film Haitan (At the Beach) was another of Rotterdam’s one-of-a-kind epics, a wildly ambitious drama about a fishing village whose existence is ruined by the construction of a modern factory. This is a vast oversimplification of an operatic, satirical film that includes elements of science fiction and suggests the eruption of an avant-garde movement in China that never truly emerged. The film seemed to exist in some alternate universe, where there is no such thing as conventional narrative, and where every film seems to be one-of-a-kind. In other words, the ideal Rotterdam film, a work whose inventiveness spills beyond boundaries, and off the screen, like the exhilarating projector performance Lafoxe by Etienne Caire and Gaelle Rouard, in which shards of 16mm prints of classic Hollywood films are reprocessed and altered, and then projected with twisting anamorphic lenses and other manipulations that contort and transform the images in a freeform explosion of widescreen called Hyperscope, an apt metaphor for the overall impact of the Rotterdam experience.

International Film Festival Rotterdam website: http://www.filmfestivalrotterdam.com